The author is King’s War Studies Alumni, a former British army Captain and former Afghan analyst for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly
I was in Oxford last week for a very interesting conference on military cohesion and was lucky enough to have a brief chat with a senior British army officer on the sides. I was surprised to learn that he had heard about, if not read, my piece on the micro-metrics of COIN and – as usual for him – he was very gracious and friendly in explaining his side of the story, and in doing so he has enabled me to clarify and expand on the arguments made in the previous piece.
Firstly, I would like to say that I apologise if any offence was caused in the previous piece; it was the last thing I intended to do with an article that was substantially about the mismatch between operational progress and strategic failure.
The piece was written out of frustration though. Frustration at losing comrades in Afghanistan who appear to have died for little in the long run. Frustration at being so badly under-resourced in terms of boots on the ground (this was 2008) that it undermined our best efforts to improve the locals’ lives. But the article was also written from a frustration borne out of a year spent carefully analysing official data of the COIN campaign in Afghanistan for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. In this data, especially the U.S. Department of Defense’s biannual Progress Report, the changes to the metrics used to assess strategic progress, the failure to provide long-term contextual data to triangulate some of the presented data and the emphasis on small positive gains over larger negative scores (and I can provide examples of all these in much greater depth if need be) may have worrying implications for the transparency military operations and therefore, for civil-military relations. Namely, how do we, as citizens in developed democracies, actually know the results of these campaigns if the metrics being used are questionable and perhaps politically influenced? In short, reports of strategic progress in Afghanistan, and the strategic narrative crafted by strategic communications experts, may not be entirely accurate. Thus, when I hear commanders stating their ‘cautious optimism’ about Afghanistan, I find it very frustrating. I am not the only one who is worried; other people who watch the campaign closely have aired the same concerns: Professor Cordesman, BBC File on 4 and journalist Ben Anderson to name but a few.
Within that context, hearing an operational-level commander espouse ‘cautious optimism’ whilst not mentioning the strategic problems of the campaign added to my worries about the reality of current strategic narrative. However, the officer gently pointed out in our conversation that, because he is a serving soldier, he is curtailed as to what he can say about the wider campaign, and that as an operational commander the strategic issues I highlighted are actually the responsibility of his commanders. It was abundantly clear just how capable, intelligent and decent this officer is – like many other operational and strategic commanders. In short, he gets the bigger picture, he just can’t talk about it publicly because he is duty bound to be apolitical and follow his mission. His points were good and they got me thinking…
What appears to be happening at present is that in the absence of solid evidence of strategic progress in Afghanistan, the metrics of operational progress, perhaps unintentionally, are being used to fill the void to support the strategic narrative. For me, the real crux of the problem concerns the effect of the well-documented campaign disconnect between operational success and strategic failure in Afghanistan is having on civil-military relations. Operational commanders are quite right to portray their operational successes with whatever evidence they have to back such claims up, but in the absence of transparency on the strategic trajectory of the campaign, these operational successes are often being reported – by both higher command and the media – out of context and as indicating strategic success. If governments and the top military commanders, who do have the remit to comment candidly on the strategic situation, remain reluctant to divert from the strategic narrative when ‘discrepant information’ contradicts it (and the reasons for this are myriad, but include politics to careerism to institutional positivism) then are those operational commanders’ beneath them who remain silent – whilst just doing their job – unwittingly contributing to this lack of transparency?
The ground-up nature of COIN and the campaign disconnect in Afghanistan may have combined to create a situation where the soldierly qualities of being apolitical, media-averse and remaining committed to the mission are themselves distorted into becoming political acts, precisely because those above them are playing politics about the reality of progress. In a way, following Clausewitz, this shouldn’t surprise anyone, but perhaps the devolved level to which war is becoming a political act is something new, as Emile Simpson has noted. This raises some interesting questions for modern civil-military relations in democracies.
Firstly, as public opinion is inherently related to the fighting power of democracies, the public does need to be shielded from the realities of war if support for, or at least the acceptance of, wars is to continue: David Lloyd George’s remark in 1917 that ‘if people knew the truth… the war would be stopped tomorrow’ still holds true. Moreover, governments need to be both patient and resolute in the face of the public’s understandable lack of appetite for modern conflicts that are often perceived as abstract wars of choice. The question, though, is to what degree? Is it acceptable to pick statistics that better reflect your goals, al la Osborne, than those that don’t? Is that politicising the conduct of war to a greater extent than in the past? Is it only acceptable in wars of national survival? What about lines-to-take and strategic communications management? How much is too much? When is it right for soldiers to speak out if the mission will not deliver the success the politicians are promising?
These questions are also related to the second point: the impact of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars on the public psyches of the American and British populations. I’m not an expert on this, but the long-term impact of the deep divisions in American public life wrought by the Vietnam War may have made future generations more reluctant to engage with the realities of modern conflict. In many respects our professional militaries are the most detached from our societies than they have ever been and, despite the welcome signs of support for the forces, it would be accurate to say most soldiers feel the public are not interested in the conflicts that they fight in their name. Closer to home, the anti-Iraq invasion protests of 2003 may come to be seen as a crucial turning point in British civil-military relations, not because the military did anything wrong – they just followed orders (many albeit with deep reservations; one Brigadier told me he was planning the invasion in the MoD building in Whitehall as his wife marched below his window) – but because the British government did not listen to the people. This has created a sense of apathy about politicians’ use of our armed forces that still lingers today in many respects. While Chomsky’s democratic deficit arguments may take things too far, the decline in the population’s confidence that they are the ultimate controller of their armed forces, coupled with these forces’ repeated deployment over the past 12 years in unpopular wars, may have profoundly altered British civil-military relations.
I’m not sure how unique the current disconnect between the reality of progress in Afghanistan and the strategic narrative is, but I am pretty certain it is creating an uneasy paradox for operational commanders who cannot speak candidly on the strategic situation. Of course, there was censorship in previous wars, but our standards of transparency are higher today, especially in wars that are not fought for national survival (as much as previous narratives have tried to convince us otherwise). Ultimately, it comes back to the military’s relations with the population. Today, most of these occur through the media and are controlled to a large degree by the ban on members of the armed forces speaking freely to the media and the need to stick to lines-to-take that support the dominant strategic narrative. Yet, in an era of social media where any member of the public can express their opinions in almost any forum, is such a ban really reflective of the society we live in? Does it actually keep the military from the people it is meant to serve? And is it fair – commanders can’t exactly defend themselves on a blog can they? At a personal level, members of the armed forces have no qualms about expressing their views of the war, but why do commanders feel that they can’t publicly express their views on the strategic situation in Afghanistan, whether they are in line with the strategic narrative or not? It just feels to me like something may be wrong here.
I don’t have the answers to many of these questions, but that doesn’t mean they are not worth asking. As conflict and the media has changed in the last decade, so too it is valid to question the reality of the old military virtues of being apolitical and unable to comment candidly in public.