Making Strategy in the Forever War

Strategy, not crafted as part of a plan, but in the moment and amidst great uncertainty. Kenneth Payne explains.


Image: Flickr/Jayel AheramFOR THOSE WHO don't closely follow the latest developments in military doctrine, JDP 3-40 is Britain's new operational level manual for stabilising failing states. It is a sprawling and wildly ambitious text, drawing liberally from academic thinking on development, psychology and anthropology. And it is about as clear an expression as you could wish for of operational art expanding to fill a strategic void.

I remembered the nagging feeling I had on first reading it, because it came back last month, reading what David Richards had to say about our prospects for defeating Al Qaeda. General Richards is rightly celebrated as a thinking and politically minded soldier. His comments set out the stall for a long, long fight against a persistent and dangerous threat, akin to fascism; one that cannot be decisively defeated, but may be eventually marginalised.  

But I had two problems with his analysis: one with the scale of threat, the other with the 'how best to marginalise it' bit. And these problems relate to two rather large and dangerous flaws in British strategic thinking. The first, embodied in JDP 3-40 is that sophisticated operational art can compensate for limited strategic vision. It cannot. Grand strategists need to make a judgment about the scale of the AQ threat and how much effort to devote to defeating it. In a sense they have - defence spending is declining. In 1939 it was not. Accordingly, those seeking to implement wildly ambitious neo-colonial doctrine at the operational level may be up against it. The problem is that this de facto acceptance of the limits of the threat from AQ jars mightily with the rhetoric used to defend and justify current operations. If it's really so important, why are we leaving Afghanistan with the job unfinished?

The second dangerous idea currently at large is that astute preventive action can save considerable effort and bloodshed further down the track. This notion is attractive and ostensibly sensible, especially in times of acute fiscal retrenchment. After all, who wants to wait for disaster to strike before taking remedial action? But the emphasis on prevention is appallingly naive when it marches hand-in-hand with the vacuous notion that threats against the UK are global, interconnected, sprawling and nebulous. For more of which, read the various iterations of the UK National Security Strategy. The latest version of that least strategic of strategy documents at least has the virtue of broadly prioritizing between various tiers of threat - though on what basis it's hard to say. But nonetheless there persists a sense that an army in fairly constant business around the world will somehow keep the wolves at bay. Seeing the world in this way risks a huge amount of hyperactivity against threats that may, or may not, ever amount to much. In military parlance, the world is a swamp of 'wicked problems' awaiting the attentions of an already overstretched and under-prepared armed forces.

The great unmentioned in all this is a term the CIA understands well: blowback. If Britain, and its army, expect to sally forth into the world as a force for good, or even just as a force for national interest, they must do so fully in the knowledge that actions will have unanticipated and perhaps undesirable consequences. That feedback loop between action and reaction is frequently glossed over in the confident sounding ideas about Britain's role in managing the uncertain chaos of world affairs. An unwarranted confidence about Britain's ability to shape destinies persists almost unaffected by two demonstrations in last decade of the rather severe limitations on our ability to do so.

An alternative take on strategy crossed my radar this week. It came from Sir Lawrence Freedman, giving the annual Changing Character of War lecture at Oxford, and it's really rather profound. Freedman sees strategy not as a plan - an a,b,c connecting goals and ends. That is the conventional understanding of strategy. How do I get from where I am to where I want to be, using military force. This traditional view falls down because it makes insufficient allowance for ambiguity and unknowns. What will our power be able to achieve? Against whom?

Instead Freedman sees strategy as crafted in the moment, amidst great uncertainty: strategy for him is simply the creation of power. And power is not a material, but a psychological variable. The thin red line held an empire together by force of mind, as much as force of arms. So how strategic are we in this sense of the term? 

Not particularly, I reckon. If strategy is the construction of power, one doesn't necessarily do that by having aircraft carriers without aircraft to fly off them. Or by demonstrating a huge disparity between aspiration and ability in nation-building. I remain a dedicated liberal hawk, but I blanch at JDP 3-40's understanding of 'influence' and our ability to achieve it. Not much evidence of that capacity to influence emerged in the Wikileaks cables on Britain in Afghanistan.

Seen as the construction of power, strategy is an acknowledgment of uncertainty - uncertainty about our own future goals, uncertainty about the effectiveness of our means of achieving them. And yes, uncertainty about threats. Making power in the moment, for the moment, is not a recipe for over-extension, but pragmatism balanced with great decisiveness.