Have Europeans lost the habit of thinking strategically? A theatrical moment at the recent Chilcot Inquiry seems to indicate that the British certainly have. Giving evidence on July 20th 2010, Major General Andy Salmon (the British commander of the Multinational Division South East in 2009) was refreshingly blunt in this respect. Asked by Sir Roderick Lyne whether his operations around Basra took place “under the aegis of an overall strategic plan,” General Salmon said: “Well we had a set of objectives. There was no comprehensive strategic plan that I ever saw”. Sir Roderick then asked who therefore had overall responsibility, and would the General have known which minister or which senior official was directing the British operation from Whitehall? “Not really” replied General Salmon.
Almost as extraordinary as this exchange, was the failure of the press corps to spot or comment on the inescapable conclusion that the entire operation must therefore have been launched in a strategy-free planning environment. Did no one care that for five years several thousand British troops had been deployed to Iraq without an inkling of a strategic concept that could be subsequently explained by their commanding general at a national inquiry authorised by the Prime Minister? Not only had the British lost the habit of strategic thinking, but also appeared to have lost it for so long that no reporters, civil servants or senior military officers seemed to find this surprising.
How long had the European NATO nations accepted the absence of strategic thinking in their decision-making? Academics and generals certainly pontificated about strategy, and in the previous century Cold War Clausewitzians had energetically presented nuclear war thinking as strategy. But in the security era that followed, the politicians and senior officials, so relentlessly indicted by Sir Roderick’s precise questions on 20th July, seemed to have been making security decisions without having a long term national objective as their aiming mark.
There is no doubt that at the early stages of the Cold War the success of NATO called for strategic thinking on a Herculean scale – and that the alliance was probably the mother of all strategic concepts. But as the years passed and the balance of nuclear terror began to stabilise, individual nations within the alliance no longer needed to think in terms of their individual security. Like the British Corps in the Northern Army Group, they were fastened into a tapestry of military formations strung out along the inner German border and beyond. Financial pressure and their gradual assimilation into a continental system had become a disincentive for strategic thinking at a national level. At NATO Council level, strategic planning (referring to genuinely long term policy-making) had slowed down and become a ritual of Byzantine complexity. The results of policy discussions took so long to emerge and were so diminutive in their effect that individual nations gradually lost the incentive to connect military planning to any higher form of political policy. In Cold War alliances, military deployments ran on metaphorical railway lines that had been laid at the highest level; trying to alter the alignment of the rails was a huge and usually fruitless effort for an individual nation.
As the Alliance passed from the Cold War into the strategic era that followed, individual members continued to rely on US leadership and NATO structures. So that when they formed the nucleus of expeditions to contingencies outside NATO’s regional area of interest, individual nations still found themselves in the same strategy-free environment as before.
After forty years, when the Berlin wall came down, officials and political advisers were understandably nervous about the prospect of a post-NATO security environment; particularly in a threat scenario where national defence and security decisions would once again have to be connected to a nationally defined strategic outcome.
“These are interesting times!” was the agitated cry in the corridors of Whitehall. “Interesting times” during the chaotic 1990s referred to the problems of deploying a succession of increasingly muscular peace forces to Asia and Sub Saharan Africa, to civil war and humanitarian crises in which thousands died violently and millions more were displaced.
Against this background of low-level violence in every region, the massive continental armies of the Cold War began to dismantle. And at last, after forty years of mental stagnation, it might have been possible to hope for a return to strategic thinking. However, as it turned out, the European allies continued to act and deploy in the familiar US + Europe consensus which had characterised NATO. The overwhelming domination of the US and the perceived need for the Europeans to stick to the Cold War mantras – “Russians out, Americans in” – provided the aiming mark for all security decisions.
In these familiar relationships and following their familiar procedures, they deployed to the Middle East and to Asia by land, sea and air. But these adventures now had an end of era feeling; they were the practical remains of an alliance that found itself in the wrong security era where its members no longer had a pressing reason for acting in concert.
So by the time General Salmon faced the courteous scrutiny of the Chilcot Inquiry, there were quite a few reasons why the expeditions, which had so characterised the post Cold War period were becoming history. In the same month as the inquiry, David Cameron pledged to start withdrawing the British contingent with a view to ending its combat role there in 2015. Similar arrangements to withdraw were also underway in other member states, notably the Netherlands and Canada.
These withdrawals however did not represent independent thinking; they were overwhelmingly influenced by President Obama’s reiteration of America’s own need to reduce its expeditionary profile. In the same summer months of 2010, the US garrison in Iraq was reduced from 83,000 to 50,000 with a view to achieving a total recall in 2011. Meanwhile US plans to start similar reductions in Afghanistan from 2011 were being publicly debated.
The expeditionary era was concluding and several factors converged to make it less and less likely, or even possible, for European NATO states to go on deploying again and again in this strategy-free manner. There was an increasing possibility that the public would reject further operations whose un-stated objective was merely to keep the “Americans in”. There was now a measurable domestic resistance to continued foreign military forces in Afghanistan. In a climate of diminishing support, it was hard to imagine that NATO nations would invade another “safe haven” purely on the grounds that it had been selected as a target in the US war against terror.
European politicians now found themselves unable to explain in a sound bite, how sending thousands of European troops to Afghanistan secured European cities and European populations. The evidence seemed to be to the contrary; television footage of beige uniformed troops and beige coloured fighting vehicles rolling across the Afghan landscape was acting as a recruiting sergeant for the opposition. Many peaceful citizens, who had migrated into Europe from South Asian countries, were outraged by what they saw. And from the extremist minorities of these migrant communities also came the future bombers. The war on terror aficionados had failed to see that the critical path of the next bomb attack no longer ran from the overseas safe haven into Europe. The violent extremists seeking to detonate themselves in European cities originated from European communities, not from a putative safe haven.
It was no longer possible to present these expeditions as campaigns of necessity. True, after the highly visible drama of 9/11 Europeans had been ready to believe that their security depended on eradicating the distant safe haven where these attacks had been organised. And at that time it had seemed a matter of necessity. However by the summer of 2010, the campaign-of-necessity argument was undone by solid indications that the US coalition would begin its withdrawal in a year’s time, and was already withdrawing from Iraq. Whatever the political leaders were saying, these expeditions were not campaigns of necessity. You do not withdraw halfway through a campaign of necessity. The British could not have ceased flying in the middle of the Battle of Britain. The fact the NATO nations were now organising their withdrawal meant that these were emphatically campaigns of choice.
Several conclusions arise from all of this.
In the approaching security era when we are threatened more by the indirect effects of climate change, over population, mass communications and mass migration, it is less and less easy to see a realistic scenario for the beige uniformed expeditionary soldier.
The imperative for collective security is diminishing. America and Europe no longer share the same threats from violent extremism – and Europeans will not blindly support the US’s expeditionary remedies. European states have increasingly large African and Asian communities in their populations. Europe is attached to the same continental landmass as Africa and Asia. The countries from which their migrant communities originated can be reached easily by air and by day ferry. Military interventions into these same regions and countries outrage Europe’s migrant populations.
The US has a continuing cultural urge for armed expeditions, which the Europeans no longer share. The logic for Europeans to have a more European centred approach to security is becoming unassailable. Having paid a high political price for Iraq and Afghanistan, Europeans will now need a motive on the scale of a future Soviet invasion to consider further expeditions that are no more than a continuation of a “keep the Americans in” policy.
Above all, when Europeans do eventually move towards a European-centred security regime, they will have to start thinking strategically for themselves for the first time in the experience of their defence staff and politicians.