Monday, 23 January 2012

Smaller, Smarter Defence Policy

Ryan O'Sullivan

Baghdad, April 6, 2003.  TIME Franco Pagetti.

Many governments across the world are having to reign-in their spending in an effort to get to grips with their public finances. This is true for Britain and its defence budget which is set to fall by 8% over the next four years. Financially speaking, it is therefore a relief that the UK’s missions in Iraq and Libya are over and that the Afghanistan operation is due to reduce in size. It is widely accepted that the outcome in Iraq and the current situation in Afghanistan is tenuous and fragile and that similar future commitments, in the short-term at least, are now out of our reach and unsustainable in terms of available resources. It is rather worrying then that the past year has provided several unique and challenging security situations: in 2011 alone we have seen and continue to see huge uprisings in the Middle East, grave tensions in the Korean peninsula, a nuclear motivated Iran, threatened shipping lanes, turmoil in the global economy and continued uncertainty in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these issues persist at a time of falling defence budgets. Clearly, a new approach is needed. Smaller budgets? Yes. Smaller defence policy? Not necessarily.

British troops on IED training at Camp Bastion, Helmand. Guardian Lewis Whyld/PA
The UK, along with many other nations, entered Afghanistan in 2001 for counter-terrorism purposes, to root out al-Qaeda and their sympathisers and deny them a ‘safe haven’. Shortly after, their aims had multiplied into a complex state of challenging policies. From counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency and from counter-narcotics to improving human rights and building a more centralised government: in short - ‘nation-building’. In Iraq, the coalition aimed to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime and secure the Weapons of Mass Destruction that it was thought he possessed. 

This quickly turned into a costly quagmire where the coalition underestimated the challenge at hand and did not put enough thought into post-war governance and the ramifications of sectarian violence. 

Indeed, Major General Tim Cross, the most senior UK officer involved in post-war planning, gave evidence to the Chilcott Inquiry into the 2003 Iraq War and concluded that he saw ‘no evidence of a (relatively) clear Strategic Level ‘End State’ for post-war Iraq, or an overall Campaign Plan for how we would get to that ‘End State’. All such debates seemingly ended with the military defeat of Saddam’s Forces’. These two wars alone demonstrate a myopic strategy which led to a snowballing effect in terms of the policies pursued and the intended ‘end state’ envisaged. 

A mixture of over-ambitious and somewhat naïve aims given by our politicians combined with a lack of cultural and political understanding of our area of operations makes for an expensive and drawn-out war. If we look to Iraq, it is now evident that our combined effort lacked vital knowledge of Iraqi geography, history, language and human terrain. It has been argued by Ahmed Hashim, a specialist on Middle Eastern strategic issues, that the coalition effort in Iraq lacked basic knowledge of ‘societal networks, relations between tribes and within tribes’ which helped fuel the insurgency.

 British soldiers set off on an operation in Helmand province. Photo Omar Sobhani /Reuters. Guardian
Similarly in Afghanistan, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on introducing a westernized government and judicial system in a country which historically governs at a local level through shuras and through the wisdom and authority of local elders. Eight years into the conflict in Afghanistan, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office had no Pashto speakers. How can we then expect to have a long-term detailed knowledge of Helmand Province with a lack of such vital skills and cultural awareness? 

Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, stated last year that the British Foreign Office in conjunction with other foreign ministries around the world ‘lack institutional memory, it deals with one story to the next, it stumbles from one crisis to the next. It never seems to afford the resources to think foreign in a long perspective’. Dr Eyal added that ‘the situation is getting worse’ as the number of research analysts, whose job it is to look at long-term planning have been and continue to be cut which has ‘immediate consequences’. 

What is quite clearly needed therefore is more emphasis on the long-term. By creating a ‘civilian army’ equipped with a greater array of cultural, historical and linguistic skills related to areas of strategic interest, we will be better informed and more able to defuse dangerous situations early on. Through greater acquired long-term knowledge of areas of strategic interest, we are likely to reduce the future financial and human costs of war and it will enable us to be more realistic in terms of what type of ‘end state’ is achievable. If diplomatic relations fail to work with a greater acquired knowledge and long-term approach, we will at least have a better understanding of our conflict zones, thus reducing the failures we have already seen this century. 

In addition, we must limit and concentrate our aims and avoid ‘mission creep’ by establishing a more effective communication channel that connects our senior military personnel and our politicians. This is not so the military can dictate what we must achieve, but to get a much more realistic sense and balance between what we want to achieve, what we believe is achievable, how we are going to achieve it and the resources needed to do so. A smaller budget does not necessarily equate to a smaller defence policy, but what is certainly required, especially in times of austerity, is a smarter defence policy.

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