Afghanistan – 10 Lessons to Learn

I know we are still some way off ceasing operations in Afghanistan and the future is still unclear but what lessons can we take from this conflict?

My off the cuff starter for ten;

  1. Politicians should think once, twice and seventy five times before committing the armed forces. We have drifted into an extended conflict with little practical gain that has been extremely costly in blood, treasure, international reputation and influence. Our principal objective now seems to withdraw with as much of our tattered military and political reputation intact as possible, every soldier killed, limb lost and pound spent between now and the cessation of operations will be because we failed to think enough about the consequences.
  2. Show me the strategy, confusion about selection and maintenance of the aim of operations in Afghanistan means that every strategy in fact becomes a tactic. All talk of COIN this or containment operations that, is conflating the day to day means of realising a non-existent strategy because we did not and still do not have a realistic objective. One day it was the defeat of Al Qaida, then it was education for girls, human rights, drugs interdiction, preventing the Taleban provide a safe harbour for terrorists and so on. A clear objective for future operations is as vital as item 1
  3. Listen to the armed forces but don’t be afraid to ignore them, military advice is not always correct. Politicians need to improve their knowledge of strategic and operational matters so they can make informed decisions and have the conviction to drive them through. Political leadership is every bit as important as military.
  4. If committing the armed forces then do not place shaped handcuffs on them, yes we know very few UOR’s get declined put political limits on force composition, force protection issues, manning and other operational matters makes the job of achieving what little clarity in aim that much more difficult. These are restrictions are generally tied to the cost of operations or how things might look in the press so in short, politicians need to accept that military operations are very expensive and dangerous but meddling will make things worse. This might seem contradictory to item 4 but it is about different things
  5. Unity of command is important, yes of course it is important to have a multi agency approach but the FCO doing one thing, DFiD doing another and the military stuck somewhere in the middle is a recipe for chaos
  6. You can never have enough helicopters, spare parts or soft toilet tissue. Availability of equipment and more than enough logistics back up is something that should never be subject to debate, we need to get better at supporting what we have even if this means fewer new toys
  7. Relying on Urgent Operational Needs to supply the vast majority of equipment is not big or clever and will cause untold problems post conflict. Whilst many hail the UOR system as a of success, and in some respects it is, it is not guaranteed to deliver adequate equipment and is fundamentally an admission of a failure to plan for and resource lots of what might be called ‘basic equipment’ like uniform, body armour, protected diggers and night vision equipment
  8. Each conflict is different, using one as a template for another is rarely a recipe for success and we need to have the institutional agility to learn from past conflicts but recognise when those lessons are not applicable. Rapid adaptation is the hallmark of many successful organisations and we need to put in place a structure that in effect, gets rids of a lot of structure!
  9. Information operations should be core to military ones and vice versa. The internet and its Twitter/Facebook/Blogging/YouTube offspring is rapidly changing how people at home, in theatre and around the world perceive what we do. We need to recognise this and maximise these tools to our advantage.
  10. The final one is up to the commenters to fill in
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
February 26, 2011 5:19 pm

(10) Be careful about whom you elect into power.

February 26, 2011 5:26 pm

10. – Beware of mission creep, but stay flexible and adapt to changing requirements.

11. – Be honest to your citizens. Social media will immediately expose “half truths” and have a devastating effect on (military) ops.

Two cents, up in the air. :)

February 26, 2011 5:37 pm

I might add that next wars need to be funded from the Treasury “contingency” yearly reserve when a government starts an operation. The MOD can’t be asked to fight wars on peacetime budget without being forced to lose pieces all over the place.
Especially if it is also dealing with Force’s modernization and procurement efforts, both always needed to keep the Armed Forces ready and capable to take on the missions the country gives them.

This has not been the case for Iraq and Afghanistan… And it has been the cause of the constant cutting back and delaying (and thus, indirectly caused also most of the cost overruns in procurement). The money that should have paid the Modernization programme, from FRES to CVF, has had to be used to fund the two wars… and in light of this, the MOD probably did the very best that was possible, much as things look like disasterous.
They could have easily been far, far worse, seen the premise.

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
February 26, 2011 6:23 pm

10) NEVER fight a land war in Asia? Or more seriously give Politicians/top brass a compulsory History lecture about the region in question?

February 26, 2011 6:55 pm

(Military) history knowledge and understanding is important for politicians in general. Without it, they’re either dependent on advisers (all too often = lobbyists) or prone to repeat old mistakes.

I found it especially strange that BRITISH politicians were eager to send an occupying force into Afghanistan.

February 26, 2011 6:56 pm

When I was listening to some of the evidence from the iraq enquiry it was interesting to note that some of the witness mentioned that when we go to these countries the one thing that is always missing is not an army but a non existent police force. Maybe point 10 should be a create a deployable police brigade made up of RMP/Para-military force.

February 26, 2011 7:02 pm

C4ISTAR has to be the biggest unlearned lesson.

John Hartley
John Hartley
February 26, 2011 9:12 pm

Never get into a long war & then forget about it.
Understand your true strategic aim.
In this case to stop the taliban retaking control. You do not need young squaddies risking IEDs on mud tracks to do that. Keep them on a secure base. If the taliban break cover to take control, hit them with everything (tanks, jets, artillery).
Trawl the moderate modern parts of the muslim world. Spread their articles & broadcasts to counter the extremists.
Do not cut the defence budget in the middle of a war.

February 26, 2011 10:24 pm

Well I think there are more than 10 politic lessons, and more than 10 military ones but I am having trouble splitting the two and picking my favorites.

I’ll stick to military for now, and start with Iraq:

10. Do not let your general officer corps get too comfortable with the idea that they always know best, and are unable to learn either from their own experience or the experience of others. Yes I am talking about the “we have been doing this in Ulster for years, and we don’t need to listen to the stupid Yanks” attitude. The armies senior management failed badly in Iraq, and they also caused problems in Afghanistan (we don’t need MRAPS or more helicopters……)

February 26, 2011 11:00 pm

10) Numbers matter. Don’t send a platoon to do a company’s work; don’t send a battalion (well battlegroup!) to do a brigade’s work.

11) Get the history books out! Why did we “win” in Malaya? How did the Rhodesians manage a successful campaign with a third as many men and not nearly a tenth of the equipment?

12) Everybody on the defence select committee to spend a week in patrol base. No requirement to go out on patrol, just “live” in the patrol base.

February 26, 2011 11:03 pm

10) If victory requires “winning the hearts and minds” of a radically different culture, it can’t be achieved.

February 27, 2011 12:53 am

Some of my own #10s are already here, and they group together well to riff on others comments:

Sven (twice above) and by extension Gabriele and Gareth: well, yes. That’s the root of it (and here I was mentioning “schwerpunkten” just the other day, Sven :) The shocking thing is that big, complex, messy things like nations and the states that manage them actually work better with strong degrees of honesty and transparency. Parliament was invented, more or less, to audit and approve the dosh the Plantagenets wanted with which to wallop the French. But that puts in danger the whole modern political class, who are really just a subset of the weasely-corporate-VP-management class, who have thrived on the lack of working “inspectorates” in complex organizations, which means that cheaters and the relentlessly, short-sightedly selfish (functionally sociopaths, not “psychopaths” but that 5-10 percent of a given population who have no working emotional connection to others, whether in-group or out-group, and manipulate circumstances to narrow selfish ends) are automatically favored because they’ll do whatever it takes for advantage even if it damages the larger structure. Have to rein that in on all fronts, but it creates obvious strategic problems like hasty, ill-considered wars that become matters of greed, fear, and pride pretty quickly.

Jed: bang on. That’s another one of the sins, the type of “bounded rationality” we call groupthink and that old-school religious types called the Sin of Pride. You may be sinning as the angels but it that just means it gets you in the worst trouble. And they don’t seem to be learning: underwater COIN knife fighters parachuting off the nose of a Super Tucano wouldn’t be much good on the current shores of Tripoli, or in a collapsing Pakistan, or a Greco-Turkish Cyprus flareup, or against a Russia that wants the Arctic as its new Siberia, etc.


Yes. Honest policing ties right in at all levels. It’s one of the rarest and most essential things which is why it has the name of the community — “polis” — buried in its root (just like politician, talk about debased terms ….) Policing the government, policing strategic and economic relations with furriners (lots of the lighter-complected folks, and a few of the non-European ones, scarpering from Libya right now did an awful lot to prolong the problem), policing the nations goals and debating its best interests, policing the operational art of each service so they don’t get smug, etc. Ultimately (and this is me a wierd but very distinct sort of lefty seeing this) communities of people have to be able to sort themselves out in order for the greater web of global communities to work. And that takes several different varieties of literal and figurative policing and can’t be done by outlanders, especially in camo with big metal pointy-killy things.


Yes. Numbers do matter. And long-term COIN in an alien environment is a contradiction in terms. Just simply doesn’t work, at all, ever. Not the way most Western “experts” suggest these days. Best bet is what I’d call “hit and sanitize,” go in with good effect from your shock troops up front, and immediately flood the zone with patrol/surveillance forces, engineers, civil affairs, etc. Clean things up nice and say you only did what you had to do and respect the effort of locals to get back on their own feet, then *go home*. Best way to keep insurgencies from *starting*, which is the only way to defeat them from outside.


Malaya (and its corollary vs. Indonesia in Sarawak) was won because after about four bloody and unsuccessful years (a longer-than-average time to last without ultimate defeat, made possible only because Britain owned Malaya and had colonial infrastructure there) Templer and co. decided to take sides and create a simple, two-sided civil war, and backed the right side (bigger, stronger, better economy, more grit, etc.) Did the same thing several other places (Oman comes instantly to mind), and in a few others lost in the long term but concluded a settlement before being worn out or kicked out (Cyprus, Aden, Egypt in ’54.) Ulster was mutual exhaustion and was in no way foreign turf, whatever English folk in particular may think of the Province — it’s a cornerstone of the old English empire that predates the Act of Union by a couple of generations. Rhodesia had quite a lot of covert and overt outside help. (Until ’74 they partnered actively with the Portuguese who did well in Angola but had to give up b/c of other failures, exhaustion, and a nasty govt. at home that deserved its overthrow. After that the Boers waded in.) And please, oh please, put the select committee out at FOBs at least. If you’re going into elected office you should have at least two kinds of internship, one with the military, one with some kind of civic service (NHS, trauma room, social work, etc.)


This. Or rather, it requires understanding each other and then *going home*, rather than “making them see why we’re right.”

February 27, 2011 7:52 am

Without Demos, there is merely Kratos.
Foreigners cant police natives.
A corrupt institution is corrupt, its quicker, but more expensive to build anew.

February 27, 2011 8:49 am

Thanks Jed, for
“Yes I am talking about the “we have been doing this in Ulster for years, and we don’t need to listen to the stupid Yanks” attitude”
– I remember vividly how eagerly our press was repeating those statements

February 27, 2011 8:52 am

Hi JS,

RE ” “winning the hearts and minds” of a radically different culture, it can’t be achieved”
– a great opportunity in Libya now, trying out slightly different means?

Michael (ex-DIS)
Michael (ex-DIS)
February 27, 2011 9:33 am

We just need one simple rule.

No silly wars in silly places.

February 27, 2011 10:29 am

That rule should be different: “No wars of choice.”

Isn’t it interesting how after a failed war suddenly my long-held dovish positions become almost mainstream?

Just four years ago almost nobody seemed to be inclined to agree with me. I know only about two anti-war of choice milblogs in the whole English-written internet!

Richard W
Richard W
February 27, 2011 10:49 am

Here’s some more:

Adding Western troops (particularly Brits and Americans) into a traditional Muslin location will create a conflict even if there wasn’t one already. When the troops first went to Helmund it wasn’t an area of conflict and there was every intention of building a few schools ‘without a shot being fired’. But the sheer presence of troops in Helmund attracted Taliban, terrorists and nationalists looking for a chance to battle infidels.

Don’t start a conflict and then go and ask other people to help. T Bair committed forces to Afghanistan, made a speech in Kabul “we will not desert you” and then went to ask our European allies to lend a hand. We’ve been berating them ever since for not pulling their weight and bearing the burden Blair seemingly thought he could share with them. On their part their attitude is entirely understandable – they didn’t start the war, they don’t buy that it is worth the cost, so why should anyone expect them to be there fighting it? They are there to some extent, but only the minimum required so as not to lose favour with the US.

The Malaya scenario – Controlling an insurgency is far easier if you control the national politics and you can deliver a political solution along with a military solution. It’s potentially impossible if you are in someone else’s country whose politics is not in sync with the military effort.

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
February 27, 2011 11:40 am

I have to echo TD’s comments – it wasn’t so much different culture, etc which screwed us over – being a bleeding heart liberal type, I believe Human beings are essentially the same and want the same – but we simply had no idea what we were doing after the fall of the Taliban regime. We used Ulster tactics, didn’t coordinate with other agencies, underestimated the enemy, and experienced mission creep – were we there for nation-building? Anti-drugs? Anti-terrorist? I always favour looking at the bigger picture, the holistic solution, but you must always know what you can achieve with the resources you have.

The biggest failure I believe is not realising that A-stan is NOT a nation-state, let alone a modern one. Saddam in Iraq had at least created the civil infrastructure we could build upon (what we didn’t destroy/disband). A-stan is pre feudal, let alone a pre-modern state. I believe we could have produced enough security/stability by creating a (Neo-)feudal state(s); tribal area becomes “cantons”, all send reps to Grand congress (forget what they call them)to choose Gov for International affairs, etc. Try and introduce democracy, etc,slowly via NGO’s/UN…
Sorry, IR rant over.

February 27, 2011 11:44 am

All wars are wars of choice.
Regardless of the provocation, if the invader is raping your children in front of you, you still have a choice, to fight back or not.
You had a choice when you crossed the border, you had a choic then, and when you drive them back, it remains a choice to follow them and do likewise.

Brian Black
Brian Black
February 27, 2011 12:17 pm

We need an end to unrealistic idealism – some countries are a mess, and we should be thankful that we don’t have to live in them, but it’s not our responsibility nor within our power to fix every problem in every messed up country in the world.

Afghanistan was a hole before we turned up; we didn’t break it, we didn’t need to fix it.

February 27, 2011 12:51 pm

10. If you are determined that Britain is to remain in ‘playa’ in international affairs, and to do so by military intervention where this will achieve the greatest advantage, then make sure you choose interventions that are as compatible as is possible with the expectations of the British public.
Unless the war is an existential threat to Britain don’t let it dominate the entire expeditionary capability of the Armed Forces.
Unless the war is an existential threat to Britain don’t let it suck you into a commitment longer than a typical British parliament.
It will be a long time before a British politician is ‘brave’ enough to join another protracted and nasty counter-insurgency war, precisely because in having breached the two dictums above they know that the British public will not tolerate another.

February 27, 2011 12:53 pm

It’s futile to attempt to re-define established words.

February 27, 2011 1:03 pm

The first statement; that anti-war sentiment has become common:

“That rule should be different: “No wars of choice.” Isn’t it interesting how after a failed war suddenly my long-held dovish positions become almost mainstream?”

Appears to contradict the second; that there are still only two anti-war english language mil-blogs:

“Just four years ago almost nobody seemed to be inclined to agree with me. I know only about two anti-war of choice milblogs in the whole English-written internet!”

Or is it a peculiarity of the British temperament that we have not moved with the times?

February 27, 2011 1:27 pm

@ TD – “Jedi, does that mean more carriers please that will be used for cocktail parties, yum yum :)”

It means that the continental/maritime choice, that you don’t believe necessary, should swing in the maritime-raiding direction which would indeed involve carriers (in the plural).

As has been noted by RUSI, even if the army did shrink to 80,000 post afghan we would still have the most army distorted Armed Forces of all our western peer nations.

February 27, 2011 2:43 pm

There are only two anti-war of choice MilBlogs because the other bloggers are merely following the fashion and don#t rise above the insight that this and that particular conflict was wrong. They still keep the fiction that somehow next time only a few rules need to be observed to make it work.
It’s like the Powell-Weinberger doctrine; not going to prevent the next disaster.

The line needs to be drawn between wars of choice and wars of necessity (the latter including all collective defence). Only genocides might qualify as exemptions, not great power games for influence, economic effects, some kind of crusade (such as for democracy) or prestige.
Fearmongers and Warmongers should as a rule of thumb be ignored and marginalised.

February 27, 2011 3:01 pm

gotcha, thank you Sven.

February 27, 2011 4:07 pm

TD said: “Jedi, does that mean more carriers please that will be used for cocktail parties, yum yum :)”

I get the feeling that statement was dripping with sarcasm – so I must ask, have you ever been to a Defence Diplomacy event on an RN warship (aka Captain’s cocktail party) ?

You can take the piss out of them as much as you like, but they are a lot more useful for making friends and influencing people than invading countries !

However back to lessons learned:
1. We (the nation) are capable of independent thought, we do NOT need to follow US foreign policy like the “special relationship” is the only relationship.
2. We need to learn when to say no. Eradicating the Taliban was a response to an attack on NATO (there were a lot of non American NATO nationalities killed in the Twin Towers) therefore I have no problem with the phase of the op. Thereafter pour money, old FV432’s and maybe even the gift of all our old Puma’s to the “Northern Alliance” and let them get on with it. As many have said, its very odd the the FCO of all people could not point out to the State Department the absolute futility of trying to push western ideals of democratic government on a set of peoples who could not give a monkey’s uncle about such things – Learn to say NO !

Tony Williams
Tony Williams
February 27, 2011 4:17 pm

Make politicians do some background reading. Like:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient that the public knows… We are today not far from a disaster.”

TE Lawrence, 1920.

February 27, 2011 8:11 pm

And if we sign a treaty of collective defence with the Dari?
What then?
Does Afghanistan suddenly become a just war of necessity?

One of the greater problems of EU membership is the UK doesnt have a foreign policy.
Or it has only a slither of the tools used to define one.
Trade, Immigration, Aid, all EU competancies.
The UK could be at war with russia and still sending them aid through the EU…

February 27, 2011 8:13 pm


An epically good lesson from history there, kinda sums up my own feelings about it.

February 27, 2011 11:01 pm

And if we sign a treaty of collective defence with the Dari?
What then?
Does Afghanistan suddenly become a just war of necessity?”

I don’t see how they could add to your country’s security, thus it would not be a collective defence (but on paper).
Germany learned some hard lessons about careful choice of allies in 1914, the lesson that a nation should choose its allies carefully and with its own security in mind is self-evident for me. I blogged about it at least twice.

February 28, 2011 7:39 am

Do you realise that at this point your arguement has become, dont do anything that cant retrospectivly be a viewed in a bad light?

Your argueing the “no true scotsman” for foreign policy

Callum Lane
Callum Lane
February 28, 2011 10:24 am

1) Decide on your strategic aims
2) Resource your strategy
3) Get your national command and control (C2) systems right
4) Get your coalition C2 systems right
5) Adapt your Armed Forces to the fight they are in commensurate with where that fight sits within your national security strategy (Afghanistan is a limited war fought for limited policy objectives and it is appropriate that it should be with limited means.
6) Remember when it comes to adaption that Generals and senior civil servants will often prefer the status quo.
7) Don’t get involved in a Counter-Insurgency (COIN) campaign if you cannot control the Governance lines of operation – the Afghan government is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution, yet it is sovereign and we have limited means to exert the required uinfluence there.
8) Revisit the strategic imperative!

February 28, 2011 11:07 am

DominicJ, I am arguing for defence and only defence. No offence. No violent military operations for any other purpose than true defence.
No general military “power”, but military “protection”.

February 28, 2011 11:13 am


Brilliant piece by you. The most useful additional comment comes from Tony William’s quote from TE Lawrence. We should learn the lessons of history.

I think the most important point you make is the need for good political leadership, to complement good military leadership. We can generally take good military leadership for granted, although it is not infallible. What we can’t take for granted is good political leadership. Indeed, I would argue that our politicians are so weak in this area, with such a fundamental lack of integrity, that ‘doing the right thing’ as Tony Blair and David Cameron is invariably deflected by personal ambition or the need for the party to get re-elected for the sake of power alone.

February 28, 2011 12:17 pm

Expect our military to be run by incompetent old duffers, who couldn’t get any other jobs when they left public school.

February 28, 2011 6:58 pm

This excerpt from US SECDEF Gates speech may be applicable to this discussion:
“The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest. And one of the benefits of the drawdown in Iraq is the opportunity to conduct the kind of full-spectrum training – including mechanized combined arms exercises – that was neglected to meet the demands of the current wars. Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements – whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere. The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions. But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.
By no means am I suggesting that the U.S. Army will – or should – turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary – designed to chase guerrillas, build schools, or sip tea. But as the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size, and cost of its heavy formations to those in the leadership of the Pentagon, and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who ultimately make policy and set budgets.”

February 28, 2011 8:34 pm

““The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest.”

See, this, I dont get.
Its just a bland acceptance that knocking off Sadam was the right course of action.
If we (well, they, I ask it constantly) have not yet asked the question “was toppling Sadam worthwhile?”. They’re a lot further behind than I thought.

I mean seriously.
We’ve spent a trillion dolars toppling Sadam, Mubarak went before we could get TV crews over to film it, let alone invade.

John Hartley
John Hartley
February 28, 2011 10:24 pm

Iraq 2003 was controversial, but that was Blair/Bush that ordered that.
The military just followed the orders of the elected governments.
It is wrong to punish the military through hasty, spiteful cuts for the failings of the politicians.

February 28, 2011 11:13 pm

Dominic @ 8:34

I think Gates reference was to combined-arms use of armour together with the constabulary Poor Bloody Infantry/Marines in those two cities 2005-ish. I think he’s wrong, that as it turns out (again) that long-term COIN where you haven’t run a colonial infrstructure for a long time doesn’t fecking work, so you end up with a hi-lo reality for the military: ops involving MOOTW (Military Operations Other Than War) or in-and-outs with airborne or marine elements structured more sustainably than they are now (sustainable for short periods of independent combat), or occasional scares/conflicts that involve people who can throw hardware around. Will more of those be air and naval, and potentially involve deterrence questions? He’s probably closer to the mark there.

Totally, totally with your last statement. Don;t expect any donations to the Primrose League, though ;)

February 28, 2011 11:15 pm

Wrong about having to justify heavy formations, that is. But they shouldn’t dominate your regular Army, and the US has the advantage of a decently-equipped and ordered National Guard, rather than a TA that saved British bacon in both World Wars eviscerated because Field Marshal Lord Carver and some of his successors turned up their nose at reservists.

February 28, 2011 11:46 pm

Ref: ““The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest.”

Guys, he is just talking about the utility of heavy armour in urban ops, the combined arms team.

DomJ I do not understand how you take that and turn it into a “bland acceptance that knocking off Sadam was the right course of action” – Gates was not addressing the politics of GW2, he was addressing the future structure of the US Army. He is basically saying between the lines that the US army can be smaller, and it can be made smaller by cutting back the heavy armoured divisions of M1’s and M2/M3’s (in favour of bloody Stryker no doubt !) BUT that there must still be some heavy armour and not just for historical re-enactment of the battle of Kursk……..

March 1, 2011 6:40 am

might I suggest reading the whole speech? My take away was SECDEF was questioing the whole utility of land warfare on the Asian continent.
“By no means am I suggesting that the U.S. Army will – or should – turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary – designed to chase guerrillas, build schools, or sip tea. But as the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size, and cost of its heavy formations to those in the leadership of the Pentagon, and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who ultimately make policy and set budgets.

What we can expect in the future is that potential adversaries – be they terrorists, insurgents, militia groups, rogue states, or emerging powers – will seek to frustrate America’s traditional advantages, in particular our ability to shoot, move and communicate with speed and precision. From the look of things, the Army will not repeat the mistakes of the past, where irregular warfare was shunted to the side after Vietnam. The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq – invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country – may be low. But in what General Casey has called “an era of persistent conflict,” those unconventional capabilities will still be needed at various levels and in various locations. Most critically to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly – and controversial – large-scale American military intervention.”
More about strategy than hardware methinks?

March 1, 2011 8:07 am


I’m not argueing that fighting battles like Fallujah doesnt require heavy kit. I am argueing that no ones asking, “why the **** did we fight Fallujah”.
It is a political matter, but Gates is a politician.

Refighting Fallujah only comes into play if we refight Iraq.
That no one seems to haver taken on board what a disaster that was is deeply disturbing.

March 1, 2011 8:45 am

The favourite quote of the day seems to be ““The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest.”
– I am sure leesea is right about the speech with “More about strategy than hardware methinks?”
– However, the take-away has been on the US military blogs for a long time (they, too, have the friendly competition between services): ” Marines had to be escorted to battle by Army M1s…”
– I look forward to finding out what our MWCap will look like (currently there seems to be no definitive source?) e.g. at the brigade level, which supposedly is for independent deployment

March 1, 2011 8:51 am

10) Finish one war before starting one or two more.

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
March 1, 2011 9:47 am

I would actually give the Select Committees more bite, especially the Defence Select Committee. If you read their reports and the cross examinations, you will see that they are more often than not on the right track but are constantoy frustrated by the inability to be polite, of the MoD to provide evidence and documents in a timely manner.

Resourses/supplies are never going to be available in the number required. The first area cuts are made when required in in the maintenance, spares and ammunition budgets. The last Government tried to ge the RAF to reduce its depot spares to only one months worth but backed off when availabiity issues became public.

For me, conflicts should be run on the Weinbeger principals where;
1. Clear objectives.
2. Overwelming force.
3. Minimum political interference one the shooting starts.
4. Clear exist strategy.

If you cannot meet the above you don’t get involved in the firat place by choice.

Callum Lane
Callum Lane
March 1, 2011 9:55 am

1. Clear Objectives. Yes

2. Overwhelming force. Yes

3. Minimum political interference once the shooting starts – No. Warfare is an extension of politics, politicians must remain hands on. Part of the problems in Iraq was the fact that the govt maintained a lack of interest.

4. Clear exit strategy. No. A clear strategy for involvement leads ipso facto for a clear strategy for disengagement. But warfare, being an extension of politics is rooted in ‘the human condition’ and once you let the genie out of the bottle it can tirn round and bite you, hence warfare like politics tends to be an iterative process.

March 1, 2011 10:12 am

3 becomes more of a problem when you dont have 4.
And both are part of 1.

Know what you want
Have the resources available to do it
Dont back off from a bad headline or two
Know when to cut and run.

Iraq failed on every count.

Objectives were never clear cut things abnd there was very little contingency planning. We also need a clearly agreed upon break point.
These are all political decisions, to be made in advance of war, by politicians with military assistance.
A bad headline in the Tabloids cannot be allowed to derail the strategy.

The UK ended up in control of Basra because the push for Baghdad was going too slowly. There was little military reason to sieze Basra when we did, with an under strength battalion, the original plan was capital first, regions second, but the papaers were getting antsy and the politicians wanted a quick win.

Once it all comes apart, then your back to square one, politicians setting clear achievable goals and resourcing them adequatly.
Its then that politicial disinterest becomes poison.

Callum Lane
Callum Lane
March 1, 2011 11:52 am


The UK ended up in Basrah because the Turks dropped off the option for the advance from the North. Intial planning saw the UK finishing in the Kirkuk region.

The tactical plan for Basra was to isolate in order to prevent interference with VII Corps and 1 MEF supply lines running to Baghdad. The occupation of Basra came earlier then anticipated because resistance crumbled and 7Bde exploited to fill the vacuum. The timing was very much bottom up driven – ‘recce pull’ as opposed to ‘command driven’. That said the occupation of Basra was seen as a boost and signs of tangible progress while the US element were paused before moving on to Baghdad.
The problem was that once we were in Basra it took until 2009 for the Govt to articulate clearly what they wanted us to achieve there. As you have said – it all links to having a clear strategy and then resourcing it.

Strategy is however an art, not a science and while you may start a war with a strategy and clear aims you are more often then not going to finish with a different strategy and different objectives; enemy as well as friendly forces all get a say in how things transpire.

In terms of UK political disinterest the Iraq Inquiry testimony makes clear that poloticians were not interested in Iraq beyond trying to ensure that it created no inconvenient headlines in the press for them; also that Prime Minister and Cabinet Office direction was rarely implemented on by other departments of state. There was no Iraq strategy and the campaign lacked a campaign plan.

March 1, 2011 2:08 pm

Lessons to be learned? How about:

Selection and Maintenance of Aim
Concentration of Force

and, of course (not one of the Big 10, but one of the five COIN principles)

Unity of Command

March 1, 2011 3:24 pm

Leesea @6.48 – Strategy choices should drive equipment choices. Hence if you take the SecDef’s comments to the logical conclusions more ‘NexGen Bomber’ and more Arleigh Burke Flight III and less M1A1 and M2 upgrades……

DomJ @ 8.27 “Refighting Fallujah only comes into play if we refight Iraq.” – No it doesn’t stop being so pedantic. For Fallujah insert “urban terrain” his point was that US strategy should be less land centric, that things can be done to reduce the size of the US Army, and within that to reduce the heavy component BUT as shown in Fallujah and other urban battles in Iraq, the tank is NOT dead and heavy armour DOES have a place in MOUT.

Also Ref: “The UK ended up in control of Basra because the push for Baghdad was going too slowly. There was little military reason to sieze Basra when we did, with an under strength battalion, the original plan was capital first, regions second, but the papaers were getting antsy and the politicians wanted a quick win” – I think you will find that is completely wrong and that Basrah was an agreed upon objective, given to the UK in the overall ops plan before the ops started. Also we did not “take it” with an “understrength battalion”. Don’t get confused between the war phase and the ‘liberation’ of Basra and the post ‘war’ phase when UK political disinterest may have been a factor, but Army command “we have done Northern Ireland, you can’t tell us anything” attitude was also a big problem. I certainly know we had great problems convincing senior officers interested in kinetic (or old fashioned) options that it was time to go balls out on the Psyops…….

March 1, 2011 3:51 pm

Oh come now
Surely it was clear I meant “Fighting “insert city here” only comes into play if we fight “insert nation here””

I actualy agree with Gates, if you want to take an enemy city, you need heavy armour to do it.
Where we differ is, why the hell are we taking enemy cities.

No one seems to have asked, although this is the best way to do it, is it the best thing to be doing?
Thats the real thinking I think is missing.

I admit much of my knowledge of the actual Basra Op came from a book called Target Basra.
I read it a while ago, but its certainly the impression I was left with.
Maybe it was that most of the forces who took it moved on afterwards then.
I shall have to dig out the book.

March 1, 2011 5:04 pm

With reference to the US, this open article (hopefully you all can see it fine, it’s one of their free “nibbles”) from Stratfor, the Yanks’ very good commercial open-source outfit, on America and land wars in Asia over time. (One sentence midway through might give some the vapours: I think Friedman’s well aware the British Empire had more divisions in the field than the US until D-Day, he’s good at those kinds of details, but he’s writing to a largely domestic American audience.)

March 1, 2011 8:40 pm

@ Callum

There is political interference and there is political interference.

What about the instance in Iraq where that RMP was running around in the middle of contact reminding the people only to use semi-auto and be “defensive?” Or the battalion that was told not to take sniper rifles because there were weapons meant for offensive warfare?

ROEs that are too liberal/socialist cause problems.

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
March 2, 2011 2:51 am

I have to stand by my opinion that there should be minimum interference from Politicains once the shooting starts. Compare GW1 and GW2. In the former the Military were allowed to conduct operations as they needed to with the Politicians stepping in only to call a halt. In GW2 their was alsmost micro management of operations to ensure the politically correct execution. If fact GW2 went against every facet of teh Weingerger principals and look how it ended up and the same goes for Afghanistan.

Politicians still say when and where to fight but and when to end it but not how to fight it. Managing director don’t give intruction to a airline pilot on how and when to turn the aircraft in flight etc do they.

Brian Black
Brian Black
March 2, 2011 9:33 am

Given the Tony-Blairish fashion in which Dave Cameron is calling battle stations over Libya, maybe we haven’t learnt any lessons from our recent conflicts.

Concentrating on aid for refugees, or doing something to help the repatriation of Egyptian and Tunisian nationals stranded in Libya would be a much more constructive use of the governments time and money -and present a much better image of the UK to people in the region- than ramping up the pressure for any kind of military intervention.

Creating a no-fly zone could cause all sorts of problems but do very little to protect the people of Libya. Not every Arab problem has to have a military solution.

March 2, 2011 10:51 am

1. Think of problems as an integrated whole. Are we short of helis, or is it that the infantry don’t have a weapon that reaches out far enough, so engagements go on inconclusively and they have to use enormous amounts of ammunition? Or is it that our intelligence can’t find the enemy? Or that we can’t get counter-insurgency right? Or we don’t have the numbers, and therefore have to constantly manoeuvre? Or that our strategic goals are simply wrong? Are our apparent problems symptoms or causes?

Callum Lane
Callum Lane
March 3, 2011 9:45 am

Fighting wars is too important to be left to the generals, it has to have political oversight and that does and should involve direction down to the tactical level. The concept of the ‘strategic corporal’ is clearly understood. The exact same arguments that stand for the ‘stategic corporal’ also stand for the ‘tactical statesman’.

In GW 1 there were clear strategic aims – get the Iraqis out of Kuwait and preserve our oil supplies. In GW 2 there were no clear strategic aims for the continuing occupation of Iraq. In GW2 it was the lack of clear and effective political involvement that hampered us. Political direction was limited to ‘keep the US on side, don’t take unnecessary casualties, don’t ask for more troops’ – not a recipe for success. I have seen little evidence for tactical meddling in Iraq.

Where the constant drip drip drip of casualties and images from operational theatres does have a strategic impact on the home and international fronts then I fail to see how politicians cannot be involved at the tactical level. The attack on Gose Green in the Falklands Conflict is another example of a tactical action being directed by the strategic authority for strategic reasons and against the wishes of the military as tacticall and operationally the attack was a sideshow.

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
March 3, 2011 10:34 am

If politicians cannot cope with pictures of casualties returning home then they shouldn’t ge the country involved in a conflict in the first place. You cannot have one without the other and to try to do so is futile and ties the hands of the troops on the ground. Just look at Afghanistan where standing orders mean that British troops do not close with the enemy as often as the US. The local ssee the US troops chasing off the Taliban and “Winning” where as the see the Opposite with UK Forces.

Of course there should be Political oversite but just thet. Goose Green was almost a disaster but was instigated by Whitehall against the wishes of the Military. Imagine what would have happened if the Paras had lost.

The US and UK fought GW2 on a false premise that technology could replace manpower through “Shock and Awe” and allowing Iraqi soldoers to simply go home taking the AKs and RPGs with them bit both nations in the A£$e latter on. There was insufficiant manpower to retain control and chaos resulted. The war was played out under the “Rumsfelt Principal” and it didn’t work.

I shall say it again it is the politicians roel to say when, where and why we are going to war and to set down the objectives and endgame. It is inevitable that they will also impose both tactical and strategic limitations on operations but these must be based on a sound understanding of what is going on in theatre as well as political ramifications at home.

Taking political interference to the max, with even current technology it would be possible for a Minister to see what a individual soldier can see live, and have a say as to when and what he can shoot together with the lawyer sititng next to him. It this the way we wnat to go!

March 3, 2011 11:34 am

Oversight doesnt mean “do the job”.

My boss and I have a quarterly meeting.
We agree a set of goals for the next quarter.
I accomplish those goals.

He doesnt sit on my shoulder controlling my work pattern. If he were doing that, whats the point in me being there?

Equaly, if he doesnt set my goals, I’d just wander around aimlessly for a decade.

The government should set strategic aims, not patrol schedules.
Simply because only the government can set the first one, and it might mistake the second for a grand strategy.

“I have seen little evidence for tactical meddling in Iraq.”
Perhaps, but the lack of Strategic Goals is the killer.
And of course, manpower.

What we are doing is very different from how we are doing it.
One is best sorted out by boots on ground, one can only be dictated from on high.

“The attack on Gose Green in the Falklands Conflict is another example of a tactical action being directed by the strategic authority for strategic reasons and against the wishes of the military as tacticall and operationally the attack was a sideshow.”
Never heard that before.
I did always wonder what the point was, it was rather out of the way and the forces deployed their were in no fit state to counter attack.

What exactly makes you think the destruction of goose green was a strategy? I’m not sure I agree.

Lord Jim
I think rumsfeld gets a bit of a bum rap.
Remember pre war everyone was talking up the mighty Republican Guard and the Iraqi Army. They were knocked senseless.
In the war, Technology did replace manpower.

It was in the Peace that it didnt.
And primarily, that was due to the debaathification. Following the German and Japanese Surrender, massive portions of the army were mainted under allied control, throughout much of the Japanese Empire, the Japanese Occupation forces were never really disarmed.

Disbanding the Iraqi army was an utter disaster.

March 3, 2011 12:14 pm

“I have seen little evidence for tactical meddling in Iraq.”

you might not say that if you had read Task Force Black………

Callum Lane
Callum Lane
March 3, 2011 2:08 pm

I have read Task Force Black… What struck me about TF Black was the targeting cycle, the resources used to implement the targeting cycle. I need to read it again as I am still unclear as to how the JSOTF plan fitted into the campaign plan as a whole – an aspect on which much of the discord at senior level within the UK SF community appears (according to the book) to have been based. As a side line McChrystal is writing his memoirs at the moment and has started to publish some interesting articles on his approach in Iraq and AFghanistan. I can recollect nothing in the book that struck me (and it is a year since I read the book) of political meddling from a UK perspective. From a US perspective things are very different as Rumsfield did provide an inappropriate level of micromanagement in some areas and not enough in others. From a UK perspective I am not aware of political guidance explicit or implicit on patrol schedules. Political direction was given on operational timing and that is entirely appropriate – military staff do not know the domestic political context in which operations are being fed in to – remember our strategic centre of gravity was assessed by political and military figures as being the appetite for the UK to stay in the fight.

Looking at the Iraq Inquiry evidence again there is little or no evidence of political meddling at the tactical level. Political decisions seemed to be confined to troop levels and concern over casualties which drove the appetite for risk. There is however an insinuation that the UK Permanent Joint HQ (PJHQ) and senior UK military officers were possibly oversensitive to this and tried to second-guess politicians in this area of risk taking.

The problem with Iraq is we did not know what we were supposed to do there and did not have the resources to even maintain the staus quo. However, resources is a moot point as the Iraqi government did not allow operations to take place against the Shia Militias until Op Charge Of The Knights in 2008 – so even if we had had the resources it is unlikely that we would have been able to apply them effectively (we were fighting the Shia and not Sunni).

In terms of the Falklands my understanding is that the UK PM ordered the attack on Goose Green in order to deliver to the British public a military success at a time in which the Royal Navy had been bloodied (HMSs Ardent, Antelope & Coventry and Atlantic Conveyor all sunk 21-25 May) and success was not certain. Goose Green was seen as an unneccesary and unwelcome distraction by both the TF Commander and the Land Forces commander but the strategic imperative was clearly perceived in the UK – deliver success or see domestic and international support erode and possibly collapse. The Battle of Goose Green was therefore not a strategy, but a ‘strategic action’, an action conducted at the tactical level to specifically achieve strategic effect.

March 3, 2011 2:43 pm

i was referring specifically to the contrast between what was going on in baghdad and what mark urban describes as happening (or not happening) in basra. :)

March 3, 2011 2:47 pm

Thats what I thought, and exactly what I feared.
Pretty much the charge I levelled at Basra.

Quick we need a win, grab us one.
Despite the fact that we were not ready to fight and damned near lost.

Callum Lane
Callum Lane
March 3, 2011 4:45 pm

In Baghdad the US were predominantly fighting the Sunnis which was fine as the Iraqi govt was keen for them to do so. They had much less success fighting the Shia Special Groups as the Iraqi Govt allowed them much less leeway in this matter. Also the US did not want to fight a two front war in Iraq against both Sunni and Shia, of whom the Shia were by far the most dangerous enemy.
By contrast the UK was up against the Shia in Basra, and when we tried to take them on we saw intransigence from both UK and Iraqi govts. The policy (such as it was) was to very much contain the problem until the Iraqi Govt and Coalition were in a position to deal with them. The two pre-conditions for this were:
– Neutralisation of the sunni insurgency threat
– Consolidation of Maliki’s political power base such that he no longer needed Moqtada al-Sadr’s party to maintain a government and could move against them. This latter point also relied on neutralisation of the Sunni insurgency as a pre-cursor.

To be honest I am not sure what Mark Urban’s point was with regards to Basra, but as soon as a sovereign (Shia) Iraqi government was in place our hands were tied, even if there was the UK political will and military might (which there was not) to confront the Shia in Basra. Remember the US had tried to go toe to toe with Moqtada al-Sadr in 2004 and it had ended badly for them.

March 3, 2011 4:52 pm

can’t remember the specifics now, but thank you callum.

March 3, 2011 4:59 pm

Hi Lj,

RE ” There was insufficiant manpower to retain control and chaos resulted. The war was played out under the “Rumsfelt Principal” and it didn’t work”
– quite right
– does anyone remember anymore that Rumsfelt had to fire Shinseki to get his dubious principles into play ? (And the President let it happen, shame on both)

March 3, 2011 5:09 pm

Hi CL,

RE”not allow operations to take place against the Shia Militias until Op Charge Of The Knights in 2008″
– suddenly, when THEIR PM realised that he was about to be overthrown, there was an urgency to crush the Shia militia, and lots of manpower became available
– who came up with the name; so close to “Crusade” even though the initiative was Iraqi (and US just followed, not to let the fresh forces to be defeated)

You coined a good term “strategic action” – that captures the meaning well!

March 3, 2011 5:13 pm

Hi CL,

RE “the US had tried to go toe to toe with Moqtada al-Sadr in 2004 and it had ended badly for them”
-only because they had to call a halt to it, to keep the Shia gvmnt on their side, for reasons that you so well describe