Concepts of grand strategy generally stress the requirement of governments to outline clear strategic goals, and to ensure that all elements of national power are co-ordinated by ministers and senior officials (civil service and military) to achieve them. In recent history, one state achieved the apparent success of devising a ‘total’ strategy and of establishing a bureaucratic framework to implement it. That state was South Africa, governed at that time by the apartheid regime of the National Party.

Up until 1974-1976 the National Party had established and reinforced a system of white minority rule in South Africa itself, as well as an illegal colony in Namibia. Pretoria had withstood international condemnation of racial oppression and also the generally ineffectual insurgencies of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). However, the April 1974 military coup in Lisbon led to the end of Portuguese imperial rule in Angola and Mozambique, and the takeover of power by two national-liberation movements (the MPLA in Luanda and FRELIMO in Maputo) with a pronounced hostility to white minority rule. The downfall of Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was also imminent.

To add to Pretoria’s troubles, the failed South African military intervention in Angola in 1975 (Operation Savannah) led Fidel Castro to send a Cuban expeditionary force to aid the MPLA, and Cuba maintained a sizeable task force in Angola until 1991. Moreover, the MPLA’s victory in the Angolan civil war encouraged greater anti-apartheid militancy and activism within the black majority in South Africa, as demonstrated by the popular rising in Soweto in April 1976. The National Party’s response to this combination of external and internal crises was shaped by the Defence Minister and (after 28th September 1978) President, P. W. Botha, aided by the high command of the South African Defence Force (SADF).

South Africa’s 1977 Defence White Paper was influenced in part by the writings of the French strategist, General Andre Beaufre. It presented an apocalyptic image of a ‘total onslaught’ by the Soviet Union and its allies – including Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, the ANC and SWAPO – to effect a Communist takeover of South Africa, aided by anti-apartheid activists and movements both within and outside the country. In response Pretoria would adopt a ‘Total National Strategy’ that would harness all means at its disposal to defend apartheid and undermine its enemies. The result was the militarization of South Africa’s domestic and foreign policy, encouraged by Botha, General Magnus Malan (his successor as Defence Minister), and the head of SADF military intelligence, Lieutenant General Pieter van der Westhuizen, a thuggish securocrat who could very well have provided Hollywood with one of the villains in Lethal Weapon II.

There was a self-serving and disingenuous rhetoric to ‘Total National Strategy’; the apartheid regime had continually claimed to be the defender of the nation against Communist tyranny, recognising that this helped both rally the white community’s support, while also cajoling the Western powers (notably the USA, Britain and France) to treat it as a Cold War ally. The aspirations outlined in the White Paper did not prevent inter-departmental squabbles from erupting between the SADF, police, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the National Intelligence Service. Nonetheless, ‘Total National Strategy’ did reflect the very real sense of paranoia that affected the white elite, in particular the politicians and policy-makers of the de facto War Cabinet, the State Security Committee (SSC).

What did this new strategy mean in practice? Firstly, it involved a campaign to destabilise the ‘frontline states’ that were backing the South African and Namibian national liberation movements, with Angola and Mozambique as the principal victims. Both countries became the target of South African aggression. Angola itself was subjected to eleven major cross-border incursions by the SADF between May 1978 and December 1988 which were ostensibly directed against ANC and SWAPO bases, but which also involved punitive strikes against the Angolan armed forces. Furthermore, Pretoria waged proxy wars against Maputo and Luanda, arming and equipping the UNITA insurgency led by Jonas Savimbi in Angola and the RENAMO movement in Mozambique, thereby exacerbating two civil wars which devastated both countries.

The second part of ‘total strategy’ involved state terrorism, involving the assassination of apartheid activists abroad, and death squad violence against domestic opponents conducted by the police (with its C-10 unit) and the SADF’s ‘Civil Co-operation Bureau’. The barbaric killings conducted by these ‘third force’ units were investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee set up after the apartheid regime’s fall, as were the covert efforts by the police and SADF to instigate internecine violence in the black townships between the ANC and its political rival, Inkatha.

The moral implications of ‘total strategy’ should not be forgotten. Thousands died in township violence in the late 1980s-early 1990s, and the wars in Angola and Mozambique cost an estimated million deaths. Both countries were further impoverished as a consequence of the civil war and RENAMO – South Africa’s proxy – became notorious for its atrocities against Mozambican civilians. Yet there were also counter-productive consequences of Pretoria’s strategic decisions which the SSC were never able to resolve.

Firstly, with reference to the efforts to coerce the frontline states, Pretoria’s aims were contradictory. Was the objective to force Luanda and Maputo to abandon support for the black liberation struggle in South Africa and Namibia, or to achieve regime change? With Mozambique, the diplomats of the DFA believed that they had achieved a significant success with the Nkomati Accords of 16th March 1984, in which Botha and his counterpart Samora Machel agreed to stop supporting each other’s internal opponents. South Africa had forced its neighbour to stop backing the ANC, but van der Westhuizen’s military intelligence service continued to arm RENAMO regardless. In Angola, there was a mismatch between Pretoria’s appeals to President Eduardo dos Santos for mutual restraint, and the attacks by SADF special forces against strategic targets such as the Cabinda oil-fields. A US State Department mediator remonstrating with van der Westhuizen complained that the raids ‘tell the MPLA that you want to kill them, not do a deal’. The SADF intelligence chief’s reply – ‘I agree’ – demonstrated the lack of co-ordination in Pretoria’s Angolan policy.

Secondly, the proxy wars with neighbouring powers carried with it the risks of escalation. This was demonstrated by the Cuito Cuanavale campaign of September 1987-March 1988, when Pretoria responded to an Angolan government offensive against UNITA by sending a brigade of 3,000 troops across the Okavango River. An initially successful onslaught in which the SADF mauled the MPLA’s army culminated in an inconclusive siege of the government outpost of Cuito Cuanavale. Furthermore, in November 1987 Castro decided to reinforce the Cuban task force in Angola, raising its strength to 50,000 troops. The influx not only enabled the Cubans to reinforce Cuito Cuanavale, but also launch an armoured drive Southwards towards that threatened Namibia with invasion. US and Soviet mediation in the summer of 1988 averted a South African-Cuban clash, and SADF veterans maintain that the Angolan campaign of 1987-1988 was a victorious one for them. But the fact remains that by June 1988 South Africa was on the verge of fighting a total war.

Finally, the ‘third force’ operations of C-10 and the Civil Co-operation Bureau in South Africa itself threatened to undermine the rule of law itself. The SADF and police death squads became complicit in organised criminal activities such as ivory smuggling and arms trafficking, and the instigation of internecine violence between the ANC and Inkhata threatened to plunge the country into outright anarchy. By the time of Nelson Mandela’s release on 11th February 1990 the survival of white minority rule had become a lost cause. The only question was whether apartheid would perish with an apocalyptic race war, or whether South Africa could make a largely peaceful transition to democracy and majority rule. Thankfully, South Africans ended the latter rather than the former, but this was no thanks to the securocrats of the SSC.

So ‘total strategy’ was a failure, and anyone looking at South African history between 1978 and 1994 is entitled to ask him or herself why the National Party could not have avoided over a million futile deaths and all the atrocities associated with them – in South Africa and also neighbouring states – by waking up and smelling the coffee a lot earlier than it did. Yet there is a more fundamental point about strategy itself that can be gained from studying the latter years of apartheid: You can articulate a clear objective for implementation, and provide a clear institutional framework for the means of state power to be employed to achieve it. But it will be of no avail if the basic premises behind your strategic goals are fundamentally flawed.

Image: South African paratroopers on patrol in Namibia during the border war. Picture taken from Wikipedia Commons, posted by en:User:Smikect.

Walking a Tightrope: NATO, Russia, Islamic State and the new brinkmanship


During the first week of February I was asked to deliver a talk at the annual Norwegian Air Power Conference at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy in Trondheim. The theme this year was ‘NATO: Threats and Challenges’ and I was asked to reflect on whether NATO today has common threats and goals. The conference as a whole was somewhat inevitably dominated by the twin ‘crises’ NATO is facing: over Ukraine on its Eastern flank and over Syria and Islamic State on its Southern flank. The mood of the conference – which included speeches from the Norwegian Defence Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide, the Norwegian Ambassador to Sweden and former UN special representative to Afghanistan Kai Eide, and Obama’s former permanent representative to NATO Ivo Daalder – was sombre. There was a broad consensus that Europe faces one of the most challenging periods in its recent history. From the refugee crisis to the rise and spread of Islamic State (IS), economic instability and the possibility of Brexit, there is little doubt Europe is in the midst of multiple crises that pose a very real threat to the long-term future of the European project. Shortly after the conference ended, NATO announced it was sending three warships to the Aegean tasked with returning migrants to Turkey in an attempt to break the network of criminal gangs trafficking migrants into Europe.

Debate has intensified in recent weeks over the alliance’s role in the anti-IS coalition as consensus grows as to the threat posed to alliance members by the spread of Islamic State. Although a number of NATO member states have participated in airstrikes against IS, collectively the alliance has not played a role beyond providing support for Turkey. However, at a recent NATO ministerial in Brussels member states discussed the prospect of NATO becoming an active participant in the fight against IS through building partner capacity, training ground forces and providing stabilization support. The ministerial meeting came on the back of a formal US request for the alliance to assist the coalition through deploying its AWACS to Iraq and Syria. The momentum for an enhanced NATO role in the anti-ISIS coalition has been steadily growing since the Paris terror attacks in November 2015. Former SACEUR James Stavridis claimed then that it was NATO’s ‘turn to attack’ and that the alliance needed to consider utilising its command structure, as well as deploying special forces and AWACs, to lead the effort to defeat Islamic State. Interestingly, Stavridis also observed that such an effort would have the ‘additional benefit of demonstrating that NATO is willing to act decisively when it is under threat.’

This will not be the first time NATO acts with its own credibility at stake. Ever since the end of the Cold War the alliance has had to constantly prove its relevance and refute the charge that the disintegration of the Soviet Union robbed it of a clear and common enemy and an unambiguous purpose. It is notable that the crisis over Ukraine has been dominated by a narrative perpetuating the idea of NATO ‘coming home’ – returning to a focus on state-based threats to member states and collective defence. It is indeed tempting to assert that the revival of Russian revanchism has re-animated NATO, a reminder that despite its expeditionary adventures in the Middle East it remains a military alliance that exists for one reason above all else: to provide for the collective defence of its member states against common threats. The substantive US and European military presence in Eastern Europe – surveillance and reassurance measures in the Baltics; naval patrols in the Black Sea; the deployment of fighter aircraft to Romania; large-scale exercises – all these are visible manifestations of NATO in its purest form, as a military alliance protecting the territorial integrity of member states. In this view, the reconstitution of an ‘old’ threat is taking NATO back to a future of conventional defence, deterrence and reassurance.

Yet herein lies part of the problem for NATO. NATO’s eastern and Baltic member states have always prioritised collective defence simply by virtue of their proximity to Russia in a way that others – the UK, US, France for example – have not done so. For Southern allies – France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey – growing instability to Europe’s south, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, is a more compelling concern and the challenges in this region – the emergence of Islamic state, refugee and migrant flows – demand continued investment in crisis-management capabilities and in partnerships with countries in the region. Lest we not forget, some 10,000 US and 4,000 NATO troops remain in a volatile and unstable Afghanistan where the emergence of ISIS-K and the continued presence of AQ as well as ongoing attacks by the Taliban are creating the very real possibility of an enduring presence in the country for the foreseeable future. Further, both Afghanistan and Libya – as well as the wider growth in jihadism – are harsh reminders that in the 21st-century ‘threats’ to NATO members and regional and global security cannot be defeated in the same way that the Soviet Union could be defeated during the Cold War.

Libya was hailed as a ‘model intervention,’ seen as evidence that despite internal cleavages and the failure to generate a unified response, the alliance could still make a meaningful contribution to the challenges posed by fragile states. Yet it remains riven by violence and the lack of a stable government; Western powers have left a space in which militant Islam can flourish and as Islamic State’s foothold in the country grows the pressure to re-intervene is intensifying. The Libyan city of Sirte is fast becoming a hub for IS but President Obama is thus far resisting calls for more airstrikes and the deployment of special forces to target IS forces in Sirte. This may be a prudent choice; intensifying attacks against IS in Libya in the absence of a viable political plan may be precisely the kind of ‘stupid shit’ Obama avowed to avoid. But with less than a year left in office there are signs the administration’s ‘strategic patience’ is beginning to wear thin. The Pentagon’s recent budget revealed the US is increasing spending on the fight against IS to $7.5 billion while US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter pulled no punches in reminding allies at the NATO ministerial that ‘We will all look back after victory and remember who participated in the fight.’ Notwithstanding Carter’s rose-tinted optimism that the West will be able to declare ‘victory’ over IS, the US is once again finding itself in the all too familiar role of cajoling NATO allies to contribute resources in the fight against IS. Yet intra-alliance tensions are high; several NATO members are frustrated that the US has not taken a more critical stance against Russia’s involvement in Syria (which most regard as designed to shore up Assad’s regime rather than the stated aim of fighting IS forces) while the US is having to undertake its own balancing act, leading the fight against IS while at the same time continuing to provide reassurance to Eastern European and Baltic states more concerned about Russia’s actions on the alliance’s Eastern flank. The Pentagon has announced it is quadrupling its defence spending on Europe, via the European Reassurance Initiative, from $789m to $3.4bn. The US will also have a full armoured combat brigade deployed in the region on a rotating basis in a reversal of its 2012 decision to draw down two US Army Brigades from Europe in the context of its rebalance to Asia.

Herein lies the dilemma for NATO. With Northern and Eastern NATO members focused primarily on Russia’s actions in the East, it has been hard to generate a consensus within the alliance over a collective role in the anti-IS coalition. NATO is currently walking a tightrope between deterring any further Russian action in Ukraine or Eastern Europe with the need to keep open political channels of dialogue and communication and avoid becoming locked in a dangerous cycle of brinkmanship. The West more widely needs Russian cooperation in the fight against IS and in any future Syrian peace settlement, but with Turkey attacking Russian (and US) backed Syrian Kurdish forces (the PYD and its militant arm the YPG) on the Syrian-Turkish border Turkish-Russian relations are at breaking point. With the Kurdish fighters exploiting Russian air strikes in northern Syria to seize territory near the Turkish border, Ankara is now increasingly at odds with both Moscow and Washington. Moscow, meanwhile, is pursuing a risky twin-track approach; it is seeking to take advantage of opportunities to drive a wedge between NATO allies over Syria while simultaneously trying to use the carrot of cooperation in the fight against Islamic State to win relief from Western sanctions imposed following the annexation of Crimea.

It is into this heady mix that NATO must now consider what its own contribution to the fight against Islamic State will be. Any NATO contribution will likely remain confined to training for Iraqi forces combined with the deployment of AWACS and as the alliance builds towards the 2016 Warsaw Summit its principal focus will likely remain Russia rather than Islamic State. There is a growing consensus that despite its strategy of deterrence, a new emphasis needs to be placed on dialogue with Russia in an effort to avoid the ‘new Cold War’ that Medvedev alluded to at the recent Munich Security Conference, and which many believe is fast becoming reality. As a 2014 report by the European Leadership Network found, Russia and the West are engaging in ‘dangerous brinkmanship;’ the report mapped repeated incidents of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, and simulated attack runs, asserting that ‘the mix of more aggressive Russian posturing and the readiness of Western forces to show resolve increases the risk of unintended escalation and the danger of losing control over events.’ The OSCE – which monitors the compliance of NATO member states and Russia with Cold War era treaties governing troop deployments and exercises in Europe – has also claimed the current situation is more unpredictable than the Cold War; Russia has pulled out of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty while NATO’s deployment of ‘non-permanent’ forces in Eastern Europe has contributed to a sense that the existing European security architecture – an architecture Russia has never accepted – is no longer appropriate for managing the new security landscape in Europe.

But in the absence of a new security architecture – and there is no consensus as to what any such architecture should look like – NATO must continue to walk a precarious tightrope. As I argued in Trondheim while there may be a broad consensus within the alliance that Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the growth and spread of Islamic State across the MENA region and a zone of instability stretching from the Baltics to the Aegean all constitute common threats to NATO – and European stability and security writ large – generating consensus on how to respond to such challenges is infinitely harder in a 28-member alliance characterised by often profound differing geopolitical priorities and preferences. As it moves forward its principal challenges remain as much internal as external; it must find ways of balancing and harmonising its sometimes competing requirements for collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security and move beyond Cold War mind-sets that will only hamper crucial efforts at finding new pathways to deal with one of the most challenging security landscapes Europe has known since WWII.

Image: Ukrainian infantry man a roadblock during NATO exercise Rapid Trident/Sabger Guardian , July 2015, via flickr.

Strategy Traps


Strategy is, by its nature, difficult. Those things that characterise strategy – the fact, for example, that it is framed in relation to a thinking, adaptive adversary – make it relentlessly difficult to do well. This blog focuses on identifying four specific challenges that can arise in the framing of strategy. I have called them ‘strategy traps’ because these are issues that often don’t seem like problems at the beginning of a conflict. Over time, however, leaders can find that such factors as those explored below can make strategy-making progressively more problematic.

The first trap is falling into the assumption that strategy is everything: that without a strategy at the beginning of a conflict, success is impossible. Governments can often be under huge pressure to articulate early on a strategy for a conflict. In 2014, President Obama was criticised because, having decided to initiate air strikes in Syria, he admitted that ‘we don’t have a strategy yet’. But in pressuring decision-makers to announce a strategy early, there can be a danger of giving strategy a talismanic quality – of assuming that, once we have a strategy, success is assured. The problem is that at the start of a conflict, facts are very thin on the ground. In such circumstances beliefs fill the void. Debates about strategy essentially can become exchanges of views shaped by political complexion, domestic politics, values, assumptions about historical analogies, and reflections on personal experience. Major, early decisions on approaches to a conflict can push governments into strategic cul-de-sacs that can later be very difficult to get out of. Obama’s critics over Syria have articulated a range of possible strategies, including no-fly zones and safe havens. But since these aren’t really strategies (only the means that might form part of a strategy), and since these alternatives themselves are very controversial, it isn’t obvious that adopting them would improve things materially. The fact that views on strategy are strongly held or clearly articulated says nothing necessarily about their utility.

Indeed, effective strategy often can be emergent in nature, as it was for the Union during the American Civil War. Lincoln’s eventual approach to the war was shaped by a process of strategic learning in which it became clear that early limited war strategies did not suit the actual conditions of conflict. Equally, one Deputy Under-Secretary in the British Foreign office commented to a historian that: ‘Our skill is in not having a grand strategic concept’. The British way, according to the nineteenth century Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, was to ‘float lazily downstream occasionally putting out a diplomatic boat-hook to avoid collisions’. Incrementalism and pragmatism may not always be negative. Having no strategy may sometimes be preferable to having the wrong one.

Decision-makers often set a second strategy trap themselves: it is the trap posed by their own words. Strategy is the art of the possible: there is no value in a strategy that cannot actually be delivered. The art of the possible is shaped by many things. For example, some strategies only become possible when others have been shown to fail. During the 1999 Kosovo campaign, using airpower to attack non-political targets only became feasible when it was shown that trying to coerce Milosevic’s regime by attacking the Serb military didn’t work. But decision-makers can often shape the art of the possible by engaging in rhetoric that later constrains the strategic options available. President Obama, for example, has already argued that there will be US no boots on the ground in Syria and that President Assad cannot be part of a political solution there. Rolling back on these kinds of firm statements can be difficult, not least because they can be seized upon by political opponents as indications of indecision and policy failure.

The difficulty for strategy is that circumstances can change. Thus President Obama has now had to engage in some very special verbal gymnastics to argue that the deployment of 50 Special Forces does not constitute boots on the ground. But these kinds of rhetorical constraints on strategy are all too easy to create. Obama’s comments, for example, were responses to very real domestic pressures, and he is hardly alone in having created these difficulties for himself. For example, one key problem that faced President George W. Bush’s administration in crafting a strategy to end the war in Afghanistan was that the President had already portrayed the conflict to the American people as a Manichean struggle between good and evil in which nothing less than victory was an acceptable outcome, and in which victory would be achieved if only the US could stay the distance.

A third common trap in strategy-making lies in picking the wrong metrics with which to measure success. Strategy-makers can therefore believe that they are winning a war when, in fact, they are not. An important foundation of effective strategy lies in having some kind of mechanism for feedback and assessment: one has to be able accurately to answer the question ‘how are we doing?’ Lacking this sort of mechanism, one cannot know if a given strategy is working. The difficulties posed by choosing the wrong metrics, or of not being able to agree on the metrics, were well illustrated in Afghanistan. Rory Stewart observed a recurring structure, an ‘astonishing chanted liturgy,’ to the views of consecutive ISAF commanders: ‘each new general in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2011 suggested that the situation he had inherited was dismal; implied that this was because his predecessor had had the wrong resources or strategy; and asserted that he now had the resources, strategy, and leadership to deliver a decisive year.’ If decision-makers cannot agree on how a war is going, the debates on strategy are unlikely to be very productive. There are many roots to the metrics problem: the complexity of the tasks being performed, for example, or the number of participants. But vague end states can also contribute. This poses a very real problem in Syria. Are we there to ‘destroy’ ISIS, as some have argued, or to ‘degrade’ them? What do these terms actually mean, and how do we measure effectively whether we are making progress in attaining them?

Finally, strategy-makers can often fall inadvertently into the trap of activating latent interests. Classically, these latent interests relate to the political survival of the politicians that took the country to war in the first place, and the credibility of their state. Once the language of weakness becomes strongly attached to compromise options, there can be an inherent tendency towards escalation, or to the avoidance of decisions that might be portrayed by critics as a defeat. For example, some of the criticisms of Obama’s policy towards Syria are that it is too timid, especially set alongside the commitments made by Russia and Iran. Obama, so it is argued, has made the US look weak, and the US hasn’t exerted the necessary leadership. Leaving aside the point that many of the key actors in the Syrian crisis aren’t interested in being led by the US, the danger with the alternatives put forward, such as the commitment of larger-scale forces or the adoption of more confrontational methods towards Russia, is that they risk activating just the sorts of credibility related interests that might warp the nature of US involvement in the Syrian crisis. Each increase in the US commitment raises the costs of failure to the US and to President Obama. In such circumstances strategy can become dominated simply by the desire to avoid the domestic and international costs of looking weak, leading to the escalation and/or the protraction of a conflict out of proportion to the original interests at stake..

These sorts of problems are among a whole raft of reasons why strategy-making is challenging. There are no easy choices. Incrementalism can sometimes lead to drift in strategy; or it can sometimes give the time necessary for strategic learning. Strong rhetoric by leaders may help to communicate more clearly with adversaries and allies; but it may also later shut-off some desirable options; demonstrations of strength may help to deter and coerce; or they may trap leaders into a cycle of escalation. As Colin S. Gray argues: ‘strategic thinking is difficult; indeed, strategy is so difficult to do well that it is remarkable that it is ever practiced successfully’.


The second edition of Understanding Modern Warfare, of which the writer is a co-author, will be available in 2016.

Image: Barack Obama meets with military leaders from 22 nations to discuss strategy in the Middle East during a conference at Joint Base Andrews, Md., October, 2014, via wikimedia commons.