Rome, Italy. 27 October. In 1963 when Sir Alec Douglas-Home briefly became British Prime Minister his predecessor Harold Macmillan said: “Let me give you one piece of advice, young man. As long as you don’t invade Afghanistan you’ll probably do fine”. Yesterday in Afghanistan in a low-key ceremony the Americans handed Britain’s Camp Bastion over to Afghan forces marking the end of US and UK-led combat operations in Helmand Province the crucible of a thirteen year counterinsurgency campaign. At the peak of operations Joint Operating Base Bastion supported some 14,000 troops and acted as the hub for over 100 forward operating bases or FOBs. Bastion still boasts a 2.2 mile (3.5km) long runway and a 20 mile (32kms) long perimeter. What are the lessons and what indeed does Afghanistan say about the nature of future conflict?
At the political and strategic levels the campaign suffered from a lack of a consistent political strategy worthy of the name. Indeed, political leaders in Washington, London and across the coalition too often imposed politics on a strategic campaign and simply lacked the strategic patience to get an uncertain and unclear job done. There was also at times an appallingly low level of strategic unity of effort and purpose between the NATO allies in particular which manifested itself in the form or national caveats with too many European governments trying to do the least possible.
At the military-strategic and operational levels for much of the campaign American and British military chiefs (in particular) failed to realise the sheer level of investment – political, forces and resources- needed to transform governance, justice, the Afghan economy and society. Too often “can do” bore no relation to “must do”. Sadly, it was a military philosophy necessarily reinforced by the incompetence of both the EU and UN missions.
US forces dubbed their British counterparts “The Borrowers” at one point because British personnel were simply not supplied by London with sufficient kit given the scale of the mission over time, space and distance. Equally, for all the frustrations the Americans had with their British counterparts the four English-speaking powers – US, UK, Canada and Australia – were the core of operations where it really mattered in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
This group now forms an operational hub for future coalitions and the basis for an informal Anglosphere. In no way wishing to disrespect the many very brave men and women of other nations who gave their lives on this campaign with the very partial exception of the French and a couple of others trust in the political reliability of continental European allies to be present at the point of contact with danger is now very low in both Washington and London.
However, the paradox of Afghanistan is precisely that such trust needs to be rebuilt. That is why September’s NATO Wales Summit was indeed important because it implied three forms of future conflict the tackling of which all reinforce the lessons from the Afghanistan campaign. Specifically, the vital need for strategic unity of effort and purpose as hybrid warfare drives the shape and scope of the future multinational force.
Strategic ambiguous warfare: Russia’s use of ambiguous warfare in Ukraine confirms the need for a twenty-first century NATO concept of collective nuclear and conventional deterrence that includes strategic reassurance and a layered, modernised collective defence that must in turn include advanced deployable forces, missile defence and cyber-defence. Such a defence would also suggest the need to revisit the old Cold War REFORGER concept whereby US reinforcements are flown in from Continental North America to assist Europeans acting as effective first responders.
Super-insurgencies: The campaign against Islamic State in the Middle East suggests a new form of super-insurgency that will in and of itself demand forces able to operate at distance as part of a sustained, sustainable super counter-insurgency strategy. Super-insurgencies will operate in the spaces between the emerging great power blocs in the kind of ungoverned spaces which Islamic State is exploiting. This is particularly the case in the Middle East where the entire Sykes-Picot state structure is facing collapse and which is contiguous to Europe. Combating such super-insurgencies in extremely complicated political environments will also require a clear understanding that strategy is designed first and foremost to support the Middle Eastern state in its battle with the anti-state and thereafter to shape the interests and choices of those states.
Strategic humanitarianism: As the Ebola crisis has so tragically demonstrated the twenty-first century West acts in pursuit of a complex mix of values and interests which merge desired strategic outcomes with humanitarian imperatives. That in turn imposes on Western armed forces the need to work effectively not just across government but with civilian branches of foreign governments, international institutions such as the UN and EU. It also suggests the need for an efficient and effective method of engagement with different and differing non-governmental communities across international civil society if influence and effect is to be generated - the Comprehensive Approach.
US Lt General H.R. McMaster was once asked why the US military won the 2003 Iraq War but lost the peace. “There was nothing to join up to”, he said. Therefore, the future force must not only better join up the six domains of twenty-first century warfare: air, sea, land, cyber, space and knowledge. It must also be better joined up with other like-minded forces and indeed across government and the wider international community. In short, joining up strategy, purpose, effort, force and resource is NATO’s twenty-first century mission.
As for Afghanistan it is true that the campaign has not achieved the unrealistic goals set for it at the 2001 Bonn Conference. And, it is certainly true that without the continuing commitment of the US to back-stop Afghan forces out to 2024 Kabul could lose control again of vast swathes of territory, particularly the Pushtu heartlands that bestride the AfPak border. However, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Back in November 2001 the US-led coalition was right to deny Al Qaeda the ungoverned space that was Afghanistan from which to launch attacks on the West post-911. And, lumpy though it undoubtedly is progress in re-building a form of civil society has been made in Afghanistan and continued efforts MUST be supported both in Afghanistan and regionally.
Therefore, far from turning political backs on Afghanistan which politicians in Europe did some time ago now is the moment to systematically and scientifically consider its many lessons.