Contributors: Edward Canfor-Dumas and Thomas Boehlke

Part 2 of 3

The second instalment of our series condensing the work of Thomas Boehlke and Edward Canfor-Dumas on the contribution the military can make to the prevention of violent conflict.  The Understand to Prevent (U2P) project focuses on how the military can contribute to the prevention of violent conflict as part of a comprehensive approach.  It has arisen from the changing nature of armed conflict, which is prompting NATO forces to adapt to new challenges.  U2P argues that military effort must shift away from crisis response and towards persistent, modulated engagement that seeks to manage conflict, prevent violence and build peace. Key is the need for military actors to develop a common understanding with others working towards the same ends and, where possible, to design with them complementary preventive actions and structures.  To apply this new approach, it is argued that military actors must extend their competences to become capable in the non­violent management of conflict as well as war­fighting.  The article was originally published HERE and we would like to thank the authors for giving us permission to serialise and re-publish.

Politics by other means..

It goes without saying that it is always a political decision to employ a state’s military forces or resources. The military’s operations planning process commences with a thorough analysis of the conflict situation and its defining parameters i.e. the relevant actors and driving factors of the conflict. Their thoughts are guided by the wisdom of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, which highlights the importance of civil military relations with respect to military operations:

“War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means … the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”[1]

In the context of the U2P project, a simple conflict curve serves as a navigational aid for aligning military efforts. A comprehensive conflict analysis, which determines the stage of the conflict and its tendency towards escalation or de-escalation, is the basis for delineating a strategy for how to avert violent conflict.

The challenge explored in the U2P process is to engage as early as possible to avoid prevention being enacted predominantly in terms of crisis management/response. Similarly, actors now understand that if little or no action is taken towards normalisation[2] and reconciliation, the chances will increase that the cycle will return to contradiction and polarisation, with the continuing danger of escalation once again into violence and war.

The military operations planners need to take all this into account and work out activities that are suitable to complement other, non-military activities that seek to prevent violence and support conflict resolution. The spectrum of possible military contributions comprises e.g. public diplomacy, confidence building, peacekeeping, mentoring, stakeholder engagement and technical assistance; but also measures that resort to coercion or intimidation (if required).  The table below offers an example of some possible military contributions to prevention at the difference stage of the conflict curve:

Military and Non-military action at the conflict stage Difference[3]:

Main Goal of Conflict Prevention Encourage Stability / Strengthen Resilience with Consent of Host Nation required
Possible Desired Outcomes Increased human security

Good governance

Stable & legitimate state institutions

Civilian control of security sector

Nonviolent management of conflict

Military Contribution to Host Nation Defence Diplomacy and relationship development with U2P focus

Security System Reform

Joint military/police/civil society training

Prevention (U2P) advice

Influence advice

Anti­WMD training

Subject Matter Expert Exchanges – international conferences, workshops, seminars etc.

Observer missions

Military Contribution to Home Nation / Alliance


Relationship development i.e., improve cooperation with relevant actors (‘whole of government’, IOs, NGOs) through Multi­Stakeholder Engagement

Knowledge and Understanding development

Joint military/police/civil society training

Prevention (U2P) advice

Horizon scanning

Early warning

Complementary Non-Military Action


Cultural peace­building

Legal reform

Support for local dispute resolution mechanisms 
and conflict resolution/transformation training

Joint military/police/civil society training

Fact finding and peace commissions

Promote culture of toleration and respect

Promote acceptance of multiple and inclusive identities


U2P and the Military Operations Planning Process

The Military Operations Planning Process reflects the broad and evolving set of challenges of contemporary and recent operations and has been adapted accordingly.  NATO’s Comprehensive Operations Planning Directive (COPD), promulgated in 2013, incorporates new conceptual principles and methods such as systemic thinking and an effects based approach.  It strives to inculcate a culture of active collaboration and transparency among those involved in crisis management.  The desired outcome is to allow for a more integrated or coordinated civilian / military planning process, thus enhancing the effective complementarity of civilian and military efforts for crisis management.  The COPD provides a new and thorough framework for the planning process – the ‘what’ and methodology for strategic and operational level planning – and its introduction demands a change in the mind-sets of military planners as it expands beyond traditional planning methods.[4]

This is where U2P complements the COPD. The U2P handbook proposes a four­step approach of Understand-Engage-Act-Endure. It provides practical tools for how to determine relevant stakeholders and how to plan for engaging with them in dialogue and negotiations. Additionally, U2P offers a compendium of underlying common themes of contemporary violent conflicts. It guides the military planner towards an understanding of the relevancy for own operations and how to consider it in own planning efforts. Examples of such themes are: Protection of Civilians, Conflict Sensitivity, Security Sector Reform, or Gender Perspectives.

The U2P Process

U2P is an iterative process.  While progress is made by working in turn through the four stages of Understand-Engage-Act-Endure, ultimately everything is based on understanding and feeds back into it.  The Understand and Engage stages in particular must be viewed as running together in tandem rather than in sequence.  Understanding informs greater engagement, which informs deeper understanding, and so on.

Understand means to develop as deep an insight as possible of the target conflict (or conflicts, as several overlapping disputes can be involved), and to ensure that this understanding is regularly challenged and refreshed.  It also means to develop a clear and honest self-awareness – that is, how and why this conflict matters to oneself and one’s partner actors – and an understanding of the effects of different types of intervention.  It points to analytical tools and relevant issues for conflict resolution in the context of contemporary conflicts.

Engage means to build trust with key actors relevant to the target conflict, including with potential partners (at home and in the host nation) who might have been operating in the conflict affected space for a considerable period – e.g. NGOs and IOs – and who have related but different agendas.  It also means working together with different actors at various levels of interaction, from simply sharing information to fully integrated design, planning, preparation and action.  How to conduct Stakeholder Engagement Planning is another tool offered to support the detailed planning of operations.[5]

Act means to undertake the best actions that military and non-military actors have identified – based on the understanding and engagement generated in the first two stages – to prevent violence, promote dialogue, enhance security and support conflict resolution/transformation. It means deciding who will take the necessary actions and calculating their second and third order effects (and beyond if possible). Crucially, it also means ensuring that these actions ‘Do No Harm’, however unintentionally, and that the alternative options to violence are fully explored.

Endure means to ensure that any actions taken to prevent violence, promote dialogue, enhance security and support conflict resolution/transformation are sustained long enough to be/remain effective. This necessarily involves early planning for sustainability and establishing upfront a meaningful framework for monitoring and evaluating those actions, which should regularly be adjusted, as necessary.

[1] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1989. chapter 1, paragraph 24, p. 87 refers to the character of war and policy; the original notion of war should be read as military operation

[2] Normalisation does not mean simply the return to the ‘status quo ante’, from which the violent conflict originally developed, but a new state in which the root causes of the conflict are being addressed and transformed without violence.

[3] Mallinson, Tom and Edward Canfor­Dumas, editors. Understand to Prevent – Practical Guidance for the Military Contribution to the Prevention of Violent Conflict. Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), UK Ministry of Defence, Shrivenham, 2016.

[4] R. Erdeniz elaborates on the inherent intellectual challenges of the COPD: Erdeniz, Robert. “Operations Planning Revisited: Theoretical and Practical Implications of Methodology.” Defence Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, 2016, pp. 248­269, doi:10.1080/14702436.2016.1187567.

[5] Mallinson, Tom and Edward Canfor­Dumas, editors. Understand to Prevent – Practical Guidance for the Military Contribution to the Prevention of Violent Conflict. Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), UK Ministry of Defence, Shrivenham, 2016. See Annex D

The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to

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