Policy Papers

Britain’s ‘9/11 Wars’ in historical perspective: why change and continuity matter

Aaron Edwards |

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Executive Summary

  • Defending the realm is the first duty of government, which has become a much more complex challenge since the end of the Cold War. The stretching of the concept of security to encompass both 'hard' and 'soft' threats and risks has led to Britain adopting a 'whole of government' approach. In order to tackle these challenges in a way that is cost effective and seeks to avoid duplication of effort, security and defence issues are addressed as the sum of all parts, rather than separate issues.
  • 9/11, and Western states' reaction to that day, has skewed our conceptual vocabulary on violent extremism and irregular warfare, rather than enhanced it. It has stressed the newness of the threat, abandoning any serious consideration of continuity in the strategies and tactics of violent groups.
  • Britain's security has been dramatically altered by its participation in 'the 9/11 Wars', i.e. those wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan, where the principal reason for Western intervention stemmed from the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. It remains unclear whether the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have made us more, or less, secure.
  • 'New' irregular adversaries are not as 'new' as we might think; in many cases the grievances that galvanise them have been around for centuries. The past indicates that while terrorist and insurgent campaigns end, terrorism and insurgency does not. For this reason, it is worth emphasising both change and continuity in Britain's '9/11 Wars'.
  • The UK has a rich historical tapestry of confronting asymmetric threats. Irish republican terrorists and Islamist-inspired insurgents have continuously challenged British interests at home and abroad. These should be critically analysed to avoid either forgetting 'lessons' or misapplying them.
  • A strategic reading, whereby academics and practitioners pay closer attention to how the ends, ways and means intersect and diverge in Britain's past responses to irregular adversaries, can aid the process of decision-making in national security. As Anglo-American strategic studies scholarship has shown, strategy is a practical, human endeavour. By becoming 'shrewd historians', to paraphrase Colin S. Gray and Jeannie L. Johnson, defence and security planners can further the national interest.


British security has been completely transformed since the end of the Cold War. No longer do we face a state-based threat of the size and scale of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Nonetheless, we are not immune from a myriad of other threats and risks, traditional and non-traditional, which have proliferated over the past 20 years. Traditional threats, which typically take the state as their target, include conventional war, failed states and terrorism. Non-traditional threats target human security and include challenges such as climate change, resource competition and disease pandemics. These security challenges are unpredictable, tend to defy categorisation, and are seemingly impervious to conventional responses. You cannot deploy armed forces to combat climate change, for instance. In response, Britain has dramatically altered its defence and security position in what the Coalition Government, in its National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2010, termed 'an age of uncertainty'. However, the government has not discounted the possibility that great power rivalry may reassert itself as a major security challenge in the future. Nevertheless, in policy documents produced on security and defence in the past 20 years, we are repeatedly assured that Britain does not face a 'state-based threat'.

The government has responded to this 'age of uncertainty' by considering national security issues 'in the round', as described in the NSS. By forming the National Security Council (NSC) and issuing a NSS and accompanying Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) within six months of coming to power in 2010, David Cameron's administration declared its intent to halt our existential insecurity in the face of great socio-economic and political changes at home and abroad. Yet, in a busy political agenda, policy makers have tended to see challenges to national, regional and international security as entirely 'new' and to contrast these with the 'brutal certainties of the Cold War'. Indeed, in his H&P paper Christopher Andrew warned that this tendency, which he termed 'Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder (HASDD)', was injurious to intelligence history, for it encouraged short-termism and a narrow reading of the past. In recent years, the emphasis by defence and security planners on change at the expense of continuity is further distorting the government's ability to employ predictive techniques, like learning from the past and horizon scanning, and may leave Britain at a disadvantage in national security terms.

The formation of the NSC was a positive step in formalising the Coalition Government's policy of coordinating the national security apparatus, including the defence, economic, and diplomatic arms of the state, more effectively. Meeting weekly, the NSC is the strategic hub chaired by the Prime Minister and bringing together Cabinet Ministers, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) and the Heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, which provides strategic direction for UK national security policy. It is supported by a secretariat based in the Cabinet Office that administers its day-to-day business. Rather than 'muddling through', a flawed process by which economic constraints and Cold War thinking wholly dictate what can and cannot be done in national security terms, the NSC demonstrates the government's intent to balance ends, ways and means in a changing strategic context.

Defending the realm by prioritising ends, ways and means?

Addressing Officer Cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst Commissioning Parade in August 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron reminded them that many would soon join their chosen regiment or corps in Afghanistan, which would be a challenging experience. Nonetheless, the Army had stood loyally in the breach and he personally would 'never forget that defence of the realm is the first duty of any government'.

However, the past decade's strategic shocks - from the devastating Al Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001, military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and 'home-grown' Islamist terrorist attacks in London on 7 July 2005 (which became known as 7/7) or in Glasgow on 30 June 2007 - have furnished politicians with convenient waypoints in knitting together a grand narrative of the contemporary security landscape. In other words, these attacks, though infrequent, are subsumed in a grand narrative that confirms the enormous challenges facing the British people, while at the same time reassuring them that the government is doing something about them. As such, 9/11 and 7/7 are harbingers for the major security challenges that affect the current generation of politicians and policymakers, for whom the memory of the Cold War has faded.

The 9/11 Wars have become a superficially attractive starting point for the analysis of Britain's security challenges. Moreover, there has been an added tendency to conflate their significance with threats like Soviet Communism. In terms of lethality, journalist Jason Burke has calculated that the total deaths linked to the 9-11 Wars, including British and American troops, private security contractors, civilians, terrorists and insurgents, could be as high as 250,000. Although nowhere near the body counts amassed by more conventional armed conflicts, these wars have been mainly asymmetrical affairs, (i.e. where the more powerful state has been pitted against a less powerful, non-state opponent such as a terrorist or insurgent group), and have had far-reaching repercussions for the West.

Al Qaeda's military strategy of 'bleeding the West dry', by erecting its flag in disparate regions, from Mali to Nigeria and Iraq to Yemen, has proven difficult to defeat. Arguably, its actions have caused the United States to spend more than three trillion dollars protecting its citizens by combating a range of Al Qaeda affiliates in America, Europe, North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. Costly interventions in Afghanistan may have failed to weaken Western powers in the way that Osama Bin Laden had hoped, but the global economic downturn has since forced them to recalibrate and downsize their strategic ambitions in even more far-reaching ways.

The British Government's response to the global economic crisis has further accelerated the transformation of the UK's strategic position, leaving its military capable of undertaking 'contingency operations' in the main after withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Due principally to a bulging deficit, the UK has been forced to balance more frugally its goals in the international system with the ways and means at its disposal. Britain's national security has been dramatically altered by the serious economic crisis, aggravated perhaps by its continued participation in the 9-11 Wars. It has forced a rethink in terms of how fundamental commitments, like defence of the realm, are met. For example, the defence budget has been cut by 8% and the Army will have lost 7% of its manpower by 2015. Britain could mobilize up to 30,000 troops (at a stretch), which contrasts with the 46,000 troops available for the Iraq deployment a decade ago. The Army 2020 plan has also offered a reconfigured force that may, critics argue, lessen Britain's ability to project military power and, arguably, curb its strategic ambitions in the future. By the end of the decade the British Army's available manpower will have been reduced by 20%.

At present, there is no evidence to suggest a declining belief in military power as one of the principal means of accomplishing policy objectives, as Britain's intervention in Libya in 2011 has underlined. While there are political and financial benefits from employing force to deliver quick results, such as intervening via proxies, there are also inherent limitations. Increasingly, as Major-General Mungo Melvin has written, 'Political goals must reflect what is militarily possible'.

Civilian and military leaders should remember discretionary public attitudes towards 'wars of choice' and 'wars of necessity', with the former increasingly defended on the same grounds as the latter. Consequently, 'small wars', in which the principal opponents of a state are non-state actors, such as terrorist or insurgent groups, are conflated by politicians with 'big wars', where one or more states opposes other states in a titanic struggle in which national survival dominates all strategic considerations.

As the 'age of austerity' takes hold, the question arises: should defence and security planners place so much emphasis on change as opposed to continuity when responding to the myriad security challenges facing the UK?

Re-emphasising change and continuity

Historians of geopolitical strategy, long sceptical of conventional wisdom, are arguably more at ease with examining both change and continuity. They favour a more empirical approach to history that conceptualises and contextualises 'old' or 'new' phenomena. Like other historians, they accept that change can be fast (revolutionary) or slow (evolutionary), and recognise that contingency may explain more about a complex and disorderly past than teleology ever will. This trend may be irksome to politicians and policy makers unaccustomed to knowing how earlier generations dealt with 'unconventional threats of the past' or, indeed, 'the future'. As Henry Kissinger reminds us, 'When facts are disaggregated from their context and called up only when needed, they risk losing the coherence of historical perspective'.

Kissinger's caveat reminds us of the importance of a balanced, historical view, particularly since new concepts emerge frequently in public discourse. Historians of strategy are well-placed to caution politicians and policy makers against overlooking the longer-term past for short-term fads such as the 'brutal certainties of the Cold War' (NSS, 2010). Indeed, historians should go further and remind defence and security professionals that throughout the Cold War, the confrontation between West and East necessitated each side expending much time, energy and resources to ascertain their opponent's capability of waging 'hot war'.

Attempts by defence professionals and national security planners to identify lessons from the past can often overlook the social, economic and political context that gave rise to security challenges in the first place. There are good explanations for this, ranging from what Francis J. Gavin has called 'pressures of time, politics and conflicting interests', which, arguably, makes the scholar an important asset for their longer-term perspective. While 'lesson learning' has fired the imaginations of practitioners, with some suggesting the British Army has become a 'learning organisation', the tendency to identify the wrong lessons has often spelt disaster for Britain. Consideration of the decision-making process prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 underlines how easily this has happened. Even though British and American troops saw off the meagre challenge posed by Saddam Hussein's conventional military forces in days, they remained unaware of a developing insurgency on the streets. In Basra, for example, the British claimed to have seen it all before in Northern Ireland, an assumption which proved highly contestable. In this respect, continuity, using the same tactics against a different array of opponents, was emphasised at the expense of change. As we now know, it cost Britain dearly.

While the military can and often do legitimately draw upon long operational experience, these lessons are, at best, snapshots, gained through a process of osmosis (i.e. passed on through practical experience and training), which tends to downplay complexity and overlook the political context within which military power is wielded. Only by adopting a more historical (and empirically-grounded) perspective - cognisant of both change and continuity in a strategic sense -can we gain an accurate picture of the historical significance of challenges to British security. The logical question remains: why do we need to address Britain's approach to reconciling its ends, ways and means in grand strategic terms? How will this help enhance the government's analytical capability in an 'age of uncertainty'?

Strategy as a practical endeavour in national security

As indicated above, security challenges have been marked as much by their continuity as their discontinuity. Thus, although the nature of war endures, as Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz noted in 1832, its character has been transformed. Strategic theory is a conceptual framework that helps us understand how and why things change, or why they stay the same. Clausewitz defined it as 'the use of an engagement for the purpose of war'. However, it is much more than that. It is both the plan of war and the umbilical cord which connects policy to tactics. Strategy is fundamental to how we make sense of the world. It allows politicians, policy makers and military commanders to think practically about how they might achieve their objectives with the resources available.

British governments have often made tough strategic decisions. At the end of the Second World War, for example, the outgoing Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, observed how the 'defence potential of the country should be continually kept under review and examined so as to ensure that the resources available are employed to the best advantage'. Reflecting on Britain's grand strategic outlook then, he emphasized that 'our foreign policy bears a direct relation to the strength available to support it'. Brooke's observations on balancing ways, ends and means in national security issues have lost none of their significance.

Although earlier generations of political and military leaders recognised the need to maintain such a balance in grand strategy, they were not always successful at sustaining it in practice. Despite winning the Second World War, post-war British governments struggled to balance the books. In the mid-1960s Harold Wilson presided over radical changes to the state's strategic position, thinning out the remainder of Britain's overseas empire. The Labour Government's Statement on the Defence Estimates 1966: Part 1 The Defence Review (Cm 2901) imposed a ceiling on military expenditure. These decisions laid the foundations of a new defence outlook that, significantly, would remain firmly rooted in Western Europe. Imperial hubris was curbed. Only by adopting a longer-term perspective on the process of British strategy-making, and being attentive to the historical context, can we judge the government's recent decision to cut the Army by one fifth and permanently return its troops to bases in the UK.

In recent years, strategic thinking has been increasingly applied to the business of national security, particularly in the context of Britain's 9-11 wars. Prior to this the government tended to take an ad hoc approach to dealing with security threats. There had not been an equivalent to the NSC, for example, since the convening of the Committee of Imperial Defence in the early twentieth century. Hew Strachan has argued persuasively that in our attempts to apply strategy to our understanding of defence we must clearly distinguish between 'strategy in theory', which offers an insight into the nature of war and armed conflict, and 'strategy in practice', an altogether more pragmatic guide to responding to the security environment.

An emphasis on this practical approach to strategy can yield more conceptual insights for defence and security planners about how they might balance Britain's ways, ends and means effectively in times of uncertainty and austerity. To take one example, it is envisaged that the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy will achieve the military tasks handed down to them, from deterring adversaries abroad to providing reassurance at home, by operating synergistically. In this respect, 'strategy in practice' is being employed to help to prioritise goals while balancing responses more cost effectively. The CDS, Sir David Richards, calls this 'a brains-based approach', which means picking and choosing when to use force in a smarter way that will yield greater strategic effect.

Irregular adversaries, 'old' and 'new'

By emphasising the newness of the threats to British security, defence and security planners have tended to ignore the past by underplaying its complexity and overplaying its homogeneity. Old adversaries in new clothes, like dissident Irish republicans, have escaped categorisation, in large part because they are judged not to be 'new', but a continuation of longstanding grievances. Conversely, Islamist terrorism and insurgency is denied any durable ancestry, despite Britain having encountered these kinds of adversaries before.

The threat posed by dissident Irish republican terrorism in Northern Ireland is judged 'severe' according to the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, meaning an attack is highly likely. The main thrust of their armed campaign has been to oppose the political course charted by their former comrades in the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which represented the most deadly armed challenge to British security between the 1970s and 1990s. Since the Provisionals called a ceasefire in the 1990s, dissident republicans have repeatedly attempted to disrupt and subvert the 'peace process' between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the somewhat belated implementation of power-sharing arrangements almost a decade later in 2007 saw the resurgence of the dissident republican threat. Indeed, evidence suggests that dissident violence remains unbowed as these groups seek to forcibly secure British withdrawal, an end to partition and the unification of Ireland. Interestingly, there is no historical evidence to support the determinist view held by dissident republicans that 'armed struggle' will achieve their three-fold objectives. Armed force has never worked for republicans ever since it was first employed at the end of the eighteenth century by the United Irishmen, an underground movement dedicated to revolutionary struggle against the British in Ireland.

To date, Irish republican terrorism has been sustained by pockets of support from Londonderry in the north-west to North and South Armagh in the south and Belfast in the east of the Province. The dynamics underpinning dissident republican terrorism are eclectic. They range from local grievances cleverly subsumed within a broader narrative of fighting a war of national liberation to disappointment that their former comrades in the Provisional IRA abandoned their commitment to violence in pursuit of political power. Dissident republicans are still determined to effect a strategic shock on the 'peace process', which would significantly hamper British interests when resources are stretched. While it has become a convenient shorthand to contrast the threat posed by dissident republicans with the transnational threat of Al Qaeda inspired groups, there is no strategic benefit from doing so. National security is as much about resolving competition over resources as it is about mitigating external threats. In fact, dissident republicans have demonstrated an even greater capacity to attack national security targets than home-grown Islamist cells, even if their intent has been less apocalyptic.

Though there are marked contrasts between dissident republicans and Islamist extremists, there are some similarities. Both are an uneasy coalition of interests, who rely heavily on socialisation between pre-existing families, communities and wider ethno-religious groups for sustenance. As Jason Burke has convincingly argued, local dynamics have served to blunt Al Qaeda's message in recent years. The Arab Spring forced the group to adapt its rhetoric to encompass local realities. Notwithstanding such widespread indifference to the Al Qaeda brand of extremism, the group continues to pose a significant challenge to British security. Its affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), formed in 2009, may appear novel and one of many 'unconventional threats of the future', to paraphrase the NSS. Nonetheless, this perception seems to overlook decades of British experience in combating Islamist-inspired terrorism.

AQAP's roots can be traced back to the British colony of Aden, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt sponsored a highly contagious form of Arab nationalism, mixed with localised versions of Marxism and Islamism in the back streets of Aden. Britain's withdrawal from East of Suez in the late 1960s might well have seen the retreat of a once-great empire over which the sun famously never set, yet it left behind a failed state into which competing visions for Southern Yemen have convulsed politics ever since. Into this complex political scene, in which the old ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh has been replaced by his former deputy Abd Mansour Hadi, we find, arguably, one of the most potent threats now posed to British security in the form of AQAP.

Evaluating the longer-term consequences of Britain's imperial role in the Middle East and elsewhere is difficult. Together with France and the United States, Britain has shaped the region's modern political institutions and culture. Arguably, the plethora of irregular adversaries have shaped the transformation of Britain's strategic position as much as economic strength and diplomatic clout.


The challenges of terrorism and insurgency have required the British Government to take strategy more seriously. In the influential report of 2010, Who Does UK National Strategy?, the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee observed, 'If we now have a renewed need for National Strategy, we have all but lost the capacity to think strategically. We have simply fallen out of the habit, and have lost the culture of strategy making'. This is curious given Britain's imperial past and its demonstrable ability to do 'grand strategy'. However, as this paper has highlighted, it is unsurprising that defence and security planners have 'fallen out of the habit', particularly when confronted with the myriad of irregular adversaries.

A historical perspective suggests the following recommendations:

First, national security planners can draw out generic principles from past experience, but not without losing sight of their context. The painful lessons identified by Britain's Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, have, unsurprisingly, led to a process of introspection, re-appraisal and adaptation within the military that ought to be welcomed. Here, historians and strategic theorists could provide contextual analysis of security issues that appear new or different.

Second, the temptation to simply 'muddle through' emasculates more 'strategic' thinking and continues to cast a long and ponderous shadow over Britain's defence and security posture in the world. The NSS certainly shows a willingness to respond in a way that pays due attention to the wider strategic context. However, as Patrick Porter reminds us, Britain may not be capable of easily remedying global problems in these uncertain times, but it can 'use smaller and more bounded concepts of the national interest to rebalance ends and means'.

Third, historians can assist national security policymakers to improve the government's analytical capability by emphasising change and continuity in Britain's responses to security challenges. By becoming 'shrewd historians', defence and security planners can further the national interest in times of uncertainty.


Curtis, Adam 'Yemen - The Return of Old Ghosts', BBC Blog. Archived at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2010/01/yemen_the_return_of_old_ghosts.html

Further Reading

Jason Burke, The 9/11 Wars (London: Allen Lane, 2012).

Aaron Edwards, Lessons Learnt: Dissident Irish Republicans and British Security (Swindon: AHRC, 2012). Archived at: Lessons Learnt: Dissident Irish Republicans and British Security.

Aaron Edwards, Defending the Realm? The Politics of Britain's Small Wars since 1945 (Manchester: MUP, 2012).

Francis J. Gavin, 'International Affairs of the Heart', Yale Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 7, No. 2, (September 2012), pp. 1-8.

Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy (Oxford: OUP, 1999).

Colin S. Gray and Jeannie L. Johnson 'The Practice of Strategy' in John Baylis, James J. Wirtz and Colin S. Gray, Strategy in the Contemporary World: Third Edition (Oxford: OUP, 2010), pp. 372-390.

Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: OUP, 2010).

Mungo Melvin, 'Soldiers, Statesmen and Strategy', The RUSI Journal, Vol. 157, No. 1, (February/March 2012), pp. 20-27.

Patrick Porter, 'Why Britain Doesn't Do Grand Strategy', The RUSI Journal, Vol. 155, No. 4, (August/September 2010), pp. 6-12.

Hew Strachan, 'Strategy and War' in Lindley-French, Julian and Yves Boyer (eds), The Oxford Handbook of War (Oxford: OUP, 2012).

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