harvard club, decisive Battles, Lt-Gen Jonathon Riley

Decisive Battles - Lt-Gen Jonathon Riley CB DSO PhD MA

Former Director-General & Master of the Armouries

Lecture delivered at The Harvard Club, 10 May 2011

In his 1973 book, War and Politics, Bernard Brodie characterised the Tet Offensive in Vietnam as the decisive engagement of that war – not because the Americans had won all the tactical battles, including Hue, but because the campaign persuaded the political leadership and the military command ultimately that they could not win the war. By implication, therefore, it is not battles that win wars, but campaigns. This has I believe been a trend since the industrial revolution reached its peak: once a society was organized for mass production, mass armies and mass casualties a single defeat, no matter how destructive, would be highly unlikely to cause collapse: because the economic machine would simply replace the manpower and materiel. Moreover in an age when populations could be reached and shaped by mass information media, one defeat would be unlikely to change the ideological view that had produced war. This may have modified during the late 20th-early 21st century, something that will be explored later in this talk, but we are too close to the problem at the moment to make a real judgment. It still seems to me that whole campaigns, or sequences of campaigns, are likely to be required to convince one side in any conflict to accept defeat. So if it is campaigns that decide wars, a decisive battle is one that, whatever its tactical outcome – win, lose or draw – leads to the achievement of one or more key objectives in a campaign and in doing so, brings about strategic success. One dictionary definition of “decisive” is useful in this context: “Having the power or quality of deciding a question or controversy; putting an end to contest or controversy; final; conclusive.” Such a definition contains no moral judgements, and virtue or vice have no effect on the outcome. We must at an early stage in this analysis acknowledge the role of generalship in shaping and delivering the decisive battle. 2,000 years ago, the Chinese writer Sun Tzu remarked on this, saying that:

In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns. Thus it may be known that the leader of armies is the arbiter of the people’s fate, the man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or peril . . .

The General engaged in campaigning must therefore satisfy himself on a number of key questions at the outset of his planning, and these have not changed much over the centuries, despite the alteration in technology and circumstances: which military conditions must be attained to achieve strategic and operational objectives? What sequence of actions is most likely to produce these conditions? How should military resources be applied to best accomplish that sequence of actions? Are the associated risks acceptable, or can they or their effects be modified if not?

In order to achieve a decisive effect, the General must direct his attention to the enemy’s centre of gravity – that this, those characteristics, capabilities, or localities from which a nation, an alliance, a military force or even a loose confederation like Al-Qua’eda derives its freedom of action, its moral and physical strength, or its will to fight. It is these things that if destroyed or neutralised will bring about collapse. Such an attack will be made by exploiting critical vulnerabilities, while one’s own centre of gravity must be protected from attack; the General must therefore be aware of both centres of gravity for as Napoleon rightly remarked, the whole business of war resides in a careful and circumspect defensive, followed by a rapid and audacious attack. In Napoleon’s day as in Sun Tsu’s, the centre of gravity could usually be thought of as something physical, such as the enemy army, or his capital city. However it can be a group of people or a person – for the Germans in the Second World War it was probably Adolf Hitler himself; or it can be a resource, natural or industrial; or now it can be something intangible like the will of a nation to continue, or the cohesion of an alliance or coalition.

If all this is true, that the decisive acts of a war are contained within the context of a campaign, then we must strive to understand what it is that battles decide. I think there are only two ways in which battles really have decisive effect. First, there are battles that, probably with the benefit of hindsight, marked the point at which a campaign either decisively changed direction or marked the passing of the initiative from one side to the other, as one side reached its culminating point. From this point onwards, the side holding and maintaining the initiative moved towards its inevitable victory. It is therefore not enough that a battle merely achieves operational objectives – that alone does not make it decisive. In this class lie battles like Gettysburg and the siege of Vicksburg, both of which concluded on the same day; or Stalingrad; or the German attack in the Ardennes in 1944; or the American victory on Okinawa. On the other side of the coin lies the Pyrrhic victory, which may cause the winners to seek compromise, or otherwise modify their objectives. These battles tell us at least something about the changing dynamic between the decision to make war, battle, and conflict termination or resolution.

Secondly, there are battles that marked the end of an era in warfare. Such battles usually brought the termination of a campaign and with it, the end of a period of total war, war from which only one side could expect to emerge with its political system, or its territory, or its economy - or a combination of these - intact. In the aftermath of such a battle, both sides would recognise that a decision had been reached and agree on the resolution of the conflict – usually on terms favourable to the victor. Battles that brought cease-fires, or treaties that temporarily settled disputes, again cannot be classed as decisive. Into this class falls, for example, Yorktown, for although the British Army remained in the field and in possession of considerable territories, it was not worth the candle to continue the struggle. In the aftermath of battles like Yorktown, both the victors and the vanquished embark on a new era in their history. The USA emerged as a nation after Yorktown, intent on dominating the continental land mass of North America, while the focus of the British Empire shifted irrevocably from West to East.

Of course the results of a decisive battle may be achieved actively or passively. That is, they may be achieved as a direct result of the active achievement of victory by one side, and its exploitation. The latter matters here: not for nothing (at least according to Livy) did the Carthaginian cavalry general Marhabal rebuke Hannibal for his refusal to march directly on Rome after the devastating victory of Cannae: “you know how to win a victory, but you do not know how to use one.” Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was similarly terse about Braxton Bragg: “What does he fight battles for?” Alternatively, results may be achieved because one side loses, rather than that the other side wins: the Ardennes in 1944 was decisive because Hitler, in losing it, threw away the last army he had which was capable of delaying the Allied advance into Germany or, if switched to the East, delaying the Russians in order to ensure that the Allies met them as far east as possible. The German Army thus culminated, and the war ended less than five months later. This is an example of how battlefield disaster can have a decisive effect on policy and public opinion, regardless of the ability of an economy to make good losses: it is the psychological effect on a nation’s belief in victory that is shattered by such a defeat, just as much as its physical capacity to fight.

Thus the context of a decisive battle is not only its place within a campaign, but its relation to strategy, which Field Marshal Alanbrooke defined thus:

to determine the aim, which should be political: to derive from that aim a series of military objectives to be achieved: to assess these objectives as to the military requirements they create, and the pre-conditions which the achievement of each is likely to necessitate: to measure available and potential resources against the requirements and to chart from this process a coherent pattern of priorities and a rational course of action.

But there is a circular aspect to this, since although the decision to make war is a political one, no government will take such a course without having the means to do so. Military strategy is therefore, as Professor John Childs points out, a fundamental component in reaching the decision to go to war.

Has anything changed in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 periods? Certainly there is a view touted around that the time of decisive battle, or decisive action, is past – more of that in a moment. Certainly, the strategic environment has shifted twice. After 1989, with Communism gone, there seemed no overpowering strategic threat that would convince Western populations to accept serious losses; the cause was not worth the price-tag because people just did not feel threatened at home – hence the non-engagement of US forces in the UN mission to the Balkans and their exit from Somalia (shown here) in the 1990s. Secondly, the Gulf War of 1991 aside, battles have got steadily longer – a trend that goes back 150 years. The notion of a battle confined to a single day – other than at the lowest tactical level, at which it is inevitably indecisive – has not been realized since Sedan. This gives even greater strength to the idea that it is the campaign that is decisive; however, campaigns take time to unfold and modern societies are impatient. The spirit of the age is one of instant gratification and the idea that the defeat of an enemy may take years simply encourages a hostile or shallow media to equate deliberate progress with disaster. Thirdly, and connected to this, the rapid broadening of the information realm has made control by governments, in a way that was still possible even during the Falklands War, impossible. In the most remote parts of the world, people may still grind their corn using medieval grist mills and water power, but the cell-phone and the cell-phone tower, are everywhere. Multinational media companies, with their own agendas and owing nothing to government or alliance policies, let alone patriotism, have reinforced this. In the absence of the means to garner public support, even small numbers of casualties on intervention operations owing nothing to vital national interests can humble governments – the exit of the Spanish from Iraq following a well-timed series of bombings in Madrid in 2004 is an example.

11 September 2001 changed this – but not for everyone. Since then, the United States has felt itself engaged in a war against a new set of implacable enemies, militant, radical Islam which has replaced the global threat of Communism; and although the US military has not been defeated in any battlefield engagement, its cumulative losses are many times those that led to the withdrawal from Somalia – but there is no slackening in its commitment. The same cannot be said for its many allies who do not feel similarly threatened and are therefore less committed. One has to ask whether, for example, the loss of a helicopter or transport plane full of troops would be enough to oblige even Britain to leave the campaign in Afghanistan. Despite the threat of Islamic extremism, people in Europe simply do not feel in enough danger to accept the sorts of sacrifices demanded – and made – by the US. Thus, the dynamic between the decision to make war, decisive battle and conflict termination is as complex as ever.

The broadening of the virtual realm of information has benefited insurgencies, enabling them to transmit their messages and to develop technology exchange: an obvious example has been the way opposition groups in Egypt and Tunisia have used the virtual realm to mobilize support – and by contrast, how the governments have striven to close communication networks down. The Taliban’s self-styled Emir of Afghanistan, Abu Al-Yazid, who was killed late last year, was a good example of the more extreme use of the media. Even after his demise, his website, one of several hundred jihadi sites related to Afghanistan which are supplemented by television and radio stations, is updated every four hours in five languages and is, of course, unconstrained by the requirement, faced by government sources, to tell the truth. Al-Yazid was, before converted to the possibilities of the virtual realm, known for his penchant for hanging anyone engaging in activities connected with globalization.

An illustration of the acceleration of technology transfer is the fact that during the 1970s and 1980s, when I was a young soldier learning to fight insurgents, bandits, terrorists and rebels at the coal face, it would routinely take six months for techniques developed in Palestine to reach the IRA or vice versa. Today, the exchange of expertise can take just a few days to show results on the ground. Anyone can search the internet and find details of how to construct an improvised explosive device, how to reach Afghanistan and join the jihad, how to become a suicide bomber – and much else besides.

The relationship between physical destruction and commitment has also changed. It is still true that industrialized societies can regenerate the losses of a single destructive battle, but it has become harder to do so for several reasons: hardware costs far more and takes longer to procure than it used to; it is more complex, requiring longer training for crews, who in turn are harder to replace; and the destructive power and reach of modern weapons as wielded by the US or North Korea – or, in the future, China – make the scale of destruction much harder to deal with. Thus, one battle potentially can, in a conventional force-on-force contest, produce decisive military results. Kuwait did this, but only partly, because battlefield victory was not exploited. The initial US attacks on the Taliban and on Iraq in 2001–03 did the same. This might lead us into a long debate about what we mean by victory and defeat, how we recognize their achievement, or not, and what we do to exploit them and achieve a full conflict termination rather than a cessation of hostilities.

However, both these campaigns – Kuwait and the invasion of Afghanistan – throw up again the dynamic between the decision to make war, decisive battle and conflict termination. Termination is only possible if one side accepts defeat. Despite massive destruction and the loss of political power, neither the Ba'thist regime nor the Taliban accepted that they were done for. Both licked their wounds in safe havens and adopted asymmetrical means to continue the war. Baron Jomini may still be right that ‘it is the morale of armies, as well as of nations, more than anything else, which makes victories and their results decisive’.

Can we, as some commentators seem to assume, discount the possibility that state-on-state warfare is over? I suggest that this would be a rash assumption indeed. The invasion of Georgia by the Russians in 2009 is a recent example of its continuance. And if international war is still possible, recent experience seems to tell us that a decisive conventional campaign is certainly possible. Although for Western nations the campaign in the former Yugoslavia was one of peacekeeping, for the belligerents it was full-blown war. The UN intervention, it may be argued, prevented the Serbs from achieving their required decision and eventually enabled Croatia to break the deadlock of the Croatian-Bosnian War in Operations FLASH, STORM and MISTRAL using an army rapidly transformed and re-equipped by US contractors and advisers. It is instructive that the Croats employed the historical norms of superiority in order to achieve a decisive effect: 3:1 as a minimum, and preferably 5:1, in manpower, guns, tanks and fighting systems, and aircraft. The coalition attack on Kuwait in 1991 was different, but the coalition first reduced the force ratio by air-delivered effect and then employed a huge asymmetry in technology and firepower to change the odds.

But what about unconventional war? The phrase ‘war among the people’ was coined by Rupert Smith in his seminal book The Utility of Force. In this, Smith sets out the view that in wars today, forces developed for industrial-age warfare against states are increasingly, although not exclusively, used for non-industrial wars against non-state actors. War has changed from being a matter of comparative forces doing battle within the context of strategic confrontation, to battle between a range of combatants using different weapons and asymmetrical methods for reasons that have little to do with the interests of nation states. In this non-industrial model, the utility of conventional force is limited, however massive and impressive the force:

Military force when employed [rather than deployed or threatened] has only two immediate effects: it kills people and destroys things. Whether or not this death and destruction serve to achieve the political purpose the force was intended to achieve depends on the choice of targets or objectives . . . to apply force with utility implies an understanding of the context in which one is acting, a clear definition of the results to be achieved, an identification of the point or target to which force is being applied . . . [and] an understanding of the nature of the force being applied.

War among the people is characterized by six major trends, of which four bear on the business of what is decisive: first, the ends for which wars are fought have more to do with objectives that are defined by individuals and societies than with states. Secondly, warfare takes place among the people and in the glare of the real-time media, and therefore among the people at home and in uncommitted societies as much as among those in the actual theatre of operations. Third, conflicts are long in timescale since military action is about creating a set of conditions that must be maintained in order to achieve a definitive outcome, which may take years. Fourthly, the sides are non-state entities: coalitions or alliances on one side, irregular groupings on the other. Irregular forces operate outside the framework of the state and its laws, but may still remain within the construct of international humanitarian law. They range from criminal gangs to guerrilla forces.

Because of the strength of the arguments in The Utility of Force – which is a highly accurate and penetrating description of developments over the last century – along with the narrative of the Western media based on their view of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, a view has developed in some quarters that the time of the decisive battle or decisive campaign is over. The experience of the Israelis in Lebanon in 2007 would certainly seem to support this hypothesis: a conventional army, which had not transformed its way of doing business and was seeking contact with an enemy that simply was not there, was brought to a halt by an irregular force, Hezbollah, using asymmetrical methods. However, The Utility of Force was published before the campaign in Iraq had reached any sort of maturity and before the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan had reopened. Its thesis may therefore be incomplete. It may be so, first and foremost, because some Western industrial-age armies have shown a remarkable ability to adapt structures, forces and weapon systems planned for confrontation with the Soviets to the demands of warfare against a host of modern enemies. The US Army in particular has done this, undergoing three transformations since Vietnam: it has moved from a doctrinal position of ‘We do not do counter-insurgency or nation building’ to ‘No-one does it better’; it has moved from a marked aversion to casualties in the 1980s and 1990s to an absolute conviction that casualties must be accepted when vital national interests are at stake; and, in so doing, it has reverted to ‘normal’ US thinking, amply demonstrated during both World Wars and in Korea and Vietnam. It has taken on new equipments; formulated a new doctrine; taught this throughout the organization and put it into effect; gripped the integration of civil and military effects; and mobilized large elements of its reserves – and all while fighting two major campaigns. Both the US and Britain have found new uses for old toys: the Nimrod aircraft, now a victim of government cuts, was procured as a Cold War maritime patrol aircraft; for the past five years it has been used as a valuable surveillance platform able to loiter for extended periods and identify pinpoint targets.

What may be happening is that rather than a new type of unconventional or asymmetrical war supplanting state-on-state conflict, the two are coexisting as they always have done and it is the balance that is shifting. If this is the case, the question is whether or not this is a permanent shift. Let us look at the two most recent interventions, in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases, a successful invasion rapidly destroyed the enemy’s conventional forces and the country was occupied – occupied not for exploitation, but to bring the supposed benefits of Western liberal democracy and development, to a failed or failing state. However, significant sections of the occupied country’s population did not quite see the benefits of what were to them alien, Godless, notions. These sections were initially those who had lost out through the invasion: the Sunni Ba’thists in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. A period of regrouping followed the initial defeat, and then a counter-offensive was launched to eject the occupiers. The losers were soon reinforced by those Islamic extremists whose objections to the occupation were not so much material as spiritual. With them came foreign jihadi reinforcements, arms, money and expertise – expertise gained through a long war against Israel. This rapidly turned a counter-offensive into an insurgency, and the insurgency quickly learned that confronting the occupiers head-on would lead to destruction. They therefore did what the weak have always done when faced by the strong: avoided trials of strength unless on very favourable terms; exploited the vulnerabilities of the occupier, especially in the minds of the home population; used propaganda; and adopted the indirect method of attack – in other words, asymmetry. But actually, is not all warfare asymmetrical in that any side will seek to pit its strength against an enemy’s weak-spots?

In many ways there is little new in this. Nineteenth-century imperial colonization was essentially about expeditionary operations to capture territories followed by extended counter-insurgency operations to secure them. What we call insurgency has existed for many centuries – from Judah the Macabee to the Peasant’s Revolt, and has been variously termed rebellion, revolt, uprising, and so on. Such historic colonial operations were followed by a long period of development, accompanied by the exploitation of raw materials for the benefit of the imperial power. Resistance to occupation often used the same techniques as those we have seen in Iraq an Afghanistan – but without the benefit of modern technologies, the impetus of religious fervour, or the worldwide web to spread the techniques of violent resistance.

The $64,000 question remains, is decisive battle possible in counter-insurgent warfare? To answer this, we first need to understand the nature of the war we are fighting – a maxim laid down by both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. An insurgency is a military symptom of a political, social, economic, religious or ethnic problem, or of a compound of several of these problems. It is an attempt by the insurgents to seize control of, or modify, the state. The activities of al-Qai’da are different – they do not constitute an insurgency – but that is outside the scope of this talk. In applying force as part of its response to insurgency, a government must decide where to set the cursor on the sliding scale of force. It can be set at zero – in other words, the government can surrender to the demands of the insurgency – or it can be set at 100 – that is, the government can use repression to the uttermost. Contrary to perceived wisdom, the latter will work if the government is absolutely ruthless. Those who doubt it should study the revolt in the Vendée in the 1790s or the Russian campaign in Chechnya 200 years later. Usually, however, the cursor is set somewhere in the middle, hence the view among diplomats, aid workers and UN officials, as dismissive as it is widespread, that ‘counter-insurgency is only 20 per cent military, but 80 per cent social, economic and political.’ My response to that is ‘Try winning without the 20 per cent’: the result of doing so will be to set the cursor at zero and thus surrender. The view of the Australian theorist David Kilcullen that counter-insurgency is ‘armed social work’ is in this mould. If it were armed social work, armed social workers would do it and there would be no need for security forces.

What the application of military force does is to help modify the behaviour of the insurgency. Anyone modifying behaviour, as every parent knows, has two levers they can pull: persuasion and coercion. The persuasive element of counter-insurgency is provided by the government making some accommodation to the demands of the insurgency: independence for Malaya, for example, or political recognition for Sinn Fein. The coercive element is provided by force, which puts the insurgents under sufficient pressure to oblige them, too, to make some accommodation. Thus, the insurgency usually ends up becoming part of the system that it once rejected, under terms acceptable to both sides. How favourable these terms will be to the government depends on how much coercion is applied and how effectively. Timing matters, too. For the government to talk too soon about reconciliation or a political process will only give the insurgency the impression that it is winning and the government is in a position of weakness. A government must state its terms from a position of great strength – political, economic and military strength – and talk of terms too soon will undermine it. This is the danger of such talk now in Afghanistan.

It is generally accepted that to secure the population during an insurgency and separate the insurgents from the population, thus denying them support or the ability to coerce, there has to be a certain density of security forces. Achieving this density is a key factor in tipping a counter-insurgency campaign towards that elusive, decisive moment. Historical norms tell us that government forces – military, police, border guards, auxiliaries – should number one for every 50 of the population in insurgent-affected areas. Iraq’s population is estimated at 31 million, of whom nearly 60 per cent live in areas affected by Ba’thist, Sunni Arab, al-Qai’da-backed terrorism or Shia Arab insurgency. It was not until Iraqi Army and police force-generation, combined with Kurdish Peshmerga, local auxiliaries and the surge in US troops, produced a headline figure of 660,000 personnel, that this density was reached and then surpassed. Afghanistan’s population is estimated at about the same but spread over a much wider and harsher geography, with again at least half living in areas affected by (Pashtun) insurgency, warlordism, well-armed, organized criminality or the activities of the intelligence services of at least one and possibly two hostile neighbouring states. As of early 2011, the security forces number 87,000 US and Coalition forces – about half of whom can be counted on for combat duties – 70,000 border guards of dubious effectiveness, 100,000 police and 130,000 Afghan Army personnel: a total of 305,000 with a target of 378,000 by October this year. Across the border in Pakistan, the population of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas numbers 11 million and Pakistani Government forces about 150,000. Even when interpreted in the most favourable light, these ratios still fall short of what is needed: no wonder success continues to be elusive. Successive US commanders of the International Security Assistance Force have repeatedly pointed out the need for at least 400,000 effective security forces, in line with historical norms.

What must also be taken into account is that in modern insurgencies, the opponents of government forces are not just a range of groups, but a nexus of insurgency, criminality and violent ideological extremism. This nexus, or coincidence, has become something of a feature of post-modern wars. From the IRA and organized crime in Northern Ireland to the RUF and the illegal diamond trade in Sierra Leone and the Taliban and drugs in Afghanistan, it has confronted us. It matters, because the evils feed off each other: violence creates insecurity, the absence of the rule of law and plenty of willing participants, while criminality provides money to buy fighters and to corrupt legitimate governance, and provides access to the proliferation of cheap weapons so readily available on the world markets. It throws up leaders, or sets of leaders, representing criminal–political–ideological–economic constituencies which do very well out of instability and therefore see no need to give up fighting. It is a particular feature of insurgency but it is by no means limited to non-state actors. It is one of the factors, therefore, that gives longevity to wars, produces collusion between corrupt elements of government forces and insurgents on the ground for criminal purposes; blurs the distinctions between combatants and non-combatants; and makes the humanitarian desire to protect civilians and minorities terminally difficult. If we accept that failed states and ungoverned spaces are the parents of extremism, terrorism and insurgency, and that the nexus will seek to perpetuate them, our perspective on what is decisive has to take this fully into account.

Faced with such opposition and insufficient resources, coalition governments and forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have had to find other ways to reach a decision. In part, they have done this by modifying their aims. The goal of the coalition in Iraq, having ejected Saddam Hussein, was originally described as being to bring stability and democracy to the country. It rapidly became apparent that it would be very difficult to deliver both. Political pressure led to the introduction of democracy being the first requirement, and this arguably had the result of delaying the achievement of stability. Much energy was diverted into the business of elections – in a country without any tradition of democracy or any recognizable system of political parties. In Afghanistan, the same priorities were applied, leading to rapid elections which, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, merely entrenched the undesirable individuals who happened to hold power at the time, because they had the means and the will to oblige citizens to vote in a particular direction or face violent reprisals.

Another shift in objectives in both cases has been the drive to put indigenous authorities and forces in charge of security, in the belief that local problems are best solved by local solutions. As with elections, the results have not always been entirely what was envisaged, but that said, the principle must be the right one. In Iraq, the penny dropped quite rapidly as far as the re-formation of the Iraqi Army was concerned; it has taken much longer in Afghanistan. The Afghan Army is being asked to double in size over a five-year period, take on novel technologies, produce an educated body of officers capable of running its own institutions and fight a determined enemy simultaneously. I doubt that the British Army could do as much.

In both campaigns, the major failures in achieving security early were, first, the failure to secure the borders and, secondly, the failure to reform the police. Paul Bremer, the US Administrator of Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004, received considerable criticism for disbanding the Iraqi Army; in fact, he had no choice, for the Army had already disbanded itself. The failure had been that of Coalition messaging during the invasion. However, the force that gave problems in Iraq was not the one that was broken down and rebuilt, but the one that was not: the police. Police reform was removed from the one body that could have achieved it rapidly, the US Army, and given to various civil agencies, who did not deliver.

However, after five years of effort – a remarkably short period when compared with historical insurgencies – it is arguable that a decision has been reached in Iraq. It has taken time, much effort and a huge expenditure of blood and treasure. But it seems unwise to write off the notion that a counter-insurgency campaign cannot achieve decisive results, and to conclude that the notion of a decisive campaign and, within it, a tipping point – or culmination – after which the end result is inevitable, is no longer viable. It was not one particular battle or engagement, like Fallujah, that achieved the tipping-point, but a combination of circumstances achieved by patience, determination, the right level of resources, and steady application. The jury is still out in Afghanistan. It is entirely possible that, over the past two years, we have seen a surge by the Taliban, and that, without a rapid counter-move by NATO, we will find the tipping point was reached during the recent rigged election, but in favour of the wrong side.

And what of the 80 per cent non-military effort required to help decide a counter-insurgency successfully? In Iraq, with its well-established infrastructure, strong tradition of central authority, well-educated population and enormous oil wealth, this has been largely achieved by the host nation. In Afghanistan, the situation is quite otherwise. With none of those advantages, the host nation has looked to foreign donors to provide civil support. The contribution of the US aside, that support has been patchy. If counter-insurgency really is 80 per cent non-military, this failure to help will contribute to a decision – but the wrong one.

Jonathon Riley discusses his book "Decisive Battles: From Yorktown to Operation Desert Storm" recorded at The Pritzker Military Library in Chicago: Decisive Battles listen

Copyright © 2011 Jonathon Riley - Lecture delivered at The Harvard Club