Lecture Report - British Military Leadership in the Iraq and Afghan Wars: Why was Success so Elusive?


Dr Chris Wyatt, ICCS Research Fellow, recently attended the lecture above, which was given by Major-General (Rtd) Christopher Elliott under the auspices of the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University.

Major-General Elliott started by identifying hubris as an essential factor in understanding the lack of success in both campaigns. The assumption of the invincibility of the technology, coupled with the failure to understand the situation, led to inadequate leadership for the tasks in question, which Major-General Elliott saw as a definition of hubris.

The consequence was a series of errors which characterised both campaigns. Firstly, not enough troops were sent. A good example is that Basra had a population of two million, but only five hundred soldiers were sent to control the insurgency led by Moqtada al-Sadr. In contrast, the area was twice the size of Belfast, where thirteen battalions had been stationed. Secondly, there were also unintended consequences, as the heavy weapons used in force protection led to civilian casualties and, in places like Southern Afghanistan, contributed to damaging the local economy. This led to the third factor: the loss of hearts and minds. Once lost, it was impossible to get them back again.

Fourthly, hearts and minds as a factor was also terminal to counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts, as soldiers operated with little regard to the civilians around them. Their language skills were not strong and this led to a lack of interface with the general population, which stood contrary to COIN doctrine. The effect was an inability to collect human intelligence (HUMINT). The general position also led to the fifth factor where, although the rule of law was preached, the situation mandated working with people who were corrupt, thus denying the interventions legitimacy and further alienating the population. So, in Afghanistan, destroying the poppy crop in a locale and trying to win over the population there at the same time was doomed to failure. There was also the perceived abrogation of commitments to protect the population under international law as localisation efforts were underway. In this way, the British withdrawal from Basra and the handover to militias was seen as problematic.

For Major-General Elliott, several systemic problems had allowed this state of affairs to take place. The first was that the UK continues to think of itself as a great power, acting accordingly, but there is no resourcing to allow this to happen. The result is to see the concept of 'punching above our weight' as hubristic, it being better to punch at our weight. Secondly, institutional rivalries between the armed services contributed to an environment where bureaucratic rivalries loomed as large as battlefield victories. This was exacerbated by the lack of top-level training in strategic and conceptual. Few had university degrees or any training in statecraft. The consequence was confusion over strategy and how to implement it. A good example was Helmand, which was known to be an intelligence black hole and an ungoverned space. The British entered Helmand with little understanding why they were there and with six hundred men. Eventually, it would require thirty five thousand US marines to pacify.

Looking at the position several years on, there is still confusion over strategy and Major-General Elliott sees Libya as a good case in point. Institutionally, there was a problem of Generals waiting for a strategy, rather than demanding one. Part of the military role is the duty to tell politicians what a given situation really is and Major-General Elliott saw little evidence that this was actually taking place. War must be controlled by a clear policy aim. Without it, 'strategy becomes an orphan'. Moreover, once the strategy becomes driven by tactics, the whole policy itself becomes compromised. Major-General Elliott concluded by reiterating the need for structures to work correctly and for institutions to work together to deliver results. Only then could the goal of prioritising strategy as a core function be realised.

Dr Christopher M Wyatt
This lecture took place as part of the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University on 02 June 2015