This lecture was given by Rory Stewart MP as the annual Centre for Policy Studies Ruttenberg Lecture, Thursday 26 March 2015.
To view the video and images from the event, click here.
Let me begin just by saying that the basic problem, it strikes me, as a relatively new chair of the Defence Committee, is that we are coming to the end of twenty years of intervention. Two decades defined by interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re finishing this period in something close to despair.
We’re finishing close to despair – and this is really going to be the structure of my argument – because we’re facing new types of threats. So an example of that that I’m going to talk about a little bit is obviously Russia and Ukraine, and secondly because we are facing a multiplicity of concurrent threats, what we’re seeing across Northern Nigeria, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq. In other words, not simply one stress at a time, which is what we were planning for in relationship to Afghanistan and Iraq, but at the same time.
And finally because we have blown through our doctrine. We’ve lost our doctrinal confidence. We’ve lost our confidence that we really know how to deal with these kinds of situations. We’ve lost the confidence that we’re enshrined in these two great theories that have kept us going really for the last decade, which were the theories of counterinsurgency and the theories of state building. Big, big theories in which a lot was invested. In which 1.2 trillion U.S. dollars was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan in pursuit of these theories. The Rand Cooperation produced books called “The Beginner’s Guide to Nation Building.” General David Petraeus produced “The U.S. Counterinsurgency Manual.”
You could turn up in Kabul in 2009 and General Stanley McChrystal would tell you that he was knee deep in the decisive year and he’d be surrounded by 150 defence intellectuals pumping out theories about how we were going to defeat the Taliban and create a credible, effective, legitimate Afghan state. That’s very recently, and all of that is now withered on the vine.
So, in order to think about this, I suppose we need to start from the question of Britain. What does Britain do about this world? What does Britain want to do about this world? What can Britain do about this world? In other words, does Britain actually want to be a global power anymore, or does Britain want to be, as my friend Dianne Abbot suggested to me last week, Denmark? Alex Salmond suggests frequently that we want to be Denmark. Does Britain, even if it wants to be a global power, actually have the capacity, the resources, to do that? And thirdly, even if it wants to be a global power and has the capacity and resources to do that, does it have the doctrine; does it know what it would do? So what are these threats that we face? I’m going to break them down into their two very simple components, to then try and talk a little bit about the ways in which we might think in terms of Britain dealing with them. Broadly speaking these threats fall into the Russia-Ukraine threshold, on the one hand, and the kinds of threats represented by what we used to call, in the days of grand jargon, “failed states” or “fragile states” or “failing states,” or what General David Petraeus called “global Islamic extremism.”
There was a great day of this kind of jargon. You could sit there in 2010 and different Washington think-tanks could generate different words for these things. But broadly speaking, that second category which I described in that grizzly-jargon word is a way of trying to talk about Northern Nigeria, the Sahel, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Yemen, the Levant, Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan; those kinds of threats. These threats are not what we envisaged in the defence planning assumptions of 1998. They’re not the kinds of threats that we envisaged in the national security strategy of 2010. They’re not the kinds of threats that as recently as the last Strategic Defence and Security Review, we really expected Britain to be dealing with. If you look at those strategies, the big picture – and this is obviously a predictable one that historians in the audience are overly familiar with – is of course that we tend to be fighting the last war. So the big picture behind those previous reviews that created all British force structures, was the idea that we would roughly be doing the kinds of things we did in Iraq or Afghanistan. And what does that really mean? Well that really means in the grizzly-jargon of the future-force 20-20 structure, it means an enduring stabilisation operation at a brigade level in the context of a large, enduring coalition.
So what does that really mean? That really means what we did in Afghanistan. That means 100,000 troops on the ground, predominantly American, and us slotting in what used to be 10,000 troops but on the current planning assumption would be 6,600 troops. That is what the force generation is based around. And the idea is that you have enough soldiers to be able to keep those 6,600 soldiers on the ground for about a decade, during which time you are fighting a counterinsurgency campaign and you are building a state. What that means you would be not be doing – and this is the key – is dealing with an advanced military nation at a large scale. You weren’t planning to fight a big complex war against an advanced military nation, on the one hand. Nor were you proposing to engage in collapse of states in a dozen countries simultaneously. But in force terms that means you were neither expecting to operate at a divisional level, nor were you really expecting to operate at a battle group, or reinforce company level over a dozen theatres simultaneously. You were really thinking about this funny thing called brigade, and you were really thinking about doing it for a long time. This has been blown out of the water obviously because the kind of threats we face today don’t really fit that picture. So let’s look at those threats. Russia. Now Russia is an advanced military nation. Whatever we think about it, we can come back to whether Russia really is a stress, and what kind of threat it is, and how to deal with it, but we have to recognise firstly, in very blunt planning terms, Russia is not Afghanistan. You’re not talking about taking on lightly-armed insurgents. You’re not talking about taking on guerillas running around with Kalashnikovs. And that means a number of things. That means you’re dealing with a nation where defence spending is currently just up to about one hundred billion U.S. dollars a year on defence. That’s more than twice as much as we spend on defence. That has serious planes, although perhaps not as serious as our planes. That has some serious ships, though again, perhaps not quite as serious as our ships. That has certainly much more serious tanks than we have. That for better or for worse was able to, in the Zapad 2013 exercise, at the end of 2013, to mobilise something like 65, 70 thousand troops at seventy-two hours notice, and that’s in the process of doing that again today. That is investing in upgrading its nuclear weapons arsenal. That flew a nuclear bomber to Venezuela as part of an exercise. That has pretty sophisticated capacity in electronic warfare and jamming, which would cause serious problems for our command and control. And which also showed in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, an ability to do something which the chief of staff of the Russian army calls “next generation warfare” – I’m sorry this stuff is all so jargonny – or what is sometimes called “ambiguous warfare” or “asymmetric warfare”, which is basically saying cyber attacks, information operations where you created separatist groups and encourage Russian minorities to feel they are being oppressed and that they should rise up against their government, combined with the use of different forms of special operations and special forces. Of which, perhaps one of the most peculiar examples which you might be aware of in the audience, is the emergence of a key separatist leader in Donetsk who called himself briefly Igor Strelkov, who turned out to be a man called Girkin, who was a student at a relatively elite university in Moscow who then developed a taste for reenactment battles. So he liked to dress up in white Russian uniform and roll around with 1920s artillery. And somewhere in the course of this was picked up in some sort of reserve auxiliary capacity by the Russian Intelligence Security Services, on whose behalf he eventually became a colonel and went around doing peculiar operation in the Caucuses, and in Transnistria, and then pops up as a separatist leader in Donetsk along with the interior minister of Transnistria who also had reinvented himself as a separatist leader in Dohansk. So that kind of stuff, that’s the second kind of area in which Russia operates. So big conventional, and this asymmetric, next-generation warfare. So, let’s, before I move on to the almost more difficult question, which is the Lybia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq question, have a look at that Russian question for a second. Were we, in Britain, to wish to be serious about dealing with a Russian conventional threat, we would firstly have to work out how we’d deter it. And that involves a great deal of psychology. That involves not just our capability, not just our willpower, but our sense of what actually is likely to make the Russians feel that the risks involved of action are considerably greater than they expected. And what are we trying to deter? Well presumably, our primary aim is trying to deter some action against a NATO-member state.
So what’s the very worst-case scenario? The worst case scenario presumably is Putin rolls some tanks across the border into Estonia, or perhaps he puts a few special forces or people, perhaps like Igor Strelkov, across the border into Latvia, and they just sit in a forest and wait to see what we do. May not need to take a major city, they may just go two or three miles across the border and they’ll wait to see what our response is. We assume, and again these are all assumptions because our intelligence on Putin is pretty bad, our tactical intelligence is pretty bad, but we assume he’s a relatively rational person, he’s an opportunist, he’s not a lunatic, he’s making some kind of cost-benefit calculation about risk, and he’s going to be looking trying to look at us, and he’s going to try and work out what our response will be. We of course like to tell ourselves that the chance of him doing that is a high-impact, low-probability event because it would be flouting Article 5 and it would involve an immediate NATO response. Is that true? Well, of course, during the Cold War we could assume that it was true. That, if the Soviet Union were to roll tanks towards Berlin, there would be a response. And that’s because we exercised for that response all the time. The British put into a single exercise in 1986, we deployed 67,000 soldiers into a single NATO exercise. Today we’re struggling to deploy a reinforced battle group into exercise, about 1,000 people, instead of 67,000 people. And in that run planning on exercising were politicians that were made again and again to go through the thought process of wondering at what point they were going to respond. And people had different roles and one lot was supposed to be concentrating on Russian submarines and the RAF were meant to be taking out certain designated airfields and the U.S. air force was meant to be flying through to Moscow, and ultimately we were supposed to be firing a nuclear weapon at Moscow, as a way of responding to them advancing. Today, I suppose, we assume that if we were to go into Estonia, the people of Great Britain would not be very comfortable with firing a nuclear weapon at Moscow in fear that Moscow might retaliate. If you’re sitting in Birmingham, you may not be very happy with the idea that in order to protect the people of Estonia, you’re about to have a nuclear weapon dropped on your head.
So what is it that Russia’s going to be looking at? Well probably not that. One of the reasons they’re not expecting a nuclear response is that we’re not communicating even a conventional response very effectively at the moment. That nuclear deterrent in the Cole War really was based on a general idea of broader credibility, an idea that we were pretty tough and that we were prepared to face them down, and we were exercising to do that. It sometimes seems from the outside as though the Russian general staff is relatively mechanistic and bureaucratic, in the way that they assess the capacity and will of NATO countries. There are stories during the Falklands War they put us up 0.1% on their assessment because they suddenly discovered, or suddenly thought, that Britain had a will or a capacity that they hadn’t hitherto anticipated. If they think in terms of divisional manoeuvres, if they’re they’re thinking in terms of core level manoeuvres, if they’re priding themselves on being able to mobilise 60- or 70,000 troops in seventy-two hours notice, it is possible at least that they will be looking to our capacity to do the same thing. They’re not going to be very impressed, I suggest modestly, by the idea that Britain does divisional exercises only on a paper basis, only on a command basis. We just did one recently, but they would actually like to see whether we really can move 14 or 15,000 people around. They’d really like to see how many of our tanks are actually operational. They would be interested in whether were capable of combining things we didn’t really do in the Cold War, things that I barely understand, like how do you use your tacticle drains, intelligence and surveillance, and combine that with all the complicated Naval operations, helicopters, planes and armour. How do we think about ballistic missile defence? We don’t have a ballistic missile defence capacity in Britain. We might have to buy into an American system and persuade them to remove it from the continent. How do we think about chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence? Again, anyone in this audience who was in the military up to the early 1990s would have spent a lot of time being very hot, moving around with in a NBC suit with a gas mask on. We haven’t really done that for 20 years because the people we’ve been proposing to fight, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were not people who are going to do that to us. So we’ve lost most of our capacity to do the exercises in terms of that capacity. Our naval capacity is based according to a statement, in the House of Lords by Lord Astor, that we are currently operating on an antirational calculation in the Navy of zero. So we have 19 frigates and destroyers, and the argument being made by the MOD is that we haven’t lost a ship since the Falklands War. Of course, the Falklands War was the last time that we were fighting another Navy, so that’s not very surprising. I mean the Taliban are not capable of sinking one of our ships. But if you’re beginning to think about dealing with an advanced military nation like Russia and I’m talking here about deterrence, I’m not talking about us invading Moscow, I’m talking about us having the kind of wherewithal to communicate deterrence, to communicate that we’re serious about defending the Baltic States. It’s another question whether or not we should’ve taken the Baltic States into NATO in the first place, but we’ve done that. And now that we’ve done that we have to be serious about defending them. Then you move onto the asymmetric stuff. How do we deal with the Strelkovs, the Girkins, the cyber attacks, the special forces, the information operations. There, too, Britain has a challenge, and this is an institutional bureaucratic challenge which we don’t talk about very much.
Basically countries like Russia or countries like America have a much more confident middle ground between their intelligence services, their special operations, their special forces and their foreign office. We don’t do that. Since SOE was broken away from SIS, from MI-6, at the end of war, we basically created on the one hand the SAS, and on the other hand SIS. And in between not much of what the Russian or Americans would call special operations. So we don’t have paramilitary groups who are under the command of our intelligence services. What we have are people who specialise increasingly on counterterrorist operations. And to do that – we don’t have very many of special forces – they have to train very, very hard to be able to do counterterrorist operations. They need to exercise a great deal on that. And on the other hand we have people who follow joint intelligence committee requirements in order to collect intelligence from a particular target generally through single source reporting. If you suddenly said to the British system, and here I’m pushing out of my own department into another department, but if you were to say to the British system, ‘I really want to know the British system I really want to know what the risk is to Mariupol’ at the moment. Are the separatists going to be able to take Mariupol? I really want to understand how good the Ukrainian army are. How fractured they are, how corrupt they are. I really want to understand what these militia groups coming out of Kiev are like. How much training have they really got? I really want to understand how much support there is in the population of Mariupol for the Ukrainian government and how much support there is for the Russians. I want to get some sense of probabilities of whether Russian-backed separatists are likely to be able to make it easily to Odessa. I don’t think we at the moment would be in a position to answer that. In fact I’m pretty sure what you would find is that our defence attaché isn’t allowed for force protection reasons to travel far outside Kiev. I’d be pretty certain that the special forces teams that you’ve put on the ground are operating at a very tactical level. You might be able to put in a captain or a major, who would be lucky to get access to senior Ukrainian military staff, who might not have the confidence to be able to reach out to the journalists and to the politicians in Mariupol – partly because their work is secret and they don’t want to be exposed to that way – who wouldn’t be able to have the deep country understanding, the linguistic understanding, that you would need to build up over four or five years to really be able to sense what’s going on in public opinion on the ground. Which brings me to – the second set of threats, which is the threats in an arch really from the edge of Algeria to Pakistan.
There, too, we need to come to a decision. If we were speaking the truth in 2007, we said that this kind of situation, a failed state with a large Islamist terrorist linked group controlling huge amounts of territory was, in George Bush’s words, justifying the surge in 2007, the sum of all our fears. The entire surge, that surge that involved the deployment 130,000 troops and the expenditure of 140 billion U.S. dollars a year, was predicated on the assumption that the idea of Al Qaeda Iraq controlling territory in western Iraq would be an absolute catastrophe. Not just for the regional order, but for the global order. That’s why Petraeus was sent there. All that money, all those operations, were predicated on the assumption that if Al Qaeda Iraq was allowed to control territory in Western Iraq, we would see the region disintegrating, American power and credibility eroded around the world and terrorist attacks taking place with ever-increasing frequency. What we now have in Iraq is much worse than anything that was envisioned in 2007. We now have the Islamic State controlling a territory somewhere between the size of the United Kingdom and the size of France, including the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul. Including Raqqa and Deir Al-Zour – big cities in Syria. We see their affiliate groups springing up. We see 20,000 foreign fighters now deployed there. We see foreign fighters coming not just out of countries like Britain, that used to like to beat themselves up. One of the great phenomenon of the period after 2005 was the British beating themselves up and saying we uniquely generate Islamist terrorists because of some element in our politics, some element in our society. So, if you were from the left you would say the problem in Britain is we generate Islamist terrorists because we don’t have enough social justice, we don’t have enough equality, these people are not included enough in society. If you were from the right you would say the reason we generate these terrorists is because we’re not tough enough on them, we’re not locking up enough preachers, we’re not locking up enough of these guys. We now see, I think, that actually the generation of foreign fighters has almost nothing to do with the political, social, or economic structures of the countries from which they come. These people are coming in almost equal numbers from every conceivable political, social and economic system. They’re being generated from Scandinavian countries with fine traditions of equality and social justice They’re being generated from tough European countries like France that insist on a mono-cultural vision. They’re being generated from countries like Britain that didn’t insist on the same mono-cultural vision. They’re being generated from countries like Egypt, where a firm military government locks up five and a half thousand in the Muslim Brotherhood. Members are being generated from countries like Tunisia, where an Islamist-linked government won an election. They’re being generated from monarchical theocracies, like Saudi Arabia. They include people who were apple farmers in Normandy. They include Somali-Americans from the Twin Cities. It doesn’t seem to matter what your income indicators are, what your democratic or monarchical or authoritarian structures are, it doesn’t seem to matter. Whether you’re in a country where people are tolerated, whether they’re locked up, whether they’re included, whether they’re allowed to worship, whether they’re not allowed to worship, they’re generated. And my argument would be that unfortunately the biggest single reason why these people are being generated is because of the space which has been allowed to emerge. There is a direct correlation, unfortunately, between that Islamic state and the emergence of those 20,000 foreign fighters. The big difference between 2013 when there were not 20,000 foreign fighters and 2015 when there are, is not some fundamental change in Islam or some fundamental change in our own social policy, it is simply that the theatre has been created in Syria or Iraq which can draw a generation of would-be Islamist Ché Guevaras to go out and live out their fantasies on the ground.
And these territories are being created in evermore bewildering features. So much so that I began with jargon. I’m quite interested in jargon. I’m quite interested in the way that these geniuses in the Rand Corporation were talking about countries in the 2000s because you realise that what we’re now looking at is defying every single prediction made by the optimists. By Tom Friedman, by Francis Fukuyama, by any people who were modelling ideas of civil society, governments, the bottom billion… by none other Hernando de Soto who insisted all we needed to do a sort out property ownership and mortgages, by development economists and DFID who were trying to put the focus on microcredit, by any number of attempts to try to create theories about how employment or governments, or the rule of law or civil society would or would not create security, peace and eradicate terrorism. Let’s look at these countries in a little bit more detail. The point is that they’re all, somehow, hosting things that scare us but they’re all quite different nature. I mean Northern Nigeria is largely a story, I suggest, about the collapse of Goodluck Jonathan’s government. It’s about it’s a story about the collapse of the Nigerian army, and it’s a story about an inability to heal a rift between Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria in the hundred years since we stitched those two countries together. Libya was an avoidable problem. In Libya there isn’t any Sunni-Shia divide, Libia’s nothing connected to Iraq or Syria. It’s a country twenty-six, twenty eight million people, Shia, Sunni, Kurd. None of that exists in Libya. Libya is primarily Sunni. It’s a country with decent revenues, in a way that Afghanistan doesn’t. It’s a country where the fundamental problem is that we’ve ended up with two governments and we’ve ended up with armed militia groups who are running protection rackets up and down the country. Yemen today – the fact that we find ourselves waking up in the morning and the United States has removed the last of it special forces out of Yemen, and Saudi Arabia has announced that it’s mobilised 130,000 soldiers and it’s created a coalition which includes UAE, Bahrain and even Morocco in airstrikes against an Iranian-backed group that is currently controlling Sana’a. Why weren’t we talking about that five weeks ago? Why haven’t we talked about Libya since our great intervention in 2011? What exactly is our theory in Western Iraq?
My conclusion will be this: we cannot walk away. The temptation is going to be to think these places are not threats. The temptation is going to be to say to ourselves: well maybe we were just deluded in 2007. Maybe actually these things never were existential threats to global security. Maybe actually nothing really is much of a threat to Britain. Russia’s not much of a threat to Britain and what’s happening in the Ukraine doesn’t matter much to Britain, and what happens in Estonia doesn’t matter much to Britain. What happens in Libya doesn’t matter much, what happens in Iraq and Syria doesn’t matter much, these foreign fighters don’t matter much. That’s one possibility, but I suspect the reason that we will be saying that is not because an objective assessment of the threats, I think the threats are very real. It’s because of a fear that we can’t do anything about it. It’s a bit like our calculation that Putin going in and causing trouble in the Baltic is a high-impact, low-probability event.
We think it’s low-probability because it’s such high-impact. These are forms of wishful thinking. If, however, we are to deal with these countries, we need new thought, we need new doctrine. And that new thought and new doctrine stems from a deep seriousness. It’s not something I’m going to be able to provide, or even these very wonderful people in this room, are going to be able to provide in half an hour of conversation. It is a fundamental rethinking from Britain about the way we talk about other peoples’ countries. It’s about rebuilding our institutions. It’s about thinking about how we compensate for that enormous gap that’s emerged between the foreign office, the ministry of defence, our intelligence agencies and our special forces. That question that I posed on how do we find out what’s happening in Mariupol. Now, that isn’t an impossible thing to answer. The French, for example, have a much more convincing explanation of what’s going on in Mali than we do for what’s happening in Northern Nigeria. Secondly we may need to think not always about operating in coalition. We may want to think about the fact that perhaps the smartest move we’ve made in the 1960s, when the United States was putting huge pressure on us to go to Vietnam, was to say we’re going to do Borneo. We’re going to leave you to Vietnam and we’re going to do Borneo. It’s the same fight but we’re going to do Borneo. That’s the French in Mali. That’s the model where you really focus on understanding a country, having the defence engagement, having the links, having the embassies, having the defence, having the political forces on the ground so that you can move in relatively small numbers of troops, in that case a thousand French paratroopers, and have an impact because they know exactly where they’re going and what they’re doing. We may need to recognise that one of the things that’s gone wrong in these big coalition operations is that we abrogate responsibility, we say to ourselves that were only going to operate in coalition again, and we use that as an excuse to not really think hard about what the threats are, what our capacity is and what we’re really going to do. It’s a wonderful outlier. I’m afraid often if you pin someone in a corner and you say ‘what are we doing in Libya?’, the immediate answer is ‘well, Britain’s not going to do it alone’. What they mean by that is, the United States is hopefully going to do it for us and we don’t really need to think about this, and hopefully the Americans will come up with some plan and we’ll get behind it. If you were to say to people what is the mission, what is the strategy in Iraq, the only people who will give you a convincing answer are the Iranians, the Iraqi government, and the United States. Why is that? It’s something to do with an attitude we need to rebuild in of actually taking responsibility, of being in control. If you were to turn up Iraq at the moment you would probably find – and this is a guess and I’m being a bit indiscreet here – there would be some convincing British person on the ground in Baghdad who would talk about the National Guard. And the idea is that there is going to be a National Guard created, and the National Guard will be a way of getting the Sunni tribal groups to work with the Baghdad government. This is going to be absolutely terrific, because the key to taking on the Islamic state in Mosul is going to be to wrench the Sunni tribal groups away from the Islamic State and make them work with the Baghdad government. How are we going to do that? We’re going to do it through a National Guard. And how does the National Guard work? Well the National Guard theoretically works in us paying some money to some Sunni tribal groups to fight on our side and the rough model in the back of the mind of people saying this is something called the ‘Sahwa’, the Sunni awakening. It’s what we did in 2007, when we had 120,000 Sunni tribal groups paid to fight on our side against what was then called ‘Al Qaeda Iraq’. But, if you were to ask General Bednarek, who is the American general on the ground, about the National Guard, you would get a completely different answer. What he would say to you is ‘Rory, the National Guard, yes I was on my helicopter yesterday at the Al Asad airbase, I met the 237 members of the Albu nimr tribe, I realised they had no weapons, I had to phone the Iraqi minister of defence to explain that there were 500 weapons in the armoury but we couldn’t get them out. Then I had to contact the national security advisor and to get some cash to pay them, then half of them were absent without leave.Now, at the end of that conversation I have an idea of what this National Guard is. I would conclude, if we say that kind of a conversation happened, that there isn’t going to be National Guard. If that’s what I heard I would probably conclude that the Shia government in Baghdad is not very serious about a National Guard, that they actually think the idea of arming and paying Sunni tribal groups is a threat to the Iranian linked-Shia government in Baghdad. They have no intention of paying the regular salaries or cash, and probably when they’re talking about the National Guard what they really mean is someway of paying the Shia militia groups, who are the people that they’re really interested in. And therefore I would probably conclude that their isn’t much hope of getting a serious chunk of the Sunni population on your side as you try and get into Mosul.
My question for the military would be, how do you get me, in the British government, somebody like that on the ground of Baghdad? How do you me get the equivalent of that American general. Somebody with that access, that confidence, who’s able to look me in the eye and explain what those 237 people look like. Give me that granular detail. My guess is that it’s not just about the fact that it’s a general, it’s not just about the fact that he’s got a helicopter and can fly up to the Al Asad airbase, it’s because he feels responsibility. He feels somehow in control. He feels that he owns this. He and every two- and three-star American General in the Central Command want to discuss this stuff. Can be challenged. Can debate it. It’s not like that here. I think what we’re lacking is the culture of challenge. I fear that if I was to be aggressive and say, ‘what exactly do you think Hadi Al-Amri is doing?’ ‘What exactly is the gap between the Badr Shia militia and the Hezbollah Shia militia?’ The response that you might get back from the ministry of defence at that moment might be a little bit defensive. Whereas, is in the American system, or, in fact, if God forbid I was talking to Qasem Soleimani, who is the Quds commander – the senior Iranian commander on the ground, you’d have a very practical granular discussion about what’s going on. We’re not able to generate that.
The answer then, is that we need to change the culture of British government. We need to change the culture of our Armed Forces. We need to change the culture of our foreign office. We need to change the culture of our special forces. We need change the culture of our intelligence services. It needs to begin from humility. It needs to begin from a sense of what we cannot do. It needs to begin from an acknowledgement of failure. But that acknowledgement of failure would be used to rebuild our confidence and our optimism to act elsewhere in the future. The danger of what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan is that we lurch from engagement to isolation, from troop increases to withdrawal, from a sense of omnipotence to a sense of despair, from megalomania to paranoia. This is what I’m worried about. Not just about Britain, but actually sometimes even the United States. The way to get through that is to acknowledge that the last 25 years we have got an awful lot wrong. That our structures were not necessarily correct. That the things that we promised, the gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic centralised state based on democracy, rights and the rule of law in Afghanistan wasn’t going to happen. That the twin objectives that President Obama set in 2009 in Afghanistan; the defeat of the Taliban and the creation of a credible and effective Afghan state; were not going to happen. That the counterinsurgency warfare theory was compromised from the beginning because we never controlled the borders, we never had the credible government in Kabul, we never had the support of the local population to make any of that theory operate. But that doesn’t mean that we pack up shop, create a Swiss-style military, and think the only threats that we need to worry about ships turning up at Dover. It means discovering again our genius in Britain, which actually we share in some extent with France. It is of course in the end about flexibility, and it’s about energy. It’s not about saying to ourselves ‘it’s all about resources’. I was challenging someone recently on the fact that President Obama had made ten telephone calls in two weeks to Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah, the two Afghan leaders, one of the reasons we don’t have a civil war in Afghanistan is because of those telephone calls, because John Kerry got on a plane, because American ambassador Jim Cunningham spent three-and-a-half weeks sitting in a room getting those two people to work together which is why we do not have a Pushtun-Tajik conflict at the moment in Afghanistan. And the immediate answer I get back is, well, the Americans have got more resources than we have. Well what does that mean, their phone bill is bigger than us? It has to be possible for us to find a role which isn’t about punching about our weight, which isn’t about punching below our weight, which is about really enjoying our inheritance our heritage, our knowledge of the world, our extraordinary Armed Forces, our extraordinary foreign office, the reputation we still maintain, our position on the security council, our leading position in NATO and to realise that doing this urgently, aggressively, open to criticism, open to debate, admitting what we don’t know, admitting, as I will to you, that I have absolutely no idea what on earth we do if the separatists start running towards Mariupol. I have no idea how we sort out Northern Nigeria. I simply do not buy into a picture that the French do Mali and we do Northern Nigeria. I suspect Northern Nigeria may be beyond us. But that I still believe that we could’ve done something in Libya. We could’ve stopped Yemen getting into the situation it’s currently in. We can be doing more in Iraq.
And on that note I want to open up to a debate, questions and challenge, because I think this room represents a lot of what is best about Britain.
Date Added: Monday 13th April 2015