Securing Reform in Baghdad

The aftermath of the Karrada bombing in Baghdad
The aftermath of the Karrada bombing in Baghdad

he is dead, whoever it is you are looking for is dead, if he hasn’t showed up this morning then just accept it

Every once in a while a post really hits home.

This post by Sajad Jiyad on the situation in Baghdad is just such one.

The Flames That Consumed Hope

It should be read in conjunction with this one:

Iraq at the Crossroads

I have spent years in Iraq working alongside the Iraqi Army or trying to reform the Iraqi Security Forces. Despite the popular perception we (the West) has not a bad track record in improving the combat effectiveness of our partnered militaries. Unfortunately our track record of reforming the systems within which they operate is appalling at best. If you cannot reform the system then any improvements to the institution are likely to be both unsupported and unsustainable. Turning out the best junior officers may give you a tactical edge in the short term, but unless you reform the middle and upper management they will still have to conform eventually to the very system that lead to failure in the first place.

The Karrada Bombing in Baghdad (pictured above) was a terrible tragedy that may well turn out to have had a strategic impact on the course of politics and the war in Iraq. It was enabled in part by a system that has corruption at its core and still retains use of the so called “magic wands” that were sold as bomb detectors, revealed as worthless and still remain in use. When a system is as corrupt and as ineffective as this, winning the fight is one thing, winning the war another entirely.

Baghdad 'magic wand' in use
Baghdad ‘magic wand’ in use

The Debate On Women In Combat

When I think of the debate over women in close combat, and especially dismounted close combat roles, I am mindful of Chief Vitalstatistix: the sky is not going to fall on our heads simply because we introduce women into close combat roles. I am also mindful that introducing women into these roles is not going to have the effect of Getafix’s magic potion either. The truth is that there are both risks and opportunities inherent in this change, as there are with most changes. Much will depend on the degree of change and how it is managed.

I am however frustrated by the character of the debate on women in close combat roles. It seems to me that this debate has been largely ill-informed and marked by mutual fear and hostility; in this sense it bears remarkable similarities to the ongoing US presidential election contest. This is not altogether surprising because the nature of this debate, like political debate gripping the US at the moment, is primarily a sociological debate, albeit this one is clothed in the emperor’s new (and entirely inappropriate) clothes of military effectiveness.

In one sense Colonel Laurens is quite right “it is so bloody obvious that we should do it”. That is because war is a social construct and the way war is fought always reflects the societies that wage it. Our society has changed and the ways and means that we fight will (and should) change with it. To me therefore it is a non sequitur to place the argument for or against women in close combat within the context of military effectiveness against which it is currently playing out. A society wages war in a manner that reflects its values; it reaps the benefits and pays the costs accordingly.

The Real Lessons of Afghanistan

A US vehicle passes a reminder of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.
A US vehicle passes a reminder of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.

Steven Metz has just published a good article in World Politics Review titled “What are the Real Lessons of the Afghanistan War?“; it is well worth a read.

For the UK the same general strategic lessons apply, but there are some additional lessons peculiar to Britain’s circumstances:

  • Being in a Coalition Obscures. The UK was a senior Coalition partner in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However Coalition strategy is by necessity a strategy of compromise between the differing constituent national interests. This means that both the ‘what’ of national interest  and the ‘how’ the strategy will achieve this may not be immediately apparent. It also means that that while failure is deniable (and in the modern political system this plausible deniability is very attractive) it is also correspondingly more difficult to take credit for when things work.
  • Influence must be resourced. The UK was the biggest of the rest in terms of military commitment both Iraq and Afghanistan. However compared to the US commitment the UK’s commitment was small. The UK never fielded a division in Iraq or Afghanistan after 2003; with less dog in the fight there was less influence (as clearly perceived by Churchill in WW2, his direction on British force ratios compared to US in the invasion of France were explicit). Influence is directly proportionate to capability delivered. As is evident from Lieutenant General Bolger’s book “Why We Lost” British military influence suffered in part from being perceived as the “poor cousins” who could perhaps talk the talk (and weren’t shy in doing so) but couldn’t walk the walk. However it must be noted that influence is not just garnered through conventional military capability, although that is the most obvious.
  • Hidden influence cannot be credited. The UK garners significant influence through its ability to wield the levers of ‘soft power’ especially Information and Diplomacy. However such influence is often understated and behind the scenes and while it may be credited behind the scenes it is hard to weave such influence into a narrative of constructive and significant British contribution at the strategic level. The image increasingly becomes one of a British poodle dancing to the Washington tune, this makes it hard to maintain domestic support.
  • Domestic political fragmentation makes enduring commitments less likely. At the strategic level the nature of war makes it difficult to disentangle the character of politics from the character of war and the character of the strategy involved. In the UK the fragmentation of the domestic political landscape (a fact mirrored across Europe) has made it increasingly difficult to maintain a consensus on military intervention. This is closely linked to the fragmentation of the news space where people actively seek out a news narrative that supports the perception they wish to hold, making building consensus and support harder. This means that unless the political landscape changes, limited interventions such as Libya and Iraq (2014 – ) will probably become the norm. Such interventions are characterised by being short in time and/or limited in means and designed to meet a simple political narrative, normally moral and emotive in nature. Long term strategy and hard headed national interests may be addressed, but not necessarily in the narrative and secondary to immediate political expediency.

 

Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France

 

Front Cover

In his book “Before the Dawn” published in 1957 Brigadier Smyth VC, MC wrote of disembarking at Cherbourg in April 1940: “…a French sentry leaned up against a sentry box with his rifle negligently propped up beside him. He was fat, unshaven, and incredibly dirty; he had his hands in his pockets and was smoking a cigarette. I often thought of that sentry in the days to come. He somehow symbolised the decline of France between the wars and the way in which the fine French Army of 1918 had deteriorated by 1939…” This myth, born in the defeat of 1940, perpetuated in the memoirs of that campaign generation and revitalised by the surge of interest in German Wehrmacht performance by the US and UK militaries in the 1980s does not stand detailed scrutiny; this book provides some such much needed scrutiny of it.

This is a book more about politics and systems than it is about tactics and strategy. It focuses on analysis of why the campaign of 1940 unfolded as it did, rather than on the campaign itself.  May’s thesis is that a combination of poor policy decisions, hubris, and systemic failures in intelligence (Allied) combined with: excellent political intelligence, operational art and pure luck (German); and that these all played a part in the the rise of the Wehrmacht and the collapse of the Third Republic.

There were four areas of this book that I found most interesting from a professional perspective:

  • Hitler’s use of political intelligence
  • Wehrmacht wargaming
  • Allied intelligence failures
  • The study of history

Hitler’s use of Political Intelligence.

Hitler’s use of open source intelligence (OSINT), the Forschungsamt (a Signals Intelligence agency much like GCHQ and the NSA) are not widely known, but played a critical part in his decision making. In the 1930s access to such intelligence gave Hitler confidence in what international reaction would be to his various moves, confidence that the military hierarchy lacked. There is much to learn today from Hitlers use of such intelligence, and for those operating at the operational levels and above it stresses the importance of the Information sphere of operations.

Wehrmacht Wargaming.

In December 1939 a strategic level war game was held at Zossen to in effect, test the original Plan Yellow concept against Manstein’s alternative. Colonel Liss was to play the part of Allied commander-in-chief Gamelin. Liss “did not have to act according to German principles, but was supposed to adopt decisions and measures which . . . the Allied command would presumably follow.” The Zossen wargame is a master class in wargaming  and should be known and studied by all those who work in Intelligence and Plans. My biggest frustration as a Planner was in getting intelligence staff to think and respond like the enemy and to give me confidence that the enemy responses (and their timelines) were credible.

Allied Intelligence Failures. 

The German offensive through the Ardennes should not have come as the surprise that it did. The reason that it did is because of the systemic flaws in Allied intelligence and the culture of Allied (especially French) Intelligence which favoured technical intelligence over the integration of intelligence with operations. There are key lessons here for intelligence staff, operations staff and politicians. Lessons which were re-visited in the build up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Study of History.

Brigadier Smyth believed in the myth of France’s collapse, and he was there.  History is a matter of both analysis and perception, and in analysing perceptions it is important to put people’s experiences into context. The French were not averse to war with Germany, the contrasts in reaction to the announcement of war between Paris and Berlin are stark. The French also fought well, the crossing of the Meuse was hard fought, and the battle of Hannut on May 13 and 14 deserves to be better known. For Brigadier Smyth context that would have helped would have been that Cherbourg was garrisoned by third rate reservist formations. For professionals studying military history a basic understanding of how to study history is a must.

Conclusion.

This book should be read by those concerned with the design and use of intelligence systems, as well as those involved in operational level planning. For those students of the 1940 campaign this is a much needed analysis which adds context to a much misunderstood campaign. It should be read in conjunction with Karl-Heinz Frieser’s Blitzkrieg Legend.

 

 

A Troubled Legacy

 

British Withdrawal Basra

After over 10 years of campaigning the UK’s commitment to combat operations in Afghanistan (Operation HERRICK) drew to a close in 2014. The army I joined in the late 1980s is a very different organisation to the army that exists today, not least as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Leaving aside the changes in equipment, tactics and an operationally experienced cohort of commanders and staff, what  is the legacy of these operations for UK defence and the British Army in particular?

The UK Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in his annual RUSI lecture just before Christmas focused in part on this legacy.  CDS focused on three aspects of what he termed a “challenging legacy

  • The utility of Armed Force
  • The competence of Defence
  • The wisdom of past government

Utility of Armed Force

CDS stated that many people feel that our operations overseas have placed us more at risk, a legitimate if not entirely accurate perception and one which ignores both the ideological roots of the current conflict between the liberal West and Islamism; and the social, economic and demographic underpinnings of the Arab Spring.  Furthermore the at best ambiguous strategic results of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have probably convinced people and politicians of the futility not the utility of force. This can be challenged, but only by educating and informing where we (the UK) went both right and wrong in our application of force and I see little sign of this happening yet.  Significantly the Royal Navy, probably the UK’s most effective Service for the wider application of Armed Force has been largely marginalised in the public’s view since 2001, but has deterred, secured and fought on a global basis, demonstrating every day the utility of Armed Force and Armed Forces.

CDS also makes the point: “Certainly, the understandable demonstrations of national grief which for a decade have attended the homecoming of our dead, have represented a significant challenge to our resilience as a nation, and our ability to sustain military operations…“. I have long felt that the increasing trend towards sanctification of our war dead is very likely to be counter-productive to our ability as a society to employ force efficiently and effectively.  The simple fact is that it is becoming prohibitively expensive in both real and narrative terms to incur casualties. Yet without the deployment of land combat forces and the real risk of casualties both commitment and effect are likely to be seen as transient at best in the land environment.

The Competence of Defence

CDS is silent on the issue of the competence of defence. Yet it is here that the legacy is most troubling. Three campaigns (Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya) which failed at the strategic level and two in which the UK arguably failed at the operational level (Iraq and Afghanistan).

There appears to have been a significant loss of military credibility within Whitehall. As the former HM Ambassador to Kabul stated: “I am saying that at times and in places, one saw military advice to Ministers that was driven by a military view of the situation that was not necessarily the same as what the wider national interest might or might not be.” This charge of militarism is serious and has been echoed elsewhere. It seems clear that the way the wars were fought were very much left to the military and that the ways suited the military and in particular the Army. For instance maintenance of six month deployments for formations on operations guaranteed a minimum force level at a time when establishment levels were under review. A move to 12 month deployments apart from enabling greater continuity in Theatre (vital in any stabilisation campaign) would also have allowed more efficient use of troops (as well as troop efficiencies…).

At the military strategic and operational levels there are two fundamental questions that need to be answered:

1.  What was the campaign plan for Basra and why was it so poorly resourced?

2.  Why when the UK was arguably decisively under-committed to Iraq was the decision taken to open up a second major Theatre of Operations?

Unfortunately the competence of defence is unlikely to be addressed by Defence. I say this in the basis of the very limited evidence I have seen of vigorous and transparent debate on the strategic and operational lessons from these campaigns. The Services are very good at tactical lessons, because these lie largely within their own remit and comfort zone, but operational and strategic lessons lie clearly at Joint Forces Command and Whitehall level and the politics here becomes murky indeed. As is so often the case in military reform the impetus for reform is likely to be external and the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence continues to do sterling work in holding the military and the Ministry of Defence to account, and I remain optimistic that the Iraq Inquiry will provide significant impetus for change.

A Troubled Legacy

So what is the legacy from the UK’s 21st Century campaigns to date?  Both Ledwidge and Fairweather highlight significant failings and call in question the Special Relationship. The Special Relationship was and is a pragmatic relationship invested in rather more emotionally by the British than the Americans. The fact of the matter is that in my extensive dealings with the US Military the Special Relationship seemed alive and well, although brand UK did seem tarnished; we are no longer seen as being as capable or as reliable as we might wish to be. Unlike the Australians we over-promised and under-delivered, however despite this and our shrinking size we remain the “best of the rest” in terms of size and capability.  One should not forget that the US is also struggling with its legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan in much the same way as the UK is.

Iraq and Afghanistan clearly demonstrated that UK Land Forces lack mass. If you want to have influence then you need to resource it. Arguably both Iraq and Afghanistan needed a division deployed on an enduring basis in order to both ensure that the job we had signed up for was resourced properly and to ensure that the UK retained the influence and prestige it though appropriate for a major player on the world stage and as America’s ally of choice. As we are highly unlikely to increase the size of UK Land Forces greater thought needs to be given to the overall UK force mix and the types of military operation we are likely to get involved in. Traditionally UK strategy has focused on using a strong navy for force projection while maintaining a small army.

The British Military has demonstrated significant failings in its military strategic and operational decision making abilities. The picture is obscured by the fact that the UK was a very junior partner in a large coalition for both Iraq and Afghanistan, but without doubt serious errors were made in what were effectively treated as UK standalone campaigns (the sobriquets ‘Basra-shire‘ and ‘Helmand-shire‘ are telling). Without a vigorous and transparent debate about these failings these are unlikely to be addressed, and such a debate does not appear to be happening within the military at this time.

The utility of force (hard power) is increasingly being questioned in the UK, as elsewhere in the West, despite the rise in the use of hard power elsewhere.  Warfare are is increasingly seen as prohibitively expensive and of dubious efficiency. Both may be true, but human story shows that warfare is endemic to the human condition, and that while one may not go looking for war, war often comes uninvited.

So a troubling legacy, but one which holds the seeds for reform of both strategy and military.