Photo credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images
Photo credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

Can the military prevent conflict? Understanding the shortcomings of a military-first strategy


As the UK Government implements its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, it will have to grapple with huge differences in funding for defence and for development. Last year the Government announced both the biggest programme of investment in Britain’s armed forces since the end of the Cold War and a dramatic decrease in aid spending. On the one hand, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, announced that the additional funding in defence “offers defence an exciting opportunity”. On the other, cuts to aid have ‘left a £4.5 billion (over $6.3 billion) black hole in the budget compared to 2019, leading to numerous program closures in 2021, including in key areas like health and humanitarian work’.

The contrast between investment in defence and cuts to development is stark. It suggests the UK Government is readying itself to reach more routinely for military tools in conflict settings and relying less on developmental approaches designed to address the root causes of conflict. A key part of this will be the UK’s new persistent engagement strategy, where greater numbers of armed forces will deploy ‘overseas more often and for longer periods of time, to train, exercise and operate alongside allies and partners across all...priority regions’. The reasoning behind this strategy is that a ‘[g]reater global presence will improve [the UK’s] understanding of events, help [it] to detect and tackle problems earlier, and give...a foundation to respond more assertively to threats.’ However, there has been very little discussion of whether this reasoning is sound. In many recent conflicts in places like the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, neglect for root causes of conflict has been a key aspect of strategic failure, and an increase in military presence could make this worse.  

Understanding the limitations of persistent engagement, and understanding how the UK can better contribute to conflict prevention and resolution, is therefore key  to meeting the UK’s objectives set out in the Integrated Review. To help explore these questions this written roundtable brings together five experts from academia, diplomacy and the frontlines of peacebuilding and the protection of civilians. To explore the limitations of and alternatives to persistent engagement, CIVIC Ukraine Country Director Liza Baran looks at the changing nature of conflict through the prism of grey zone and hybrid threats in Ukraine. Lord (Peter) Ricketts, from the vantage point of his experience as the first UK National Security Adviser, raises concerns about the downgrading of UK diplomatic and development tools and calls for an integrated approach to address conflict, reinstating these UK strengths. Defence and security policy expert Ewan Lawson draws on the UK’s experience of Afghanistan, South Sudan and Sierra Leone to argue that increasing military capability without accountability can reinforce conflict. He urges the UK to re-engage in security sector reform. Odeh Friday and Kibo Ngowi, from Accountability Labs, examine how in Nigeria only by improving accountability and integrity in public office can institutions provide for people and thus contribute to sustainable peace. 

Throughout each of these contributions, it is clear that when seeking to understand how to make the world a safer place, military measures of success are insufficient. They highlight the potential shortfalls of the persistent engagement strategy, and call for bringing a more comprehensive understanding to the UK’s defence and security policies. 

These views are those of their authors alone and not necessarily those of Saferworld.


Liza Baran, CIVIC Country Director for Ukraine: Prioritising protection of civilians in Ukraine

Britain in talks to sell missiles in first arms deal with Ukraine’, ‘U.S. Agrees To New $60 Million Military Aid Package With Ukraine For Javelin Anti-Armor Missiles’ – these are just a few examples of news headlines that have appeared in international media over the last few months. Does this talk of arms sales mean there is a correlating belief among world leaders that modern types of conflict – such as the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia – can be resolved solely using force? Such a narrow approach to conflict resolution carries a number of risks, as increases in the use and scale of combat activities also increase the chance that civilians will be harmed. As a result, proper safeguards must become an integral part of military assistance, and other approaches to conflict resolution should be considered.

The UK, as one of the three main countries with strong military missions in Ukraine (along with the United States and Canada), has the unique opportunity to prioritise civilian harm mitigation (CHM) with the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). Incorporating a CHM lens should be a crucial component of military cooperation programmes and international exercises, and needs to be paired with any initiatives aimed at supplying weapons and ammunition to recipient countries.

At the same time, changing the mindset of force as the primary means of resolving conflicts is also key. The world has changed dramatically over the last decade – we see more and more places where opposing parties are using hybrid tactics. This implies the use of a range of new ‘weapons’, such as disinformation campaigns, economic coercion, attacks on identity values, interference in political processes, support to irregular actors, and use of private military companies and so-called volunteers – all things that we see in the Ukraine–Russia conflict. These types of warfare are not so much about the physical control of territory, but rather influence and control over populations, including their perceptions of the ability of authorities to protect them.

The failure to protect civilians has both immediate and long-term impacts. Civilians, being at the centreer of the equation, need to be better protected not only for ethical and humanitarian reasons, but also to foster conditions for longer-term peace and stability and to bring legitimacy to the forces responsible for their protection. In Ukraine, civilians experience protracted threats to their safety, are deprived of livelihoods, and are attacked with disinformation campaigns on a daily basis, which has a direct impact on their psychological well-being. They become sitting targets for enemy propaganda and can be easily manipulated by the enemy, further fuelling the conflict and making it more and more difficult to find a political solution.  

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) recently released its policy brief, 'Entering the Grey Zone', which explores the links between hybrid tools and tactics used in Ukraine and protection of civilians. Psychological harm was identified as a primary form of civilian harm arising from hybrid activities, as hybrid actors seek to create and maintain the perception of chaos both in the conflict area and more broadly. In conflicts where hybrid activities are present, solely focusing on a military response would not adequately address the core issues – and in some cases could even exacerbate potential tensions. An effective approach to countering hybrid activities while better protecting civilians involves engaging the whole of society and building societal resilience through the integration of civil and military efforts. 

According to a survey commissioned by CIVIC in August 2020 in 12 communities along the contact line in the east of Ukraine, 91 per cent of respondents feared for their personal safety/security in the past year. Further to that, 40 per cent of respondents felt generally uncomfortable while interacting with members of the AFU, despite their role in providing protection and addressing security threats, demonstrating a lack of trust between communities and armed forces. The data suggests that, on a more practical level, protection of civilians and CHM should include systematic communication between civilians and the military, so that the latter can better understand the protection concerns of civilians and find ways to provide the needed protection, and so that the former can become more comfortable in expressing their concerns. This type of interaction would require a certain level of trust building. Such an approach would contribute to appeasing tensions between civilians and members of the military, making civilians less susceptible to disinformation campaigns intended to weaken their trust in the AFU, breaking the cycle of violence.

Facilitated dialogues between civilians and members of the military are one of the many approaches within the realm of building trust. In order to be successful, this approach requires civilians and the military to first build the skills and knowledge on how to constructively engage in order to identify protection challenges and jointly implement solutions to address them. These skills are not built overnight, and such professional development requires resources and time. However, these resources are far less onerous than what is being currently spent on missiles and weapons, and such an approach has the potential to be far more effective. The UK’s and other governments’ military assistance to Ukraine, and the AFU in particular, is therefore one area where incorporating practices and mechanisms to better protect civilians and mitigate harm can be incorporated.

Liza Baran is CIVIC Country Director for Ukraine. Over the last four years she has been working on issues related to protection of civilians, including advocacy on policy documents in this area, working with the Armed Forces of Ukraine to jointly identify areas to improve Protection of Civilian (POC) practices, designing the community-based protection approach in the east of Ukraine. Prior to joining CIVIC she worked with the Ukraine government and leading think tanks on policy reforms in Ukraine, and also in Iraq and Nigeria on conflict management and countering violent extremism (CVE) programs.



Peter Ricketts: Reinvesting in diplomacy and development to prevent conflict

Britain and other Western countries are in need of a new concept for conflict prevention and combatting impunity for those who commit the worst abuses of human rights. The current era of large-scale Western military interventions ended with the chaotic pull-out from Kabul, highlighting the limitations of coercive approaches to crises. The onus will now be on non-coercive tools to uphold the principles of the UN Charter and to tackle the worst effects of state failure and civil war, at a time when China is rejecting the system of international rules and Russia is moving into the gap left by the US retreating from global leadership in crisis management.

In these circumstances, diplomacy and development policy will take on added importance. Britain has much to offer. But as I set out in my book Hard Choices, a successful post-Brexit foreign policy will require the government to move away from exceptionalist rhetoric about Global Britain and to accept that the country will be most effective when it works closely with others and makes full use of multilateral institutions, like the UN.


Effective conflict prevention means identifying problems before they become crises. Britain has a renowned global intelligence capability, and one of the largest diplomatic networks in the world. But following repeated budget cuts, embassies are often hollowed out, lacking the necessary numbers of diplomats with the right skills to monitor trends and influence parties to the dispute. It would be a good investment to build up staff numbers in regions prone to conflict and instability.

Timely insights then need to be turned into effective policy action. The UK has in the National Security Council (NSC) the right central machinery to pool all the information available to the government and enable rapid decisions. But it was worrying to see that, following a recent review of UK national security structures, the NSC will now only be meeting once a month with the Prime Minister in the chair. The risks and threats to the UK’s security are sufficiently diverse and pressing for the NSC to meet more often than that.

The UK sits at the heart of a web of international relationships, and has strong convening power based on the reputation of British ministers and diplomats for effectiveness in chairing international meetings and hammering out consensus. These talents are often on display at the UN Security Council and can give the UK real international influence provided that it can come up with creative ideas and pursue them relentlessly. This means busy Ministers committing significant time and energy to achieve results. The UK therefore needs to avoid a scattergun approach and to concentrate resources on a limited number of geographical and thematic priorities. The Government’s Integrated Review of Defence, Diplomacy and Development published in March 2021 set out many ambitions in all these areas but did not set clear priorities. UK conflict prevention resources could for example be concentrated primarily in East and West Africa, where the UK has deep experience and significant interests at stake.


DFID earned a justified global reputation as a leader in development policy and a reliable international partner. The fusion of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID) should in principle ensure more coordinated foreign and development policies. But the sudden reduction of Britain’s aid budget by around £4 billion a year has meant many programmes being cut back sharply or cancelled, in stark contrast to the claim in the Integrated Review that the UK would remain a ‘soft power super power’. The best way to rebuild international confidence in the UK’s development credentials would be to reverse the cuts to aid as soon as possible. Since this now seems unlikely before 2024–5, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) needs to work hard to show that development policy is not taking second place to political imperatives.

It will also be vital for Britain’s development policy to mesh with the new priority for the Armed Forces of ‘persistent engagement’ with an emphasis on training and mentoring in friendly states. It should be another role for the NSC to ensure that military capacity-building efforts and civilian development work are tightly coordinated.

The Integrated Review sets ambitious goals for the UK in conflict reduction and combatting impunity. The Government’s actions have not always matched its rhetoric. The best way to have real influence is to ensure effective coordination across Whitehall, and pursue a number of limited priorities with consistency and purpose.

Peter, Lord Ricketts, joined the FCO in 1974. His early career took him to Singapore, NATO Brussels and Washington, interspersed with stints in London, including as a junior Private Secretary to Geoffrey Howe in the early 1980s. In the 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he spent a lot of time in London dealing with the crises in Kosovo, and then the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as Political Director. He was Permanent Representative in 2003, became Permanent Under- Secretary at the FCO in 2006, and was appointed Britain’s first National Security Adviser in 2010. His last post was Ambassador to France.

After retirement in 2016, Peter became a crossbench member of the House of Lords, where he sits on the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, and is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London. His first book, Hard Choices: What Britain Does Next, was published by Atlantic Books in May 2021.


Ewan Lawson: Security sector capacity building: A need for rediscovery?

The recent collapse of the Afghan army has reignited debates about the effectiveness of efforts by third parties to build state security forces. The relatively well-trained and well-equipped Afghan National Army collapsed in the face of forces whom the UK Chief of Defence Staff referred to as ‘country boys’. This comes at a time when some Western countries, including the UK, have incorporated the idea of ‘persistent engagement’ in their national security strategies. In the case of the UK, the 2021 Integrated Review talked about a military being persistently ‘engaged worldwide [conducting] training, capacity building and education’. Indeed, the language of security force assistance has become prevalent since 2001, with an increased focus on training local security forces with the intention of making them more effective against insurgents and so-called terrorists. However, as Afghanistan reminds us,  capable security forces are only part of the story in bringing an end to conflicts. Instead, a more holistic approach is needed.

Prior to the events of 9/11 there was a growing literature about and practice of Security Sector Reform (SSR). This approach sought to develop a target state's security sector in both breadth and depth. In South Sudan prior to the return of conflict in 2013 SSR programmes delivered by donors including the US, the UK and Norway sought not just to develop the capability of the army and the police but also to improve accountability and oversight across the security sector including in parliament and civil society. Some of these projects lacked the visual impact of well trained and disciplined soldiers, but a project to, for instance, register (through biometrics) all members of the armed forces had the potential to make a significant contribution to the broader security of the state – by reducing the size of the military and the associated financial burden, and by providing a firm baseline for an effective demobilisation programme. Unfortunately, those programmes largely came to naught as the country fell back into civil war, highlighting one of the challenges in delivering effective SSR.

Even the most efficient and effective SSR programmes cannot succeed if the host state’s political situation is perpetuating conflict. The failures in Afghanistan and South Sudan highlight the need for external actors to be prepared to hold local leaders to account and perhaps to set realistic ambitions in SSR programmes. That they can be made to work is illustrated by the example of Sierra Leone, where a UK-led international programme delivered a military that was able to contribute to UN peacekeeping but also effective security structures from the local to the national levels. The multi-national nature of many SSR efforts can be a further problem, with nations competing to demonstrate impact, often in their home capitals rather than in the target state. Effective coordination and coherence in activities rather than competition is key to success.

Successful SSR is not easy but is the only way to deliver lasting change in conflict contexts. Efforts that are limited to training and capacity building in the military through security force assistance might deliver more competent armed forces but ones that may contribute to conflict rather than countering it. If future engagement is going to be persistent then it also needs to contribute not just to military capability but also to accountability and oversight.

Ewan Lawson is an independent researcher on defence and security issues, having previously been a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He is also a Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and a visiting lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch.

He researches a range of subjects, including cyber security, strategy and cross-government working, military influence and information operations, law of armed conflict and war crimes, and conflict in Africa. Before moving into academic research, he was a Royal Air Force officer, initially as a policing and security specialist but in the latter part of his career in a range of joint warfare appointments.

Since leaving the Royal United Services Institute in 2019, he has been engaged by the International Committee of the Red Cross, examining military cyber operations and international humanitarian law, and by the NGO CIVIC, assessing the implications for the protection of civilians in Ukraine from hybrid warfare.


Odeh Friday and Kibo Ngowi, Accountability Lab: One year on from #EndSARS and Nigeria still suffers a lack of accountability

Between 8–20 October 2020, Nigeria experienced the biggest movement for change led by young people in its history — the #EndSARS protests against police brutality. One year on and it feels as though Nigeria remains in a dire situation. Despite promises of reform, the situation seems to be worse.

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was disbanded and replaced with the Special Weapons and Tactics team (SWAT), and while this may have brought change to that department in Abuja, in the rest of Nigeria the situation is still the same. We still see police brutality in many parts of the country. Judicial panels were established across all 36 Nigerian states to investigate grievances against the police and many states have already closed the proceedings with no tangible action taken nor responsibility taken by the military and police.

The Lagos State panel awarded ₦410 million (around £756,000) as compensation to 71 petitioners following the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre. Out of 255 petitions received, the panel decided on 182 petitions, with 52 petitions not heard due to ‘time constraints’. Many of them had pro-bono lawyers, but the fact that the government did not provide lawyers for the petitioners shows you that the government still does not have respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Since the protests, most civil society organisations have been actively participating in the hearings in an effort to ensure that justice is served. Many of them are still following up with the police force to ensure that they are trained properly and carry out their work with respect for citizen’s rights. Advocacy is going on around the National Broadcasting Corporation where people are not allowed to report on protests, and while the Buhari administration claims the ban on Twitter has ended there are still restrictions.

Many NGOs are still pushing for the electoral campaign fee to be lowered. It was raised recently to a level where it disenfranchised young people from standing for elections. Recently, though the law has not been signed by the President, the electoral body has been given the power to conduct elections accepting digital voting. However, civil society organisations (CSOs) are still pushing for access for people with disabilities in the elections – something Accountability Lab Nigeria is pushing for in association with other CSOs.

We continue our work of celebrating and encouraging accountability in the public sector through our Integrity Icon campaign. Our 2019 People’s Choice Winner – CSP Francis Osagie Erhabor – is a Divisional Police Officer (DPO) in charge of D Division, Itam, Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, who has pushed for deeper engagement with his community, where he is a trusted figure. 

We also have two people from the civil defence sector in the Top 5 for this year’s Icons.

One is Adigwe-Uzor Esther, Commandant and Zonal Head of Department for Critical National Assets and Infrastructure, NSCDC; the other is Musa Agono, Assistant Superintendent of Corps II (ASCII) of NSCDC, Kogi state command. Interviewing them for a series of short films, we asked them how they as security personnel uphold accountability in their communities.

Our belief remains that if we intentionally build accountable institutions with people of integrity in public service and they have the support to reform the system from within, years from now we will not have to contend with deteriorating infrastructure and a lack of basic human rights. Building strong institutions is about filling these institutions with people of the right character and supporting them to do their best work. In order to remake the institutions governing Nigeria for the benefit of all, we need to champion the value of integrity and accountability, support those who demonstrate it in governance processes and beyond, and build the Nigeria we want together.

Accountability Lab is a global translocal network that makes governance work for people by supporting active citizens, responsible leaders and accountable institutions.

Odeh Friday is the Country Director of Accountability Lab Nigeria based in Abuja. Odeh has a deep interest in serving humanity while contributing to social development across a range of sectors. Through roles with Save the Children and Association of Positive Youth Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, he has campaigned for child protection, gender equality, and the inclusion of people with disabilities, women and youth in governance processes. Odeh has seen the importance of accountability as a critical driver of progress in each of these sectors, and he is building a movement for young people and making governance work in Nigeria through the Accountability Lab.



Kibo Ngowi is a Marketing and Communications Officer for the Lab based in Johannesburg. Hei is a journalist and communications specialist with over a decade of experience writing and producing content on everything from economics and current affairs to politics and advocacy.



Conflicts are too complex to rely upon military means alone. This lesson has been learnt the hard way in UK interventions in places like South Sudan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, where the rush to train and equip after 9/11 saw a focus on improving security forces’ ability to fight – instead of on more important issues of governance and accountability. However, as Saferworld has noted elsewhere, ‘if you do want to reduce violence…then you need to tackle the roots of violence – and most importantly to improve governance’. This is no less true in battle spaces of the future; in the ‘grey zone’ conflict in Ukraine, where global powers compete for influence, there is a need to consider a much broader spectrum of factors behind the conflict and solutions to address it.

In this sense, all the contributions have highlighted the need to reform the persistent engagement strategy (and the UK’s defence and security policies more generally) if it is to stand a chance of preventing conflict. Improving the military capabilities of other security forces without reforms to improve civilian harm mitigation, broader security sector reform or accountability and oversight could do more harm and make conflicts worse. In the short term, it may see increased human rights violations by UK partners and place civilians in harm's way. In the longer term, it may decrease the legitimacy of UK partners within the hearts and minds of local populations, driving new conflict and damaging the UK’s international reputation when its bold international rhetoric fails to match the reality of UK engagements on the ground. 

Of course, as the case of Nigeria shows, there are real challenges in terms of reforming the security sector; however, these contributions also show that there are realistic and necessary solutions to the global challenges facing the UK. At the highest levels of UK policy-making the UK should be doing more to prioritise diplomacy and development if it wishes to prevent conflict. Indeed – giving adequate prioritisation to supporting international peace is crucial in the UK’s actions to implement the Integrated Review. This should be paired with meaningful engagement with, and funding for, people in conflict-affected countries, including women and women’s rights organisations. This includes the innovative work Accountability Lab is doing to support accountability in the Nigerian security sector and champion those with integrity to spearhead wider institutional reforms.

Given the link between poor governance and conflict, such initiatives aren’t just good for rights and democracy – they are vital for long term peace and stability. And they are not alone: small scale initiatives not just by international organisations but by civil society and communities working to transform conflicts around them can be found all over the world. The UK does invest in supporting peace in this way, but with the seismic shift we have witnessed away from development and diplomacy and towards persistent military engagement, many opportunities for building peace sustainably will be missed. This is a position the UK must reverse.

Read more about our work in the United Kingdom.

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