13 April 2011

Matt Cavanagh on Labour and the Generals

Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser to Defence Secretary Des Browne from 2006-2007 and then to Gordon Brown from 2007-2010. He drew on his experiences during the Labour government to provide a very thoughtful review, Inside the Anglo-Saxon war machine, of Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars for Prospect magazine in November 2010. He said:
… This is a book about the British experience too, for essentially the same internal debate played out here over the same period, with the same camps in the same positions—and the same result. 
Of course, there are differences. In the British debate, a great deal of time and effort went into working out what the Americans were thinking, and it is all too clear from Woodward’s book that the reverse was not true. It would be unfair to blame this entirely on American insularity. However important our decisions were to us in Britain, they mattered far less in strategic terms, as a glance at the numbers shows. Obama sent 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan early in 2009, and spent the second half of the year debating whether to send another 40,000, while Gordon Brown and his generals were arguing over 1,000: one per cent of the international force. ...
By summer 2009, at the same time as Brown’s and Obama’s doubts and frustrations were growing and public concern was rising, they were coming under increasing pressure from the senior military to approve an escalation in troop numbers. For although the senior military had also begun to realise that things were not going well, their reaction was to press for greater resources and greater urgency. To them, defeat was unthinkable, even if the more thoughtful and intellectually honest of them weren’t sure if victory was achievable either. In both Washington and Whitehall they ensured that debates over troop numbers crowded out more important debates over military strategy, a political settlement, governance, corruption and aid effectiveness. They placed great store by generic concepts of decisiveness, leadership and “momentum”—more than the specifics of strategy—and they railed against what seemed to them to be indecision and delay from the politicians. ...
Does this mean the military are too powerful? Certainly, in the current political and media climate, any leader (and in particular any Democrat or Labour leader) should pick their battles with them very carefully. Few besides Paddy Ashdown—who made the case this October in an article for the Times—would recommend that politicians wrest back control of running wars. Few generals besides Richard Dannatt are seriously arguing for handing it all over to the military. ...
... the senior military are almost without exception genuinely wedded to the national interest, and genuinely supportive of civilian control of the military. It is true that they can’t always resist the temptation to open up a second front in the media. They know the odds are stacked in their favour: the public admire and trust them, and distrust ministers; journalists tend to lack the knowledge or energy to question their assumptions or motives, finding it easier to lionise them in contrast to base and shallow politicians. But high-profile generals like David Petraeus or our own Mike Jackson and David Richards manage for the most part to tread this line—and if they step over it, like Stanley McChrystal, they accept their fate. Those like the second world war US general Douglas MacArthur—whose self-delusion, belief in their own infallibility and contempt for democratic politics make them potentially dangerous—are mercifully rare. ...

Towards the end of the book, Woodward reports General Lute wondering if “Obama had to do this 18-month surge just to demonstrate, in effect, that it couldn’t be done.” We must hope this was not the only or even the main reason: it cannot justify the 500 more combat deaths in those 18 months, and the $150bn added to the deficit. But either way, if come July Obama decides it is time for Plan B, the senior military—British as well as American—must accept that Plan A hasn’t succeeded. They must start working up, in good faith, the alternatives their political leaders ask for, and resist any temptation to encourage—even with their silence—the inevitable stream of chickenhawks and conspiracy theorists complaining that victory would have been assured if only the politicians hadn’t once again stabbed our brave boys in the back.
Cavanagh has returned to the war in Afghanistan in an article in The Spectator, (8 April 2011), Operation amnesia, which is well worth reading in full. He sheds some more light on political-military relationships towards the end of the New Labour period:
… We don’t have five years’ experience in Helmand, we have six months’ experience ten times. Successive brigades have relearned the painful lessons of their predecessors, or overcompensated for their perceived failings. Debriefings of battalion and company commanders, and attempts to harness their valuable experience, have been perfunctory. Four years ago, when I was working for the then defence secretary, Des Browne, we pressed senior military officers to look for ways of mitigating this short-termism: longer tours, or a staggered rotation of units, or greater continuity in the command structure. The army, then led by General Dannatt, flatly rejected the first two options. They dismissed longer tours on the basis of the strain on soldiers and their families, and rejected staggered rotation due to the importance of ‘a brigade training and deploying as a brigade'.
We were sympathetic to the former argument, both on human grounds and because we knew that the American military, in which tours routinely lasted 15 months, struggled to retain experienced personnel. We were less sympathetic to the argument for training and deploying as a brigade, which appeared rather dogmatic. I suspected it encouraged precisely the kind of large-scale set-piece engagements I was sceptical about. It also put our creaking helicopter and transport fleet through the added strain of mass troop rotations, and required us to keep scarce equipment in Britain so an entire brigade could train with it.

But as happens so often in politics, we civilian advisers and strategists shied away from overruling the military. We worked with the less dogmatic generals to identify a small number of senior posts (and junior posts in specific areas like intelligence) where tours of duty could be lengthened. We were assured that other initiatives would improve continuity, but these too were relatively minor and seemingly given a low priority. The issue of command structure got lost in wider debates about troop numbers and the looming arrival of American forces in Helmand. ...
This is not to deny the importance of the limits on British troop numbers, the subject of such heated debate during 2009. As someone who had a share in responsibility for those limits, I was acutely aware of the dilemmas they forced on commanders. But I was also aware of the potential for troop increases to exacerbate the military’s dominance of what was meant to be a joint civilian-military campaign, and to feed the tendency of new commanders to try to do too much. For three years the top brass had argued that additional troops would enable us to ‘thicken’ our forces, increasing their effectiveness, reducing casualties, and enabling proper stabilisation work to begin. But when we sent reinforcements, it had the opposite result: an expanded footprint, increased activity, and increased casualties, to no obvious strategic effect. …   
The military’s obsession with troop numbers and the media’s failure to challenge it have obscured the wider lessons of the Afghan campaign. Before the American surge, lack of troops was blamed for everything. … 
… More troops will not help our militaries master the complex tribal dynamics, nor judge whether they are making friends faster than they are alienating people. More troops will not change the attitude of the Afghan and Pakistani authorities, nor create a political process that addresses Afghan grievances. 
Because of these wider political problems, Britain’s lack of success in Afghanistan in strategic terms cannot be blamed on the military. But at the operational level, most of the responsibility is theirs. They took the tactical decisions in summer 2006 — admittedly under great pressure — to disperse our forces across the ‘platoon houses’ in northern Helmand. They chose, in the years that followed, to continue to prosecute the campaign in an expansive and aggressive manner, despite the constraints on resources and the lack of evidence that this approach had a lasting positive effect. And while they lost no opportunity to plan and lobby for more troops, they were slow to fill the gaps in our intelligence, or to respond to the Taleban’s shift in tactics towards improvised explosive devices.
Cavanagh’s conclusion echoes that of his Prospect piece:
When failure becomes not just a possibility but a reality, it ought to provide the impetus for change. In war it is vital to learn from mistakes. … But it won’t happen if politicians are blamed instead, as in America over Korea and in Britain over Iraq.
The media, the Conservatives and the military have already prepared the way for a similar narrative on Afghanistan: blaming the previous government, mainly for not providing enough resources. If only we’d had more troops and better equipment, the argument will run, we would have defeated the Taleban, and got out on our own terms. It suits a great many people to go along with this, but in the long run it will only prevent us from learning the real lessons of the past five years.
Hopefully Cavanagh will write more about Afghanistan as he saw it from the privileged position of a government special adviser, and about the lessons that need to be learnt. While he is probably realistic in anticipating that the military will attempt to pin the blame for any unpleasantness in the eventual Afghanistan end-game (planned for 2015 at the latest) on the politicians, it could be that, by then, the previous government will no longer be their primary target. NATO’s Libyan operation is now, with the US no longer in the driver’s seat, largely reliant on France and the UK. The resulting pressure seems to have opened up tensions arising from the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) between the army and the other services. The FT reported on 8 April:
A plan brought forward by General Sir David Richards, head of the armed forces, proposed shedding up to 5,000 additional army personnel to free up money for other priorities. However, this was rejected by David Cameron’s team because the prime minister was unwilling to back cuts that could lead to some veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan being laid off. The proposal reflected the widespread realisation in Whitehall that the army emerged relatively unscathed from the defence review, at the expense of civil servants and the other services.
“Even the army are now prepared to entertain the idea of more army cuts. But No 10 are just not interested,” said one senior Whitehall figure. Richards and Wall realised that they overplayed their hand during the SDSR,” he added, in reference to the chief of defence staff and General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the army.
A few days later a senior RAF officer, Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant (Commander-In-Chief Air Command) was reported (somewhat disjointedly) by The Scotsman and the Daily Telegraph to have said about SDSR:
"The thinking behind it was sound, but I'm not sure we're going to end up in a balanced place."
“I think it's appropriate we have a review of where we go to make sure what we are able to deliver at no notice is replicated in five years' time, and in 50 years' time."
“I think it's appropriate we have a review of where we go to make sure what we are able to deliver at no notice is replicated in five years' time, and in 50 years' time." 
In Libya, “the ability to go and see and hear what the enemy are doing” was vital and that may not be possible with an “unbalanced set of Armed Forces”.
Then, not for the first time in recent months, a group of former naval persons wrote, on this occasion to The Times (£ 11 April 2011), complaining:
… if all three services had the same "harmony rules" as those of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, significant reductions in the strength of the Armed Forces would be possible. These reductions would more than match the numbers now being cut, but with no loss in capability ...
… the RAF is already indicating that the current Libya operation will be unsustainable beyond June, or not long after. There are about 40,000 personnel in the RAF, including some 120 officers of air rank each paid about £100,000 a year or more, and there are many hundreds of aircraft. If the RAF can't sustain current operations, what are all those people and all that expensive equipment for? There is much that curious Defence and Treasury ministers should question about the RAF's structure and management.
There would have been no comparable complaint from the Royal Navy, after just one month, about sustainability of the Libya operation were an aircraft carrier, with a Harrier force, now operating off the north African coast.
One asset which British defence seems to possess in abundance is a large cohort of senior officers of all three services, serving and retired, unafraid to speak their minds and, when not at odds with each other, ready to criticise the government of the day. (Perhaps the implementation of career average, rather than final salary, pensions in the armed forces, as Lord Hutton has recommended, will eliminate one of the incentives for this top-heaviness). Depending on the robustness of the Coalition, the next election could be at any time up to the planned date of UK’s leaving Afghanistan in 2015. However, when it comes, the dominant issues are more likely to be the economy and the NHS than the extent of Labour’s shortcomings on resources pre-SDSR in 2009, despite Cavanagh’s misgivings. One might also expect the uniformed Top Kneddies to show some inhibition about criticising politicians, much as they dislike SDSR, given their natural inclinations towards the Conservative party.

Lord Dannatt has featured in earlier posts on this blog. One quoted Jonathan Powell’s observations of Dannatt at Tony Blair’s lunch meeting with the service chiefs in 2006, and another featured Dannatt’s widely-reported remarks about “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan in July 2009 when Gordon Brown was PM.

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