There are two rather over-used, if entirely accurate, rules in the UK Armed Forces. The first is von Moltke, the Elder’s maxim that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy” (meaning be ready to adapt — and quickly — for every eventuality). The second is Dwight D Eisenhower’s observation that “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
These basic principles are inculcated into every military officer again and again. You start with what you know, and what you think might happen, and then events move you onto what has actually happened, and what to do about it. Much of this is summed up in the brilliant R V Jones saying, “Do not believe what you want to believe until you know what it is you ought to know.” As the father of technical intelligence during the Second World War, his insight has stood the test of time. During my tour of Helmand I had Rumsfeld’s known, knowns; known, unknowns; unknown, unknowns riff pinned prominently on my office wall — to those engaged in counterinsurgency, at any level, it resonates.
Given the UK’s track record in Iraq (where we didn’t expect the Shia to rise up against us) and Afghanistan (where a former Secretary of State for Defence wistfully hoped that “We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot because our job is to protect the reconstruction”) it seems rather ambitious for the current UK Secretary of State for Defence to tell Parliament, in answer to an excellent question from MP Patrick Mercer, that “we don’t expect things to go wrong.”
His optimism may well be grounded in such belief because we will not be committing ground forces in combat. Given the asymmetric nature of conflicts such as Mali — which is in its very early stages — he might want to revise his response to something more measured and cognisant of Second Order Consequences. He might also want to consider how soft effects, such as Behavioural Campaigns and Target Audience Analysis, could be harnessed and offered as additional support to Mali and elsewhere.
Counterinsurgency is unforgiving if you make your mistakes early, their legacy proving particularly difficult to eradicate. One means of avoiding this consequence is to put thought into where and how Behavioural Campaigns will have a role. We could start with the complex area of Security Sector Reform. The very forces we will be seeking to equip and train should already be viewed as the key enabler of our exit strategy. Avoiding early mistakes in this arena makes the formulation of a coherent exit strategy possible.