Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Military Overstretch in the Maghreb

A good definition of strategy is that it is the calculated relationship between ends and means. This definition implies then when you are making long term decisions, you need to consider the questions ‘can we’ and ‘should we’ simultaneously, because the answer to each is dependent on the answer to the other. I want to flag this up because when we discuss foreign policy, particularly defence policy, it tends to be forgotten.

The terrible events in Algeria have focused British attention to the threat of islamist groups operating in the Maghreb. In response, David Cameron has announced what looks very much like an open ended commitment to meeting this threat using all available means, including military. Referring back to the definition of strategy I gave at the beginning, he has very carefully answered the ‘should we’ question with yes. I want to draw your attention to the ‘can we’ question, because the government’s own planning documents indicate that there is a problem here.

When the coalition came to power in 2010 it made the decision that serious long term spending cuts were required in all government departments because of the public deficit they inherited. With this in mind they commissioned the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which is the plan setting out what would be cut at the Ministry of Defence and how Britain’s military objectives would be secured with fewer resources. If you follow the link and go to pages 18-19 of the review you will find the assumptions on which it is based. Summarised, the review states that after the cuts British armed forces will be capable of one Afghanistan sized deployment and two smaller six month deployments simultaneously, and no more.

When the Prime Minister announces the beginning of a ‘generational struggle’ in North Africa, to be conducted at the same time as the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan, he is disregarding his own strategic plan, and making a commitment that runs the risk of seriously overstretching British forces. It is important to note that the defence cuts outlined in the review are still taking place, and only today we learn of yet more redundancy notices being handed out to British soldiers. The government is ignoring the ‘can we’ question I asked at the beginning of the post.  

This could have very alarming consequences. If you cut the local government budget and expect it to continue as normal, the worst that will happen is that the rubbish doesn’t get collected. If you do this to the military then soldiers get killed, and that’s without thinking about the damage to Britain’s interests abroad which result from mission failures. When we have a strategic defence review we should take it seriously, and make sure that we match our desired ends with the available means. It really is a matter of life and death. 


  1. I am thinking that such a commitment will be more surgical and intel based rather than a large scale green army operation. I was watching something or other (not the best source) regarding this discussion and it reiterated my thoughts on the 'new' counter terrorism strategy at home and overseas. Also, having recently been to a talk, in London, by senior military officials it makes sense that while job cuts are being dished out in the army to the infantry the Int. corps is heavily recruiting (while numbers are being cut in the mil. the Int corps is significantly increasing its rank) and training for CT amongst other things.

  2. Thank you for the comment, it is much appreciated! I hope you're right about this, although I honestly think that this is a commitment to action which has been made in haste and in reaction to events, rather than according to a grand design. I don't think anyone knows what it means yet. Also, remember that intel and technical assistance is how most conflicts start in the modern age. They are usually related to an achievable and specified goal in order to prevent unwanted escalation. Have you seen a political objective for this conflict yet? If we don't know what the goal is, what is stopping mission creep?

    I would also point to the example of Libya to show how the SDR is completely ignored when the government is reacting to events. It made a very open ended commitment (which for a while looked like it would result in long term stalemate) to war with no reference to the restrictions implied by the review.

    And for the record "something or other" is always a good enough source for this blog ;-)

  3. You need to see my paper on british interests in East Africa ; ) It was in relation to Somalia but, the same goes, or at least some of it.

  4. I tell you what mate, if you can summarise it in such a way that people without postgrad IR degrees can understand it (under 1000 words would be good) I'll post it on this blog.