Iran’s Afghanistan Policy: At odds with Trump?

By Dr. Amir M. Kamel

The prospect of the US president-elect Donald Trump’s Administration has led to ripples across the international system, not least in the Middle East. Indeed, at the time of writing, Trump had pledged to reduce the US tendency to carry out foreign interventions. Significantly, this included harsh criticisms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (i.e. the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the US, UK, France, Russia, China, plus Germany). The problems this may cause have implications for Iran’s neighbours, Afghanistan in particular. Not least as a result of Tehran’s own interests in Kabul.

Indeed, in a recent book chapter, titled ‘Iran in Afghanistan: Rejecting Foreign Presence’ in Afghanistan’s Regional Dilemmas: South Asia and Beyond, I argue that Iran’s ties with Afghanistan are increasingly driven by Tehran’s interests. Specifically, this pertains to the Islamic Republic of Iran regime’s (IRI) dedication to 1) rejecting foreign presence in the region, as well as 2) providing economic and political support to a Taliban-free Kabul. Predictably, such a dual-barreled policy has led Tehran to take contradictory actions since 2001. That being said, the IRI has continued to implement a policy which aimed to sure up its interests, particularly in light of the post-2014 withdrawal of the United States of America (US) led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military personnel from Afghanistan.

A key part of this is Iran’s influence over its neighbour, whether it be as a result of the shared cultural history between the two countries or the fact that opium trade is able to flow across the border, which was identified by the outgoing President Barack Obama Administration choke-point for constraining the Taliban. The feeling of cooperation and shared interests is seemingly mutual. Indeed, for nearly two years, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Iran twice a week in a drive to increase Afghanistan-Iran trade. The fact that Ghani has made such a concerted effort to boost economic ties with Tehran is further evidence of Iran’s interest in ensuring stability in Kabul.

With this in mind, it would seem apparent that an ‘onside’ Iran would also serve the potential interests of the Trump Administration. Indeed, one could speculate that the tearing up of the JCPOA, which already has its critics in Iran (most notably in the form of the more conservative political forces in the country), would hamper Tehran’s ability and propensity to align itself to the US (and broader) interests in stabilising Afghanistan. Whilst it is still unclear what Trump’s policy toward the region will be, the rhetoric in the run-up to what will be the 45th President of the US’ time in office, does not seem positive for Tehran’s interests in Kabul. The hope is that this will become more clear after January 20, 2017.

Image: Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani meeting with Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani in Saadabad Palace, April 19, 2015. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



Even before the release of the Chilcot Report on 6th July 2016 the reputation of Tony Blair was tarnished by the controversies surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War (2003-2009), his relationship with former President George W. Bush, and the flawed decision-making which took the UK into this conflict. One side-effect of Operation Telic is that it has contributed to the retrospective rehabilitation of another former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, with particular reference to his reaction to the Vietnam War. Wilson is now praised for refusing to send British forces to fight in this conflict, and he has been held up as an example that Blair should have followed.

The comparisons between both conflicts and the leaders concerned are superficially attractive. Both involved Labour Prime Ministers who entered office comparatively young (in their late forties), on the back of electoral disaffection with a tired and discredited Conservative government, and both presented themselves as technocrats who were also down with the kids – Wilson gave the Beatles MBEs, Blair invited Noel Gallagher to No.10. Both faced a dilemma when a Texan President asked them to commit British troops to fight as part of a US-led alliance in a foreign conflict, and had to balance the strategic requirement to uphold the ‘special relationship’ with the political consequences of participating in a war condemned as illegitimate and unjust by a swathe of international opinion, not to mention the ranks of the Labour Party and a vocal anti-war movement.

At face value, Wilson made a significant – and, in the view of his latter-day defenders, brave – decision to refuse Lyndon Johnson’s requests for military support. The reality of the historical record is more complex.

Wilson was originally from the left of Labour, although by the time he became Prime Minister in October 1964 he had moved to the centre, and also selected a Shadow Cabinet from the ‘Atlanticist’ right of the party. During his first premiership (October 1964-June 1970) his two Chancellors (James Callaghan and Roy Jenkins), three Foreign Secretaries (Patrick Gordon-Walker, Michael Stewart and George Brown) and Defence Secretary (Denis Healey) were right-wingers who were firmly – if not uncritically – pro-American. Nonetheless Wilson preserved his links with the Labour left via Cabinet colleagues like Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle, and he was conscious that Vietnam was in issue which could fracture party unity. This became an increasingly greater problem as the war continued, and as the core of hard-left MPs were reinforced by more centrist colleagues who were appalled by the humanitarian suffering caused by the conflict, and feared that US escalation could provoke a disastrous war with China, and possibly the USSR too.

The Prime Minister was in a bind. The USA was not only Britain’s most important alliance partner, but was also providing financial assistance to prevent the devaluation of the pound. However, Wilson feared escalation, and also fretted over the fact that the conflict between the USA and North Vietnam undermined his efforts to promote improved Anglo-Soviet relations. Wilson did also share the humanitarian concerns of many Labour MPs over the war’s death toll, and had a genuine (if inflated) conviction that it was his role to play peacemaker. As a result, the Labour leader presented the Johnson administration with the following compromise.

Unlike Australia or New Zealand, Britain would not commit a contingent to fight in South Vietnam; officially because the UK was overstretched in the low-level war (or ‘confrontation’) with Indonesia over Borneo, and also because as co-chair of the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina it was obliged to promote a negotiated solution to the war in Vietnam. But unlike the French President Charles de Gaulle Wilson resisted appeals from Labour backbenchers to condemn US policy in Indochina, offering diplomatic backing for the American war effort, repeatedly declaring that Washington DC was fully justified in supporting the Saigon regime. In essence, British policy on Vietnam was to prove Johnson with all support short of troops.

The Chilcot hearings and the report show that in the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003 there was vociferous support – not just in Cabinet but also within the Chiefs of Staff (COS) and also the intelligence services – for a British contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom. In contrast, Wilson’s compromise over Vietnam was essentially unchallenged in Whitehall. Although Cabinet colleagues like Stewart were prepared to publicly defend US policy, Cabinet Ministers, the Foreign Office, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Ministry of Defence and the COS alike were  collectively unwilling to commit British soldiers to a fight with the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army. The British armed forces were after all already overstretched by their NATO commitments, and also the ‘confrontation’ in Borneo (1962-1966) and the fruitless counter-insurgency campaign in Aden and South Arabia (1962-1967).

So even if Cabinet colleagues (notably the ever resentful and occasionally well-lubricated Brown) and Foreign Office diplomats were critical of Wilson’s posturing over peace proposals, the policy of non-involvement was never contested. The UK did find discreet means of assisting the US war effort – soldiers from the British Special Air Service on secondment with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts apparently did see combat in South Vietnam – but the idea of even a token overt commitment to the conflict (the ‘platoon of Highlanders with bagpipes’, as LBJ put it) was never seriously mooted in Whitehall.

Wilson hoped that his compromise would satisfy LBJ and the Labour left. It did neither. Johnson and his officials were privately contemptuous of the British Prime Minister, and regarded his repeated engagement with peace initiatives with ill-concealed scorn. Responding to one request for a summit meeting, LBJ replied (with typical profanity) ‘[we] have got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open and his pecker hanging out, peeing all over me’. Meanwhile, Wilson himself faced a barrage of invective and fury from anti-war activists, backbench MPs and press critics which was as vitriolic as that which Blair received forty years later. In April 1965 the satirical journal Private Eye printed a front page cartoon by Gerald Scarfe showing Wilson applying his tongue to Johnson’s rear – an image which makes the more recent renditions of Blair as Bush’s lapdog look tame.  Wilson also faced public displays of hostility which at times descended into violence. After one visit to Cambridge in October 1967 the Prime Minister was mobbed in his car by protesters who called him a ‘right-wing bastard’ and a ‘Vietnam murderer’, and he had to be rescued by police.

Wilson received little if any contemporary praise for keeping British boys out of the Mekong Delta or the Central Highlands, or for trying to get the US and North Vietnamese to the conference table. Domestic opponents of the war saw him as a hypocrite who facilitated American imperialism and war crimes against a small and weak South-East Asian country. The US President and his inner circle for their part despised him, regarding him as a faithless ally who had failed to come to their aid. This sentiment was expressed by the habitually Anglophile Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, during the last months of Johnson’s presidency, when he shouted at one Times journalist ‘[when] the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you!’

After Chilcot, and with the memory of 179 servicemen and women killed in Iraq, it is difficult to see how Blair could get the same revisionist reappraisal that Wilson received after his death. Nonetheless, any historian who has studied the Prime Minister depicted as the ‘Yorkshire Walter Mitty’ will find it ironic that Wilson is being presented as the model that Blair should have followed with respect to Anglo-American relations and the Iraq war. For in the eyes of his contemporary critics, Wilson was as discredited and as compromised over Vietnam as ‘Bush’s poodle’ is now.

Images: Harold Wilson at a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara  and  Tony Blair at the 50th Munich Security Conference, 31st January 2014; photograph taken by Marc Müller, both via wikimedia commons.

Iraq: not the first British disaster … and it’s unlikely to be the last


After seven years, the Chilcot inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war finally has been released. Its conclusions are an excoriating critique of the limitations in British strategy and policy in 2003. The inquiry has identified a raft of issues: that war was not the last resort and that alternatives to military action were not fully explored; that the public case for war was built on evidence that did not reflect the uncertain nature of the actual intelligence; that the government was woefully unprepared for the post-conflict context; and that, in the end, Britain failed to achieve its key objectives. There may be many consequences. The Chilcot inquiry may reflect, as Sir Martin Gilbert has hoped, ‘an important milestone in government willingness to confront contentious issues’; or it may result in, as Alex Salmond as called for, the beginning of a ‘political reckoning’ for those most associated publicly with Britain’s decision to go to war. But Phillipe Sands, QC, has noted that the inquiry’s crucial role should be to ensure that ‘lessons will be learned that will allow us to make sure it never happens again’. Lessons undoubtedly will be identified, but whether they make another Iraq debacle impossible is more doubtful.

The eminent repeatability of the events of 2003 is evident when one examines two overarching themes identified by the Chilcot enquiry that weave themselves throughout the detail of the government’s decision-making over Iraq. The first is internal in nature, and it concerned the government’s decision-making processes; the second is external, and it was the priority accorded in British calculations to the ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

In terms of government’s decision-making processes in 2003, Chilcot notes their informality and ad-hoc nature. Cabinet often was informed of decisions rather than debating them. The inquiry identifies, in consequence, that there needed to be a ‘collective discussion by a Cabinet Committee or a small group of ministers’ on a number of crucial issues, including the political and legal implications of recourse to military options, and the potential difficulties in the post-conflict situation. In future, Chilcot recommends the creation of ‘a more structured process’ to ‘probe and challenge’ government options. Indeed, in such structures as the National Security Council, Britain already has more refined security policy decision-making mechanisms than existed in 2003. But it is doubtful if such changes would effect any revolutionary improvement in the quality of British strategy-making. The challenge for the Blair government in 2003 was the operation of two pervasive policy influences: uncertainty and beliefs.

There is generally in international relations an enormous gap between what decision-makers actually know as objective fact and what they would need to know to make fully considered, rational decisions. Decision-makers fill this gap with beliefs: beliefs about what it is right to do; beliefs about what will work and what the outcomes will be. Chilcot identifies Blair’s belief that Saddam Hussein was ‘a monster’ and that his regime represented a threat. This was reinforced by a set of ‘ingrained beliefs’ in government that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction and that he would continue to develop them. Blair needed to make policy decisions but faced such uncertainties as the qualified conclusions of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and competing perspectives on the nature of the post-conflict context. Political crises typically short-circuit formal decision-making processes and reduce the size of decision-making groups. Facilitated by the nature of British political system, which accords great informal powers to the Prime Minister, Blair did what many British Prime Ministers before had done, and took the lead in driving foreign policy. From a 2003 perspective, he also had perceived successes in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Afghanistan to support belief in his judgement. Blair has noted in his memoirs that in acting over Iraq he was doing what he believed was ‘right morally and strategically’. In conditions of uncertainty what is believed to make strategic sense often becomes a function of what a decision-maker believes that it is right to do. Tinkering with government decision-making processes cannot eliminate in the future the uncertainty problem; nor eliminate the psychological factors that have such an important bearing on crisis decision-making.

Shaping Blair’s belief in the necessity of action was the second theme: the influence of the United States on British policy considerations. The Chilcot report concludes that the UK’s relationship with the US was ‘a determining factor in the Government’s decisions over Iraq’. This influence is a long-standing theme in British foreign policy. But what the inquiry also illustrates is that, time and again, British influence over US decision-making was minimal. Britain’s shift towards involvement in the Iraq war was influenced powerfully by the Blair government’s belief, as Chilcot notes, that supporting the US over Iraq was necessary in order to sustain cooperation in other areas; and that the UK could best influence US policy towards Iraq ‘from the inside’. But generally, Blair’s government proved unable to exert a decisive influence on the US – indeed, the reverse was true: by prioritising relations with the US, British policy was forced by degrees into alignment with that of the US. As Chilcot illustrates, despite Blair’s post 9/11 commitment that the UK would stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the US, he was keen on reigning back the US focus on military options, preferring instead a gradualist approach that would maintain international support and that might at some point look towards regime change. Progressively, however, in attempting to reign the US back, the UK was instead simply dragged forwards. Blair’s long note of 28 July 2003 included the phrase ‘I will be with you, whatever’. This phrase was contained in a missive whose general thrust was a desire to slow the US’ moves to the military option; but it also expressed a general truth about the realities of the British position. The Chilcot inquiry notes that, in 2003, Britain should have adopted a more questioning attitude. But whether, especially post-Brexit, Britain would be in future be more willing to risk a rift in Anglo-American relations is a matter of debate.

The specific issues identified by the Chilcot inquiry are a devastating critique of the Blair government’s handling of the Iraq crisis in 2003. However, it would be unwise to assume that the roots of the problems identified are new or that in the future they won’t be open to repeat. The decision-making difficulties that manifested themselves in 2003 reflect pervasive problems in foreign-policy decision-making relating to uncertainty. Equally, the priority placed upon the ‘special relationship’, and the influence therefore on the UK of US policy priorities, is a long-standing theme that is likely to endure. These factors can generate great policy difficulties but they do not make failure inevitable. For a war fought on questionable legal foundations, for example, see Kosovo in 1999; or for policies driven forward by Prime Ministerial fiat, see the Falklands War in 1982. Blair has argued that his decisions over Iraq were taken ‘in good faith and what I believed to be the best interests of the country’. It is entirely possible that this is true; but, unlike in Kosovo and the Falklands, Blair’s great problem is that Britain lost.

Image: Jacques Chirac, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi during the G8 Summit in Évian, June 2003, via wikimedia

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…South Asia: thaw in India-Pakistan relations?

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Dr Avinash Paliwal

The year 2015 ended with a surprise diplomatic breakthrough between India and Pakistan after their national security advisors met in Bangkok (shortly after their prime ministers spoke in Paris). The meeting paved way for what is being termed a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. And Afghanistan is central to this recent thaw in India-Pakistan ties—both as a bane and a boon. It is a bane because of the powerful trope that Afghanistan is a proxy battlefield. Pakistan’s support to the Taliban in the 1990s, and India’s counter-balancing strategy of arming the anti-Taliban United Islamic Front, was perhaps the peak of such shadow boxing. However, it is a boon because resolving differences on Afghanistan requires relatively little political capital from both sides, and can pave way for better communication on ostensibly intractable issues such as Kashmir and cross-border terrorism.

But why talk about Afghanistan now? Arguably, Pakistan’s unflinching support to the Afghan Taliban has made it indispensable to ensure stability, if not peace, in Afghanistan, and that too on terms that it deems favourable. (Whether it can deliver the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table both timely and effectively is a separate, but not unrelated, matter). India on the other hand, despite its heavy economic and political involvement, remains marginal in influencing Afghan politics, making it seemingly unimportant a player.  Yet, Pakistan is caught in a dangerous vortex of fire-fighting that it may not be able to either contain or sustain. Islamabad cannot curb the various militant proxies that it has nurtured over the years even if it wants to, given the expected blowback at home. It also cannot just continue to nurture them given the proactive regional pushback. The recent failures of the Afghan Taliban to credibly capture Kunduz, and that of the Lashkar-e-Taiba to substantially infiltrate into Kashmir, then, only increase Pakistan’s operational costs of cultivating these so-called strategic assets.

In such a scenario, where the cost of supporting proxies is higher than the benefits, talking to India on traditional bilateral disputes, but also on Afghanistan, is an attractive option. For treating Afghanistan as taboo only toughens India’s resolve to maintain its presence in Kabul and contain Pakistan’s influence. The timing suits India too. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s strong mandate and the Pakistani military’s consolidation of power make it viable for such talks to succeed. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s steadfast engagement with Pakistan also helps India’s quest for resolving differences with Islamabad, by creating a conciliatory environment across the region, instead of being stuck in a dangerous cold-peace/hot-war dynamic. This is not to say that talking about Afghanistan is a sufficient condition for sustaining the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, for India-Pakistan talks are highly accident-prone. But it surely is a necessary condition that imparts credibility to these talks.

Image: Pakistani forces atBaine Baba Ziarat, the highest point in Swat valley, in 2009, via wikimedia commons.



As Dr Huw Davies suggested in this post, how successfully the British armed forces incorporate their recent experience of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq into doctrine and planning is likely to shape future perceptions of those campaigns. The fight against the Taliban has not ended, even for the West, because some advisory work by core NATO partners is ongoing. However, the main point is that the Afghans have taken ownership of the counter-insurgency effort, and there is some optimism for the future. But victory will not come quickly or cheaply.

The issue of how host nations build up capacity and continue the fight after the withdrawal of intervening international forces is an area which merits far greater study, and is the subject of my current research. Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of books focusing the inherent obstacles in counter-insurgency. While it is preferable for scholars and practitioners to be honest about the challenges, there has been an unhealthy appetite for books such as Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (Yale, 2011). But, worse, is the fact that the reading of such works has been superficial and selective. Several dangerous orthodoxies have arisen as a result: that there is no such thing as outright victory in counter-insurgency; ‘hearts and minds’ is just about soft power; and that if the population is the ‘prize’ in counter-insurgency, kinetic effect has no place in a COIN campaign. The latter point is a view which gained traction in both the US and the UK after the publication in 2007 of the US Army and Marine Corps’ capstone counter-insurgency manual, FM3-24, which was championed by General David Petraeus. Its primary focus on a ‘population centric’ model seemed to be vindicated by the success of the US engagement strategy in Iraq (for which the British Army’s Lt Gen Graeme Lamb should receive greater acknowledgement because of his input). The difficulty which has arisen is that a false dichotomy has been drawn between ‘population centric’ and ‘enemy centric’ strategies, and the use of kinetics is portrayed by many as unsophisticated and destined to cause campaign failure. Not helping is the odd statement from senior military levels, such as General Sir David Richard’s proclamation back in 2008 at a IISS conference in Geneva: ‘in wars among the people, if you are using a lot of firepower, you are almost certainly losing’.

With the current discourse now running perilously close to arguing that any type of kinetic use in counter-insurgency warfare is not merely counter-productive but unwarranted, it is worth making a number of quick observations about the role of kinetics in COIN. The main point, though, is that it depends upon the nature of the conflict that you are waging; a high proportion of kinetics may be required. This is, in fact, acknowledged in FM 3-24: ‘Sometimes lethal responses are counter-productive. At other times, they are essential’ (FM 3-24, 7-24). Several successful counter-insurgency campaigns can be classed as ‘enemy centric’, simply because the insurgents wielded a level of military capability which had to be dealt with by military means (the Greek Civil War, second and third rounds, 1944-45 and 1946-49; Oman, 1957-59; Angola, 1975-2002; Mozambique, 1976-1995; Turkey, 1984-1999). However, even in ‘enemy centric’ scenarios, there will be ‘hearts and minds’ elements. For example, during the ‘second round’ of the Greek Civil War, while air power, tanks, artillery and naval gunfire support were used against Communist insurgent strongholds in Athens, British paratroopers were feeding the local population. In other words, coercion and influence were being achieved through both soft and hard power. A second observation is that almost all COIN campaigns begin with a kinetic-heavy approach. This is because of an almost inevitable lack of intelligence at the start of a campaign; intelligence support to a specific campaign takes time to develop, and initial targeting may not be as precise or proportionate as military commanders may desire. But it is also worth noting that successful COIN campaigns are often those that kill or capture hardline insurgents early on, before the insurgency has had time to gain ground. If an insurgency is allowed to survive beyond a certain point, it will often develop capabilities which are indistinguishable from conventional forces and may even morph into a regular fighting force (the Viet Minh in Indochina and the Greek Democratic Army are good examples of this). Finally, while it is usual for the use of kinetic force to diminish as a COIN campaign progresses, there will always be spikes of insurgent violence which need to be answered with some level of kinetic force. Ironically, heightened insurgent violence is often a sign that a counter-insurgency force is winning, because insurgents will want to make the point that they are still a force to be reckoned with. Even when insurgencies feel that they are in the ascendant, the employment of violent ‘spectaculars’ is common in the lead up to negotiated settlements as insurgents try to gain extra leverage.

Of 71 recognised counter-insurgency cases since the end of the Second World War, half were successful, and of those, about one-third could be classed as ‘enemy centric’. It is also worth noting that of those ‘enemy centric’ COIN examples, most of them resulted in long-term peace and stability. Furthermore, several involved the host nation taking responsibility for a COIN effort before intervening Western forces departed. One of the host nation victories to have had little exposure is the Greek Civil War (1946-49). The orthodoxy among most Anglo-American historians is that the only reason the Greek armed forces were successful against a Communist insurgency was purely because of training and material assistance provided by the US and Britain. While it is true that financial and material aid under the Marshall Plan proved vital to defeating the Communist insurgency, the Greek armed forces learned while fighting and ultimately developed an indigenous strategy for victory. Indeed, on many occasions, advice provided by the Americans and British was politely disregarded because it bore little relation to Greek realities.

Between 1943 and 1949, Greek Communists made three attempts to take power, and what is generally referred to as the ‘Greek Civil War’ comprised the third round between 1946-1949. The first and second bids were prevented mainly because of British intervention, but the third round was characterised by the steady development of the host nation’s capability. After the Second World War, most of the Greek forces had to be rebuilt. The greatest obstacle facing the Greek National Army (GNA) initially was a chronic lack of manpower. By mid-1947, the GNA had 115,000 personnel, but these were spread very thinly throughout Greece. As a consequence, it had difficulty exploiting battles and holding territory gained.

In the meantime, the Communist insurgency was morphing into a regular army (DSE) after its senior leadership concluded that guerrilla tactics were not working. However, the Communists’ desire to create a regular army sowed the seeds of their ultimate downfall. A regular army called for a large support infrastructure and logistics footprint, and although manpower was always a significant constraint on the GNA’s ability to operate, recruitment was a far more serious problem for the DSE. Even at its height in April 1948, the DSE’s strength was no more than 26,000. Voluntary recruitment gave way to forcible recruitment. Women and children were not spared from frontline duty, and this proved to be a public relations disaster for the Communists. So, while the Communists benefitted from sympathetic northern neighbours (Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria), through which a steady stream of Soviet weaponry flowed, they were never able to replace the losses they increasingly sustained.

By 1948, the government’s forces totalled 168,000 personnel, with equipment supplied by Britain and the United States. The tide had turned, both militarily and economically, for the Greek state, but it is important to acknowledge that success against the DSE from 1948 onwards was also due to the GNA’s own conceptual work. Prior to this point, planning and execution of operations largely reflected Anglo-American doctrine, with a focus on traditional schemes of manoeuvre. From the beginning of 1948, the GNA started to apply what would be recognised today as a ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy throughout the country, starting in the south of Greece. The first step involved dismantling the Communist ‘eyes and ears’, followed by the destruction or capture of Communist forces. The final function included robust policing, to prevent the regrowth of Communist infrastructure, and the re-education of DSE prisoners and their eventual reintroduction to Greek society. This strategy was underpinned by Marshall aid totalling $273.2 million during the last year of the conflict, but the strategy itself was indigenous in conception.

British and American training missions remained in Greece for several years after the recognised end of the Civil War as an added insurance policy, but the Communists concluded that they could not match a reformed and re-energised Greek Army. The Greek government had taken ownership of the anti-Communist effort, and succeeded in the long-term.

For a full discussion of the counter-insurgency campaign in Greece, see Goulter, C. ‘The Greek Civil War: a National Army’s Counter-Insurgency Triumph’, Journal of Military History, Vol 78, July 2014, pp. 1017-1055. Moncado prize winner, 2015.

See also: Goulter, C. ‘Irregular Warfare: the Regular in the Irregular’, in A Century of Military Aviation, 1914-2014 (Air Power Development Centre, Canberra, 2014), pp.129-154.

Image: ELAS Guerrillas in the Greek countryside during the Second World War, via wikimedia commons.

What Private Security Contracting can Teach Us About Recruitment and Retention in the Armed Forces


—The data presented here was drawn from a large-scale study of armed private security contractors, of which this blog post is one aspect. The study set out to explore the perceptions and realities of being a private security contractor after military service. Of the men and women who completed the survey (n=1516), 86% had prior military experience, of which 65% served in the UK Armed Forces, 16% in the U.S. Armed Forces, and the remaining 19% were from countries other than the UK and US. This blog post focuses on the 65% of UK Armed Forces, herein referred to as the ‘sample population.’—

Recruitment and retention in the British Armed Forces has been undergoing fundamental changes in last ten years due to the operational intensity of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The National Audit Office found the main reasons for personnel leaving the Armed Forces to be: 1) separation from family and impact on family life; 2) intensity of deployment cycle; 3) quality of equipment, and 4) not feeling valued within the organisation. There is a small but not insignificant amount of concern among the Armed Forces – especially within the Army – about the effect the private security service provider industry has on the recruitment and retention of UK uniformed personnel. It appears, drawing from my sample population, that among commissioned officers it is the rank of Captain and Major who find security contracting the most appealing (74%, n=101), and from other ranks (OR), Sergeants and Corporals appeared to find security contracting more appealing than ranks above or below them (54%, n=468). For recruitment and retention, these ranks are at the heart of the British Armed Forces. If, though, one is to look at the conditions of private security contracting against the four reasons the NAO provided above, a gap becomes clear.

To put this gap in context, it is important to provide some background on the realities of being a private security contractor in hostile environments. In terms of risk to self, private security contractors are four and a half times more likely to die in hostile environments than uniformed soldiers – and they have – more contractors have died in Iraq and Afghanistan than uniformed personnel. Security contractors cannot call for back up as one might in the military, and for many there is no recourse for any physical or mental health problem when a contract is finished. Contractors of all functions, not only armed security contractors, have been found to suffer higher percentages of PTSD, yet experience one of the highest rates of insurance claim denials, making them a population that faces significant barriers to care, and therefore more vulnerable than serving personnel. For some the perception of gross economic gain as a private security contractor might serve to offset the negative consequences of this particular form of employment. Ann Jocelyn used earning figures from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and U.S. Department of Labour (DoL) to debunk this myth for U.S. security contractors. The Staff Sergeant earns more. See the numbers here. As one can see the risk is high and the reward not commensurate. With this in mind, understanding the reasons why people leave the British Armed Forces against the realities of security contracting, we can explore this gap below.

On the surface, becoming a private security contractor appears to hold great appeal to those who identify with the four reasons stated above, where being a contractor may be seen to be a lateral move where no additional skills or expertise are required and therefore a form of post-military employment that is easy to enter. Further, the perceived economic gain of private security contracting is considered by many to be a strong motivator. However, in comparison to the findings of the NAO, my research found 1) separation from family was similar if not greater as a private security contractor; 2) the deployment cycle can last up to two years on a three-month-on-one-month-off cycle; 3) quality of equipment was for some contractors of a lower standard than that of the U.K. military; and, 4) less than a quarter of my sample population agreed strongly they felt undervalued by the private security company (PSC) for whom they worked. What appeared to offset these four negative factors present both in the military and private security contracting was the 1) autonomy the individual perceived to have within the PSC as a private security contractor and, 2) the level of control over one’s time. I also found the existence of cultural norms similar to the military (if not the same) present to a high degree in these security contractors. While previous military experience of other contractors served for most as reassurance in terms of safety and sound mind, social customs like ‘military speak’ appeared to address what was felt as a profound loss in civilian life; the ease and ability to communicate with others. Provision of government provided transition services tend to overlook the significance of exchanging one language for another when a soldier becomes a civilian. The importance of being understood and understanding by way of a language that conveys not just words but similarity, acceptance, acknowledgement, worth and identity should not be underestimated. Many individuals in my cohort derived a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfilment by combining previous skills and experience in civilian life as a private contractor around like-peers; an experience they did not find in civilian life to the extent it was felt during military service.

For those who seek to utilise their military skills and experience outside of uniformed service, the PSC industry may be employing individuals who might otherwise struggle to translate their professional skills directly into civilian life. To be clear, I am not arguing military veterans-turned-private security contractors are not employable but that private security industry provides a labour market for those leaving the military that other forms of civilian employment do not. What can the military do to address those from their core ranks that seek to leave service early for the private security industry and that may be reducing their long-term civilian employability by doing so? One step would be the provision of information on the realistic earnings of a private security contractor that may allow the individual to make a more informed decision as they prepare to leave the military. However, it is important to note that my research did find the way in which a security contractor is paid (without deferred benefits, etc.) allowed many in my sample population to put a down payment on a house, send children to university or start or pad a retirement fund. It is not clear whether these positive economic effects offset the long-term employability consequences of the U.K. military veteran who becomes a private security contractor, where the individual’s market competitiveness has reduced as a result of employing skills already known versus new skills acquired as a contractor. I am not inclined to believe the provision of realistic information would serve to significantly influence patterns of behaviour, especially as the majority of those determined to leave the British Armed Forces do not prepare for military exit, and those who do are found to prepare much too late than the prescribed 12 to 24 months. Something to consider here are the socio-cultural attractions of private security contractor.

In light of these data, those concerned with recruitment and retention might understand ways in which the individual may exert greater autonomy and control in an effort to offset what the NAO found as the main reasons for leaving the Armed Forces. These are, though, significant institutional changes that may be unrealistic in terms of implementation. However, with the drawing down of thousands of those within the British Armed Forces, innovation in these terms is surely worth consideration. Otherwise, the next war may be fought by Captains, Majors, Sergeants and Corporals, but they will be called private security contractors, not soldiers. For some this is an easy thought. For those, especially within the military establishment, this may be a bitter pill to swallow.

Image: An Afghan National Police officer meets a British special security agent during a key leaders engagement between U.S. Marines of 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment and Nawa District officials in the Nawa District Bazaar, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, July 22, 2009, via wikimedia commons.

Was it worth it? How History will view the British Campaign in Afghanistan


On Friday afternoon, I was asked if I would participate in a discussion on the BBC News Channel on ‘how history will view the recent campaign in Afghanistan’.

I’m usually asked to participate in interviews that are way outside my comfort zone. This, whilst not entirely fitting within it, was at least about history and the importance of utilising history to interpret events.

On the train to London, I planned my comments carefully.

No serious historian would seek to pass judgement on a campaign so recently ended (in fact one still ongoing just without the active participation of British forces).

There are many positive outcomes already apparent: the peaceful (though tension fraught) democratic transition of power from one president to the next; better education prospects for children, particularly girls; an increasingly effective and efficient army and police force.

Likewise, there are many negative aspects: a resurgent and increasingly capable Taliban in its southern stronghold; a fraught and difficult relationship between Afghanistan and its mercurial neighbour Pakistan; rampant corruption at all levels of government; and a resurgent opium trade which promises to cause further long-term instability.

But were these issues the right issues to discuss on the evening of a commemoration of Britain’s part in the war, of the dead and wounded, and the veterans of that conflict and their families?

As a historian, I’m frequently confronted with the importance of commemoration, the generation of a collective memory of a conflict that will help the healing process begin. Commemoration is an inherent aspect of my role as a military historian working alongside the military. Every staff ride and battlefield tour I conduct has a commemoration ceremony, and rightly so.

But it is when the memories are fresh and the public interest still high, that the most valuable lessons can be learnt, when the most useful knowledge can be exchanged, and when the best can be made of the collective experience of the campaign. Troubling questions need to be asked; and difficult issues confronted.

On balance, then, it is difficult to provide a satisfactory answer to the opening question of the discussion: Was it worth it?

As a typical historian, the answer at this point is ‘It depends’.

It depends on whether the democracy will continue to flourish in Afghanistan: will Ashraf Ghani stay in office for the duration of his term? Will the next elections to be held in Afghanistan be free of fraud and electoral corruption? Will Ghani hand over power to his successor peacefully?

It depends on whether the Afghan National Army can maintain its reasonably impressive standards and continue to resist the Taliban resurgence in the south? If confronted with an incursion of Islamic State, will the Afghan Army maintain cohesion or collapse as its counterpart in Iraq did in 2014?

Both of these issues require constant and consistent funding from the West. Withdrawal of funding will most likely lead to the collapse in civil order witnessed in the early 1990s – a situation that led to the emergence and eventual victory of the Taliban.

But the fact remains that even with these funds, the odds remain heavily stacked against a stable and secure Afghanistan emerging within the next decade. The campaign might still have been worth it if Al Qaeda or Islamic State are held at bay, or if at least some of the domestic benefits that have emerged are maintained.

Besides these issues, useful questions should be asked about the conduct of the British military in the campaign itself. How might the political-military interface be improved, and the frictions that developed overcome? We might also ask questions about the British Army’s failure to translate tactical success into strategic success.

What lessons will emerge from Britain’s campaign in Afghanistan? An interesting study could be made of how the British Army adapted to the challenge posed by an irregular foe in difficult terrain.

If the lessons of the Afghanistan campaign are summarily ditched because the memories of the campaign are too painful (much like the US Army abandoned the lessons of its experiences in Vietnam), then the answer to the opening question is most certainly no. History looks unfavourably on those that fail to learn from their experiences.

Image: Camp Bastion Memorial Wall, the central point where service personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan are named and remembered, is lit by the evening light. The vigil site was used for parades of remembrance of both historical events and when a life was lost during Operation Herrick.

Hot Potatoes for 2015


This month marks the conclusion of my first decade teaching at Staff College. In that time, I can think of two years that stand-out as containing fundamentally unexpected events, that have caused quite drastic adjustments to what I talk about when I teach. Those years were 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring – and 2014 – the year of the rise of ‘Islamic State’ and the Russo-Ukraine conflict.

I’m no fan of making predictions at the arbitrary moment most humans have decided is the beginning of a new 365-day long period of time. And I’m not going to do that here. Rather, I am going to highlight important issues that I think will dominate global affairs for the year ahead.

The Oil Price

Like most, I’m delighted to be able to fill my car with petrol for less than £50, but I find it simultaneously odd that I able to do so when there are so many international crises ongoing. Traditionally, unrest in the Middle East and/or Russia have elevated oil prices, yet, at the time of writing, the oil price is $52.69 per barrel, which is nearly half what it was a year ago.

Whilst this will make the average person feel much richer in the short-term, it will surely continue to have a terrible impact on oil-dependent economies. Of those, the most worrisome remains. The Ruble has recovered somewhat from its December low, but it still remains very weak ($1 will buy R58.51 at time of writing).

The Russian economy now looks as though it will enter a prolonged recession – if not a depression – as GDP is expected to contract in 2015 by 0.8%. This is at least in part the result of Western sanctions over Russian military activity in Eastern Ukraine, but prolonged economic malaise is likely to drive President Vladimir Putin to take drastic action to shore up his own popularity in Russia. So, a continued low oil price will likely have significant implications for Russian military aggression in 2015.

Moreover, Russia is not alone in suffering as a result of the low oil price. Should oil continue to fall, then the gas price will surely follow suit, and eventually, the cost of ‘fracking’ will outweigh the benefits of the controversial technique for extracting shale gas. A low oil price might well have implications for Iran, as the new regime seeks to improve relations with the West.

Afghanistan: Confluence, not Graveyard, of Empires

The end of 2014 saw the end of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, although a significant Western presence remains in the country. Having said that, the notion of an Indo-Pakistani proxy war commencing in Afghanistan has long been mooted amongst experts and armchair strategists. It seems entirely possible in 2015 that such a proxy war might well emerge. Pakistan remains deeply troubled by the prospect of India gaining economic and political precedence in Afghanistan.

In such light, the strategic significance of Afghanistan can be more easily witnessed. Inaccurately portrayed as the ‘graveyard of empires’, the country has long been the confluence of several major empires and this remains the case today. Afghanistan is not just in Pakistan and India’s ‘backyard’, but shares a border with Iran and China, and is also a strategic concern for Russia.

Although Afghanistan might recede in importance for the West, its stability – or lack thereof – will likely remain a critical concerns for a number of global powers in 2015. In this sense, Afghanistan will re-capture the geopolitical importance it possessed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This should mean that economic investment comes to the fore, but if competing powers vie for dominance in the region then the sort of proxy war envisaged for the last decade might take hold.

Islamic State

This time last year, only regional experts had heard of what was then known as ISIS, and few would have appreciated its potential to wrest control of large areas of Iraq and Syria. Military intervention by an alliance of Western and Arab states have arrested the expansion of IS, but the prospect remains for similar ideological expansion in 2015 as occurred in the second half of 2014.

The infamous Nigerian Islamists Boko Haram recently declared their own caliphate, and there are increasing concerns that the separatist Uighurs in Xinjiang province of China might follow a similar route.

Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq and Syria will remain a cause for concern. It is difficult to see how Iraq can continue as a stable political entity, and many experts perceive the break-up of the state in the near future, with an independent Kurdistan likely to emerge as a result. How Turkey will react to such a situation is also troubling.


On a different note, 2014 was an important year for the historical commemoration of past conflicts. 2015 sees just as many significant anniversaries. The 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo will be commemorated with a re-enactment of the writing and delivery of the famous Waterloo Dispatch, along with a special service of commemoration in St. Paul’s Cathedral on 18 June. On the battlefield itself, the biggest ever re-enactment of the battle will take place, to which an estimated 60,000 spectators are expected to attend.

The ongoing remembrance of the First World War will see commemorations of the Battle of Loos and Gallipoli, among others. After the initial hope that the war would be over by Christmas 1914, this was the year that saw the settling in to bloody trench warfare. Having said that, considerable innovation and adaptation was to take place on both sides of no-man’s land. For British forces, in particular, the idea of a ‘land-ship’ began to germinate.

Although the hundredth anniversary of the First World War will undoubtedly dominate thoughts, it is also important to remember that 2015 marks the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and with it, the emergence of the world into the Nuclear Age.

These are just some of the hot potatoes that Defence-in-Depth will be tackling in the year ahead, as part of the Defence Studies Department’s efforts to bring you cutting-edge research and expert analysis, both historical and contemporary, on the issues behind and influencing Defence.

From the Archives: The Causes of the First British Invasion of Afghanistan, 1839-42.


‘From the Archives’ is a new regular feature on Defence-in-Depth. Archives are the lifeblood of historians. Papers, correspondence, diaries and journals constitute the primary material on which historical analysis is based. This feature is designed to fulfil two objectives. Our authors have selected an archive that has yielded an important find, and will explain how this document has been used to create history. The juiciest documents are often found in difficult to reach places, and our authors will also comment on the trials and tribulations of accessing their archives.

Punjab Archives, Lahore

‘You have to go to Lahore’ he said, ‘the place is a goldmine’. I was chatting with the acclaimed author William Dalrymple at a launch event for his excellent book Return of a King: The First Battle for Afghanistan. I was researching the origins of the First Anglo-Afghan War. I wasn’t buying the well-trodden story that Britain invaded Afghanistan because of a misbegotten belief that the Russians were on the brink of establishing a presence in Kabul, and would use it as a stepping stone to India. I wanted to look for evidence that might point to the real causes of the invasion. The original intelligence documents are held in Lahore. If there was evidence that pointed to a different explanation for the cause, it would be in Lahore.

That was in January 2013. I spent the next six months figuring out how to get to Pakistan, and how to get into the archive. It was not very easy. Obviously, I’d need a visa to get into Pakistan. But in order to get into the archive, I’d also need a letter of reference from the British High Commissioner in Islamabad, and a ‘No Objection Certificate’ – a NOC – from the Pakistani Government. By August, I had got no where. I had booked my flights and hotel in July, and was starting to get a bit worried. I went to a conference on South Asian Military History at Greenwich. One of the attendees, just arrived from Calcutta told me not to worry. ‘This is South Asia’, he said. ‘Everything will come together the week before you leave’.

He was right. Through a combination of luck, and calling in favours from old acquaintances, I got my visa, and a promise of a NOC sent directly to the archive. The Assistant Military Adviser in the British Embassy helped me out with a letter of reference from the High Commissioner, and by chance, also had the telephone number of the director of archives at Lahore. I made a phone-call, and the South Asian hospitality that I had experienced time and again was more than apparent. I was in.

The Punjab Archives are held in a seventeenth century Mughal Tomb – that of the courtesan Anarkali. It is a beautiful white domed building, after the Taj Mahal, and has a series of corridors off the central dome, in which the archives are held. I was sat at a long desk, behind me the marble tomb of Anarkali  The archivists were extraordinarily helpful, and over the course of two weeks, I found literally thousands of documents.

What I found transformed my understanding of the causes of the First Anglo-Afghan War. From the perspective of the British in Calcutta, the distant threat of Russian imperial aggression barely entered the equation. Rather, it was Afghanistan itself that the British were more concerned about.

In 1833, Peshawar, the summer capital of Afghanistan, had been captured by the army of the Sikh Emperor, Ranjit Singh. The Afghan leader, Dost Muhammad Khan was determined to get Peshawar back. He sought allies in the pursuit of this goal, but his first choice, the British, were already allied to the Sikhs. The Russians were too distant, and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan too weak. Persia, it seemed, was the only option. However, ‘the British Government could not recognise any right of interference’, wrote the Governor-General Lord Auckland, ‘by the Persian Monarch in the affairs of Afghanistan.’

More seriously, though, the British were worried about the internal instability in Afghanistan itself. ‘The state of parties in Afghanistan’, the Governor-General’s chief secretary, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, had written in January 1837, ‘seems to be such as to preclude the probability for some time to come of the establishment of a strong and united power in that quarter.’

The internal divisions that compelled Dost Muhammad to wage limited war against the Sikhs for control of the Khyber Pass and Peshawar indicated that his regime was so unstable that he might look to external aggression in order to bolster his authority. Such actions had been the mainstay of Afghan rule at the end of the eighteenth century. The then ruler, Shah Zeman regularly attacked south into the Punjab and sometimes as far as Delhi. In response, Calcutta had sent an emissary to Persia to ‘relieve India from the annual alarm of Shah Zeman’s invasion’.

In 1837, Dost Muhammad attacked the Sikh fortress of Jamrud, in preparation for an attempt to retake Peshawar. The resulting battle, which Dost Muhammad lost, cost the life of the commander-in-chief of the Sikh Army, Hari Singh Nalwa. This incident was characterised by the British in the same light as the plunder raids by Dost Muhammad’s forbear, Shah Zeman. By attacking the Sikhs, Dost Muhammad was forcing his people ‘to unite & fight for their … religion with an ardent zeal which’ was, as Captain Claude Wade, the British political officer deputed to Lahore and Ludhiana, explained to Ranjit Singh, comparable to ‘the desperate efforts of a feeble animal to save itself even against the power of man when its life was in danger.’ In this light, then, the weakness of Dost Muhammad’s regime was a threat to the balance of power on the north-west frontier.

These documents, found amongst countless dusty tomes in the Punjab Archives paint a very different perspective on the reasons for the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. Rather than any particular threat from Russia, Britain feared a destabilising power in Afghanistan itself. The invasion was planned to remove Dost Muhammad, and restore his predecessor, Shah Shuja to the throne of Kabul. In so doing, the British sparked a slow-burning rebellion that would eventually result in the worst military humiliation of the British empire in the nineteenth century.

The research I conducted in Pakistan and elsewhere has contributed to an article I have written, entitled ‘Intelligence and Strategic Culture: Alternative Perspectives on the First British Invasion of Afghanistan’, which will be available soon.

Images: The Durbar in Lahore Fort, taken by the author.

NATO at Newport: Back to Basics?


Seasoned observers of NATO might be forgiven for approaching alliance summits with a refrain of ‘here we go again’ ringing loudly in our ears. Such cynicism might at least in part be explained by the perpetuation of a dominant narrative that has had NATO in a constant state of ‘crisis’ ever since the end of the Cold War, with each summit since Rome in 1991 framed as coming at a ‘pivotal’ moment for the alliance. In such a narrative, each ‘crisis’ is worse than the one that preceded it, each summit the latest opportunity to pull the alliance back from the brink. Yet peering through the fog of crisis that envelopes NATO, one can discern that in many instances summits have provided an important means of adjusting the alliance to a constantly shifting security environment. Indeed, to paint a picture of NATO summits as vacuous exercises in statesmanship would be to miss the point entirely; they are a source of NATO’s lifeblood, the very means by which transatlantic unity – the glue that binds NATO together – is reaffirmed and upheld.

Setting aside – temporarily – events in the Crimea and Ukraine, the Newport summit would always have marked a key moment of transition in NATO’s post-Cold War history, as the alliance formally prepares to bring to an end the most complex, protracted and controversial mission in its 65-year history. Debate on the alliance’s future in a post-Afghan era has coalesced around a growing consensus that NATO would ‘return home’ both in a physical and conceptual sense, the retreat from Afghanistan accompanied by a refocusing on alliance fundamentals – collective defence, education and training and defence collaboration – after a decade in which NATO’s global ambitions had appeared not only to exceed its military capabilities, but also the political will of many members.

This was the argument outlined in a July 2014 article in International Affairs I co-authored with Mark Webber and Martin Smith. In that article, we argue that the twin motors that have sustained the alliance in the post-Cold War period are in need of repair. Those twin motors we describe as NATO’s core principles of purpose – operations, enlargement, partnerships, transatlantic unity, and its role as security provider – and principles of function – American leadership, allied trust and cohesion, burden-sharing and credibility – the diplomatic, political and military processes that have been necessary to keep NATO a functioning and effective alliance. We suggested that while NATO’s operational activism and expansion had been key drivers of the alliance’s post-Cold War adaptation, by 2014 NATO was reaching the limits of both its operational activity and its willingness and ability to take in new members. In addition, the transatlantic bargain that has underpinned NATO since 1949 appears increasingly strained; American leadership of NATO in the 21st century is no longer a given and members are divided over basic questions of strategy and purpose.

The Three ‘R’s (Readiness, Reassurance, Renewal) 

None of this should be read as evidence that NATO is in mortal ‘decline.’ Indeed, we argue that NATO is extraordinarily resilient. Its decade-long ISAF mission might have pushed the alliance to its limits, but it weathered the storm. NATO’s value to the US is also likely to endure; cooperating with allies in a multilateral framework brings legitimacy and credibility to US global leadership, while a strong NATO in a stable Europe is in America’s vital interests. Still, we argued that the wear and tear sustained by the alliance over the past two decades required a renewed focus at Newport in three key areas: readiness, reassurance and renewal.

In an era of austerity and war-weariness, readiness has a political logic; NATO can preserve its capacity to mount operations but at the same time prioritise core areas of common interest – collective defence, cyber-defence, training and education. NATO’s new readiness posture was indeed confirmed at Newport, the alliance unveiling a Readiness Action Plan (RAP) at the heart of which is a spearhead unit within the NATO Response Force (NRF) designed to act as a high readiness force able to deploy at short notice. Other tangible measures included an enhanced cyber-defence plan and Defence Capacity Building Initiative. In this regard, pre-summit rhetoric was at least followed by concrete steps. It was perhaps inevitable that the summit would be overshadowed by events in the Ukraine; the transition from Afghanistan appeared something of a side-show, even though much uncertainty remains over the future of Operation Resolute Support. NATO yet may be sucked back into its own Afghan quagmire, but for now at least, it is breathing a collective sigh of relief that a very long war is over.

Still, Russia’s actions in annexing the Crimea imbued the readiness agenda with a sense of urgency, to say the least. Moreover, readiness is also inextricably linked with the reassurance of nervous allies in Eastern Europe. Yet reassurance too has a long-term logic and relevance for NATO, as a means of addressing some of the wider challenges of intra-alliance cohesion and transatlantic commitment, and reaffirming NATO’s core role as security provider. Reassurance measures were already in evidence prior to Newport – an enhanced US troop presence in Eastern Europe, an increased maritime presence in the Black Sea, reinforcements to NATO’s Baltic air policing mission – and in an important affirmation of the US commitment to NATO in June 2014 President Obama announced a $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative to fund training and exercises with NATO allies in the region.

Together, reassurance and readiness can be seen as providing the foundations for NATO’s renewal, reaffirming NATO’s role as the core organization for the security and defence of the West as well as a wider sense of solidarity among members – a solidarity arguably lost amidst the traumas of Afghanistan and Iraq. It was notable that the summit’s Declaration on the Transatlantic Bond was more direct and forceful than previous communiques, not only reaffirming transatlantic unity but committing the alliance to move towards the existing NATO guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defence within a decade.

To be sure, an emphasis on readiness, reassurance and renewal is not without pitfalls or dangers. NATO leaders faced a precarious juggling act at Newport. While the RAP was clearly intended to provide ‘visible reassurance,’ alliance leaders have refused thus far to agree to Poland’s request for a permanent troop presence committing only to an increased rotation of NATO and US troops through NATO’s Polish HQ. The summit declaration left no-one in any doubt that NATO views Russian actions as a gross violation of international law and a fundamental threat to the peace and security of Europe as a whole; it denounced Moscow for ‘breaking the trust at the core of our cooperation,’ but still left the door ajar for future cooperation. NATO’s support for Ukraine as a key partner was also reaffirmed; for now at least Ukraine remains a partner – without the collective defence shield full membership would bring – but the question of membership remains a thorn in the alliance’s side that could yet cause much pain.

Whether or not the Ukraine crisis is a ‘game-changer’ for NATO remains to be seen; history will be the judge of that. It may well be another addition to the lineage of events that have shaped NATO’s post-Cold War history and it has certainly given the alliance a sense of purpose and direction it had lost. But NATO does not have the luxury of standing still to contemplate the future. As we argued, ‘its business is too important to afford it such respite. The challenge, therefore, is for NATO to service its motors while they are still running.’ Viewed in that light it is plausible to argue NATO’s Newport Summit was a modest success that will no doubt take its place in the long history of NATO summitry, and which future scholars might well judge as marking the beginning of the next era in NATO’s post-Cold War evolution.

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and should not be ascribed to my co-authors.