Emile Simpson, a genuine war veteran with 3 tours in Southern Afghanistan under his belt, stands before us at University College London waiting for his introductions to conclude. He then launches enthusiastically into a 40-minute talk on his conception of contemporary war. Simpson's choice to join the military is somewhat surprising knowing his background. His parents are both Cambridge academics and he attended Oxford University before deciding to join the British Army. However, it seems less surprising once you find out his choice was fueled by his interest in history and his fondness for adventure. During his time in the military, he first was a platoon commander, then a military intelligence officer, and finally worked in the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). From his experiences he authored a book, War From the Ground Up: 21st Century Combat as Politics, which offers a theory on war today, as well as a possible solution for the future of wars. Now retired from the army, Simpson is completing a PhD in International Law at King's College.
His talk on military strategy and theory is laced with personal accounts. He is quite business like and serious when talking about what he saw first hand, getting quickly to the important matters at hand and the underlying issues, but he also has moments where he breaks away from the script and recounts funny and light-hearted moments of his time in Afghanistan. Simpson discusses the traditional understanding of war as being binary, ending with a victor and a loser, and where political and military activities do not mix. The problem with the Afghanistan war is that it does not fit into this traditional model, as we have formerly understood it to be. It is a war with no clear-cut goals and no obvious end in sight. There are many open-ended questions such as who the enemy is in any given situation and what winning the war would actually look like. To these questions, there appears to be no apparent answers. Adding to this, the United States' poor choice to coin the war in Afghanistan "the war on terror" has made it that much more ambiguous.
(Photo: U.S. Army)
Simpson describes the ongoing conflict as kaleidoscopic and fragmented as opposed to polarized with a "them" and an "us". The reason he sees the military and political arenas getting blurred is because it is not just about a straightforward two-sided battle. Every action taken has a political consequence attached to it. Plans are created with political considerations in mind, and because of this there is a combination of violent and non-violent acts of persuasion taking place.
Simpson did point out that there was a marked improvement from his first tour in 2007 to his last tour in 2011 as far as better targeting the genuine enemy. But the drawn out war has shown that we must recondition our expectations of the traditional formulation of war, because at this point there will be no clear cut victory and defeat.
One student asks him if he feels the British army's presence in Afghanistan was at this point still beneficial. While he didn't say 100% one way or the other, he did admit that the democracy that had been promised to the Afghans had not been delivered, and therefore in this significant way the British army was not benefitting them. Simpson concludes his talk with his take on modern war, claiming that while he believes that the traditional paradigm of war still exists, there is now a trend toward armed politics and strategic narratives. These narratives give meaning to actions taken by connecting the actions to important policies, which in the Afghanistan war have focused mainly on women's rights, democracy, and the eradication of drugs. So what is Simpson's solution? He says that from the beginning a clear policy aim must be provided and the enemy should be identified. He also believes in the idea of persuasion through "winning the enemies' hearts and minds," as this he believes will positively change the atmosphere when trying to negotiate and solve problems. Simpson's conclusions are thoughtful and logical, and if his solutions are actually applied, they could save a lot of wasteful time and effort in the future. Whether this will happen in our increasingly bureaucratic societies remains to be seen, but it would do a world of good for the excruciatingly long and drawn out Afghanistan war. In the meantime, I will not be holding my breath.