Programme Report

Project: International Security Department, UK Defence

James de Waal
Depending on the Right People: British Political-Military Relations, 2001–10Photo by Getty Images.

Executive Summary

There is a widespread view that Britain’s politicians should bear the main blame for the country’s military difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. In particular, they are accused of failing to heed professional military advice and of launching over-ambitious missions with insufficient resources.

Recent evidence, including from the Iraq Inquiry, shows that this view is too simplistic. Instead, Britain seems to have suffered a wider failure of the government system, with politicians, senior military officers and civil servants all playing their part.

Faced with a challenging international and domestic political situation, policy-makers often acted with good intentions but variable results. Politicians and civil servants did not wish to be accused of interfering with military planning, and so did little to ensure that military action supported political aims.

They were also apprehensive of the close relationship between the armed forces and the media, and were therefore reluctant to challenge military opinion. For their part, some senior officers showed little appreciation of the political impact of military action, while others felt their role was principally to support the institutional interests of their branch of the armed forces.

This led to decisions on the use of military force not being taken solely on the basis of national interest, but because of politicians’ wish to maintain good relations with the armed forces. In 2002–03, Britain decided to make a ground force contribution to the invasion of Iraq, with implicit responsibility for post-war security in that country’s southern provinces, primarily because politicians feared they would have problems with the British army if it was left out, and that these problems would find their way into the media. In 2009, Downing Street was not convinced of the military need to send reinforcements to Afghanistan, but agreed to do so because it wanted to prevent hostile press briefings by the military.

Some key military decisions were also taken with insufficient political oversight. In 2006, ministers took little interest in the military planning for the deployment of British forces to Helmand, and were not consulted when they moved into the north of the province, radically changing the nature of the military operation in Afghanistan.

Incoherence, inconsistency and opacity

These problems were the result of a situation in which there was no well-understood model for how ministers, senior military officers and civil servants should work together. All interpreted their roles in different ways, with effectiveness depending on the quality of individuals and the personal relationships between them. In the phrase of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, good decisions depended on ‘the right people’ being involved and behaving in the right way.

Although in theory the British model could be flexible and fast-acting, it brought incoherence, inconsistency and opacity. It was not resilient enough to deal with the extraordinary pressures of the Iraq and Afghanistan crises. It contributed to a continuing breakdown of trust between politicians and senior military officers, and disunity and division of purpose within the government.

The ad hoc British approach to political-military relations contrasts strongly with US practice, which is based on a mixture of a formal legal framework, a lively public and specialist debate, and the continuing exercise of civilian authority over the armed forces, including through the dismissal of senior officers.

Britain must learn from US experience and from its own mistakes. Although there have been a number of recent reforms to strengthen government decision-making, notably the establishment of the National Security Council, there is a case for further change.

Use of force should follow formal code

The present government remains committed to an active international role and may in the future have to deal with unexpected and dramatic crises. But, with smaller armed forces and a public that is sceptical of military intervention, it will have to improve its management and presentation of policy. It must ensure that its use of military force properly supports its political aims and is better integrated with the other levers of national power. It must satisfy the public appetite for full accountability, especially when popular support is lukewarm.

It cannot afford the divisive internal struggles of the 2001–10 period, and must operate with better discipline and unity of purpose. It therefore cannot rely on an informal approach that just ‘depends on the right people’.

Instead, the government should make its decision-making process on the use of force subject to a formal code, approved by parliament. This code should define the process through which decisions are taken, and the roles and responsibilities of those involved.

It would help preserve the political impartiality of the armed forces, underscoring that their advice must be based on their professional military assessment. It would also aid accountability by showing who gave what advice, when and why. And the code would improve the quality of decisions by providing a firm framework upon which policy-makers can rely when under pressure.

Read the full report.

In the News

UK actions in Iraq and Afghanistan wars were incoherent, report says
The Guardian, 21 November 2013

Iraq & Afghanistan: who was in charge, politicians or generals?
The Independent, 21 November 2013

Afghan conflict 'hindered' by politicians failing to monitor military
The Times, 21 November 2013