Defence and security expert with comprehensive media experience, coupled with specialist knowledge of Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan and military operations past and present.
London-based security analyst, Patrick has worked for NATO as an analyst and is a former Captain in the British army's Royal Irish Regiment. He is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute, studying the reform of the U.K's Army Reserve, cohesion and logistics. Patrick has appeared on international, UK and Irish television and radio to discuss security matters, and has written for leading broadsheets. His latest appearances were as an expert contributor to National Geographic's 'Nazi Mega Weapons' series, where he contributed to four episodes, including on the Atlantic Wall, the Wolf's Lair, the SS, and the Siegfried Line. He has specialist knowledge on the conflict in Afghanistan, having served in Sangin in 2008 and he has provided security research and analysis for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. He also has expert knowledge of the current security situation in Libya and comments on wider security issues, including strategy, current military operations, military history, the role of the media in war, and ethics in war.
He has written for The Irish Times, The Guardian and The Independent, and has appeared on The National Geographic Channel/Channel 4, Sky News, BBC News, BBC News HardTalk, BBC Radio 4 Today programme, BBC File on 4, BBC Radio 5, and numerous Irish national TV and radio programmes.
His memoir, 'Callsign Hades', (Simon and Schuster 2010) has been called "the first great book of the Afghan war" and describes his experiences serving with Irish soldiers in the last Irish line regiment of the British army in one of Afghanistan's most dangerous places. It has since been incorporated onto the syllabus at Sandhurst, and excerpts from his work are also taught to Australian officer cadets.
Patrick was educated at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth and King's College, London, where he studied Intelligence and International Security before attending the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He was awarded the Trust Medal for Overall Academic Performance, The John Pimlott Prize for War Studies and the Defence and International Affairs Prize during his time there.
He has commanded soldiers on operations in Afghanistan and deployed to Cyprus, Kenya, Malawi and Malaysia.
He has also published in military and ethics journals and on defence issues on political blogsites. He has spoken at numerous universities and military command courses on security and ethics issues. He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Royal United Services Institute, the Irish Military History Society, the Military Ethics Education Network, and former member of an IED and Radicalisation project funded by the US Office of Naval Research and Hull University. A full list of Patrick's publications are listed in the links section below.
Thursday, 18 July 2013
Sunday, 23 June 2013
Irish Times article, 20 June 2013.
Wednesday, 27 March 2013
Transparency, Campaign Disconnect and Civil-Military Relations: A Follow-Up to Beef, Tomatoes and Solar Panels...
I was in Oxford last week for a very interesting conference on military cohesion and was lucky enough to have a brief chat with a senior British army officer on the sides. I was surprised to learn that he had heard about my piece on the micro-metrics of COIN and – as usual for him – he was very gracious and friendly in explaining his side of the story, and in doing so he has enabled me to clarify and expand on the arguments made in the previous piece.
Firstly, I would like to say that I apologise if any offence was caused in the previous piece; it was the last thing I intended to do with an article that was substantially about the mismatch between the metrics of operational and strategic progress.
The piece was written out of frustration though. Frustration at losing comrades in Afghanistan who appear to have died for little in the long run. Frustration at being so badly under-resourced in terms of boots on the ground (this was 2008) that it undermined our best efforts to improve the locals’ lives. But the article was also written from a frustration borne out of a year spent carefully analysing official data of the COIN campaign in Afghanistan for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. In this data, especially the U.S. Department of Defense’s biannual Progress Report, the changes to the metrics used to assess strategic progress, the failure to provide long-term contextual data to triangulate some of the presented data and the emphasis on small positive gains over larger negative scores (and I can provide examples of all these in much greater depth if need be) may have worrying implications for the transparency military operations and therefore, for civil-military relations. Namely, how do we, as citizens in developed democracies, actually know the results of these campaigns if the metrics being used are questionable and perhaps politically influenced? In short, reports of strategic progress in Afghanistan, and the strategic narrative crafted by strategic communications experts, may not be entirely accurate. Thus, when I hear commanders stating their ‘cautious optimism’ about Afghanistan, I find it very frustrating. I am not the only one who is worried; other people who watch the campaign closely have aired the same concerns: Professor Cordesman, BBC File on 4 and journalist Ben Anderson to name but a few.
Within that context, hearing an operational-level commander espouse ‘cautious optimism’ whilst not mentioning the strategic problems of the campaign added to my worries about the reality of current strategic narrative. However, the officer gently pointed out in our conversation that, because he is a serving soldier, he is curtailed as to what he can say about the wider campaign, and that as an operational commander the strategic issues I highlighted are actually the responsibility of his commanders. It was abundantly clear just how capable, intelligent and decent this officer is – like many other operational and strategic commanders. In short, he gets the bigger picture, he just can’t talk about it publicly because he is duty bound to be apolitical and follow his mission. His points were good and they got me thinking...
What appears to be happening at present is that in the absence of solid evidence of strategic progress in Afghanistan, the metrics of operational progress, perhaps unintentionally, are being used to fill the void to support the strategic narrative. For me, the real crux of the problem concerns the effect of the well-documented campaign disconnect between operational success and strategic failure in Afghanistan is having on civil-military relations. Operational commanders are quite right to portray their operational successes with whatever evidence they have to back such claims up, but in the absence of transparency on the strategic trajectory of the campaign, these operational successes are often being reported – by both higher command and the media – out of context and as indicating strategic success. If governments and the top military commanders, who do have the remit to comment candidly on the strategic situation, remain reluctant to divert from the strategic narrative when ‘discrepant information’ contradicts it (and the reasons for this are myriad, but include politics to careerism to institutional positivism) then are those operational commanders’ beneath them who remain silent – whilst just doing their job – unwittingly contributing to this lack of transparency?
The ground-up nature of COIN and the campaign disconnect in Afghanistan may have combined to create a situation where the soldierly qualities of being apolitical, media-averse and remaining committed to the mission are themselves distorted into becoming political acts, precisely because those above them are playing politics about the reality of progress. In a way, following Clausewitz, this shouldn’t surprise anyone, but perhaps the devolved level to which war is becoming a political act is something new, as Emile Simpson has noted. This raises some interesting questions for modern civil-military relations in democracies.
Firstly, as public opinion is inherently related to the fighting power of democracies, the public does need to be shielded from the realities of war if support for, or at least the acceptance of, wars is to continue: David Lloyd George’s remark in 1917 that ‘if people knew the truth… the war would be stopped tomorrow’ still holds true. Moreover, governments need to be both patient and resolute in the face of the public’s understandable lack of appetite for modern conflicts that are often perceived as abstract wars of choice. The question, though, is to what degree? Is it acceptable to pick statistics that better reflect your goals, al la Osborne, than those that don’t? Is that politicising the conduct of war to a greater extent than in the past? Is it only acceptable in wars of national survival? What about lines-to-take and strategic communications management? How much is too much? When is it right for soldiers to speak out if the mission will not deliver the success the politicians are promising?
These questions are also related to the second point: the impact of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars on the public psyches of the American and British populations. I’m not an expert on this, but the long-term impact of the deep divisions in American public life wrought by the Vietnam War may have made future generations more reluctant to engage with the realities of modern conflict. In many respects our professional militaries are the most detached from our societies than they have ever been and, despite the welcome signs of support for the forces, it would be accurate to say most soldiers feel the public are not interested in the conflicts that they fight in their name. Closer to home, the anti-Iraq invasion protests of 2003 may come to be seen as a crucial turning point in British civil-military relations, not because the military did anything wrong – they just followed orders (many albeit with deep reservations; one Brigadier told me he was planning the invasion in the MoD building in Whitehall as his wife marched below his window) – but because the British government did not listen to the people. This has created a sense of apathy about politicians’ use of our armed forces that still lingers today in many respects. While Chomsky’s democratic deficit arguments may take things too far, the decline in the population’s confidence that they are the ultimate controller of their armed forces, coupled with these forces’ repeated deployment over the past 12 years in unpopular wars, may have profoundly altered British civil-military relations.
I’m not sure how unique the current disconnect between the reality of progress in Afghanistan and the strategic narrative is, but I am pretty certain it is creating an uneasy paradox for operational commanders who cannot speak candidly on the strategic situation. Of course, there was censorship in previous wars, but our standards of transparency our higher today, especially in wars that are not fought for national survival (as much as previous narratives have tried to convince us otherwise). Ultimately, it comes back to the military’s relations with the population. Today, most of these occur through the media and are controlled to a large degree by the ban on members of the armed forces speaking freely to the media and the need to stick to lines-to-take that support the dominant strategic narrative. Yet, in an era of social media where any member of the public can express their opinions in almost any forum, is such a ban really reflective of the society we live in? Does it actually keep the military from the people it is meant to serve? And is it fair – commanders can’t exactly defend themselves on a blog can they? At a personal level, members of the armed forces have no qualms about expressing their views of the war, but why do commanders feel that they can’t publicly express their views on the strategic situation in Afghanistan, whether they are in line with the strategic narrative or not? It just feels to me like something may be wrong here.
I don’t have the answers to many of these questions, but that doesn’t mean they are not worth asking. As conflict and the media has changed in the last decade, so too it is valid to question the reality of the old military virtues of being apolitical and unable to comment candidly in public.
Thursday, 14 February 2013
I had the good fortune to hear Brigadier Doug Chalmers talk last week at Exeter’s new Security and Strategy Institute about his recent experience of commanding the U.K’s Task Force Helmand in Afghanistan. The talk had a particular operational focus on the main effort of British forces, Nad-e-Ali district in central Helmand, during which Brigadier Chalmers emphasised how things ‘were better than when we arrived’ when he left and that he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ about Afghanistan’s future. Heat maps of Nad-e-Ali district were produced to show how insurgent activity had been forced outside the predetermined centres of gravity in the district, including markets, roads and coalition/ANSF bases, by joint British and Afghan efforts. Photos of an empty market ‘then’ and a bustling one ‘now’ seemed to showcase the improvement. So far, so nothing new.
The real problem for me came when Brigadier Chalmers – who is obviously incredibly capable, intelligent and well-read on COIN and the history of Helmand – spoke about the micro-econometrics by which he judged the campaign. The presence of butchers selling beef in the market was a good indicator of growing trade and confidence because, in the 45 degree heat of the Afghan summer and without refrigeration facilities, each butcher had to be certain he would sell his cuts the same day he slaughtered his cattle. The sale of tomatoes in the market, which have to be imported from Iran and Pakistan, showed that the roads were safe and that normal commercial flows were returning to the region (although the same could be argued of flows of weapons/insurgents no doubt?). Finally, the fact that solar-powered public lighting installed by development aid projects remained on the main street and had not been pilfered demonstrated that there was a growing sense of community within the town and with that a wider sense of confidence about Afghanistan. If ever one could seize on Nagl and Kilcullen’s micro-indicators of success, then Brigadier Chalmers surely had, and on the face of it, such arguments seem convincing. Until you consider the macro-indicators of the wider campaign.
Firstly, the heat map of Nad-e-Ali; it’s all well and good keeping the insurgents out of the centres of gravity for the moment, but there is not much evidence to suggest that this will continue once coalition forces leave the area and handover security duties to the Afghans. The purple lozenges of security are more likely to shrink and the red swathes of enemy activity are more likely to grow when the ANSF are left to their own devices. The gains made by joint coalition/ANSF operations are unlikely to be maintained when the drive and professionalism of NATO forces is removed.
Taking the ANSF issue to the strategic level there are also four other major issues.
Firstly, the current rate of attrition in the ANA (as of November 2012) is officially 2 per cent per month. God knows why NATO decides to quantify attrition rates on a monthly basis but I suspect the fact that this means that the ANA is losing 24 per cent of its personnel every year has something to do with it. This is simply unsustainable, and is likely to get worse, not better, as coalition troops withdraw and ANA units take the lead in combat ops.
Secondly, while we constantly hear that Afghans are now leading over 80 per cent of all operations, and they are currently conducting 85 per cent of their own training, there is little mention that that in the last year ISAF has lowered its criteria of classification for ANA (35th minute) units to be capable of independent operations, thereby allowing more units in the lower categories to qualify for the highest category.
Thirdly, the central metric of the Afghan campaign is an economic one. Although it has experienced rapid economic growth recently – the IMF estimates Afghanistan’s GDP to be over $19 billion – without the inflation generated by over 100,000 NATO troops and their support staff, the country’s GDP is historically close to $12 billion. The cost of training and equipping an ANSF of 352,000 is forecast by the U.S to be $4-6 billion a year for the foreseeable future, depending on their size. Thus, funding its security forces will cost Afghanistan about a third to a half of its actual GDP every year. This is simply unsustainable.
Fourthly, such a fact presents a clear rationale for cutting the size of the ANSF. 230,000 has been the number suggested. Yet even if you take into account that half of Afghanistan’s population may not require a dense ANSF presence, to secure the remaining 15 million inhabitants or so would require a force ratio far greater than this allows. Indeed, forces this size would fall far short of the number required by NATO’s own doctrine to successfully conduct a counter-insurgency campaign. Such doctrine holds that 20-25 counter-insurgents are needed per 1,000 members of the population. Even given the geographic concentration of Afghanistan’s insurgency in the south and east of the country, the 230,000 figure falls far below this ratio. Again, big strategic problems remain unsolved.
So, as you can see, there are for more telling metrics that can be used to assess the likelihood of strategic success in the Afghan campaign than beef, tomatoes and solar panels. And the metrics included here are simply some of those related to the ANSF, others on security, corruption, Pakistan’s interference, and wider economic figures could also be used to triangulate the strategic direction of Afghanistan.. While coalition forces are to be commended for undoubtedly delivering operational successes, it is the failure of commanders to draw the distinction between the limits of these successes’ relationship to the wider strategic context that worried me the most. Perhaps speaking candidly is too much to expect from serving officers, but as a result I was left with the sinking feeling that the ‘cautious optimism’ of the military was simply shorthand for ‘not my pay-grade.’ Indeed, at times it felt like there was a big-eared grey mammal laughing at the back of the room because, strategically, the only thing that warrants cautious optimism in Afghanistan at the moment is the prospect of a negotiated peace settlement, and that is a long shot.