As Western militaries transition their forces towards a posture of great power contests, there will be a temptation to gloss over the last 20 years of combat experience as irrelevant to future fighting.
Peter Roberts talks to Indian scholar Anant Mishra about why this would be dangerous. Not only will the combat experience from Afghanistan and Iraq remain highly relevant, but in learning from campaign-level failure, we might identify advantages that we can leverage in order to prevail in the coming decades.
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Peter Roberts: Welcome to the Western Way of War, the weekly podcast that tries to understand the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute on Whitehall, and every week I'll talk to a guest about the issues around ways of warfare, how and why we fight, national security, and the Western approach to war.
Across the last three seasons of the show, various academics and analysts have disputed the idea, not just that the Western way of war exists but that the concept of the west in and of itself is invalid. I mean, it's a critique, right? Many of our speakers have been from NATO states, a smattering of Australians, French, Latam speakers have been on the show, but we might well have been at fault for not opening our aperture enough. What we need is a wider challenge to our thinking, something that takes us from a comfort zone with a nuanced perspective, aware of our doctrine, operational practice and histories but with a different lens. Now, I visited India a few times in uniform and was struck by the western approach of its people but the non-western leanings of part of its military. That's not just in terms of equipment but in the education of the officer cadre. It stands in stark contrast to many of the drills, routines and structures of the Indian military organisations. As I have increasing exposure to the Indian military, I've been struck by their intellectual agility in blending the best from the west and the east into a formidable percage that serves their very clear purpose and missions.
To me, it's important that we acknowledge this within our own discourse. When we think about it, we cannot simply frame militaries, their actions and activities in a polarity that says they're either western or they're not. We also get important perspectives on our operations from people who study there. One of the people I read a lot from is Anant Mishra, a researcher at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, clause, in New Delhi, whereas research is focussed on military strategy and tactics, widely published across outlets and articles this audience will be well familiar with, I've invited him on to help us explore the broader ideas of the western way of war, the character of war, and of warfare itself. Anant, thanks so much for coming on the show. Let's start with a question to set your thinking in the context of the series for the series for the listeners. What does the western way of war mean to you?
Anant Mishra: Thank you so much, Peter, to have me here, it is an absolute honour. Well, interestingly, the western way of war has, according to me, generalised in a way with a section going into one particular area, a road opening party, we call it in the Indian military terms, going in, checking out the challenges, a basic agility, identifying preliminary threats, and then if there is an engagement, I would rather call it troops and contact. We have the aid and thunderbird, or rather any air bird that is available up in the air, pumping as much as ammunitions as possible on that particular ground and then cleansing the environment of non, I would rather call it, combatants. So, this is the western way of war because this is what I see has been going on in Afghanistan, this has happened in Iraq, this has happened in Syria. So, I think this has been an example for the western world to see that this is perhaps where the army is going. This is perhaps where the military tactics are going. So, you've got, essentially, a multi-diamond operations, varied domaine, with the air assets available. You've got a single section platoon going into one particular area and that is it.
So, now, the question is that you rightly asked, what is the western way of war? It is conventional, it is absolutely conventional because it wouldn't have been conventional-, don't you think after 21 years the US troops, the ISAF would have been redundant in the flux of the Taliban Blitzkrieg. I mean, I read about Blitzkrieg in a very different sense and I do not hate to use the word Blitzkrieg. I've been hammered by the western tourists calling me-, he is labelling them as Blitzkrieg, but it is what it is. So, in 1999, it took four hours for Kabul to fall. How much longer will it take for Kabul to be, I would say, hammered, hampered by (mw 04.44)? By BM21s? So, the Russian assets were there available, the Taliban went in, they hammered the city, and then they simply went in. I mean, it's just like, welcome to Kabul, the gates are open. If that is possible in a 21st Century environment and we've got many military think tanks talking about non-conventional warfare, fancy, fancy words, I call it, irregular warfare. Oh, my God, what happened to the irregularity in Afghanistan? Because at the end of the day, irregularity was a game, was the plan, was the game of action in Afghanistan. So, essentially, the west went in, they forgot their irregular warfare doctrine, perhaps in Fort Leavenworth, I don't know, because that is how I see it. If Taliban can redo everything the west did in 21 years, well, I do have to really find the intellectual definition of conventional operations, I believe.
Peter Roberts: That's really fascinating, because you combine there both what I think lots of people will express, you know, the idea that the western way of war is expeditionary, it's light footprint, it's heavy on fire power. It's dependent at the moment on air power, close air support being available, it's specialist people with JTACs, it's connected force and it has a mission, but I think more interestingly, you talk about this idea, of it's conventional, it's regular, that in many ways it's orthodox, it's the way we fight. I mean, generally, as the way you describe it, the character of the way we fought in Afghanistan hasn't changed over 20 years. Indeed, you could probably go back longer than that, right back to AirLand Battle in the 1980s, say we haven't changed the way we thought in 50 years despite all the buzz words and the equipment and the precision, and the new technology that's arrived. We haven't changed at all. It feels to me like you're saying that we just, perhaps, have forgotten the intellectual part of what we're doing, that actually we've focussed on our equipment, on doing stuff better, but we haven't gone back to basics, is that right?
Anant Mishra: Absolutely, yes, and ironically, most of the military leaders have read about what T. E. Lawrence did, who T. E. Lawrence was, but then the question, after seeing Afghanistan fall in the hands of the Taliban is, have they even read it? I know commanders that they have T. E. Lawrence and Little Heart right there on the shelf, perhaps surrounded by some spiderwebs and cobwebs in and around but then, have they actually went in and read it? Because, if they did, they wouldn't have faced Afghanistan at the end of the day, they wouldn't have faced the fall of Afghanistan. I mean, glorification of a conventional operations, in clocking it in an unconventionality is not the need of the year. It's like trying to undo something what eventually wasn't done. So, at the end of the day, when the society is there to build up, when the society is fractured, what do they do? They went in to support the society and then blew everything apart that the society called for, and then they just, I don't know, exit. So, that comes into my mind because if T. E. Lawrence would have been here he would have been very happy, reason being is, he's the only man who did it the right way. So, in what? Roughly 100 years, we have never learned from him. Writing about books, talking about everything, talking about conventional operations, talking about unconventional operations, you've got the conferences going on and intelligence operations, MISO, what the US army calls it, but then at the end of the day, why do the operational leaders, the military commanders forget the application of what they study in intellectual schools, in military institutions, and forgot to apply in operational areas. That is something that amazes me.
Peter Roberts: I was reading, recently, an account of a visit to SOCOM when Admiral Olson was the commander and he made a big thing about, 'We need more Lawrences, we need a Lawrence for Afghanistan, we need one for South-East Asia, we need them for the Indo-Pacific.' So, his idea was there, he absolutely got it and yet there seems to be a problem in how Western militaries translate that desire, even of really senior commanders, into making it happen with their force packages. I don't know, what do you think? Is there a sort of, some kind of systemic issue with how we translate our aspirations and the aspirations of senior leaders into the reality of people on the ground? Is it the fact that we just don't have the people? Was there only ever going to be one T. E. Lawrence, or is it something to do with how we structure our militaries?
Anant Mishra: I think it is, so there are interesting, two questions that you've asked, and I'll give the answer simultaneously and I've just got one answer for you for both of them. Do we need T. E. Lawrence? Absolutely, yes, but how do we need T. E. Lawrence, in what capacity? We've got T. E. Lawrences embedded in our society who has been studying society, who've been studying ethnic conflicts for a very long time. We don't need them as Deans in universities, we don't need them as head of departments in universities, we need their operational experiences. Why can't they be a part of the operational airspace, operational environment where they can assist the coalition commanders in trying to identify and simplify the solutions, perhaps, to a complex problem. Another thing is, it's not (TC 00:10:00) the expectations of the military commanders that is here at base, it's the expectations of the society, the people who have been hampered, the people who have been mesmerised with a change of political, or any of the leadership from one way or the other. So, I'll give an example to you, Mohamed Atta and Mohamed Mahaket (ph 10.20) who are two phenomenal, I would rather call it, exceptional, highly experienced commanders, tribal leaders in Afghanistan. So, wherever they, then the ISAF was there. So, the question is, were they used? Were they used in a political capacity is a question one, were they used in a military capacity is a question two, were they used to build up, restructure the society in a holistic way? In a way that would permanently inhibit Taliban from ever encroaching Hinterland? So, is the sub-question the military commander at the ISAF spoke to any regional or rural tribal leader on numerous occasions? I mean, it's simple.
The people in Afghanistan never thought that the Americans will come in and they'll go, and that is precisely the reason the ANA never built up, they never thought. So, now, three years ago, there's a stop clock, there's a watch which says we are going in three years. So, even then, was the society accepted to this exit, systematic exit, or rather I would call it abrupt exit? I mean, you know, the western leaders, the western tourists, they argue on this. Why do I say 'systematic exit'? It is a systematic exit because the exit was planned systematically. Not the incursion of the troops. So, they just simply went in, they tried to restructure the western way, not the Afghanistan way, not the Afghan way. So, essentially, they never knew what the Afghan society comprises of, how many Hazaras are there in Bamiyan? How many Pashtuns are there in Herat? How may, lets say, Uzbeks are there in the southern districts? So, if the coalition forces do not know where does a person live, the ethnic identity of the person, the ethnic dimensions of the society, isn't it difficult for the coalition forces to build up a fractured society even after 20 years?
That is precisely why the Taliban came in, because Taliban was an example, Taliban was an option, rather I would call it, for many of the Afghans there, living in the Hinterlands, Taliban was the only way because, why? The west did not have that reach. So, the west tried to provide as much as they can, as much as they can to the Afghans, but then did that give an output of what the west wanted? So, essentially, the west came in and gave something else, Afghans wanted something else. T. E. Lawrence, to bring in again, I'm amazed to have him reappear in our conversations over and over again. T. E. Lawrence would have been surprised to see as to a conflict whose epitome, on numerous discussions and numerous papers we've talked about, that a civil society is the basis of it, the civil society is the helm of it, was forgotten in this case for 20 long years.
Peter Roberts: It always strikes me as interesting that when we talk about transmissions from the west, about building capacity for others, that we often remake those forces in our own image. So, one of the core reasons people say that the Afghan national army and security forces failed because we remade them in a western way, it wasn't just that they were dependent on fire power that a national army is counter cultural to a country that is, as Roy Steward put it, a country of 20,000 villages. It's not a central city, a capital, a nation state as we would understand it in western interpretations and we got that badly wrong but, I guess, aside from all that, I can see now in the west that there is almost a conscious effort to gloss over 21 years of history. This is the reason why we won't remember the experiences of T. E. Lawrence and we won't remember the experiences of Afghanistan, there's a bit of a blame game going on but effectively, the discourse, in military circles in particular, is shifting. It's now about China, it's about great power competition, and we're just white washing everything out from the irregular warfare 'challenge' that we've been talking about for the last 20 years. Do you think that there are still lessons from Afghanistan that we should be taking forward, or are military leaders right in their ubiquitous attempts just to gloss over the military experiences of the last 20 year?
Anant Mishra: Absolutely yes, and and this precisely an example, a case study, not only limited to military institutions, books being written on it, plethora of articles, I mean, I'm surprised. Those who have never been in Afghanistan are doing Afghanistan expos these days, and the audacity that they argue with their comments and their agility in their arguments, it's surprising, and the reason being here is, Afghanistan is a perfect example for military commanders as to why insurgency was, in spite of being taught into military institutions, failed. It failed, in the eyes of the western world but then, again, they were highly mistaken. The counterinsurgency elements were failed, so, rather than teaching into, let's say, staff colleges, staff appointments and military colleges, these should have practical implications. So, the thing is, is there a doctrine that says if this happens, what do we do? Is there a dedicated counterinsurgency doctrine that says, 'Oh, we've got a linguist, we've got an ethicist, we've got an ethno-graphic expert, we've got a typography expert, we've got somebody, and expert who was, let's say, an experienced, you know, somebody who studies society as well as we do.' It's the sadness of it, a military commander, normally I've seen this, a military commander comes with the tenacity of, 'Oh, I know everything here,' and again, when the military commander intend to apply all solutions to this particular problem and the military commander says, 'Oh, one stop solution for all,' because where I studied in my military college, I studied in my military institutions, this was the way I was taught.
So, applying one stop solutions for all is not the answer to this. Insurgency is as fluidity today as anywhere else and, I mean, Mao said it. So, we've got a lot of plethora of experts singing the songs of what Mao said and I'm not one of them, but then I do intend to follow Mao by saying that, in his own words, he said, 'If people, if the masses, if the community are the pond, the guerrilla are the fish. So, in what other way, our military commander, our coalition leader, our applicant commander I must say, I do not bring in company and platoon commanders normally in this equation but they are the first responders, so don't they have enough room in decision-making to manoeuvre, as to what they should do and what options do they have? Because they are the first ones on the ground, so rallying information up to the chain of command takes time, everybody knows this, it's not a new information that I'm giving you but if the platoon commander or the company commander at the lower national levels is able to make decisions appropriately, understand the ethnic dimensions, the societal architecture of that particular area where he's going, don't you think, Peter, in Europe in the end, things would have been understood in a better way? To analyse in a better way to the commanders who are living up on top, trying to decipher what is exactly going on, on the ground.
Peter Roberts: To me, you hit the nail on the head. The problem is that we've written this stuff down. So, it exists within counterinsurgency manuals, it exists as the aspiration of commanders, it's whether it's Olsen, or Petraeus, or whoever is writing these plans, they have them, this is core to their understanding and yet they fail to deliver. The focus gate shifted, that it's on the next bio-security project that needs to be delivered. It's about getting the right software to find radios in place, it's not about getting the right people. We seem to have forgotten those human skills, the anthropology, the human behaviourologists that we need in the headquarters as driving the activity, and on top of all that, I don't see it changing. I don't know if you do, because we don't seem to hold anyone to account for it. The failures, the military failures that happened in failing to put the headquarters together in the right way, the failure to prioritise the right people and the right skill sets, who do we hold to account for that? Who do we ask for their explanations and who do we hold up and say, 'Right, as a result, this is the outcome for you?' How do we incentivise better behaviours from our military leaders? And I don't see that changing, I don't know if you do. I mean, do you think we didn't record the right skills or do you just think there is a deeper problem?
Anant Mishra: Well, according to me, it's the optics here that is at play, and the optics is, you've got too much to do, you've got a set agenda, this is how it is done. I do not know of any commander who did not go into his command area of operations without a rulebook. So, essentially, when you're sending a fresh out of command school, perhaps, a young commander who's got tremendous energy, efficiency, but then at the end of the day, you're tying his hands with what? A rulebook, that says, 'There was a study which says this, there was a study which says this,' so this particular commander goes in with the rulebook tied to his hand and he just can't shake it off. So, when a topic such as insurgency which is as fluid as the people, the behaviour of the people, that is as intrinsic to the society, to the core, he has a set of skills that he needs to implement, that is it. He does not manoeuvre out of anything, he just manoeuvres out of a rulebook. So, if the rulebook says you need an anthropologist, this particular commander focuses on anthropology. If the rulebook does not say that there's a need to employ an anthropologist, the military commander will not even look for it. If a junior commander (TC 00:20:00) intends to identify, that expands his manoeuvrability, or intends to identify that option, I think his hands are tied, too, but then he does not get to call the shots. So, if any of the commanders who have the ability to take a free hand, let the (mw 20.16) commanders take the free hand and listen to what the experts are saying. I think the high (mw 20.22) commanders will get a better picture but, again, the high (mw 20.25) commanders are again tied to a rulebook.
This is need to do, there has to be on a need to know basis, there has to be on a need to do basis and then the biggest thing of all, the clock. So, you put everything to them, every skill, every asset, every rule and regulation, every international humanitarian law, laws of conflict, LSC, whatever you intend to throw them at, but then there's a clock which says, 'We are leaving in two years, we are leaving in three years.' So, whatever that military commander intends to do, he will not be able to implement it because he will not be able to see it grow. So, in three years, if the timeline to expand gets finished, you may not have the same military commander at the end of that timeline. So, a fresh commander comes in, then the fresh commander starts to look at the perspectives in a fresh way. So, he's going to essentially undo whatever this particular initial military commander did with a fresh pair of eyes. So, what do you do with them? How can you teach them stuff? How can you teach them the ethnic base society, the conflict within society that has been written a dozen times. It cannot happen through a PhD programme, it cannot happen through an academic curriculum, it happens with opening their perspective in an environment where there are no rules, where there are no, I would say, there is no book, no red book, no clock attached. Let the commander identify the issue, identify the challenge, analyse, assess, I would rather call it do what he does best, without giving his more of a headache as to what he has to do or what he doesn't.
Peter Roberts: But those two things, both the rulebook and the clock, are externally set. It would take huge political will to walk in and go, 'Yes, we're going to throw all the international legal obligations and commitments that we've made out the window.' That, actually, the rules of, laws of our conflict, Geneva convention, whichever ones you want, those no longer apply to this fight. Even if you could persuade the public and the population who voted for you, a politician, it would be a very rare politician that could do that and I think most military leaders would balk at the idea of what they were being asked to do in terms of permissions and mission, rather than the freedoms they were given, but the clock is also something that, politically, it's very hard to tie to, this idea that you would retain a mission beyond 21 years for no perceivable output, it's a really impossible political dynamic to set. So, is there something that we can apply to military leaders, rather than at a political level, or is this something that becomes the political problem? Is the failure actually coming right from the top about how we set up militaries in society today?
Anant Mishra: It's a very interesting question and, at the end of the day, I would rather say, winning hearts and minds is a political solution, implemented by military leaders in the right way but, it does not take a right military commander to convey the outcomes of winning hearts and minds as a strategy to the political leadership. So, it may sound too bookish to you, but I may over simplify it by simply saying, keeping the civilian community, the local masses, their ideas, their objectives, their achievements, their intentions, welcoming them with an open heart, as they have welcomed you with an open heart, conveying the right message to the political leadership is the only way, because the political leadership may pressurise, may have the intent to rather politicise a campaign. Let's say the campaign of Afghanistan, but a military commander has to make a certain priority as to what it is that's right and what is it that is needed in an absolute capacity. The local masses' objectives, the task that is being played by hand for the military commander towards the local leadership is absolutely necessary. It is irreplaceable and it is above reproach. So, if you say this, and I've been hampered on this, if the president appoints a military commander to go into Afghanistan, and the Afghanistan military commander there, recently appointed, listens to the Afghan people more than the president himself, then is that an applicable solution?
Absolutely not, but, you know what the solution is. If you listen to the president then the Afghan people, you'll be ousted in 21 years. If you listen to the Afghan people, then the president, you'll be there and you'll be there in a way that is accepted by the civil community. The objective is to do the things right, to do the things the local way. Street smart, as we call it in India, you need to play the street smart card. There has to be a certain application, there has to be a certain cognition of rules of engagement that are needed to play. That falls at the helm of a military commander. That is not the prerogative of the president to decide. The president has nominated a military commander to do so. It is his prerogative how to do it, but again, talking to the political perspective, it is the political parties who intend to have results being, let's say, valued on the basis of how much money has been pumped up by the donor community or the donor country, but at the end of the day, if you do not do so, whether it is 21 years, whether it is 40 years, you will be ousted. That is the lesson we learned from Vietnam and, again, sadly, again, after deliberating on so much, written on so much, again in Afghanistan.
Peter Roberts: But it strikes me that when we're talking about applying clocks and rulebooks that, actually, it's, in many ways, quite dangerous to think that, yet, there is a single set of ubiquitous answers because each of these problems is very contextual and political leaders need to have the freedom to apply one set of rulebooks and one set of clocks to one problem, and another set of rules and another set of rules and a different set of clocks to a different problem. So, whether it's you're facing local problems with neighbours to the east and to the north, or whether it's about facing two oceans, or whether it's about poles apart, actually, what you need to be able to do is apply different frameworks from militaries in different ways, ensuring that their longevity of command is there, that their connection is right to the people. But, you will need to have a different set of responses in military terms depending on each context you face. I mean, for India, it's a different set of rules that they're playing in the contest with India than it is in terms of the deterrence mission with Pakistan. These are very, very different ways of thinking about each of these theatres, these campaigns, if you like.
Anant Mishra: Yes, absolutely. So, I'll tell you the difference between insurgency operations in India and Afghanistan and they're pretty simple. The differences is only one, the west went into a country they never knew of, and I do not say this out of sheer hesitation, they never knew the country at all. In India, the insurgency perspective is basically, I would say, cordoned off by the troops that are born in that particular region, so taking an example of Kashmir, you've got a lot of troops who were born in Kashmir, have served in the Indian army and are being deployed there. So, essentially, if I say this, if there is an insurgency going on, developing in my area, that I am being born in, I may get to serve in that particular region. So, people know me, I know the alleys, I know where to go, I know which is the closest market, I know the individual selling bread there, I know the individual selling vegetables there. That wasn't the case for Americans in Afghanistan, they didn't even know who their neighbour was, but all the Afghans knew where the American base was. So, it's the optics that has to be played. So, interestingly, I'll tell you, a friend of mine, apparently, I would rather call it a sad demise, he was killed in Honduras, and he said to me once, 'The concept of the ENA is pretty simple, it's the western way of an army. At the end of the day, if we simply look at it, we are still the Hasaras, we are still the Pashtuns, we are still the Uzbeks, stitched together in the American way or the western way, to form an army.'
So, I asked him once out of sheer curiosity, 'Do you agree with this?' And then he said, 'I agree because I have a family, but then if you'd have asked me otherwise, I will not leave my land from Kunduz and go to Herat to fight another war.' So, it is as simple as that, a soldier living in Kunduz, fighting for an ANA, does not believe in the concept of the whole Afghanistan, which was introduced to him, the concept of Afghanistan was introduced to him 20 years later, he is still into that ethnic society who's tribal leader is more prominent. His tribal leader is more prominent to him than perhaps his own commander, that is precisely the reason why the ANA fell like a block of cards, and in accordance to some of the information that I received from unconfirmed sources, the ANA surrendered (TC 00:30:00) in spite of outnumbering the Taliban on certain occasions. Why is that? That is precisely this, that the difference between the insurgency.
Peter Roberts: Anant, that's brilliant. We've run out of time, thank you very much indeed, and thank you all for you feedback, comments, and banter about the show. I do try and respond to each and everything that we get sent but I am, again, a bit behind the curb. Please indulge me, and I'll come back to you very soon. This show is produced by Peppi Vaananen and Kieron Yates, and is sponsored by the good people at Raytheon UK. I really appreciate the opportunity and freedoms they give me to continue these conversations. Thanks for listening.
KEY: Unable to decipher = (inaudible + timecode), Phonetic spelling (ph) + timecode), Missed word = (mw + timecode), Talking over each other = (talking over each other + timecode).
Western Way of War Podcast Series
A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s. We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.
The podcast is kindly sponsored and enabled by Raytheon UK, a subsidiary of Raytheon technology, a British company that creates jobs in England, Wales and Scotland, contributing over 700 million pounds to the UK economy.
Professor Peter Roberts
Director, Military Sciences