Good strategy, bad strategy, no strategy


In trying to make sense of the ‘war on terror’, the first hypothesis I considered was that it was the result of stupidity and ignorance.

I quickly rejected this idea.

George W. Bush does indeed appear to be a man of modest intellectual achievements. Modest - but not trifling. For example, I have seen him give speeches, so it is clear that he can read. He does occasionally have trouble with long words, but so did several boys in my class at infant school, so I can understand that. Furthermore, he was surrounded by clever people who are especially good at long words. He had access to the best information provided by the best subject experts available. His sidekick Tony Blair also had expert advisors and is himself clearly a bright button. So it could not have been stupidity or ignorance.

The second hypothesis I developed was that after 9/11 Osama bin Laden had managed to get a job as a special security advisor to the White House. This explained a lot.

In October 2001 US and coalition special forces, supported by air power, carried out a brilliantly successful operation which in just two months removed the Taliban from power and almost wiped out al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Bin Laden escaped, but it was a severe blow for him and his cause. He disappeared. Then in 2003 the West invaded Iraq and started to build up its presence in Afghanistan. That was when I began to form the hypothesis that he was in Washington, advising on Western strategy.

Getting the West to invade Iraq was a cunning move. It removed one of bin Laden’s most troublesome enemies in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein, destabilised Iraq, created a local power vacuum for Iran to fill, drained Western economic and military strength and inflamed Arab passions against the West.

Persuading NATO to start another war in Afghanistan was a tour de force. For anyone wanting to use limited military means to bring down the West, no location on the planet offers such favourable conditions as Afghanistan, ‘the graveyard of Empires’. It is not a state, but a collection of warring ethnic groups with very long memories, making it impossible either to govern the country or to enlist local help without creating local enemies. It is a logistical nightmare. It is fiercely independent, so if local enemies unite at all it will be to fight foreigners.

For the West to support troops there without doing any fighting is extremely costly, but for the troops to achieve a military outcome which is in any way decisive is almost impossible. Every enemy fought melts away, giving the illusion of some sort of achievement, and then returns once Western forces withdraw. Every misplaced bomb or rifle round alienates the local population. The inevitable civilian casualties are the best free recruiting campaign al-Qaida could wish for, working for them not only across the Islamic world, but within western countries as well.

As one move in a long term strategy designed to bring about the fall of the West and the establishment of an international Caliphate, this had a lot going for it. It would attack the West at its most vulnerable points: its economy, and its intolerance of casualties. As bin Laden put it in his Fatwa of 1996: ‘you moved tens of thousands of an international force into Somalia. However, when tens of your soldiers were killed in minor battles…you left the area. … You have been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weakness became very clear.’ In Afghanistan, bin Laden could not only impose costs in terms of money and lives, but undermine the West’s moral authority, divide it at home, weary its people and strengthen both al-Qaida’s ranks and its cause by spreading hatred of the West and highlighting its weaknesses. It was just a beginning, but then bin Laden was working on a timescale measured in decades with an ambition to finish the job by 2100.

By 2011 it had been working very well. The war in Iraq had cost the lives of some 125,000 Iraqis and about 5,000 Western troops. In Afghanistan an estimated 37,000 civilians and some 2,000 NATO troops had been killed, the deaths and maimings seeping into the news headlines in the sort of steady trickle that makes a weeping ulcer turn septic. Outrage at the civilian deaths inspired some young Moslem men living in Britain to volunteer as al-Qaida suicide bombers. The US government has so far admitted to spending $1.2 trillion on these wars, but unofficial estimates like that of Brown University’s Watson Institute put the figure at $3.7 trillion, about the same as the annual Federal budget. The losses of blood and treasure have extended out to gnaw at the souls of smaller allied states like Australia and even inoffensive little Denmark, whose enlightened secular liberalism was a particular object of bin Laden’s rancour.

It was not a particularly original strategy. It is indeed the default one for any poor, weak protagonist facing a rich, strong one. It was used by the Spanish and Portuguese against Napoleon. That conflict gave rise to the term ‘guerrilla’, and created what Napoleon called his ‘Spanish ulcer’. During the Second World War partisans across Eastern Europe did the same thing to the Wehrmacht, tying down large parts of it. And of course, bin Laden had the precedents of what Afghans had done to the British in 1842, 1879 and 1919, and then to the USSR in the decade following their invasion of 1979. So to have persuaded the West to do the same thing again and expect a different result was quite an achievement. It may not have been very creative, but it was cleverly done and well executed.

But then, I woke up one day in May last year to learn that US Special Forces had shot bin Laden. Why would they kill such a trusted advisor? Furthermore, it emerged that he had been living in Pakistan for years. My second hypothesis was effectively refuted. There had to be another explanation.

I now have one.

It is not that the West had a bad strategy. It is that the West had no strategy at all.

The penny dropped when I began reading a book called Strategy for Action written by a retired naval officer, Steven Jermy, who served in Afghanistan in 2007. In the book’s introduction he reports that on asking officers on various staffs in Afghanistan what the strategy was he always got the same reply: ‘There’s none, sir. We’re just getting on with it. We’re just doing what we think is best.’ In practice this meant that officers would simply do things they thought were useful; in other words, operational goals filled the vacuum. Depending on their rank, and therefore the resources they controlled, this might mean patrolling an area believed to contain some Taliban, building a hospital or ‘pacifying’ part of a province. The bigger and more public goals have included ‘deny al-Qaida a safe haven’; ‘destroy the opium trade’; ‘get little girls back to school’; ‘defeat the Taliban’; ‘build infrastructure’; ‘build democracy’; ‘hit al-Qaida in Pakistan’ and ‘train the Afghan army’. All have moved up and down the priority list at different times. Some required ‘surges’ in resources. Few were sustained. None is sustainable.

The purpose of it all was supposed to be to make the West safe, as Afghanistan, one of the most primitive places on earth which in 2011 was ranked as the 12th poorest country in the world, poses an existential threat to global security.

Later in his book, Jermy adduces further evidence for his thesis. In 2005-6 he worked as Personal Staff Officer to the UK Chief of Defence Staff. In that time, he writes, he could not recall ‘a single occasion’ when ‘the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Development Secretary, Defence Secretary and Chancellor sat down with the Chiefs of Staff to discuss strategy’. ‘At the time,’ he adds, ‘I thought it was curious’.

Well he might. He was looking for the dog that didn’t bark. An article in the April/May 2012 RUSI Journal by Matt Cavanagh, who was a special adviser to the UK government at the time Jermy was at the MOD, confirms the truth of Jermy’s hypothesis. Tony Blair had simply decided that Britain was going to be involved in Afghanistan. Cavanagh reports that there was little or no discussion: ‘warning signs, dissenting voices or alternative ways of thinking were silenced or simply ‘crowded out’’, so the military just ‘got on with it’. Military and state-building elements ‘were never properly integrated’, each country involved adopted its own approach, and the various sub-objectives ‘were not clearly delineated, and their inter-relationships and relative priority or sequencing were never clearly explained’. Above all, Cavanagh writes, ‘the plan committed the classic strategic mistake of being neither one thing nor the other: neither light-touch and pragmatic, nor full-blooded and properly resourced’ – especially after the diversion in Iraq began.

One might defend the kaleidoscope of objectives as a case of emergent strategy. I don’t buy that. No single objective reached the level of strategy because none was linked to the persistent exploitation of an opportunity through the building of a capability which has a chance of realising it. It is common enough for potential strategies to ‘emerge’. But they do not become real strategies until they are pursued deliberately over time. In the absence of strategy on one side, that side pursues operational activities, and the other side’s strategy dominates the outcome.

The West has finally settled on the only realistic option now open to it – exit.

Operational achievements such as building schools or leaving behind a national army will be used as fig leaves. The fig leaves will probably wilt fairly quickly. Some 2.5 – 3 million girls now have school places but 0.5 million are regularly absent. The Afghan Army has so far killed about 80 of the soldiers trying to train it. Few experts expect that this corrupt and ethnically riven force will be able to contain the Taliban in rural areas beyond 2014. It is also unlikely that the Taliban will have the strength and support to take over the whole country again. But who knows.

Nevertheless, we will probably declare victory and go home so that Afghanistan will at least disappear from the news. The word historically used to describe such moves is ‘defeat’. No doubt that word will be avoided – as it was in 1842, 1879 and 1919.

The story will remain. It should be re-told every time anyone doubts the importance of strategy. It is a sobering tale.