From Afghanistan to Libya; rethinking the role of the military

March 8, 2011

ras lanufIn a report this month calling for faster progress on a political settlement on Afghanistan, the influential UK parliamentary foreign affairs committee was unusually critical of the dominance of the military in setting Afghan policy.

“We conclude that there are grounds for concern over the relationship between the military and politicians. We further conclude that this relationship has, over a number of years, gone awry and needs to be re-calibrated  … we believe that problems in Afghanistan highlight the need for a corresponding cultural shift within Whitehall to ensure that those charged with taking foreign policy decisions and providing vitally important political leadership are able to question and appraise military advice with appropriate vigour,” it said.

During its enquiries, based on interviews with regional experts and officials, “we gained the impression that the sheer size and power of the U.S. military ensured that the U.S. military remained largely in control of U.S. Afghan policy,” it added.

It also quoted former UK special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, as saying that conversations between the U.S. and British military “end up with things being pre-cooked between the U.S. and the UK militaries before they are subject to political approval back in London …”

“In Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles’s view, the war in Afghanistan gave the British Army a raison d’être it has lacked for many years, new resources on an unprecedented scale and a chance to redeem itself in the eyes of the U.S. following criticisms about the army’s performance in Basra, Iraq.”

The comments in the report struck me as interesting, primarily because they were included at all – “civ-mil” relations are not usually a hot topic for political debate in Britain.  Otherwise they seemed to be largely a reflection of a far more heated discussion in Washington over the extent to which the U.S. military has come to dominate American foreign policy in the years following the Sept 11, 2001 attacks and during two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For recent articles on the subject see Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy or Franz-Stefan Gady at the Small Wars Journal (pdf)

For some time now, it has become conventional wisdom that the military has dominated strategy in Afghanistan — when the army asked President Barack Obama for more troops, they got them.  And the pundit consensus has been that Obama, after sacking two generals, had little room for manoeuvre even if he wanted to challenge the decisions made by his commander, the politically powerful General David Petraeus.

But to what extent is this actually true? Or perhaps more to the point, how far is the perceived dominance of the military a consequence rather than a cause of civilian weakness in setting foreign policy?

Ink Spots blog argues that the crisis in Libya provides an opportunity to at least reassess thinking on the perceived dominance of the military.

 ”One of the interesting aspects of the recent turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa is a reversal of militarisation. Many politicians have been calling for military intervention, particularly in Libya, and it has been the military pouring cold water on great ideas. How does this phenomenon fit into our understanding of civil-military relations at the national government level? I’m not sure yet, but I think it speaks volumes …

To extend the argument further, one of the problems in setting policy for Afghanistan (and the same applies to Pakistan, India and Kashmir) has been the lack of knowledge in the United States about the countries it aims to influence, whether by military or diplomatic means – as eloquently argued by Manan Ahmed in The National and Joshua Foust at Registan.net. Far easier, then, to rely on military might.

Yet that brings us to another peculiarity of the Libyan situation.  Few people know very much about Libya since the country has been closed off for so long. So while there are plenty of arguments out there for and against military intervention, one of the less contested points is that it would not be terribly effective if you don’t know enough about the side you are backing, or about the potential consequences of that action.  And as argued here, even a no-fly zone requires quite a lot of knowledge about what is happening on the ground if you don’t want to end up hitting the wrong targets, or jumping into unknown territory to rescue anyone who had been shot down.

So which would you say came first? Civilian lack of knowledge, or military power? As a caveat, some would argue that the military has sucked up so many resources that there has been little left to develop civilian expertise.  And that after two  major wars, the U.S. military has little appetite or resources for intervening in yet another country. But in any case, food for thought.

(Photo: A rebel fighter fires his rifle at a military aircraft loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at a checkpoint in Ras Lanuf March 7, 2011. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

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