UK Reflections on the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars

Event date:
March 2, 2021

Written by:

10:30 - 11:30am (EST)

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Guest speaker(s):

Brigadier (Ret'd) Ben Barry

UK Author; OBE, Senior Fellow Land Warfare, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
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Event Moderator(s):

Dr. J. Paul de B. Taillon

Vice Chair, Policy Insights Forum; Senior Academic Advisor, Samuel Associates
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Executive Summary

UK Reflections on the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars
Written by:
Aliénor Peyrefitte, Executive Assistant to President and PIF Coordinator

The Policy Insights Forum (PIF) was pleased to welcome Author and Brigadier (Ret'd) Ben Barry, OBE, Senior Fellow Land Warfare for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), on Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021. The event was hosted by Goran Samuel Pesic, Chair of Policy Insights Forum and moderated by Dr. J. Paul de B.Taillon, Vice-Chair of the PIF, and was based on the guest speaker’s latest book, Blood, Metal and Dust: How Victory Turned into Defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq. The author discussed allied strategy and the Canadian contribution in Afghanistan. Brigadier Barry further discussed the political and military machinations of these long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also argued the notion that there are some serious lessons to be promulgated from these experiences for future politicians, bureaucrats, and warfighters. 

During the course of his presentation, Brig. Barry eloquently advocated his belief that both the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) faced inadequate political leadership at the strategic level. He argues persuasively that "the invasion of Iraq turned out to be a massive distraction for both the British and American armies," which diverted the economic and military capabilities meant for Afghanistan to the Iraqi theatre. Brig. Barry also proffered that the British and American leadership did not fully comprehend the complexities of the nations they were invading and were overly optimistic in their planning and approach. The presentation noted that the United States was not prepared to take on nation-building efforts initially and hoped that the Europeans and the United Nations would undertake the task. The discussion then turned to the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom and the lack of strategic appreciation between the two countries, particularly with UK's strategy diverging from the American strategy for the region after the invasion of Iraq.

Brig. Barry underlined that Teheran was partly successful in achieving Iranian strategic aims. These aims were to deter the US from regime change in Iran, to increase the cost of occupation for the United States and its allies, and that Iraq would never attack the Iranian homeland again. In short, Brig. Barry contends that the Iranian General Soleimani was arguably the most effective general during this campaign. 

Brig. Barry surfaced a number of relevant factors which are essential in war fighting: the importance of military adaptation is critical in the context of the inherent unpredictability of conflict and its complexity. He also argued that it is valuable for both politicians and government to appreciate that combat is a core military function of armed forces. 

Brig. Barry’s presentation leaves the viewer with several notable arguments for the future. He eloquently underlines the need to educate civilian leaders across government on how to manage crises and conflicts, noting that war and politics are intertwined. Brig. Barry identified a few key factors of success to prevent, to the best of our ability, these types of scenarios from reoccurring. The first one is learning military adaptation because it is critical in the context of the inherent unpredictability of war and the high complexity at all levels. Secondly, the role of troop morale is also essential to bear in mind while managing the troops. Linked to that element, the use of force is also critical to consider since combat is a non-negotiable core military capacity. Armed forces need to be able to fight in order to be a credible force to reckon with, and in the US, military credibility and combat power are keys to buying influence. In the words of Brigadier Barry, "as Clausewitz recommends, you understand the character of the war that you are in, and you must intend to fight, rather than the war you wish it to be." Clausewitz also explained that the war is a logical continuation of politics. Lastly, Brig. Barry diligently asserted the requirement for a clear understanding of the command chain and that proper strategic planning is of the utmost importance.

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