Small Wars Journal

The Moral Component of Mali and Mosul

Mon, 09/12/2016 - 9:34am

The Moral Component of Mali and Mosul

Thammy Evans

After the 2012 coup d’état in Mali, the Commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), General Ham, described US military training in Mali: ‘US forces focused Malian training almost exclusively on tactical and technical matters such as operating equipment, improving tactical effectiveness and aerial re-supply to remote bases… “We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and military ethos”.’[i]

In January 2014, when 30,000 Iraqi forces faced some 1,500 ISIS militia at Mosul, they capitulated and retreated after six days of fighting. The fall of Mosul is in part attributed to a lack of will to fight[ii], low morale, poor discipline, and poor training, despite the US$25bn worth of training[iii] provided by the Coalition in the previous eight years.

In November 2014, a programme to train 2,000 Libyan soldiers at Bassingbourn, Cambridge, UK, had to be axed after an incident of raping a local man, and numerous complaints from local residents about ‘the failure to maintain discipline’[iv].

In September 2015, General Lloyd Austin III admitted at a Congressional hearing on the effectiveness of training Syrian rebels, that only four or five of the 60 who had completed training by the US remained ‘in the fight’[v]. Setback to the US$500m programme meant that its goal to train 5,000 Syrian fighters would not be achieved, at least not in the short term.

The examples go on, and it is not difficult when lined up in this way to discern what the moral of Mali to Mosul is. But for those who need more of the supporting cast, this article will look into some of the cross-cultural origins and arguments for the primary necessity to develop the moral component in partner capacity building programmes.

The Case for the Moral Component of Fighting Power

British Defence Doctrine (BDD) states that fighting power is made of three components: physical, conceptual, and moral[vi]. The British did not invent the moral component, but it stems from as early as Sun Zi’s ‘Art of War’[vii], through Clausewitz’s ‘On War’[viii], and can be found in Ottoman military regulations[ix] prior to World War I, and after World War II in General von Baudissin’s ‘Developmental Leadership’[x]. In BDD, the moral component comprises leadership (inspired to fight), motivation (enthused to fight), and moral cohesion (prepared to fight). Throughout the works of many of the major military strategists, leadership is embodied in an enlightened commander, motivation importantly includes a unifying higher cause centered on the state, and moral cohesion includes team work, discipline, and integrity.

Figure 1: The Interwoven Nature of Fighting Power.[xi]

Enlightened Leadership

On the fundamental value of enlightened leadership and command for military success in war, Sun Zi wrote:

By command I mean the general’s qualities of wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage, and strictness.

Li Ch’üan: These five are the virtues of the general. Hence the army refers to him as ‘The Respected One’.

Tu Mu:…If wise, a commander is able to recognize changing circumstances and to act expediently. If sincere, his men will have no doubt of the certainty of rewards and punishments. If humane, he loves mankind, sympathizes with others, and appreciates their industry and toil. If courageous, he gains victory by seizing opportunity without hesitation. If strict, his troops are disciplined because they are in awe of him and are afraid of punishments.

Shen Pau-hsu…said: ‘If a general is not courageous he will be unable to conquer doubts or to create great plans.’[xii]

Iraqi soldiers at the fall of Mosul described being abandoned by their leadership and have been criticised for showing ‘no will to fight’[xiii]. There are many possible explanations for this in addition to possible poor leadership, not least of which is the lack of motivational attraction of loyalty to the State and a lack of a trusted military covenant[xiv]. The soldiers of the armed forces of Eritrea[xv], Nigeria[xvi], Sudan and Somalia do not benefit from such enlightened leadership either. Soldiers under these circumstances feel no compunction to stand by their leaders nor to treat others in any other way than they have been treated themselves. It is unsurprising, therefore, that misconduct by the military is high not only at home, but also when opportunity arises on training jollies abroad or on deployment in peacekeeping operations.

Unifying Higher Cause

Clausewitz’s discussion on moral force is instructive. He notes that Napoleon Bonaparte was able to raise such a large and invincible army because of the attraction that Republicanism represented. Armies that had hitherto been raised only when needed, and on a transactional basis, were unpopular and difficult to maintain.[xvii] Soldiers felt no loyalty to the gentry elite and their petty feuds. Napoleon on the other hand democratised the goals of war, and soldiers came forward willingly to die for their country. Napoleon’s army was thus one of the first European armies to professionalise into a standing force. Clausewitz notes:

‘…the moral forces are amongst the most important subjects of war. They form the spirit which permeates the whole being of war. These forces fasten themselves soonest and with the greatest affinity on to the will which puts in motion and guides the whole mass of powers, uniting with it as it were in one stream, because this is a moral force itself.’[xviii]

Sun Zi, Clausewitz, Ataturk and Baudissin all understood the strength of the moral component of fighting power and have harnessed it to their advantage.

The soldiers of Mali, at Mosul, in Benghazi and from Congo do not feel a sense of legacy[xix] to be loyal to their State. For most of these countries the state is not even one they recognise. Furthermore, a trusted military covenant between state and nation seems ethereal at best, and does not promise them anything of value in return for their sacrifice of blood, sweat and tears.

Moral Integrity

Values and standards, ethics and morality, have long been a part of enforcing military discipline, but can quickly become neglected or abused, and are a constant area for reinforcement .  In his 1914 treatise entitled Officer and Commander[xx] Mehmet Nuri Conker writes ‘the concepts and inclinations pertaining to the morale and virtues of the noble military profession…are hardly given any adequate due care and attention if at all’. Furthermore, stating that ‘the accumulation of science and technological knowledge mainly serves to the development of physical forces’, he also maintains ‘that no accumulation of scientific knowledge that is not to be crowned by moral values relying on exquisite nature and self-sacrifice worthy of bravery will bring any success.’

Examples abound in every army across the global north and south, that when the basic life needs of soldiers are under threat, then moral integrity gets upended. The classic example is of soldiers not being paid sufficiently or on time, and therefore feeling justified in their resort to pillaging and corrupt practices.

Unbalanced Capacity Building and Fighting Power

Building partner capacity (BPC) to date, typified within Coalition and NATO configurations by Special Operations Forces using the GOTEAM[xxi] concept of Security Force Assistance[xxii], centres almost exclusively on improving physical capability through provision of equipment and training on how to use force. This is the physical component of fighting power. Train and equip[xxiii] is necessary, but it is an insufficient approach to achieving fighting power. All three components are required, in balanced measure, to create effective fighting power (see Figure 1). Training in operational planning, mission command, the orders and estimate process, as well as advising on the doctrine and policies of a unit can be seen as building capacity in the conceptual component of fighting power. Training in leadership, human rights and the law of armed conflict (LOAC) touches on the moral component.

LOAC, human rights, and locally relevant leadership development[xxiv], however, is currently provided in sore disproportion to the physical component, and training recipients display a poor appreciation of the depth and importance of the moral component.

Train and equip has earned itself a bad reputation. One only needs to look at the SSR Conclusions of the UK’s Iraq Inquiry[xxv], and the unsustainable US$4.1bn Afghan Army budget to calculate that the stated objective of train and equip has yet to produce viable results in improving human security for those concerned (including the long-lasting effects on Coalition veterans). The reputation of train and equip is so low that some Allies, such as Germany, are seeking to recast train and equip under another label, namely the Enable and Enhance Initiative (E2I)[xxvi].

Whether it is called train and equip or E2I, the concept need not be only in the service of enhancing the physical component of fighting power. On the contrary, it should equally serve to train and equip partner nations with the conceptual and moral components of fighting power. It would appear, however, that force-to-force capacity building to date, whether under fire or under more peaceful circumstances, has rarely paid due diligence to these two crucial aspects of fighting power.[xxvii] Notable qualified exceptions are South Africa, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and to a lesser extent Liberia[xxviii].

Key Terrain – Hold It or Lose It

The moral component is an aspect of governance within a military. In military terms, it is key terrain, arguably even the ultimate vital ground for long-term success. A failure to occupy the moral component exposes a vulnerable Achilles heel with two fronts. Firstly, the moral component sustains morale, courage, loyalty, discipline, respect, integrity and commitment. The consequences of a degradation in these values, and above all a failure in morale, can be fatal to the maintenance of the physical component of fighting power. Secondly, if Allied force-to-force capacity building does not occupy the moral space, somebody else will - either through ideology, corruption, blackmail or slavery[xxix]. With that comes the risk of the physical component (enhanced by train and equip programmes) becoming a force for oppression, or even being turned against the hand that feeds.

Not to be confused with exporting Western values, it is important to base the Capacity Building of the moral component on:

  1. universal commitments, which are welcomed by the broadest spectrum of host nation;
  2. the obligations and responsibilities which come with the right to wield force on behalf of the State;
  3. the imperatives of accountability and integrity in command and control and conversely on an understanding of the detrimental effect of corruption and impunity.

The commitments within LOAC and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the entry points for bridging Capacity Building of the moral component with recognised, inclusive local values. It takes time and effort to firmly ground local values and standards and it is all too easy for supporting militaries to foist off this aspect of institution building to other Partners Across Government (PAG), or to civil society organisations (CSO) or consultants[xxx].

Donor militaries, as brothers-in-arms, are uniquely placed and trusted to deliver the trinity of moral, conceptual and physical components of fighting power, in a way that cannot be replicated by CSOs, or even the ICRC. Only fellow soldiers and officers can truly understand the burden that comes with the trust and covenant between a government and its armed forces to apply lethal force. Capacity Building efforts, therefore, should come as a package with the moral component embedded, just as it does in Allied armed forces.

The moral package includes not just training on, but also building up, institutional oversight at all levels to provide the checks and balances to ensure the sustainability of the moral component, and to deal with any breaches thereof. It is a matter of balancing effectiveness with responsibility and accountability—whether drawing a weapon from an armoury, overseeing the rules of engagement in a platoon attack, or ensuring fiscal oversight of arms procurement. Too much physical effectiveness without sufficient responsibility risks training and equipping a militia-in-waiting with the tools of repression[xxxi], and terror[xxxii].

Defence sector reform (DSR) proper[xxxiii], as part of security and justice sector reform, looks at defence policy reform within the setting of a national security dialogue and strategy. At the politico-strategic level, DSR looks at governance and external oversight issues, including via regional alliances, treaties and inspections. It considers the role of the parliament and the president, and divisions of power, as well as dependencies with other areas such as development and justice.

Operationally, DSR includes internal accountability mechanisms, financial management and expenditure reviews, military justice systems, security and vetting of personnel and procedures and the interoperability of these with regional systems and with internal police-led crisis management systems, if such exist.

Tactically, defence sector reform looks inter alia at governance and integrity within a force: the military aspects of troop understanding of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), human rights training and enforcement; discipline, standards and values, including via SOPs and SOIs; command responsibility and leadership; chain of payment systems, equipment supply, logistics management and maintenance systems; gender mainstreaming for tactical troop manoeuvres, conflict analysis, and decision making; education and training pipelines.

The moral component, in sum, is military soft power – without it fighting power is incomplete.

And so Sun Zi wrote:

Therefore in laying plans compare the following elements, appraising them with utmost care: If you say which ruler possesses moral influence, which commander is more able, which army obtains the advantages of nature and the terrain, in which regulations and instructions are better carried out, which troops are stronger; … which has the better trained officers and men; … And which administers rewards and punishments in a more enlightened manner; I will be able to forecast which side will be victorious and which defeated.[xxxiv]

End Notes

[i] Marshall, T AFRICOM Commander Addresses Concerns, Potential Solutions in Mali (American Forces Press Service, 24 Jan 2013 – see


[vi] UK MOD British Defence Doctrine, Part 2, 5th edn, 2014.

[vii] Notably, Sun Zi’s ‘Art of War’ was not translated into English until 1911 (and from a poor French translation of incomplete works). Liddle Hart notes in his preface to the Samuel Griffiths version of the translation that Hart first came across Sun Zi in 1927. (The early spelling of Sun Zi is Sun Tzu according to the now demised Wade-Giles phonetic system.)

[viii] Neither Napoleon nor Clausewitz are known to have read Sun Zi’s Art of War, even though the first French translation of the Art of War appeared in 1772.

[ix] See Ataturk, M. K. Reflections on Officer and Commander, trans. Demirtas, Y.S. (Ankara : Turkish General Staff Printing House, 2010).

[xi] Figure from: Australian Defence Force Publication, Land Warfare Doctrine 1, 2008, Ch. 5, p.2.

[xii] Sun Tzu The Art of War, trans, Griffith, S.B. (London : Watkins Publishing, 2005) p.93.

[xiii] Williams, V “Defense Secretary Carter: Iraq’s Forces Showed ‘no Will to Fight’ Islamic State,” Washington Post, 24 May 2015,

[xiv] A military convenant is a largely informal understanding between armed forces and the state regarding their obligations each to the other, notably due compensation, rewards, safeguards and support, in return for soldiers prepared to risk their lives obeying lawful military orders.

[xv] See UN Eritrea Commission of Inquiry, Chapter VI, C, 1, National service, at for accounts of torture and human rights abuses used by the Eritrean Army on its own soldiers.

[xvi] See prosecution by the International Criminal Court against the Nigerian Armed Forces -

[xvii] See also Howard, M Clausewitz : A very short introduction (Oxford, 2002, pp.17-18).

[xviii] von Clausewitz, C. On War, trans. Graham, J.J. (London : Wordsworth, 1997), p.150.

[xix] See Veterans Not Surprised Iraq’s Army Collapsed (Aljazeera America, 28 June 2014).

[xx] Ataturk, M.K. Reflections upon Officer and Commander, trans. Demirtas, Y.S. (Ankara : Turkish General Staff Printing House, 2010), pp74-5.

[xxi] Generate, Organise, Train, Enable, Advise, Mentor.

[xxii] NATO Security Force Assistance Concept MCM-0034-2014.

[xxiii] Train and equip is a short-hand term used to describe programmes run by donor countries to equip a host nation army with modern military equipment (usually sold or donated by the donor country) and then to train the host nation army on using that equipment in tactical fighting scenarios. Train and equip is often run by short –term training teams (STTT). Whilst training per se does not need to only concentrate on fieldcraft and how to use equipment, in a train and equip context it is rarely much beyond that.

[xxiv] See inter alia the African Leadership Centre, and the African Leadership Network.

[xxvi] See Claudia Major, Christian Mölling and Judith Vorrath Train + Equip = Peace? Stabilization Requires More Than Capacity Building, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, at

[xxvii] Interviews with US Marine Corps, UK Short Term Training Team, and French Special Forces officers, conducted between July 2014 and November 2015. See also Marshall, T AFRICOM Commander Addresses Concerns, Potential Solutions in Mali (American Forces Press Service, 24 Jan 2013).

[xxviii] The reform of Liberia’s army to be a self-defence force only was initially hailed as a success. However, the selection, training and equipment provision processes have not been maintained, leading to a deterioration in effectiveness. Recent setbacks in the internal and external oversight and governance of the South African military and police is also raising questions about the robustness of reforms there.

[xxix] Sherlock, R Bodyguard of Syrian rebel who defected to Isil reveals secrets of the jihadist leadership (The Daily Telegraph, 10 Nov 2014).

[xxx] See S. McFate, Building Better Armies, An Insider’s Account of Liberia (Pennsylvania: US Army War College Press, 2013).

[xxxi] See J. Goldstein Afghan Militia Leaders Empowered by  U.S. to Fight Taliban Inspire Fear in Villages (International New York Times, 17 March 2015)  

[xxxii] See A. Marshall Terror ‘blowback’ burns CIA (Washington Post, 23 October 2011).

[xxxiii] United Nations, Defence Sector Reform Policy, (New York: UN DPKO, 2011), 16.

[xxxiv] Sun Tzu The Art of War, trans, Griffith, S.B. (London : Watkins Publishing, 2005) p.96-6.


About the Author(s)

Thammy Evans works at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), in the International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT), where she conducts advocacy and outreach of Security Sector Reform good practice among donor nations and multilateral organizations. The views expressed here by the author are made in her private capacity.