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Annual Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture

17:45, 3 Dec 2009
RUSI, Whitehall, London, SW1A 2ET

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About the event:

In his annual lecture to the Royal United Services Institute in London, the Chief of the Defence Staff said the Taliban could not win in Afghanistan. But the international coalition could fail if it lost its nerve. He said: 'The Taliban is not going to defeat us militarily, but we want the same patience, courage and discipline that soldiers show here from the public at home.'

CDS 2009

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The Chief of the Defence Staff Lectures has become a fixture in the UK defence calendar. Held annually at RUSI, they allow the British army's most senior officer to reflect on how Britain's armed forces have fared over the previous year.

Thank you, Chairman, and good afternooon everybody. It's a great pleasure to be back here for this annual lecture: the last bastion between you and the Christmas drinks.  As I've said before on these occasions, I think it's a useful opportunity to take stock as we approach the turn of the year, and there's no doubt that 2009 has given us much to ponder.

Twelve months ago we were still engaged in Basra, mentoring and supporting 14 divisions of the Iraqi army. In the spring we shifted our mission from one of security and stabilisation to one of training.  We brought Multi-National Division South-East to an end, and focused our efforts on the naval training team in Um Qasr, and on the NATO training mission in and around Baghdad.

Twelve months ago we had only the prospect of a new administration in the United States: a prospect informed by little more than the inevitable rhetoric of a political campaign. Two days ago we heard President Obama's announcement on Afghanistan, following a summer of hard fighting, an undeniably messy Afghan presidential election, and a long period of intense reflection and debate in Washington.

Twelve months ago we had lost 128 people in Afghanistan, and our force levels there were around 8100.  Sadly, another 108 of our brave military personnel have died since then, and three days ago the Prime Minister confirmed that by next month we shall have over 10000 people deployed on Operation Herrick.

Twelve months ago we were at a very different stage of our own political cycle.  Today, we're approaching a general election, with the prospect of a strategic defence review following hard on its heels.

So there's much to reflect on and to assess in the year just gone.  But there's also much to consider as we look forward to 2010.  The operational challenges will continue.  But we shall also need to think carefully about the longer term; about the purpose, size and shape of defence in the years ahead; and about how we best prepare ourselves to deal with the challenges and shocks of the next decade or so.

But first, what about 2009?  Well, a superficial appraisal might suggest to some observers that it's not been a good year on the security front.  I think the reality, though, is somewhat different.  it's certainly been hard; it's certainly been bloody; and the long term strategic benefits remain at issue.  But as we come to the end of the year I believe that we're in much better shape than many might have forecast in the summer.

I've already mentioned our change of mission in Iraq.  That's allowed us to reduce our numbers there considerably, and to bring the overall operational burden on our military back to a broadly sustainable level.  And this is something we shouldn't dismiss lightly.  It's not that long ago that we were groaning under the strain of two concurrent medium-scale operations, and wondering how much longer we could keep it up.

But even more importantly, we were able to make the transition as a result of success.  this continues, I know, to be a controversial claim in some quarters.  Some people have made up their minds about our role in Iraq, and won't now be swayed from the position they've taken.

I set out the arguments that underpin my claim in this very room one year ago, and I don't intend to repeat them now.

All I will say is that subsequent events in Basra have, to my mind, only served to bear out my analysis.  Of course we made some mistakes in Iraq.  Everyone in the coalition made mistakes at one time or another.  Everyone involved in any campaign since the dawn of time has made mistakes.  Error-free enterprises are simply not within the art of the possible for human beings.

But our strategic approach in Basra, which was to put Iraqi politics to the fore, proved to be the right one; and it's taken that province - and indeed all of the south-east of Iraq - to a position that only 24 months ago most observers would have judged unattainable.  A position it most certainly would not have reached without the courage, perserverance and subtlety - and of course the sacrifice - of the many men and women of the armed forces who served there over the years.  So it was very good to see the nation acknowledge this so fittingly at the Operation Telic commemoration in St Paul's cathedral in October.

Now the change in the nature of our mission in Iraq has, for the first time, left us free to concentrate almost exclusively on Afghanistan.  It's important to remember that until this year we had to balance our resources across two theatres, and to make difficult strategic judgements between them.  Previously, the focus of everyone in defence was on delivering success on operations - note the plural.  In 2009 it became delivering success in Afghanistan.

One of the throwaway remarks one sometimes hears about Afghanistan is along the lines of: we've been there for eight years, and if anything the security situation has deteriorated rather than improved.  This makes some people conclude that success is impossible - that the mission is simply not doable.  But the initial proposition is misleading.  And the conclusion is a non-sequiter.

Let me start with the "eight years" point.  For over half of that period, ISAF had only a relatively small presence in the capital and in the north of the country.  NATO - including the UK - has actually been in the south of Afghanistan for three and a half years, not eight.  And I've already stressed how for the first three of those years we had to balance our efforts with those we were making in Iraq.

And this wasn't just a problem for the UK.  Until the beginning of last year, I found it very difficult to have a meaningful conversation about Afghanistan with anyone in Washington.  Iraq was burning up all of the political oxygen: 2007, you'll remember, was the year of the surge.  Only in early 2008, when the Bush administration - very responsibly, I thought - turned its attention to preparing for a smooth transition between administrations, did I detect a change.  Only then did Afghanistan start getting the sort of strategic political attention that it deserved and needed.

That's less than two years ago.  And in the middle of that period we've seen a general election and a change of leadership in the United States, which has inevitably caused a degree of distraction.  Now lest you think I risk straying beyond my purely military domain as CDS, let me emphasise that I have no intention of doing so.  But those of you who, like me, are good Clausewitzians, wll recognise that war without politics is a meaningless concept.

We also have to accept that over the three and a half years that NATO has been involved more widely in Afghanistan, it has consistently under-resourced the mission.  I believe that the United Kingdom has stretched itself to the utmost in Helmand while concluding the mission in Basra.  And some other nations have more than played their part.  But NATO's combined joint statement of requirement, which arguably was itself inadequate, was never filled over that period.  And the crucial civilian and political effort was if anything even more neglected.

Even so - despite all this - much has been achieved.  Has security become worse?  In some areas that's indisputably the case, but for two principal reasons.  First, in 2006 the insurgency in the south was just beginning to develop momentum.  Given our starting position, it was inevitably going to grow in strength and breadth.  Secondly, we've been contesting the insurgency across a wider percentage of the populated area.

When I first went to Helmand in May 2006, we had a small, tented base at Camp Bastion, an enclave in Lashkar Gah, and a handful of isolated platoon houses in the north of the province.  Areas such as the Sangin valley were the heart of darkness, and at that stage we had little idea of how we might come to grips with them.

Today, at the end of 2009, we and the United States marines provide security for over 50% of the Helmand population, with more to come.  In some areas we've not yet been doing this for long enough to give the inhabitants that sense of permanence, that sense of enduring security, that will persuade them to come off the fence and commit to the Helmand provincial government.  But where our presence is of longer standing, the political progress is obvious.

Given all this; given that we're confronting the insurgency, seizing population centres from them, and building the space for the development of governance that will spell their long term defeat, it's scarcely surprising that the enemy is reacting, and reacting violently. We're in the middle of a long, hard fight, and it shows.

So what's necessary if we're to bring this endeavour to a successful conclusion?  Well, to answer that question we have to remind ourselves what we mean by success.  Our objective is to shrink the ungoverned spaces in which Islamist terrorist groups can hide and from which they can mount their global campaign of violence.  Constraining their boundaries in this way makes them more vulnerable to direct attack.

And it's clear that the core of Al Qa'ida has suffered considerably over the past couple of years.  They're not finished.  They could certainly recover if we reduced the pressure now.  But conversely, if we are able to sustain that pressure for a while longer we may very well cause them irreversible damage.

So it's not a question of whether we should be in Afghanistan or in Pakistan: It's a question of reducing the size of the ungoverned space that straddles both countries.  It's a single issue that has to be addressed in both countries; although the approach in each must necessarily be different.

In Afghanistan, we aim to shrink this space by expanding Afghan governance - local as much as national.  So strategic success looks like the majority of the Afghan population turning, year by year, to their village, district, provincial and, to a limited extent, national political structures for the framework within which they live.  This is inevitably a gradual process.  But it's a process that depends upon a sufficient degree of enduring security.

The international community cannot, of course, deliver that security indefinitely.  So from a purely military perspective, success looks like the Afghan national security forces taking responsibility, country wide, for its provision.  As in Iraq, international forces would then transition to a support and training mission, rather than engaging in combat operations.

This is reflected in our strategy, and in that of the alliance as a whole.  So to return to the question, what's required to deliver that strategy?  I would point to three things in particular.  First of all, a military plan that will provide sufficient security to enough of the population to give the development of governance a realistic chance, and that will build the capacity of the Afghan forces to assume responsibility for that security.  General McChrystal has drawn up just such a plan.

Secondly, sufficient military resources to allow commanders on the ground to put the plan into effect.  President Obama's recent announcement, coupled with the burden sharing efforts that we've been making within NATO, give me confidence that the necessary resources will be commited.

Thirdly, Afghan political delivery.  President Karzai's inaugural address the other day was a good start in this regard - although the issue is one of actual delivery rather than rhetoric.  but equally, it isn't all about Karzai.  Local governance is often of much more concern to ordinary Afghans than what goes on in Kabul.  The key questions for the central government are how to enable and support the growth of local governance.  Our experiences with Governor Mangal in Helmand, and with a number of the district governors under him, have shown what's possible if we can get this right.

One way of looking at 2009 is, certainly, to focus on the difficult fighting of Operation Panchai Palang through the summer; on the increasing threat from Improvised Explosive Devices; on the substantial numbers of casualties that we've suffered; on the bereaved families and those struggling with life-changing wounds; and on an undeniably messy Afghan presidential election.  And of course we should and do reflect on those things, and respond to them.  Above all, we never forget the price that our people and their families are paying.  I was in Belfast only yesterday for the 19 Brigade memorial service.

But let me suggest another way of looking at it, and that's through the eyes of the Afghan Taleban.  What I'm about to say isn't just a guess; it's a reasonable estimate based on a variety of sources.  On the plus side, the Taleban are pleased with the turmoil over the presidential election, and feel that this played to their advantage.  They think that their operational structure in the south is in better shape than it was at the beginning of the year, perhaps in part because of the personal efforts of Zakir, a key and seemingly effective tactical leader.  And they've been delighted by the apparent disunity and decining levels of commitment they see amongst the international community.  They watch and read our media.

On the other hand, they're worried about their situation in Pakistan.  The determination and growing capabilities of the Pakistani security services are unsettling them greatly.  They've begun to recognise that their brutal behaviour in Afghanistan has denied them any real support amongst the ordinary citizens.  They're experiencing increasing infighting amongst their leadership, and they still have nothing that looks like a coherent and co-ordinated campaign. 

They've seen President Obama's re-commitment to the campaign and the scale of effort that the United States is making.  They see recent political developments in Kabul, and the beginnings of a properly structured, long-term reintegration and reconciliation effort.  And their fighters are war-weary, squabbling between themselves, and only too well aware of their limited life expectancy.  So not surprisingly, the Taleban are worried.

I make this point because all too often we focus only on our own difficulties.  We should remember that we've created a great many for the other side.  We need to take this into account, and to try and make a balanced assessment of where we are today.  My judgement is that this is a struggle in which either side can still succeed.  But the Taleban can't win.  They need us to fail.  We need to ensure that we don't fail, and that requires us to focus now on two things above all.

The first, as i've indicated, is Afghan political delivery.  It will be difficult; it will be frustrating; it will be uneven; and it will be messy: but if we concentrate unrelentingly on enabling and supporting local governance it is I think entirely achievable.

The second is closer to home, and that's the will to see the mission through.  It's time we recalled those famous words: in war, resolution.  This endeavour is important enough to our national security to justify the price our people are paying; the mission is achievable; and at last we have a properly resourced plan to deliver the strategy.  Our people in theatre know this.  The greatest threat to their morale is not the Taleban, or IEDs, but declining will at home.  Support for our servicemen and women is indivisible from support for this mission.  Our people know that they can succeed; that we'll only fail if we choose to fail.  We owe it to them, and to those we've lost, not to make that choice.

Meanwhile, there are all sorts of lessons we could draw - and indeed are drawing - from our operational experiences over the past few years.  These are being used to improve our current performance, and of course they'll figure largely in the defence review for which we're preparing.  As you know, we've done considerable work on a Green Paper which will identify the key questions and issues that a defence review will need to answer, but there's much water to flow under the bridge - as well as a general election - before we see the shape of those answers.

But one thing that's struck me in my present role, and that i think requires urgent action over the next year, is the degree to which we seem to have lost an institutionalised capacity for, and culture of, strategic thought.  I'm not saying that we don't have people who can think strategically, or that we haven't evolved a proper strategic basis for our actions.  But we've seized on ability where we've found it, and as a result our formulation of strategy has been much harder than should have been the case.  We've been hunter/gatherers of strategic talent, rather than nurturers and husbandmen.

While I think this is to some degree true of us as a nation, I'm most closely concerned about the issue as it affects the military.  But I'm not just talking about what's referred to as the military strategic level of warfare.  Indeed, I'm not sure how useful that term really is.  For me, the realm of strategy is where, in true Clausewitzian fashion, politics and the military art intersect: grand strategy, if you will.  This is more than a matter of semantics.  Labels shape our thinking; compartmentalising things risks compartmentalising our thinking.

But why do I raise this now, in this forum?  Not because I think that next year's defence review won't be strategic in its scope and approach.  But because to my mind it's no good having a real strategic debate about things only when a formal review happens to come along.  All we do at the tactical and operational level needs to be rooted in good strategic soil, and therefore in our national interest.  And that means thinking strategically - in the widest sense - all the time.  And that in turn means having a culture and a process that inculcates the art of strategic thinking much more widely across the military community.  That, it seems to me, is essential if any defence review is going to be an enduring success.

Let me try and illustrate what I mean with a couple of examples - a couple of things that have particularly concerned me recently.  The first is the use of the term: asymmetric warfare.  What does this mean?  All warfare is the struggle for asymmetric advantage.  At its most brutal, it's about wiping out one's enemy with no losses to oneself.  And it's the aim of both sides in a conflict.  Why, then, should we be surprised when an opponent declines to parade himself in the teeth of our strength to be conveniently slaughtered?  And why should we think it odd that he seeks to maximise his advantages and exploit our weaknesses?  Why do we believe that this constitutes some "special" and different kind of warfare, when in fact it's the essence of all warfare between opponents who apply any semblance of rational thought to the process?

To say that we're more likely to face asymmetric threats in future is to do no more than acknowledge the basic reality of war.  Of course there are many different ways of achieving asymmetry, driven, for example, by the environment and the circumstances of each side, but IEDs are no more asymmetric than was the Charge of the Light Brigade.  To act - or, even worse, to be - surprised by such developments shows a lack of strategic understanding.

And then there's the term: hybrid warfare.  What does that mean?  Essentially, it's telling us that reality is inconveniently messy, and that things don't fall into neat categories for our mental convenience.  So what's our answer?  We invent another neat category in which to put things.  I know that wasn't the intention, but it is the consequence.  In the sense that the inventors of the term I think intend, all warfare is hybrid.  A failure to understand this shows a lack of strategic understanding.

The problem is that we, as humans, need to construct models or frameworks to help us to conceptualise difficult issues - to act as prisms through which we can see and make sense of the world.  Fair enough.  But all too often those very models that are supposed to help us become prisons, rather than prisms.

The answer, i think, is to ensure that we continue to ground everything in the wider strategic picture.  That we connect it to the framework that has to capture all elements if it's to be successful; and to the framework which therefore forces our thinking out of the individual prisons we make for it.  This requires us to have an instinctive and institutional habit of strategic thought; something that, as I've said, doesn't currently exist.  You might reasonably ask why it doesn't.

Perhaps it's because we, as a nation, are still struggling to articulate our strategic purpose in the 21st century.  Things were easier in Victorian times: it was all about maintaining our economic pre-eminence and preventing the re-emergence of a serious threat in Continental Europe.  When the latter approach failed in the 20th century, the two resulting world wars and the following cold war presented us with a fairly predictable - if chillingly stark - strategic landscape.

But since 1989 we've faced a much more complex and dynamic security environment, and we no longer have the old rocks to which we can cling.  We need a much more thoughtful but hard-headed approach to our strategic interests.  The national security strategy has been a start in this regard, but it's certainly not yet become institutionalised in our national thinking.  So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that we're still struggling to make this shift of mindset within the military.

Intellectually, we've been in a similar place before.  In the 1980s, our thinking seemed to revolve almost entirely around the tactical problems of the North German plain, and our skills in the operational art had largely atrophied.  Nigel Bagnall's initiative of the higher command and staff course was designed to lift our sights from these important but lower level concerns and to get us thinking operationally.   It was a seminal moment, and fundamentally changed the way the British military thought about things.  Our officers now absorb the operational art at an early stage in their careers, and it becomes an integral part of their mental landscape.  But this isn't the case with strategic thought.  In my view it needs to be.

So what do we do about it?  How do we develop, not just a generation, but generations upon generations of officers for whom the strategic is the level to which they default?  I've been considering this with our development, concepts and doctrine centre, and with a small team of academic advisors for whose support and intellectual stimulus I'm extremely grateful.  And I've decided on a two-pronged approach to the problem.

Let me start at the top.  In my view our intellectual experience base tends to be too narrow.  Clausewitz built his enduringly influential dialectic on a profound analysis and understanding of prevailing political and societal pressures.  Now I'm not trying to turn out new Clausewitzs - at least not yet.  Let's walk before we attempt to run.  But any effort to comprehend wider strategic considerations without a sense of such pressures seems to me unlikely to succeed.  This argues for a wider range of advice and greater variety of perspectives than are routinely available within the confines of the Ministry of Defence.

I therefore intend to form a CDS strategic advisory panel to support the Chiefs of Staff by bringing to the table a span of knowledge and experience that will help us to connect military and wider issues in a strategically coherent way.  Members of the panel will not just advise as a group, but will contribute to short-term, task-orientated teams to take forward specific issues.  I also intend, with the help of this panel, to extend the concept of red-teaming within the strategic domain.

This is not intended to be a crutch on which staff can lean; it must and will be a spur to broader thinking, a challenge to accepted wisdom, and a guard against creeping complacency.  I've not yet settled on the exact composition of the panel.  It needs to be small enough to generate real debate but large enough to encompass key areas of expertise.  And it needs to have a degree of continuity without itself becoming too settled and comfortable in its approach.  These are matters that I'll be taking forward over the next few weeks, and I'd welcome any views.

But this can't just be about a better strategic process at the top.  While I'd hate to think that our most senior people couldn't think strategically, it doesn't follow that very good strategic thinkers will automatically get to the top.  That certainly has not been the historical experience either here or in other countries.  And even those who do get to the top need to develop their strategic capabilities throughout their career, and preferrably by design rather than by luck.

So we need a way of engaging people lower down the structure, both to tap into their ideas and to grow their capacity to understand and deal with strategic issues.  We've already begun to shift the emphasis at the higher command and staff course, particularly since so much of its original operational focus has been taken up by the joint command and staff course.  And the Royal College of Defence Studies has also been developing its syllabus even further in this direction.  We shall look at what more we can do through these avenues.

But I think we need to go beyond the bounds of formal courses.  As I said earlier, I believe we need to form a habit of strategic thought.  So I intend to form a web of networks, focused on the development, concepts and doctrine centre, which will provide a forum for strategic discussion and exploration.  The trick here is to marry official sponsorship with open, critical debate: trial and error, rather than rules and systems.  I'm looking to stimulate thinking, not to generate a safety-first approach, so we'll need suitable protocols.

The single services will identify their best and brightest officers between Lieutenant Colonel equivalent and one-star rank to participate.  In order to minimise any inhibitions those selected might have about contributing freely, the DCDC will run the networks and moderate the discussions.  They will then act as a conduit to the Chiefs of Staff, and ideas and issues for discussion will be generated both top down and bottom up.  I see participation in this programme becoming, over time, a highly desirable if not essential qualification for the more senior positions within the joint structure.

To go along with this, I have agreed with my colleagues that we should institutionalise the requirement for those who aspire to senior positions on the joint staff to have explored a minimum body of professional strategic knowledge.  For appointments at Colonel level and above, we are developing a required reading list that will form part of pre-employment preparation.  And the relevant commanders will be tasked to assess how well new arrivals have prepared themselves in this regard.

I expect that much of the material will already be familiar to many of these people, particularly if, as is usually the case, they've taken any interest in their own professional development.  So the requirement should not be unduly onerous for most.  But it seems to me that the issue is too important to be left to chance.

Taken together, I believe that these initiatives will achieve three things.  First, over time they'll give us a much broader and better founded base of strategic thought on which to draw.  Secondly, they'll help our people develop their capacity for such thought throughout the formative stages of their careers.  And thirdly, and equally importantly, they'll send a very powerful signal from the Chiefs of Staff about what we want to see in our senior people, and about what they'll need to do if they want to get on - which is usually not an inconsequential motivator of behaviour.  And if I'm right in this, I think we have a very good chance of developing the habit of strategic thinking that we're after.

And we shall surely need it.  Afghanistan remains our focus and our main effort.  It will continue so for some time to come.  And although, As I've said, we now have a good, properly resourced plan, we can't expect plain sailing from here on in.  The enemy always has a vote, and we shall have to be prepared to adapt accordingly.  But in adapting, we shall need to keep sight of the strategic imperatives.

Meanwhile, the wider strategic environment is a matter of great concern to me, and should be to all of us.  Risks to our security and to our interests abound; and in this increasingly interconnected world they have the capacity to affect us more deeply and more widely than ever before.  We should perhaps reflect on how the chain reaction we've seen in the financial sector recently might foreshadow something similar in the security and defence field.

But these are, no doubt, amongst the most important issues for the defence review.  And that, as they say, is a story for another day.  Thank you.


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