Sophy Gardner is Gloucester's parliamentary candidate for Labour. Here she reflects on her time serving in Afghanistan and the lessons we can learn from the conflict.
I was invited to appear on The Big Questions on BBC last Sunday to talk about whether we should be proud of the UK’s role in Afghanistan. The day after a largely successful vote in Afghanistan for the Presidential elections, with over 50% of the population voting, and 30% of voters being women: it’s hard not to identify some positives. However, the argument is more complex than that. I supported, and continue to understand, the motivation for the UK’s actions in 2001 when we participated alongside the international community to stamp out Al Qaeda who were embedded and comfortable operating in the mountains of Afghanistan. The RAF led that operation and I was in charge of Air Transport Operations during that time. We were asking a lot of our people, operating old aircraft not properly equipped for the threat, and I think our servicemen and women acquitted themselves well in 2001/2. Later I was in charge of squadron operations as we deployed the Harrier aircraft to Southern Afghanistan in 2005. Again I am proud of the determination of military personnel to make a challenging and complex operation work well.
Then we come to 2006 and this is where my feelings are much more mixed. As I said on BBC last week, the service people who deployed (I was there for a short period that summer in Kandahar, Helmand province, and specifically Camp Bastion) faced that challenge with unquestioning commitment. However, the senior commanders in theatre knew that they were facing an incredibly challenging situation without the resources they needed. At the top of the MOD - and this has been a recurring problem which I continue to discuss and address with the excellent Labour Shadow Defence team - I believe that the most senior Army officers were determined to assure Ministers they were up to the job, come what may. Senior Commanders in theatre knew this wasn’t the case, but had to carry on regardless. This is where I think the MOD can be dysfunctional, in that the military are keen to say ‘yes’ when asked if they can deliver - or they worry that they will suffer in future spending decisions. This isn’t good enough and distorts decision-making, as well as leaving Ministers to guess what the reality is.
This leads me to my views on Syria last August. I don’t believe the UK should shy away from an international role and our memberships of NATO, the EU, the UN Security Council and the Commonwealth offer the chance to wield real influence. But not in a rush, not in a hasty recall to Parliament, and not without laying out to the British people what we plan to achieve and what we are planning for the long term. I’m relieved we didn’t rush into an ill-thought-out intervention last year, but I don’t think that should stop us from addressing our role in the international community in the future. We must be engaged internationally.
We have an excellent, well-trained and now pretty well-equipped military, but we need to develop a proper vision for its future utility. As an island nation, I think we need to look hard at the decimation of the Royal Navy over the last few years, realistically assess the size of a standing Army required in the future, and make the most our skills in diplomacy, influence, military relationships internationally, and the potential to share assets for the benefit of all. This requires a visionary Strategic Defence and Security Review, delivered in a measured manner, which goes beyond knee-jerk reactions promoting isolationism on the one side or proliferation of defence spending on the other.
The SDSR of 2010 was rushed and lacked a strategic vision, in my humble opinion. I’m confident that Labour have the best vision for the next SDSR and I know, because I have made it my business over the last 3 years, that Labour has learnt the lessons of the past. We value and honour our military, but we are thinking intelligently about what this country needs in terms of defence. I want to be part of that. In the meantime, I will continue my work with veterans of all ages and address the other welfare and community issues which we can affect all our citizens alongside our serving and veteran men and women. Just this week, I assisted the Labour Party taking evidence from Service charities on how to look after the people who serve and have served. I know there are many ex-Servicemen and women in Gloucester because I meet them everyday. I welcome every conversation I have with you over the achievements and potential of our Armed Forces. Please tell me what you think by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or joining me on Twitter at @sophygardner