Recent events have vividly demonstrated the threat of Islamist extremism in North and West Africa. This is not a new threat, but it is one that commands a new urgency.
As we have tragically seen, there are real implications for British nationals and interests overseas. Today, there is potential for the threat to take root and expand in its intent and capability.
The Labour Party supports UK action in support of the French-led operation in Mali, just as we backed Operation Ellamy in Libya. But alongside the necessary focus on how we respond in the region, we must also take a step back and concentrate on wider implications for UK defence and security policy.
With the completion of transition in Afghanistan on the horizon and the Chilcot Inquiry due to publish this year, it is right we assess the lessons for future defence policy arising from recent history. Central is the need for a new model of preventative intervention, based on adaptable forces, superior intelligence and investing to build the capacity and capability of at-risk nations. It must be based on comprehensive working across government and within international coalitions.
SDSR 2010 discussed adaptability and prevention, but this agenda must move from being a debating point to a genuine programme of reform. For Labour, this will be part of our thinking as we consider a future SDSR if in power.
This is important because we are entering a phase of transition across the security landscape to an era of persistent and complex instability, driven by multiple trends and multifaceted actors.
The certainties of the Super Power Cold War era are long gone. Cyber technology and chemical and biological material pose risks proportionate to their enormous potential to advance humankind. Climate change, resource scarcity and demographic shifts transcend borders and demand international responses. Weak states outnumber the stable by two to one, which means regions such as the Middle East or Northern Africa have a disproportionate, albeit uninvited, role in our security strategy.
Long gone is a Britain whose role it is to defend our right to territorial expansion; instead we defend our national and global interests against complex risk with a security posture equally as diverse.
North and West Africa
Many have stated that across North and West Africa and beyond there is an ‘arc of instability’, from Mauritania to Somalia and Yemen, encompassing Mali, Southern Algeria and Southern Libya, Northern Nigeria and Sudan amongst others. This is a region in which the drivers of militancy are prevalent and where there exist extremist groups with the potential to gain local traction or national strongholds.
Alongside Mali, there is potential for continued unrest. Niger, Mauritania and Northern Nigeria all demonstrate potential for concerning instability.
Before moving to solutions, however, it is right to reflect on our understanding of what the problem actually is. I was asked recently, ‘what is the problem the UK is trying to solve?’ The questioner was judging the UK by both our actions and our pronouncements, and yet for him the answer wasn’t clear from either word or deed.
It was Einstein who said, “If I had an hour to save the world I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding solutions”. Too often in politics we can be tilted towards instant answers when we should be better at first understanding the problem.
In our view the problem for the UK is that there are regions in the world at risk of instability. Many share common characteristics. Resource scarcity, porous borders, youth bulges, high inequality, poverty and a history or regional or national conflict can all contribute to fragility. Illegitimate or weak state governance, or the absence of authority altogether, added to limited international or regional support, can further fuel insecurity. It is within this context that extremists can thrive. Parasitic in nature, extremism intersects with state weaknesses and vulnerabilities to seek sanctuary, foster grievance and build allegiances. It is highly localised factors as much as global vision which can drive militancy.
The problem is aggravated by a lack of capacity within many states to tackle such issues alone and the security policy challenge for the West is to help enable indigenous solutions. We must confront these challenges, however, at a time of constrained finance and domestic publics weary and wary of international venture. We need a response that is clear in intention, based on the lessons of our recent past and as broad as the threat itself. Greater international coalition-building, an understanding of the intricacy of instability and closer-aligned military, developmental and diplomatic efforts are all essential.
I think that some of the political language applied in response to recent events has suggested a natural continuum of the 9/11 world and in turn the strategy then deployed. But the real ‘intelligent’ response is to adapt to developments ourselves.
While in 2001 al Qaeda was more of an organised global body, today the ‘base’ sought in Afghanistan is denied, there is constant pressure in Pakistan, action against high-profile individuals has fragmented its command structure and limited expansion.
As we know, however, destruction of an individual or cell does not lead to the demolition of a group but instead can often lead to its displacement.
It is perhaps unsurprising that North and West Africa is the new terrain for Islamist extremism given its history and being home to al Qaeda’s early revolutionary ambitions. The threat in the region is fragmented, with multiple groupings with long histories, and the extent to which they are networked is uncertain at best.
Threat to UK
For the UK, the risk demands a proportionate response. The threat to UK citizens and interests in the region can be fatal. Groups may develop ambition and ability to strike abroad. Britain’s proud diversity could lead to the radicalisation of a tiny subset of British youth. All of which means that the UK operates in coalitions responding to threats to our national interest - against terrorist activity, such as in Mali, or to prevent humanitarian abuse, such as in Libya.
Response and lessons
Our response should be rooted in two truths.
Firstly, a belief that we have responsibility beyond your borders is not, as some would have it, ideological, but, as we have seen over the last months, a necessary response to the world in which we live. Our nation should be haunted by the isolationist reticence of Douglas Hurd over Bosnia and the tragedy we witnessed in Rwanda.
Secondly, as we plan our future defence policy we should learn the lessons from our recent past - not as an admission of failure but we must retain consent by making our purpose clear and develop more effective policy in light of our experiences.
A principal flaw of past operations was to misunderstand the complexity of the threat. Al Qaeda was presented as a grouping with traditional command and control structures. While truer in the past, it was and is a loose franchise; as much a worldview as a coherent entity. A search for simplicity and commonality led to solutions which paid insufficient regard to local circumstance and hailed ‘mission accomplished’ moments which may never be attainable in the traditional sense against extremism.
Within Islamist movements there is a persistent tension between global ideology and local action. The former is the driver of purpose, the latter enables influence. This is true in North and West Africa. Separatist movements in Somalia, Nigeria and Mali provide opportunity for al Qaeda, while the power brought by al-Qaeda association has encouraged some separatists to create a common cause with the ideologues. The multinational make-up of groups – whether Gadaffi’s militia or those who attacked in Amenas – doesn’t convey a coherent international movement, but rather followers of a shared ideology or purpose connected through informal networks. In forming regional defence strategy this patchwork of loose alliances is essential to understand. We need to focus on splitting coalitions of groups along their own pre-existing fault lines.
Just as important is the need to understand the culture and character of a specific country. A primitive understanding of the Afghan population, culture and geography prior to our intervention severely undermined attempts to work with proxies and our political strategy was in its conception insufficiently representative. In Iraq there was a serious deficit in Western comprehension of the Sunni-Shia or intra-Shia dynamics.
There is rightly much discussion of ungoverned spaces, but this means absence of a central authority rather than a non-existence of local power-brokers who must be navigated. Extremists often understand this and so must we.
Associated to this, as we all now know, the physical disconnection of a ‘Green Zone’ or an ‘inside the wire’ mentality can impede communication or cultural empathy. Diplomatic compounds, equally, can be isolated from local communities, restricting the relationships necessary to understand communities.
The final lesson I want to mention is the need to understand the interests of the Forces with whom we co-operate, not just our enemy. They will have their own interests - and not necessarily those of the central authority. It took too long for us to see the training of the ANA and ANP as a strategic priority, and we know that de-Ba’athification left a lethal vacuum in Iraq. When the UK plays a role in training local or regional forces, it is essential we view them not just as auxiliaries but as partners who can inform the strategy behind our operations.
Applying these lessons within today’s military context is of course our task, and the operation in Mali has shown how important that is. Neither we nor our allies have yet used these experiences to sufficiently reshape our forces or defence strategy.
We support UK action taken in support of the French-led intervention in Mali – but it has been reactive and rushed with opaque and shifting objectives. Events have exposed continuing lack of preparation. The French have been short of airlift and intelligence assets. The UK could provide two C-17s and a soon-to-be-retired sentinel aircraft. The recent UK National Audit Office Major Projects report showed that the UK, even on the most optimistic outcome, will be short of tactical airlift and troop-carrying helicopters into the next decade. Rather than a clean bill of health, the NAO has called in to question the affordability of the UK Core Equipment Programme. The UK special Forces Support Group is under the threat of cuts.
But this goes deeper than equipment issues. The intervention is a sign of a failure of prevention and foresight.
Mali has been on the critical list for a long time and yet the intervention was rushed. Across the region the warning signs started earlier. Trainers should be sent to deter a crisis rather than in response to it. We cannot afford an international deficit in preparation for threats of this nature.
For UK defence policy, Mali has revealed the need for a new model of ‘preventative intervention’ based on adaptability, coalition-building, intelligence and greater cultural understanding, seeking to avoid the heavy-footprint operations we do not want to have to repeat.
Military intervention will of course at times be necessitated in response to events. Sierra Leone and Kosovo show the change that can be brought by the military component. Where required the characteristics of these missions, as well as those in Somalia and now hopefully Mali once we move beyond the initial phase, can maximise ability to achieve strategic goals: Western training, intelligence and logistical support for local forces backed by guidance in expelling militants from territories, supported by sustained political and civil reconstruction.
Such action should rest on the principles of international law; certainty of strategic objectives; acting under the banner of multilateral institutions; working with regional partners; and clarity over our national interest.
The variables are multiple, which is why Western leaders must openly express the parameters of achievability and inherent risks of any military action.
While intervention can disrupt and defeat groups, military might alone cannot kill an idea. The terrorist groups we face today are born from common drivers of extremism which have been built up over generations and may take generations to overcome. Islamist extremism is born from a contortion of an ancient religion. That contortion may never be defeated by Governments alone – especially Western governments. Vigilance and prevention must be our focus.
The UK needs a comprehensive preventative strategy, encompassing development, diplomacy and defence.
For defence there are five central issues to reflect upon:
• Building greater adaptability in to the structure of our forces;
• Greater cultural embedding in at-risk nations;
• Advanced intelligence gathering through in-field activity;
• Increased proactive capacity-building at home and overseas, enabling multinational groups to lead indigenous responses to crises;
• And prioritising partnering and coalition-building, making this an agenda for European nations.
There is much talk about the need for adaptability, but the concept and capability of the Adaptable Force outlined in Army 2020 can be extended with a shift towards ‘adaptable units’.
Adaptable units, highly-trained and region-specific, would be charged with in-depth outreach in at-risk countries, with a focus on ‘cultural embedding’. At the invitation of host authorities, our engagement with fragile nations would be more proactive and potentially longer-term, with units tasked with advising and implementing training, stabilisation, policing and combat-prevention. They would be trained in situational awareness and understanding, local drivers of conflict and preventative strategies, with a wider range of humanitarian skills, linked up with our international diplomatic and developmental efforts.
Better understanding of Mali by our French and European allies may have led to awareness of rebels’ plans to advance South or the impact of the in-flow of weapons from Libya. The principle of cultural embedding would be to invest resource early so that specialist, in-theatre intelligence gathering would act almost as a human early warning system for potential unrest in the localities in which units were expert. We can look to the work of the US Marines to learn from here. It is worth us asking why the Government’s latest assessment of Fragile or Conflict Affected states did not include Mali or Algeria and ensuring we collectively improve our methods.
The regional and expert nature of ‘preventative intervention’ would demand its internationalisation and it would only work if part of a unified NATO effort. This is particularly important for European nations, who must demonstrate their commitment to NATO and modernising deployable Forces at a time when the US – our most important partner in defence – pivots to Asia Pacific.
Shared threats and financial challenges demand that we pool resource and expertise. When acting overseas the UK is now normally part of a larger effort – whether coalition partners or regional nations with interests. European nations should form flexible partnerships to deliver adaptable units in the knowledge that security cannot be delivered unilaterally.
If successful, international adaptable units would make substantial intervention less likely and in the event of escalation success more likely. Should larger-scale conflict occur specialists would help inform our strategy and guide generalist forces, such as 16th Air Assault, based on deeper understanding and knowledge of local terrain. Their presence in turn would enable meaningful post-conflict planning, based on institutional knowledge.
Adaptable units would demand strong supportive expeditionary capability and enablers alongside force protection. C4-ISTAR, naval resources, unmanned technology, helicopters, airlift, close air support and refuelling capabilities would all be essential. Future SDSRs will face trade-offs – global events and threats combine with fiscal realities to make tough decisions inevitable – but adaptability, just like affordability, must be built in to all elements of our posture.
This approach would also demand broader skills. Consider that in North and West African states almost 60 languages are spoken, as well as multiple local dialects, and West Africa is one of the few regions in the world where French has parity with English. Then consider that according to MoD figures, of the 145,000 members of UK Forces none speak Nigerian or Ga, one speaks Portuguese, just 78 speak Arabic and only 101 speak French. This comes while linguists and military intelligence were highlighted as ‘pinch points’ in the 2012 MoD Annual Report. It is essential this is reviewed to enable our Forces to specialise in understanding the cultural contours of fragile nations and develop more trusting relationships within the communities in which they operate.
Civilian skills can also strengthen adaptability. One of the difficulties in targeting bin Laden in 1999-2000 was the lack of cultural resources available to Western Intelligence services. Defence attaches and diplomatic staff are vital, but the “thinning out of resources” at Defence Intelligence, recently highlighted by the Intelligence and Security Committee, is a concern and Defence Intelligence must be geared towards this new threat. The MoD should also consider region-specific career paths in intelligence for military personnel.
There is unique expertise and knowledge in UK industry overseas, the third sector and our expat community. Those who have spent years on the ground living within economies and communities in at-risk nations have in-depth understanding. The Government’s yet-to-be-proven Reservist plan should seek to maximise these insights, and in particular the essential linguistic skills and cultural knowledge in all UK communities at home and overseas. UK citizens’ global orientation can become a strategic defence asset, advising to inform intelligence-gathering and trust-building.
A true comprehensive approach would look at how our Forces can better engage with diplomatic corps and NGO communities to ensure on-the-ground strategies are responsive. This is also why regional coalitions are crucial, so those familiar with customs and cultures are able to effectively engage local communities. This should be part of a wider drive for stronger Defence Diplomacy.
The core component of preventative intervention must be an enhanced focus on investing in the capacity of at-risk nations to defend themselves, enabling enforcement of individual and collective rights and values, limiting space for extremism.
If Western nations are going to invest amounts which may register alongside the GDPs of North and West African countries with the aim of averting conflict we must do so wisely. Without passing on the capabilities for internal security management we risk perpetuating the deceptive stability which was blown open in Mali.
There are a number of forms a valuable UK contribution could take.
The global recognition in the quality of UK Armed Forces is an asset which drives respect. Through training and mentoring UK personnel can share not just their skills but their outlook, emphasising ethical military behaviour as well as capability with weaponry and strategy. We can build on the great work we do already through the Conflict Pool and the British Council in particular. The ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’ in Afghanistan, for example, could be an important legacy for the Afghan National Army, and an aim could be for this model to be replicated elsewhere, coordinated by the UK and our allies.
It was notable that the recent Defence Engagement Strategy did not include further bilateral agreements in the region, which I believe could also be beneficial.
Partnering with overseas troops in hostile territories, as in Mali, can be vital. The risk, however, of distorting a local political economy is high and support must be considered case by case. In sensitive regions we must make sure that skills-learned are not used for internal oppression or external aggression. Our support, however, could be seen as a potential driver of change concerning the accountability and civilian control of the military and an incentive for reform to overseas authorities.
The UK has a strong record of providing defence education to international military personnel, with some 3,000 overseas officer cadets training at Sandhurst since 1972. Our training schools are world-class, and just as we have a proud tradition of welcoming foreign students to our leading educational establishments, so too should we offer leadership training to those who need it most. Historically, however, those who we have welcomed have not been linked strategically to security priorities and we should consider a supplement of additional places for at-risk nations’ future leaders at Sandhurst, Dartmouth and Cranwell, as well as the Royal College of Defence Studies and the UK Defence Academy.
The long-term focus of preventative intervention, however, must be to build multinational, regional institutions which can deliver indigenous responses to crises. The Economic Community of West African States has demonstrated during the Mali crisis that it can self-organise but does not have the practical and logistical arrangements to autonomously conduct military engagements or react to significant events.
Their issues are, ironically, similar in principle but different in scale to those of NATO. Too many undeployable troops. Limited interoperability between partners. An imbalance of contribution. Insufficient conflict planning. ECOWAS currently has the will but not the means and it is in our interests to help develop them into coherent military machine.
I want to see an engaged Britain in a strong European Union and NATO, but alongside strong regional bodies such as African Union, ECOWAS and Arab League and so we should proactively help build their capabilities and encourage their participation. Again, this must be an agenda for all European nations.
Preventative intervention will ultimately only succeed if comprehensive, encompassing diplomatic and developmental efforts, and there is potential for a more strategic, leading role for the National Security Council in delivering this agenda.
One of the lessons from Afghanistan is that sustainable security will be determined by legitimate justice systems, jobs and access to services. The same is true in Mali and other at-risk nations. Populations need hope and clear progress in these areas. Our security strategy must consider the wider economic, social and political implications of any intervention.
An absence of that sense of hope and a failure to tackle issues at root mean our enemies could morph in to terror groups with a social movement agenda, similar to Hamas. Moqtada al-Sadr gained credibility by lighting up Sadr City like Las Vegas while the rest of Baghdad was in darkness; al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula are attempting to rebrand in Yemen with a focus on everyday issues as local as irrigation. Where the state is failing to act, Islamist groups claim they can offer an end to corruption and action on security. We must also shape strategy to local dynamics.
Throughout history notions of sovereignty have changed. Opaque sovereignty – where events within borders were only the business of domestic authorities – has given way to globalisation and the rise of technology, media and multilateralism. This has seen a shift towards transparent sovereignty – where events have implications across borders and national interest is often entwined with events overseas. In the Arab spring we are seeing the shift from opaque to transparent sovereignty taking place rapidly before our eyes. It should be an aim of the international community’s security policy to maintain the momentum in this shift.
In any discussion on defence strategy we must understand the limits inherent to our own capacity. Nothing will prevent the reality that the future cannot be predicted with certainty, coalition does not remove competing interests, intelligence will always be imperfect and there are international trends currently beyond our control.
One certainty in an era of instability, however, is that in defence policy the nature of ‘full-spectrum’ will be debated at a time of increasing risk and lower resource. It is essential that this includes a preventative posture based on high skills, new technology, adaptable forces, alliances and enabling local forces.
Barack Obama’s words, “a decade of war is now ending”, is an ambition but not yet a truism. No-one in the UK or our international allies wants to police North and West Africa. Whereas once European nations competed for control in this area of the world today we must co-operate in the knowledge that our own economic, political, and social advance is not brought by conquest but the self-advancement of African countries themselves.
Crucially, we must apply the unavoidable truth that there is no hard power solution to overcome the conditions in which Islamist extremism thrives, just as there is no exclusive soft power means to defeat it.