Book review: Investment in Blood. The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War by Frank Ledwidge
by Ian Sinclair
Visiting Afghanistan in December last year David Cameron proclaimed “our troops can leave with their heads held high over a job very well done.”
A damning indictment of the British occupation of Afghanistan, Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War shows up the Prime Minister’s statement for the propaganda it is. The book is all the more powerful for being written by Frank Ledwidge, a former Naval reserve military intelligence officer who served on the frontline in Iraq and as a civilian advisor in Helmand and Libya.
Systematically analysing the 13-year deployment, Ledwidge sets out the human casualties and financial costs to Britain. He conservatively estimates Britain has spent £37 billion on the war, which has led to 447 dead soldiers and more than 2,600 wounded.
“The army was fond of telling itself and the media that it was in Helmand to ‘protect the people’”, notes Ledwidge. “Yet at no point were any efforts made to enumerate the casualties that the British and other armies caused among the non-combatants.” Considering this callous disinterest, commendably Ledwidge tries to calculate the number of civilian deaths caused by the British. His figure of 542 dead Afghan non-combatants – likely a huge underestimate, he admits – is disturbing, although unsurprising when you consider the testimony from a journalist embedded with UK forces in 2007: “I saw at least a dozen compounds flattened and no one was checking for civilians before they dropped bombs.”
Frustratingly, Ledwidge makes no attempt to count the number of Taliban insurgents British forces have killed. This is not an unimportant point when one considers the scale of the slaughter likely undertaken when British forces ‘mow the lawn’ – clear areas occupied by the Taliban, only to find they would need to be cleared again a few months later. Ledwidge gives a simple explanation for this Sisyphean task: the Taliban that returned “were, in fact, local farmers and they had nowhere else to go; they were defending their homes against foreigners.”
The result of this war of attrition has been to destabilise most of Helmand province and increase the terror threat to the UK mainland, according to Ledwidge. He sardonically explains that the UK has stabilised three of fourteen districts in Helmand – just one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan. “In terms of overall political significance, this might be the equivalent of three large market towns in rural Lincolnshire.”
Disturbing facts abound: US forces spend $20 billion a year on air-conditioning alone in Afghanistan. A 2010 poll found just eight percent of Helmandis had heard of 9/11. Not one Al Qaeda operative capable of threatening the UK has been recorded as having been killed in Helmand.
A devastatingly important book, Investment in Blood puts the mainstream media, which has manifestly failed to inform the public what has been done in their name, to shame. With the political and military establishment increasingly concerned about their ability to sell an aggressive foreign policy, Ledwidge’s thorough analysis can only add to the general public’s growing opposition to overseas wars.
Investment in Blood. The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War by Frank Ledwidge is published by Yale University Press, priced £18.99.