Tag: British Defence Policy

A Good Storyline Won’t Win a War – Did the Taliban out-communicate our Generals?

(Written with Alister Miskimmon) Following the death of Osama bin Laden, political pressure is mounting for an early scaling down of British military troops presence in Afghanistan ahead of David Cameron’s deadline of 2014 for the end of Britain’s combat mission. With this in mind the British defence establishment is trying to understand their role in Afghanistan since 2001. Much of this soul-searching has focused on trying to explain why British forces have not been able to pacify sections of the Afghan population. Their explanation is that they have not been able to project the right storyline to Afghanis. They feel that they are being out-communicated by the Taliban, losing out to a more effective strategic narrative. This is presented as one reason Britain and NATO have failed to win hearts and minds. 

An example of such thinking was witnessed in Westminster this week in a session of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee.  General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, identified a critical moment as Britain’s efforts at “poppy eradication at the time of the deployment”. “In the minds of some local Helmandis, and within the narrative of the Taliban,” he said, this created the “idea that these [British] forces are coming here to eradicate your poppy and take your living away.” Ultimately, “that worked against us in terms of strategic narrative.” The incredulity of our most senior military officers that they could not convince Afghanis in Helmand of their good intentions suggests that they think of communication as an easy solution; as if finding the right strategic narrative would solve their operational problems.


Such a stance exposes the lack of clear goals in the first place. Failure to convince Afghanis stems more from a lack of clear British strategy than the ability of Taliban forces to present a more convincing counter narrative.


In our fast moving media ecology, projecting a coherent message is a challenge. However, there are some instances when governments are able to deliver a clear narrative. For example, the killing of Osama bin Laden was so clear it did not need to be explained – least of all to the United States’ citizens seen celebrating on the streets of American cities after the President announced the mission. President Obama did not even engage in the ensuing debate about the legal status of such an action. He let his actions speak for themselves.


Once war has begun, strategic narratives are about keeping domestic audiences on side, not about convincing those who you are invading. When hostilities begin it is too late to convince them. Trying to tell a reassuring or uplifting story to Afghanis that is contradicted by what they see and hear on the ground only opens up space for Britain to be accused of hypocrisy – a narrative with a long precedent in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Share

Why we need to debate foreign policy in elections: Lessons from the UK 2010 General Election

FYI: I am blogging on Canada-related issues at the Cana-blog. It basically satiates my desire to engage with Canadian issues without boring Duck readers to death about our various neuroses from North of the 49th Parallel. Do check it out though, eh?

Last year I blogged about the UK General Election as a “Johnny Foreigner”. I thought it would be a very dull affair, but it ended up being pretty interesting with the first televised election debates, “Cleggmania” and the subsequent coalition discussions. What didn’t the election have? Foreign policy.

In fact the only foreign policy-related items that really featured at all were brief disagreements over relations with Europe (more about the transfer of Westminster powers), climate change and a really, really dispiriting debate on immigration (especially if you are said Johnny Foreigner).

Depressing immigration debates aside, this makes sense. The UK was hit hard by the recession and the debate was largely about the economy. Foreign policy, seldom a popular topic in elections anyway, was even less important. It’s the kind of thing that won’t help you win an election – only lose one.

Lo and behold, it’s 2011 and Canada finds itself in a national election. And what’s not on the agenda? Foreign policy. Why? The economy. And healthcare (which always ranks as important in Canadian elections).

Foreign policy has not and will not play a large role – even if Canada is in Afghanistan and helping to lead the NATO mission in Libya. (Although, to be fair, Carl Meyer at Embassy Magazine has a good article on the ways that foreign policy may feature in the election.) In this sense, there is a certain amount in common with the UK 2010 General Election – at least in terms of the downplaying of foreign policy issues to domestic ones.

But is this something that us IR-wonks should learn to live with? Is there anything we can learn from the UK experience?

In short: yes. After the UK foreign-policy-free election, the coalition has made major and significant policy decisions which affect foreign relations. Some of the significant ones include:

There was no debate on any of these issues. For Afghanistan, all that the leaders spoke of was their trips there and meeting the troops. It could not be said that there was a major debate about the scale, scope and vision of the mission. So should there have been a debate on the UK’s foreign policy priorities and its role in the world? And why wasn’t there one?

There are a number of factors which may have prevented a foreign policy debate.

First, quite frankly, it may have been something that the political parties just didn’t want to confront. It’s not an easy question and, as argued above, it was simply not a priority for them or the voters. Additionally politicians may want to avoid saying anything inflammatory about allies or policies during the election which may come back to haunt them later.

Second, in the parliamentary system, where cabinet ministers sit in the legislature (and owe their position more to patronage and party balancing than expertise), there were not necessarily any obvious foreign policy spokespersons. Certainly there were politicians with interest (such as Rory Stewart). But while positions are fluid and unclear, it’s not obvious that there were any obvious persons to debate the issue.

Third, foreign policy events are unpredictable. While some things are constant – NATO, the EU, relations with the United States – no one could have possibly predicted the uprisings in the Middle East or the fact that NATO would be bombing Libya as some kind of R2P operation. So, for example, while Bush and Condoleezza Rice wrote about not using the 82nd Airborne for nation building in 2000, he ended up spending most of his presidency doing just that. Events may distort or even dictate policies – and this is why they are not carefully outlined (other than broad, vague ideas at best) in elections.

Finally, foreign policy is just something that politicians feel that international affairs are best debated in Parliament rather than on the campaign trail. (Although the debates may sometimes be lacking as well.)

But there is a lesson here for Canada (and other democracies) that tend to not debate foreign policy in elections: governments are going to have to deal with foreign events, and without some kind of guidance, or debate or understanding of what our interests are and what our priorities should be, then there can be major surprises later on.

Even if it must take place in terms of vague generalities, a foreign policy debate is worth having. It is worth knowing where political parties stand on R2P, development, the United Nations (and UN Security Council) international organizations, etc. Broader ideas and goals should be outlined even if, inevitably, events cause change and reversal later on. While I do not anticipate huge cuts to Canadian defence spending nor a major change on our alliance policies, it would be nice to know what the Conservative (UK and Canadian) line on “the Responsibility to Protect” is – since we seem to be doing a lot of it lately.

EDIT: James Joyner has a great post on the US take on this at Outside the Beltway.

Share

What do you call an aircraft carrier with no aircraft? HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The London School of Economics runs a blog on British politics to which I contribute occasionally; this week I’ve posted on the British Government’s defence review, and I thought I’d share this with the Duck readership. A little bit of context: the new British government is simultaneously engaging in developing a National Security Strategy, while conducting a Comprehensive Spending Review and a Defence Review. The previous government made a number of rather bizarre defence procurement decisions without much sense of how they would be paid for so there is a problem here not entirely of the present government’s making. The majority Conservative Party in the governmental coalition is traditionally in favour of a strong defence, and in particular wishes to replace the existing Trident submarines – Britain’s nuclear deterrent – when they become obsolete. The Liberal Democrats, minority party in the coalition are less gung-ho generally and want an alternative to a submarine based deterrent.  Liam Fox, the Conservative Defence Secretary is on the right-wing of the party, and stood for the leadership against the current Prime Minister, David Cameron.  Cameron and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, are rather more firmly based in the 21st century and I suspect are less pro-defence spending than Fox, but the latter has out-manoeuvred them in the short term at least… now read on!

Share

© 2019 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑