Understand to Prevent - the military contribution to the prevention of violent conflict

Understand to Prevent – the military contribution to the prevention of violent conflict

TransConflict is pleased to present a publication, entitled ‘Understand to Prevent’, which explores how, in practical terms, military forces can contribute to the prevention of violent conflict.

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

To read the entire report, ‘Understand to Prevent’, please click here

By Edward Canfor-Dumas

‘Military thinking on the utility of force is at a crossroads.’

A startling sentence with which to begin a military publication – but Understand to Prevent is no ordinary document.

Published in April this year, it’s the midpoint of a four-year international project to explore how, in practical terms, military forces can contribute to the prevention of violent conflict.

At its heart is a radical proposal – that while military forces are currently expert in war-fighting, they must extend their knowledge and skills to become specialists in conflict. A hair-splitting distinction? No, a fundamental one, which many in the field of conflict transformation accept as a starting-point.

Understand to Prevent takes conflict to be a natural and inevitable feature of human relationships, which arises when we perceive, correctly or not, that something we care about is being threatened or denied. Violence is a response to conflict, a way of trying to ‘resolve’ it through force – but other approaches are available.

Understand to Prevent is an initiative to bring those other approaches to the attention of the military and, drawing on military capacities and understanding, forge a new path.

Key to the success of this new path is the growing recognition by the military of the need to work much more closely with the mosaic of other actors operating in this field. And key to that will be winning the trust of NGOs and CSOs in particular, to assure them that the military want to contribute and not to dominate.

Understand to Prevent is being developed in response to the increasingly complex nature of contemporary armed conflict. As war between states has declined, intra-state and transnational violent conflict has increased. Non-state armed groups are more numerous and more powerful, and ‘war among the people’ is now the norm.

As a result, military forces are being challenged to multi-task – to get involved in prevention and keeping the peace; to support  ‘post-conflict’ stabilisation, peacebuilding and state-building; to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; and, when called on, to fight wars. Understand to Prevent seeks to offer military forces a much larger – and more nuanced – toolkit with which respond.

It’s led by the UK’s Ministry of Defence think-tank, DCDC, supported by Engi Conflict Management, and is part of the much larger Multinational Capabilities Development Campaign, a coalition of mainly – but not exclusively – NATO states.

It concludes in December 2016 and welcomes comment from all those who are active in the prevention and transformation of violent conflict. Please email u2p@engi.org.uk.

Preface — A new focus

Military thinking on the utility of force is at a crossroads. Thirteen years of continuous warfare — in Iraq, Afghanistan and the brief intervention in Libya — have delivered only limited and uncertain political gains. Trials of strength have been won, but not the clash of wills. The most recent intervention — Iraq, again — is asking the same questions, with the answers no clearer than before.

Member Nations of the Multinational Capability Development Campaign (MCDC) are also facing the consequences of pulling back from overseas engagement — how to retain talented personnel, how to manage budget cuts and, above all, how best to prepare for an uncertain future?

Opinions are divided about how the role of the military will evolve in the coming years. Will it continue fighting ‘wars amongst the people’, or are the biggest risks still posed by powerful nation states? Should the military be preparing to mix the two strategies, or will the pervasiveness of cyberspace, and its use by friends, allies, whole populations — and our adversaries — force us to significantly change the way that we configure and use our armed forces? Will the gathering effects of climate change drive more conflict or stimulate more cooperation, calling on the military to contribute in ways that are, as yet, unclear, and certainly outside its traditional roles?

Against this uncertain background, Understand to Prevent (U2P) argues for a new focus — a shift of military effort from crisis response (waiting for the future to happen) to ‘upstream’ engagement to positively manage conflict, prevent violence and build peace.

In practical terms, while warfighting will always remain the foundation of military capability, we need to supplement the current spectrum of effects practised by most Western nations (shape-persuade-deter-coerce-intervene) with a new human-centred model. With this new model, the military will offer persistent modulated engagement — a continuous presence through the deployment of scaleable, bespoke tailored joint forces to respond intelligently and appropriately to each circumstance and engagement proactively. Specifically, supporting locally-led prevention initiatives through an altered spectrum with a different emphasis — ‘understand-engage early-act-endure-assess’.

This new model will provoke challenge, not least from areas of the world where the military are seen as part of the problem rather than possible contributors to the solution. It is also likely that some of those working in development and peacebuilding fields will regard with scepticism, or even hostility, to the prospect of military boots marching into ‘their’ space.

For the military to be effective in this new approach, they must be accepted as a trusted contributor. Trust will therefore have to be built with the many other actors in the field, some of whom will not be our usual partners.

Additionally, understanding of the human domain has to broaden and deepen in order for us to engage with other actors effectively. We must also develop a better understanding of conflict itself, and embrace the distinction
between conflict, violence and violent conflict — related but different concepts that call for different approaches, and which render the term ‘conflict prevention’ too blunt to be useful.

Based on these human-centred insights, an understanding emerges of the wider contribution the military can make; namely, as ‘conflict specialists’. Their legitimate range of activity runs from personal mediation at one end of the spectrum, through conflict resolution and transformation, to deterrence and — if necessary — warfighting.

We welcome feedback on the ideas put forward in this publication and hope that it will prompt a wider discussion about how the military can play a proactive and strategic role in helping to create a less violent world.

Edward Canfor-Dumas is director of Engi Conflict Management.

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