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Highly readable and eye-opening account of British in Afghanistan
on 7 May 2009
Just finished reading this book, and I take my hat off to the author, who has written an extremely well-researched account mostly of the events of 2006 in Helmand Province but which has been updated fairly recently (the author's note dated January 2009).
I doubt if A Million Bullets was conceived as a polemic, but it does read like one: the UK is up the neck in a military operation it can ill afford (both in terms of the cost in terms of young human life and limb and the colossal monetary cost of the equipment and munitions expended).
As the book shows, "mission creep" set in almost as soon as the UK forces deployed in the country in 2006, to shore up the multinational US-led mission and the fragile democratic government. Troops were deployed in the far north of Helmand in so-called platoon houses which became mini-Alamos and the focus of determined attacks by the Taliban, locals and have-a-go jihadis. Or as a general puts it, "tethered goats".
This is so much more than a McNab-style account of guts and glory, but because Fergusson interviewed large numbers of soldiers of all ranks, it's often a gripping squad-level depiction of the action. Much of it, as Fergusson notes, was barely reported in a war that Ministry of Defence has adeptly spoon-fed through embedded correspondents but which can also be followed - after a fashion - on the first-hand footage posted by soldiers on YouTube.
Fergusson has also spoken to senior officers and development officials and even - at great risk to himself - a group of Taliban leaders who treat him hospitably and make the rationale behind the invasion seem decidedly weak. The idea was to facilitate the reconstruction of a country racked by years of war - but, just as in Iraq, the west seems to have made the security situation even worse, not better.
Clearly the soldiers are doing an incredible job despite muddled strategy, often unsuitable equipment (vehicles with no air conditioning, lightly-armoured Land Rovers), and not enough soldiers (the war they are fighting requires boots on the ground - without enough ground troops the Coalition is over dependent on air power which makes the risk of civilian casualties higher).
This is certainly not a defeatist book - the Taliban can hardly be said to have the upper hand - but it sounds alarm bells about where the operation is going. Even the head of the army says that if the British Army is forced to continue the same tempo of operations for many years to come, there soon won't be an army. Fergusson notes that numbers are diminishing and recruitment is slow.
Serious though these issues are, this is much more that a book about the military - if you have any interest in modern politics, you should read it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.