The Risks of Upstream Engagement

Army training

The growth of ISIS and the subsequent questions and navel gazing surrounding the efficacy of military intervention, or indeed the requirement for military intervention, go right to the very heart of a dilemma which will only become more and more imperative as we move further into a multi-polar, tightly coupled globalised and unstable world. The dilemma is a simple one but which has profound consequences – the dilemma is the choice between acting early or acting later – between essentially prevention rather than cure. As is obvious by that particular wording it is not a dilemma unique to the military security of the UK and it is in fact a dilemma found throughout the country and human organisations in general. It is a profound dilemma because hinging on it are some very big risks indeed.

UK military direction has always focused to some extent on “upstream engagement” or “defence engagement”. More simply, UK military direction has always seen the value of “hanging around” places where trouble might brew because that either helps stop trouble brewing at all, allows us to recognise it is brewing early and respond before it gets out of hand, or at the very least, it gives us some understanding of the area we’ve been skulking about in and so helps us shape an appropriate response. This was a task historically given to the Navy because it suited its nature, and which the Army, with the Adaptive Force, increasingly recognises the benefits of.

The difficulty with upstream engagement – which I mean in its broadest sense to encompass actual military operations before a threat becomes existential – is twofold: the further upstream you go the more diffuse the threat is; secondly, and crucially, safety is a dynamic non-event in such a situation. These two factors reinforce one another. What do I mean by this? When a threat or risk is clear, the actions taken to reduce or manage it are also relatively clear. The risk to a motorcyclist of falling off his bike is clear, and so he wears a helmet to help reduce the risks associated with falling off. He is happy to make that investment because of the unequivocal nature of the risks and the obvious means with which to reduce them.

When an actor becomes an existential threat to a state, again, the risk becomes clearer and the actions required to reduce it are more easily defined, focused and knowable. But when that risk is more diffuse, harder to quantify, or there is a debate that there is even a risk at all, then we as humans or states find it far harder to invest in managing that risk or threat. This is because in such a scenario safety is a dynamic non-event – one can argue that no action is required because there is seemingly no risk to manage: however the reason why there have been no unintended consequences or unpleasant happenings may precisely be because of the measures in place already which are quietly managing that risk.

How does this relate to ISIS? Well they are not an existential threat at present – this is clear – perhaps somehow they will be in the future but as of Sunday, they are not. Thus the nature and ultimate extent of the threat they represent if any to our existence, is at this stage diffuse precisely because it lies so far in the future.

This means then that there is considerable risk inherent in taking any action and such action is harder to justify the risk of doing so. There is higher risk in taking action because it is harder to know what the appropriate action should be: do we simply launch air-strikes, should we put boots on the ground or do we simply contain them or even walk away because in actual fact ISIS are a threat in a dimension which we can perhaps manage (ie domestic security services can deal with the threat of returning Jihadi’s)?

Therefore we are in danger of making an inappropriate response – perhaps too much force, or not enough force, or as is more often the case in real events, our actions impose reactionary occurrences which might make a low threat into a bigger or different threat. This can mean not only international or military failure, but domestic consequences for those in power which can then make the Government even less inclined to engage early.

However, in all cases balancing the risks inherent in early intervention is the counter argument that it is far better to prevent than to cure – it is far better we decapitate this ISIS threat (if we agree there is one) when it is fledging than to allow it to grow and then fight an existential or at least more fraught war. Indeed, the main arguments I have seen so far for tackling ISIS beyond the reasons of their inhumanity is that it is better we kick them to death when they are weak and fledgling than let them coalesce and grow stronger. Parallels with Germany in the 30s abound. But as I have argued, acting early brings its own set of risks in an uncertain world.

This is the dilemma which we will face time and time again in the future and ISIS is providing an excellent case study of it.

The logic behind upstream engagement is sound in the abstract – it is better to invest smaller amounts of resource and effort early than it is to invest huge amounts of resources and lives later fighting a bigger threat. But in practice as we have seen upstream engagement brings with it its own additional and different risks which means we  must be realistic about its limitations as a corner-stone of our military direction. The further upstream you go, the more your success or partial success becomes a dynamic non-event (undermining efforts to mobilise support for action) or inappropriate action is taken.

What does this mean in practice? It means we have to accept some realistic fulcrum point will always exist and that we will sit by and watch threats emerge and grow to a certain critical mass where they therefore become clearer and the phenomenon of safety being a dynamic non-event thereby becomes less applicable. This will be reinforced when domestic governments get their fingers burned in an early engagement, either by history judging an intervention as inappropriate in itself, or by early actions themselves being inappropriate: thus will Governments become more averse to upstream engagement and thus ironically increase the overall security risk through being less inclined to meet threats early again in the future. This will also therefore fundamentally undermine the whole strategy which represents one of the biggest risks of all since we’d still have on the surface a force structured to engage in defence and upstream engagement thereby leaving us less able to meet conventional threats and give us false reassurance in our seemingly pro-active direction.

This means we must be prepared to fight peers or near-peers because in practice we will often allow actors or threats to get to that stage. And it means we must be prepared to look incompetent in the handling of early developing threats and not allow that straw man to divert our attention from the real lesson learning opportunities and thereby draw the wrong lessons which will again increase the risk of not succeeding in future operations. We must in short, be prepared for upstream engagement, a cornerstone of our military direction at the grandest level, to seemingly fail sometimes and to keep an open and honest mind about its benefits and its limitations.

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