The Comprehensive Approach: the point of war is not just to win but to make a better peace - Defence Committee Contents



1. The Armed Forces are increasingly deployed into complex and volatile situations where the separation between the war fighting phase and the peace support phase is unclear. The requirement for post-conflict reconstruction and stabilisation has become central, not least in conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. This involves a significant overlap of work by the Department for International Development (DFID), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) which makes a well co-ordinated and joint approach essential. In recent years, the UK has only operated in coalition with allies and international organisations where a common understanding of methods and desired outcomes becomes yet more important. This recognition led to the development of the Comprehensive Approach by the MoD and its adoption by the UK Government.

2. Definitions of the comprehensive approach vary internationally. We take as our starting point the definition used by the MoD in its Joint Discussion Note and subsequently implemented in UK policy. The MoD defined the Comprehensive Approach as an approach "with commonly understood principles and collaborative processes that enhance the likelihood of favourable and enduring outcomes within a particular situation".[1] Further definitions are discussed in paragraphs 11 to 14. Where we use the term the "Comprehensive Approach", it should be taken to mean the MoD definition.

Our inquiry

3. The Defence Committee announced its inquiry into the Comprehensive Approach on 25 March 2009. It decided to examine to what extent UK military and non-military agencies work effectively through a comprehensive approach.

4. We wished to draw upon lessons learnt principally from Iraq and Afghanistan but also from other theatres. We decided to consider whether the approach taken by the UK Government had been well co-ordinated and proactive with an outcome based focus, and to see whether this approach had been effective.

5. We were particularly interested in the following issues:

  • the validity of the Comprehensive Approach;
  • how well UK government departments are working together;
  • how the UK is working with its allies in NATO, particularly the USA;
  • the lessons learnt from operational theatres before Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • to what extent the Comprehensive Approach has been implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan and how successful the approach has been;
  • what impact the Comprehensive Approach has had on the structures, resources and training in the relevant UK government departments;
  • the effectiveness of the Approach in delivering favourable and enduring outcomes; and
  • what adjustments are needed to the Comprehensive Approach to deliver better outcomes.[2]

6. On Tuesday 9 June 2009, we took evidence from Professor Theo Farrell, King's College London, Professor Malcolm Chalmers, the Royal United Services Institute, and Brigadier (retired) Ed Butler, a former Commander of British forces in Afghanistan and now Chief Executive of CforC Ltd. This session provided us with the views of independent academics and a former commander in Afghanistan.

7. On Tuesday 16 June 2009, we took evidence from the Permanent Under Secretaries of the MoD (Sir Bill Jeffrey), the FCO (Sir Peter Ricketts) and DFID (Dr Minouche Shafik) on the operation of the Comprehensive Approach across Whitehall.

8. In our third evidence session on Tuesday 30 June 2009, witnesses included representatives from NATO and the European Union, independent commentators, and a representative from a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO). The witnesses from NATO were General John McColl, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Martin Howard, Assistant Secretary General for Operations and Nick Williams, Deputy to the NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Kabul. The other witnesses were Robert Cooper, Director-General for External and Politico-Military Affairs, General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union, Daniel Korski, European Council on Foreign Relations, Stephen Grey, Sunday Times journalist and Howard Mollett, Care International.

9. On Tuesday 7 July 2009 we took evidence from Bill Rammell, Minister for the Armed Forces, Lord Malloch-Brown, Minister for Asia, Africa and the UN in the FCO, Michael Foster, Under-Secretary of State for Development, and Richard Teuten, Head of the Stabilisation Unit, Brigadier Gordon Messenger, a recent Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, and Nick Pickard, Head of Security Policy, at the FCO.

Other evidence

10. In addition to the oral evidence sessions, we accepted written evidence from a number of bodies including the MoD, the FCO and DFID. We requested supplementary evidence from these Departments following their oral evidence. We also asked the National Audit Office to seek and collate the views of NGOs operating in areas of conflict about the Comprehensive Approach covering:

  • their understanding of the Comprehensive Approach and communication on the approach from government departments;
  • the effectiveness of the Comprehensive Approach, including the performance of UK departments;
  • challenges faced by NGOs in engaging in the planning and delivery of the Comprehensive Approach; and
  • lessons for the future.

Definitions of the Comprehensive Approach

11. There is no one commonly agreed definition of what a comprehensive approach entails. The MoD defines the Comprehensive Approach as "commonly understood principles and collaborative processes that enhance the likelihood of favourable and enduring outcomes within a particular situation". It is based on four guiding principles:

  • Proactive Engagement, if possible ahead of a crisis, enables coordinated approaches to complex situations. This requires a shared approach to the collection and interpretation of crisis indicators and warnings in order to inform planning and increase the time available for reaction.
  • Shared Understanding between parties is essential to optimize the effectiveness of their various capabilities. Where possible, shared understanding should be engendered through cooperative working practices, liaison and education in between crises.
  • Outcome-Based Thinking. All participants involved in crisis resolution need to base their thinking on outcomes and what is required to deliver a favourable situation, when planning and conducting activities. Planning and activity should be focused on a single purpose and progress judged against mutually agreed measures of effectiveness.
  • Collaborative Working. Institutional familiarity, generated through personal contact and human networking, enhances collaborative working and mutual trust. Integrated information management, infrastructure and connectivity enable information sharing and common working practices.[3]

12. There are many other definitions in the UK and internationally. In his written memorandum, Daniel Korski gave us the following definition:

    In its simplest definition, the "comprehensive approach" means blending civilian and military tools and enforcing co-operation between government departments, not only for operations but more broadly to deal with many of the 21st century security challenges, including terrorism, genocide and proliferation of weapons and dangerous materials.[4]

13. Most of the definitions include the following elements: that the approach is horizontal, including both civilian and military parties and, where possible, allies and international organisations and local nationals; and vertical, taking account of the different stages in the situation from the initial war fighting phase to reconstruction. Other definitions usually contain "engage, secure, hold and develop" elements. The Comprehensive Approach can also be used in situations where there is no initial war fighting phase.[5]

14. Central to the concept of a comprehensive approach are stabilisation operations. Richard Teuten of the Stabilisation Unit defines stabilisation operations as follows:

    Stabilisation operations combine military, political and development actions. Military intervention seeks to assist in the disarmament and demobilisation of armed opposition, to start the process of building effective security forces and to provide the security needed for the efforts of other actors. Political engagement seeks to ensure that there is a workable inclusive settlement that addresses the underlying causes of conflict and promotes reconciliation. Capacity building support seeks to enable the Government to extend its authority. This means laying the foundations of law and basic economic governance. It also means putting in place the building blocks for sustainable development through supporting basic infrastructure and service delivery, and a framework for the private sector. Underpinning all these must be effective strategic communication, both in the country concerned and at home, to avoid unrealistic expectations and sustain support.[6]

Development of the Comprehensive Approach

15. The Comprehensive Approach is a relatively new concept but the combination of civilian and military actors in a counter-insurgency operation is not new. Many commentators refer back to strategies adopted in previous conflicts and in successful counter-insurgency campaigns in the past, for example, Malaya. General Sir Rupert Smith in his book The Utility of Force says:

    The Malayan emergency is held up to this day in militaries around the world as a successful example of counter-insurgency and counter-revolutionary war. Briggs and Templer between them removed the principal political objective from the MCP's [Malayan Communist Party] campaign. The depiction of the conflict as a liberation struggle from colonial oppressors that would never yield control lost credibility in the face of the promise of independence backed by the gift of land in the soon-to-be independent state. They separated the people from the guerrillas' influence and then developed the forces and intelligence to hunt them down on their ground and on their terms.[7]

16. Whilst there has always been the need for cross-departmental co-operation in Government, throughout the 1980s and early 1990s Governments began recognising that policy issues such as security, terrorism, family breakdown and drug abuse could not be addressed by one government department or agency alone. A new wave of reform promoted "joined up Government", with a focus on the horizontal and vertical integration of both policy and delivery. The aim was to align incentives, cultures and structures of authority to match critical tasks which cut across organisational boundaries. Though this was mainly a domestically-focused effort from 1997 to 2002, a number of internationally-focused initiatives were introduced, most prominently the Global Pools, a cross-departmental funding mechanism that compelled different departments to agree on resource allocation. In the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review, Public Service Agreements (PSA) were introduced that sought to promote departmental co-operation working towards a shared target.[8]

17. The MoD currently supports two PSA targets which are led by other government departments: PSA 26 to reduce the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from international terrorism, led by the Home Office and supported by the Cabinet Office, the FCO, the MoD and DFID with other departments and agencies; and PSA 30 global and regional reduction in conflict and its impact and more effective international institutions, led by the FCO and supported by DFID and the MoD, along with other departments and agencies.[9]

18. The Comprehensive Approach was initially developed by the MoD. The background to its development was explained in the memorandum from the MoD, the FCO and DFID:

    From 1991, it was increasingly apparent that operations in Bosnia involved a complex interplay of civilians, para-military and military groups and individuals, international organisations and international media. The MoD recognised the roles played by, and the importance of, Other Government Departments and Non-Governmental Organisations, but noted that they added to the complexity and that efforts were rarely co-ordinated or focused on a common set of objectives. Nevertheless, the progress made when activity was co-ordinated reinforced the importance of a holistic approach.[10]

19. Professor Farrell told us that he thought the Comprehensive Approach had developed from lessons learned in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, where development, humanitarian and political activities were integral to the desired end state, and, also in Iraq, with the failure of post-conflict operations. He said that the Comprehensive Approach also developed out of the concept of effects-based operations.

    The other direction, which we really cannot overlook, I think is fundamentally important is the development of effects-based operations (EBO) the whole doctrine, thinking and concepts that come from the United States. It is picked up by the British military from 2004 onwards. […] They went through a phase of experimentation between 2004 and 2005 and they found that the American approach to effects-based operations was flawed and they adapted it to suit British command culture and military practices. Then in 2005 and 2006, in September of both those years, we see two iterations of a doctrine called the effects-based approach to operations (EBAO). That is fundamental because that is the framework in which the British military begin to think about a comprehensive approach in a more structured, coherent way and hence we see between those two versions of EBAO doctrine in January 2006 the Comprehensive Approach doctrine that is produced by DCDC (Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre), which is the UK's doctrine command.[11]

20. To improve cross-departmental working in conflict prevention, the Government established tri-departmental (the MoD, FCO and DFID) funding arrangements for Conflict Prevention, Stabilisation and Peace-Keeping activities. The Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit (now called the Stabilisation Unit), also owned by all three Departments, was established in 2004. Its role was to facilitate cross-departmental assessment and planning; to develop and deploy civilian expertise; and to identify and learn lessons.

21. The MoD initially produced a Joint Discussion Note in 2005-2006 called the Comprehensive Approach. This was followed, in March 2007, by a Joint Doctrine Note on "Countering Irregular Activity within a Comprehensive Approach". The Comprehensive Approach is also covered in the latest British Defence Doctrine published in August 2008. There is no formal policy document agreed by all the relevant government departments, although Brigadier Messenger told us that the doctrine was based on consultation with other departments. [12]

22. Professor Farrell was concerned that there was still no cross-government doctrine on the Comprehensive Approach.

    We do not have a cross-government doctrine on the Comprehensive Approach. The doctrine that we have was developed by the Doctrine Command, DCDC, in January 2006. Note that it was a "Joint Discussion Note", that is very important. They used the word "discussion" because they wanted to indicate to the other government departments that this was not a Joint Doctrine Note, it was for discussion and they were going to engage them, but, of course, they immediately rubbed up against the other government departments because they feel this is military led, which it was at the time, and they do not understand why they should buy into a military concept. As yet we still do not have one (Interagency doctrine) whereas the Americans are developing a joint doctrine. The State Department has a project which is led by a British Colonel.[13]

23. In their joint memorandum, the MoD, the FCO and DFID said that the National Security Strategy was a key component in the continuing development of the Comprehensive Approach. The Strategy was first published by the Prime Minister in March 2008. It outlined the threats to the UK and its interests, together with the UK's responses. It states that:

    4.47 To improve integration at the multilateral level, we will work to ensure that the UN delivers its commitment to genuinely integrated missions, and support the UN Peacebuilding Commission, which works to ensure integrated effort by all donors on strategy and delivery, and to provide immediate support for post conflict reconstruction. We advocate the development of a stronger international capacity, including through the EU and UN, to deploy civilian stabilisation experts, including judges, lawyers and police, at short notice and in larger numbers and to make them available for multilateral deployment.

    5.5 Building on recent experience at home (for example on counter-terrorism) and overseas (for example in Afghanistan, where security, policy and development officials now work together in joint teams), we will continue seek greater integration and responsiveness at the operational level. The new Stabilisation Unit will have a key role.[14]

24. The update to the National Security Strategy produced in June 2009 stressed the requirement for a cross-government approach. It also said that, to meet future challenges, it would need to draw upon a wide range of integrated capabilities including the Armed Forces, law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies, diplomatic capabilities and international development activity.[15]

25. In parallel with the development of the Comprehensive Approach in the UK, the concept was slowly being adopted by the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The adoption of the Approach by the EU was promoted by the UK and Denmark. By 2006, other nations including Canada, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway and Slovakia were also pressing for NATO to adopt the Comprehensive Approach.[16] Further detail on work in the international organisations is covered in part 3 of this Report.

26. We asked many of our witnesses about the validity of the Comprehensive Approach. They were fully supportive of the approach and agreed that most situations would warrant the use of some aspects of the Comprehensive Approach.[17] Professor Chalmers said:

    I think the challenge is to have an approach which recognises the complexity of the problems but then has clear lines of command and division of labour which means that people get on with their particular jobs. What that often means is that the comprehensive nature needs to be at the planning level, at a relatively high level of discussion, but once you get down to specific tasks being done by Army brigades or by DFID field officers or whatever, they have a job and they get on and do it. They do not necessarily have to be consulting all the time with their counterparts.[18]

27. Sir Bill Jeffrey and Sir Peter Ricketts agreed that the Comprehensive Approach was likely to be applicable in any situation where you might have to use military force.

    Sir Bill Jeffrey: In the kinds of things we have been doing recently - and I am looking back to the Balkans as well as Iraq and Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, etc. - it is entirely applicable. If you get into what in MoD parlance - and this Committee knows this as well as I do - is referred to as state on state conflict, which is more purely military in character, I think it is less applicable, although as one saw even at the end of the Second World War there was a point at which civil reality has to intrude and military people have to work closely with civil authorities. So even there I think you get to that point if you are going to be successful at all.

    Sir Peter Ricketts: I agree. I think in any circumstances where you are using military force or you might have to use military force there is a period of tension and crisis and breakdown beforehand where perhaps the civilian instruments would be more important than the military although there would be planning going on. There will be a period of military conflict and then there will be a period after the military conflict at which, whatever the circumstances, the civilian powers will have to reengage with governance, capacity building and development work, which is exactly what the Comprehensive Approach is all about. I cannot think of a scenario where we would be employing the military instrument without also needing the development and governance capacity building instruments that we bring to that.[19]

28. We asked how the Comprehensive Approach might operate, for example, in anti­piracy work. All three PUSs were of the view that the Comprehensive Approach was useful in the current operations.

    Sir Bill Jeffrey: That is an inventive counter example, I agree, because if you look at what we are doing off the Horn of Africa just now it does not have the civilian components in quite the same way, although oddly enough it does raise some issues where we need to draw our Foreign Office colleagues in, for example to consider jurisdictional issues where we have detained people and need to find countries in the locality willing to try them. So even there it spills over into civil life to some extent.

    Sir Peter Ricketts: As soon as the Royal Navy detained pirates off the coast of Somalia we were engaged because we needed to negotiate with the Government of Kenya and other countries for a place to which to deliver these people for justice and so again the military were not operating alone, they had to operate in close coordination with the diplomats.

    Dr Shafik: Clearly we are also contributing on the development side both on the humanitarian side in Somalia but also in terms of trying to strengthen the very tenuous capacity of the Somali Government in order for them to be able to get a grip on things like piracy.

    Sir Bill Jeffrey: Arguably if you go to the root cause of the piracy it lies not on the high seas but in Somalia being a very unsettled country.[20]

29. Representatives from NATO and the EU were also of the opinion that the Comprehensive Approach was valid in most circumstances.[21] In particular, General McColl told us that the Comprehensive Approach is vital in situations of instability.

    I think the idea of a comprehensive approach is absolutely essential. If you analyse the future threats that we might face, they are largely bracketed around the concept of instability, and the lines of operation that deliver you strategic success in respect of instability problems are economics and governance; the security operation simply holds the ring. It is, therefore, essential that we have a comprehensive approach to these types of problems.[22]

30. The Comprehensive Approach is widely accepted as valid in most situations where military force is required and in other situations such as those requiring post-conflict reconstruction and stabilisation. The National Security Strategy re-iterated the need for a cross-government approach drawing upon the capabilities of the Armed Forces, the FCO, DFID and others. We recommend that the MoD, the FCO and DFID, working together with the Stabilisation Unit, produce a Comprehensive Approach policy and doctrine. Many of the ingredients for such a policy and doctrine already exist but are not brought together in one place. The doctrine should take account of our recommendations in the remainder of this Report. The MoD should incorporate the Comprehensive Approach policy into its Strategic Defence Review.

1   The Ministry of Defence: The Comprehensive Approach Joint Discussion Note 4/05 Back

2   Defence Committee press notice, The Comprehensive Approach, 26 March 2009, Back

3   The Ministry of Defence: The Comprehensive Approach Joint Discussion Note 4/05 Back

4   Ev 140  Back

5   Qq 2, 3, 98, 234-235 Back

6   Speech by Richard Teuten, Head Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit, Stabilisation Unit, Stabilisation and "post-conflict" reconstruction, RUSI, 31 January 2007 Back

7   Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in a Modern World, Penguin, p 205 Back

8   Ev 140 Back

9   Ev 83 Back

10   Ev 82  Back

11   Q 3 Back

12   Q 414 Back

13   Q 50 Back

14   Ev 83 Back

15   Cabinet Office, National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom Update 2009: Security for the Next Generation, Cm 7590, June 2009 Back

16   Ev 144 Back

17   Qq 11-12, 97-98, 234-235 Back

18   Q 12 Back

19   Q 97 Back

20   Q 98  Back

21   Q 234 Back

22   Q 235  Back

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