Let the Soldiers do the Fighting, says the General

Britain’s former chief of staff says politicians have undermined military strategy by meddling, leading Putin and Islamic State to despise the West

Defence Features
Outspoken but not always right: General Sir David (now Lord) Richards (right) with the former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Kabul

During his three-year tenure as head of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, General Sir David Richards was never shy about speaking his mind. On one occasion, shortly after his appointment as Chief of the Defence Staff, his outspokenness even earned a public rebuke from David Cameron who, following a characteristically robust Richardesque intervention on the conduct of the Libyan conflict in 2011, remarked, “You do the fighting, and I’ll do the talking.”

Politicians and their senior military advisers rarely see eye-to-eye especially in times of conflict. During the Second World War General Sir Alan Brooke constantly clashed with Winston Churchill over strategy, at one point denouncing the Prime Minister as a “public menace”.

Richards never went quite that far, but Cameron’s desire to achieve a quick victory in the campaign to overthrow Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi often placed him at odds with his most senior military adviser. Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, as he has now become, explains in his highly opinionated autobiography, Taking Command (Headline, £20), that the origins of the very public spat between the Prime Minister and himself lay in Cameron’s desire to make Gaddafi himself the direct target of military action.

In common with many other senior members of the government, Cameron believed that if Gaddafi were to be killed or captured, resistance would quickly crumble and success would be assured. But Richards, scarred by his experience of the Iraq conflict, insisted the campaign must be fought within the parameters of international law, which did not allow for Gaddafi to be made a target per se unless he was located in a military complex or another setting where he was helping to direct the war.

Ambushed by a BBC reporter as he left Downing Street after giving Cameron a progress report on the state of the campaign, Richards stated bluntly that, in his opinion, Gaddafi was not a legal target, thereby provoking the Prime Minister’s public reproach.

This unseemly episode might easily have been avoided if Richards had observed the custom practised by other senior Whitehall officials of leaving the building by a more discreet exit, such as the underground passageways that connect Whitehall’s various government domains, thereby avoiding contact with the pesky media. But that is not Richards’s style, and the media-savvy general would have been more than aware that, simply by airing his view in public, he had put a stop to any more dangerous talk in government circles about conducting war by illegal means.

This anecdote from Richards’s memoir is worth highlighting because, at a time when we still face the depressing possibility of engaging in conflict on many fronts, it provides a telling insight into the strains and tensions that will inevitably arise among those responsible for making sure any form of military intervention is a success.

The Libya campaign might now be a distant memory — and, given the chaotic state we’ve left the country in, politicians will hope to keep it that way in the run-up to the general election — but there are many other serious challenges looming on the horizon that are likely to occupy our attention for the foreseeable future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bizarre conduct at the G20 summit in Australia, where he arrived backed by a mini-armada of Russian warships and left early complaining of lack of sleep, suggest the days when we might hope the Kremlin could once more be Europe’s ally are long gone. At the same time as Russia’s maverick leader was trying to reassure his Australian hosts, Russian tanks and heavily artillery were violating Ukraine’s sovereign integrity by moving into pro-Russian enclaves in the east of the country.

No Western leader seriously believes that we are about to go to war over Russia’s illegal meddling in Crimea and Ukraine. Indeed, while Nato is carefully monitoring Russia’s military manoeuvres in Ukraine, the organisation’s chief military officer, US General Philip Breedlove, insists the alliance has no plans to intervene in the crisis.

If Nato policymakers are reluctant to become involved in what many commentators have termed the new Cold War, the same cannot be said for some member states like Britain and the US, which truly understand the implications of Putin’s antics. If Putin can get away with his meddling in Ukraine and Crimea, then what is to prevent him from applying his bully-boy tactics to other former Soviet republics, such as the Baltic states or central Europe? A recent discussion on Russia’s new-found spirit of aggression at a sub-committee of the National Security Council in London came to the grim conclusion that, unless there is a radical change in Putin’s conduct, the Russian leader is likely to have caused a new European war by the end of the decade.

The British Army, for one, is wasting no time in preparing for such an eventuality, having, this autumn, dispatched a 2,000-strong armoured battle group to Poland — the furthest east, so a senior British officer proudly told me, that British tanks have ever been deployed in Europe — to conduct exercises designed to curb any future territorial adventures the Kremlin might be tempted to undertake.

Elsewhere the attention-grabbing exploits of Islamic State, with its seemingly endless stream of grotesque videos showing the beheadings of captured Syrian soldiers and Western hostages, will require serious attention if Islamist fanatics are to be prevented from achieving their goal of maintaining an independent Caliphate, which can be used to terrorise the local population, as well as being used as a safe haven which can be used to bring mass slaughter to the streets of Europe.

The problem for the West, though, is that, more than a decade after the September 11 attacks, we are still struggling to work out how best to respond to threats to our security. Large-scale military interventions such as those undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan are now out of the question because they are deemed to be too costly and are unpopular with voters. More targeted operations, such as the Libya campaign, which rely on air power and local proxies to achieve the war aims, thereby removing the need for Western combat forces, or “boots on the ground”, are now the preferred option. But this model also has its faults, as the absence of a ground component means we do not have the ability to maintain stability once the fighting is over, which was very much the case in Libya following Gaddafi’s demise.

Add to this the dramatic reductions in defence spending that are taking place in Europe and America, and it is easy to understand why Islamist militants and autocrats like Putin believe the West no longer has the stomach for a fight.

Having spent 42 years as a soldier on the front line of the numerous military challenges Britain has faced, Richards has some sound advice on how we should address these threats in future. Like most military men, Richards prefers strategy to tactics, and he believes that failing to have an over-arching strategy that defines Britain’s approach is the reason so many of our recent military responses have lacked conviction.

In Richards’s view, “Vital national interests must be the arbiter of our foreign policy and the key determinant of our strategies, not the well-intentioned instinct to intervene half-heartedly on behalf of vocal but frequently unrepresentative minorities, whose exploits can lead to years of misery for unconsulted populations. Even a rapidly mounted humanitarian intervention must be rooted in a politically workable framework.”

Richards probably had Britain’s incoherent response to the Syrian crisis in mind when he wrote those words, and the government’s failure to identify properly where Britain’s national interests lie in that conflict, and then devise a strategy to deal with it, are the reasons we now find ourselves in so much difficulty. As Richards makes clear, from an early stage in the civil war the government’s primary objective was “the removal of the discredited Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad”. But rather than deal decisively with Assad the West “dithered on the sidelines”, and ended up exacerbating the humanitarian crisis that so concerned ministers. Our support for rebel groups merely prolonged the war without delivering a decisive outcome, with the result that the longer the fighting continued, the more the country fractured, with Muslim extremists increasingly taking the advantage.

Richards concludes his book with the depressing prediction that the most likely outcome now is that Assad will survive in power at the head of a rump Syria, with other areas controlled by groups such as Islamic State, who are ideologically opposed to the West and to our friends in the region. In other words, because no one in Whitehall had a clear-cut strategy for getting rid of Assad, we have now ended up with an even worse mess, with IS fighters seemingly able to decapitate Western captives at will.

One of the themes of Richards’s book is that, if only the politicians paid more attention to the advice offered by professional soldiers such as himself, then many of these problems might have been averted. But when you consider some of the alternative options Richards offers, you appreciate that soldiers, too, are not infallible. Richards’s solution to the early stages of the Syrian crisis was to equip and train a Syrian rebel army which would eventually be able to march on Damascus and overthrow the Assad regime.

I doubt there is any Western politician who believes that it makes good sense to introduce more arms and weapons skills to a region that is already awash with munitions. Then, when IS becomes the main target as opposed to Assad, Richards advocates forming an alliance with Assad and Putin, both suggestions that have no traction in the West whatsoever, and are unlikely to do so for many years to come.

Lord Richards may not have all the answers to the challenges we are likely to face in future, but, given his long and distinguished service as a front-line soldier, he certainly makes a number of valid criticisms of the way modern democracies prosecute wars, and offers some useful suggestions about how we can avoid the errors that have undermined recent military efforts. In essence, his message to any politician thinking of embarking on a military campaign is: think before you act.