Archive for the ‘Opinions & Queries’ Category

Re-ordering the UK’s Campaign Primacy

4 August, 2008

In a weekend interview with The Daily Telegraph, which was also picked up by The Times, Brigadier Ed Butler – the former head of the SAS, and former commander of British forces in Afghanistan – claimed that not only were some British Muslims fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, but that militant Islamic groups in south-east Asia were also supporting terrorist plots in the UK.

“There are British passport holders who live in the UK who are being found in places like Kandahar… There is a link between Kandahar and urban conurbations in the UK. This is something the military understands, but the British public does not.”

Given this relationship between the foreign and domestic theatres, what are the implications for UK counterinsurgency strategy? In an article entitled Re-ordering the UK’s Campaign Primacy, IRG founder John Mackinlay argues that in the UK we are currently making a mistake in placing our expeditionary commitments over our domestic campaign, and that the current counterinsurgency discourse – as embodied in US Army / USMC FM 3-24 – is insufficiently nuanced to address the nature of the threat posed to Europe, and the UK in particular, by contemporary global insurgency:

Although doctrinally US and UK forces appear to have changed course, the core values of our security institutions remain the same, and at their most instinctive level they have not altered sufficiently to keep up with the changing world. In operational terms we are still facing backwards towards an era when counterinsurgency was a purely expeditionary activity, whereas in reality we need to be thinking more seriously about a 21st century adversary which does not require overseas territories, and which flourishes within our own population.

Representing an overwhelming US presence, US counterinsurgency doctrine is likely to become the concept for every future coalition. So it is this doctrine, and not a yet to be written NATO or national version, which will influence our future modus operandi.

FM3-24 has the appearance of novelty, it mentions the ‘global dimension’ and the possibility of ‘insurgent networks’, but in practical terms its prescriptions are only relevant to an expeditionary, territorial intervention focused on a particular state, with a clearly recognisable centre of gravity. The US doctrine is saying in effect that although the adversary which we seek to address is established globally and exerts itself in the virtual dimension, the military response will be a traditional unilateral expedition, whose capabilities will be tangible, territorial and limited to a space that is physical.

As a result of our failure to fully appreciate the inter-relationship of the domestic and expeditionary elements of our counterinsurgency campaign – or, at least, our failure to operationalise this understanding – it is argued that in the UK we are dangerously neglecting the former in pursuit of the latter.

In common with other European states the British government is engaged on two fronts, the overseas expeditions against the supposed sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a domestic campaign to stem disaffection and radicalisation in its own population. These campaigns are organisationally distinct. The overseas effort principally involves Defence, Foreign Affairs and Overseas Development, whereas the domestic plan of action principally involves the Home Affairs ministry. The problem is that in the UK the images and reverberations of the overseas campaign act against the domestic campaign. It is the continuous traffic of routine news and political debate concerning British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than old fashioned jihadi propaganda, which antagonises the vulnerable Muslim element of the British population, especially those who see their faith as the target of the war against terror.

Despite the obfuscations of its government, the British de facto give primacy to the expeditionary campaign. This prioritisation is not explicit, but by deed and declaration the government pursues its expeditionary campaigns in denial and disregard of mounting evidence that the UK’s foreign policy and military profile in the war against terror contributes to the increasing radicalisation of its own Muslim population.

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Read the full article here:
Re-ordering the UK’s Campaign Primacy

Dealing with Bombs in Rural Devon: Global Threat, Local Response

4 June, 2008

This analysis of the recent bomb attack in Exeter was contributed by IRG reader Weichong Ong – a PhD researcher at the Centre for the Study of War State and Society, University of Exeter and a Visiting Research Associate at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

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The bomb attack on 22 May, 2008 in Exeter city centre sent shockwaves throughout the Southwest of England. The first obvious question that sprang to mind was why Exeter, a sleepy cathedral city of 111,000 set in rural Devon. Exeter is by no means a stranger to bomb attacks. During the Second World War, from 1940 to 1942, Exeter was a frequent target of German bombing raids, including the Baedeker Blitz – a series of air raids on picture-postcard picturesque English cities of limited strategic importance. Although severely stretched, the timely response of RAF Fighter Command meant that heavy lossess were inflicted on German bombers for their incursions into British airspace. Indeed, the heavy aircraft lossess suffered by the Luftwaffe in Baedeker raids on the Southwest of England deprived both the North African and Russian fronts of crucial air assests in the critical year of 1942. The recent bomb attack by Nicky Reilly, a radicalized convert to Islam however is an incursion of a different kind.

Threat in the Global Space

The threat confronting the UK now and then in 1939-1945 has a global face and fills the global space. The similarities however depart from there. The bomb attack on 22 May, 2008 came just three days after Sir Richard Dearlove delivered a lecture at Exeter University on National Security for the 21st Century: New Threats, New Approaches. Sir Richard, former head of MI6, highlighted that the diffusion of power has empowered non-state actors to challenge the authority and power of nation states. Indeed, the end of the Cold War has ushered in an era where wars and conflicts are predominantly non-interstate, transnational or within states. However, this does not necessarily mean that we have seen the end of wars between states structured on the Westphalian model.

In his recent book, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare, the ever perceptive doyen of strategic thought, Colin S Gray warns that ‘irregular warfare in all its forms remains a notably under-regulated field of strategic behaviour’. Indeed, state-on-state wars and conflicts are fought on very different rules from those with non-state actors. Morever, the highly irregular, ill-defined modus operandi and Area of Operations (AOs) of non-state armed actors do not fit into any convenient paradigm that government intelligence agencies can easily pinpoint.

Channel 4 television reported that MI5 was ‘aware of Reilly but he was not the subject of a live investigation’. Regardless of the veracity of the news report, the readily identifiable air armada of German bombers heading for the Southwest of England stood in marked constrast to a nondescript local lad travelling on a public bus from Plymouth to Exeter. Unlike the German Luftwaffe and present day national armed forces, non-state armed actors do not have a readily identifiable Order of Battle (Orbat) that one can pin-up in the centre of the Operations Planning Room. Instead of sprawling bases bristling with highly visible military hardware, non-state armed actors often operate in small independent units in local AOs without a readily identifiable HQ.

More often than not, that HQ exists not in the corporeal form of a conventional military structure but rather in the domain of cyberspace as well as an ethereal avatar of a visionary idea in the global space. Such a structure allows for the formation of cells and recruitment of members without the costly apparatus of centralised recruitment centres, a high level of tactical and operational flexiblity, and most importantly, the ability to sustain and regenerate itself and morph in accordance with the strategic, operational, and tactical terrain.

Response in the local hills

The bomb attack on Exeter might be viewed as a departure from the more familiar attacks on key British metropolitan areas such as London and Glasgow. That view however ignores the fact that in order to stay ahead of their materially more well-endowed opponents, non-state armed actors have to be, and are often, highly flexible in their modus operandi and range of AOs. The diversified tactics of non-state armed actors must be met with an equally holistic and timely response from the authorities. This means the ability to react quickly on the ground and, more importantly, entrusting the local security apparatus and personnel as well as local communities to do the job.

Throughout the first two days of the incident, police statements providing details of the suspect, his travel pattern on the day of the bombing incident and appeals for further information were made in a timely manner to the public. Explosive and Ordinance Disposal (EOD) capacity came in the form of a Royal Navy EOD team from a local Devon naval base. Local Muslim leaders in Plymouth, including the head of the Islamic Centre where Nicky Reilly used to worship, were quick to express their shock and distress at the incident. They also emphasized the moderate nature of the 3,500 large Muslim community in Plymouth while condemning all forms of religious extremism. In short, the immediate response has largely been a local-led affair.

The primacy of local policing and local leadership in counter-terror operations is however nothing new to the British. During the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), field operations were largely decentralised with local police playing a crucial role in deterring terrorist attacks, gathering human intelligence (Humint) as well as being the initial response to any attacks. As of now, the investigation of the 22 May Exeter bombing is headed by the local Devon and Cornwall Police with the assistance of other government agencies.

Fighting as General Charles Krulak calls it, ‘The Three Block War’, contemporary armed forces will increasingly find themselves in AOs where they have to engage with hostile, friendly and neutral forces within the localised geographical confines of ‘three blocks’. While there is a need for a credible conventional military deterrent and maintenance of competent traditional warfighting capabilities, armed forces must be able to respond to threats of a less conventional nature in the form of military operations other than war (MOOTW).

Local police forces in local AOs are fundamental in counter-terror operations. Local police officers are the ones most familiar with the local neighbourhoods and their communities and a vital tool in the gathering of Humint. Violence motivated by religious radicalism is a global threat that strikes physically in both metropolitan centres of power as well as the periphery. In the event of a terror attack, a timely and adequate immediate response from local ‘boots on the ground’ is crucial to the containment of the situation as well as follow-up investigations.

As well as a whole-of-government approach, a whole-of-society approach is needed to counter the threat of religious violence. Inter-faith dialogue and community integration must reach down to the grass roots and local neighbourhoods rather than remain ensconced in the ivory towers of religious scholars and elites. Military action, policing and other forms of state response can only stem the tide of religious violence, not neutralise it. To truly remove, in the words of Major General Richard Clutterbuck, ‘the man with the knife’ who moves within the village, requires the villagers that constitute the local as well as global village to repudiate the ideology that feeds religious violence. Until such is achieved, we can only hold the tide of religious violence without truly taming it.

Worrying Implications of the Terrorism Act for Insurgency Researchers

24 May, 2008

In a disturbing development of particular relevance to IRG members doing insurgency research in the War Studies Department at King’s – and to anyone working in the field in the UK – a masters student researching terrorist tactics at Nottingham University has been arrested and held for six days under the Terrorism Act after downloading Al-Qaeda related material from the internet.

Despite his Nottingham University supervisors insisting the materials were directly relevant to his research, Rizwaan Sabir, 22, was held for nearly a week under the Terrorism Act, accused of downloading the materials for illegal use. The student had obtained a copy of the al-Qaida training manual from a US government website for his research into terrorist tactics.

The case highlights what lecturers are claiming is a direct assault on academic freedom led by the government which, in its attempt to establish a “prevent agenda” against terrorist activity, is putting pressure on academics to become police informers.

Sabir was arrested on May 14 after the document was found by a university staff member on an administrator’s computer. The administrator, Hisham Yezza, an acquaintance of Sabir, had been asked by the student to print the 1,500-page document because Sabir could not afford the printing fees. The pair were arrested under the Terrorism Act, Sabir’s family home was searched and their computer and mobile phones seized. They were released uncharged six days later but Yezza, who is Algerian, was immediately rearrested on unrelated immigration charges and now faces deportation.

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Sabir’s solicitor, Tayab Ali, said: “This could have been dealt with sensibly if the university had discussed the issue with Rizwaan and his tutors. This is the worrying aspect of the extension of detention [under the Terrorism Act]. They can use hugely powerful arrest powers before investigating.”

As well as the obvious implications for those conducting such valuable research, and for academic freedom in general, this incident raises other uncomfortable questions.

Since the passing of the Terrorism Act in 2006 it has been clear that the breadth of its provisions could potentially criminalise many people involved in legitimate research, indeed many people doing work in academia and in the private sector that is absolutely essential if we are to make progress in the ongoing ‘long war’. As such, it has also been clear that the authorities would therefore be relying upon a considerable amount of discretionary judgement when determining whether or not someone should actually be prosecuted under this legislation, which in turn raises questions as to how these discretionary judgements are to be made. Such discretionary judgements are not an ideal basis for any law, let alone one so sensitive, and one has to wonder whether in this case it was the Muslim identity of the individuals in question that prompted the arrests.

In many respects the Terrorism Act represents an important step in recognising and addressing the role played by the internet, and by radicalisation processes in general, in the current campaign being waged by Al-Qaeda and its decentralised affiliates. However, as this incident demonstrates, it is potentially highly problematic, and considerable care is going to be required if its implementation is not itself going to be a cause of further alienation and radicalisation among the UK’s Muslims.

Read the Guardian’s coverage of the arrests here.

Update: David here. I’ve blogged this also over at Kings of War:

Student researching al-Qaida tactics held for six days | higher news | EducationGuardian.co.uk

WTF is going on with the police?

A masters student researching terrorist tactics who was arrested and detained for six days after his university informed police about al-Qaida-related material he downloaded has spoken of the “psychological torture” he endured in custody.

Despite his Nottingham University supervisors insisting the materials were directly relevant to his research, Rizwaan Sabir, 22, was held for nearly a week under the Terrorism Act, accused of downloading the materials for illegal use. The student had obtained a copy of the al-Qaida training manual from a US government website for his research into terrorist tactics.

The case highlights what lecturers are claiming is a direct assault on academic freedom led by the government which, in its attempt to establish a “prevent agenda” against terrorist activity, is putting pressure on academics to become police informers.

I don’t get the reasoning behind this action. How can he be prosecuted for downloading something from a US government website? Why do those responsible not recognize that the AQ manual is required reading for anyone in this field? Get a grip!

Update: The more I think about this case the more puzzled I get. The article is portraying this as a threat to academic freedom and our commenters reckon its an example of profiling in action. Probably true on both counts but possibly defensible also (there really is a terror threat and radicalism is prevalent in universities). That said, the article mentions a ’1,500 page’ Al Qaeda training manual which I am assuming (because its logical and about the right length) must be the Encyclopedia of Jihad downloaded from a ‘US gov’t website’. But I cannot find the full-length document on any government website. If anybody has a link please send it to me. What’s available are heavily redacted and translated versions. The real thing is available, I am told, in Arabic, on Jihadi websites. So, is the article wrong and he did not get it off a US government website? Or is the article wrong and what he had access to was the redacted version (which would be less worrisome and make the police look even worse)? Or something else? The story as reported just doesn’t add up. In any case, the basic point remains that discouraging precisely those students who possess the language skills and background from doing research on AQ terrorism is self-defeating.

The ‘Sons of Iraq’ and Elections in Iraq and the US

21 May, 2008

IRG member David Ucko has published an article in the World Politics Review on the Sons of Iraq phenomenon. The article is reproduced in full below.

The analysis is nuanced and also very timely, in that both Iraq and the United States are approaching elections that will, each in their own way, be critical to the future of Iraq. Examining the origins and evolution of the SoI partnerships, the article challenges some of the spin to surround this important issue.

The article concludes with some sobering analysis of the phenomenon, focusing in particular on the intransigence of the incumbent central government in Iraq to consolidate or react constructively to the new partnerships with tribal elements and former insurgents. The article argues that the US discussion on Iraq must now abandon the either-or option of staying or withdrawing and focus more closely on events on the ground, as they develop in the run-up to the Iraqi provincial elections in October 2008, and the US elections soon thereafter.

Read the full article below.

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Upcoming Iraqi Elections Must Consolidate Security Gains of ‘Sons of Iraq’ – David Ucko

In the typically polarized debate on Iraq, the significance of the “Sons of Iraq” — the predominantly Sunni militias now allied with the U.S. military against insurgents and terrorists — can easily be lost. Depending on one’s point of view, the U.S. military’s new Sunni friends are either “concerned local citizens” or “opportunist insurgents” — with pro- and anti-war camps each using the phenomenon to support pre-existing political positions. As Iraq approaches provincial elections in October, however, and the United States nears its own presidential vote, it is high time to abandon easy slogans and to examine the fresh challenges and many opportunities presented by recent events in Iraq. Among such events, the emergence of the Sons of Iraq stands out as particularly important.

Sons of Iraq (SOI) is the collective name used for the tribal elements, insurgents and civilians that turned against extremist groups active in Iraq and began working instead with the U.S. military. With the help of U.S. soldiers and Marines, the SOI have been largely responsible for the decrease in violence seen since the onset of the so-called “surge” in early 2007. The phenomenon, however, predates the surge, finding its origins in al-Anbar province in late 2006. There, the U.S. military and local Sunni tribes were able to seal security pacts with locals to work together against al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and other Islamist armed groups. This pattern soon repeated itself in other parts of Iraq, bringing stability to former insurgent and AQI strongholds. At present, an estimated 103,000 Sons of Iraq (70 percent Sunni; 30 percent Shiite) are working with the U.S.-led coalition.

The Sunni community was for a long time excluded from the state-building project in Iraq: Their ethnic affiliation suggested close proximity to the former regime and their tribal structure clashed with the democratic foundations on which the future Iraqi state was to be built. The decision to disband Baathist security forces also alienated the many Sunnis serving in the Iraqi Army. The added alienation of Sunnis from government — through U.S. military operations, which overwhelmingly targeted the Sunni community, and the ensuing Sunni sense of victimization, leading to their boycott of the January 2005 elections — made this community a natural ally of the insurgents and extremists establishing themselves in Iraq’s power vacuums. Such alliances were based on shared Sunni identity, opposition to the sectarian, Shiite-dominated central government, and to its protector, the American-led coalition. U.S. strategy, meanwhile, seldom differentiated between elements of the Sunni community. The few attempts by various U.S. military units to create and exploit extant rifts were on the whole unsuccessful.

In late 2006, two related factors changed this state of affairs. First, AQI rendered itself deeply unpopular among the Anbar tribes by disrupting or taking over informal business networks, seeking to marry into the higher tribal echelons and through its intimidation and violence. These efforts resulted in a backlash. It was not, as is commonly reported, primarily a matter of AQI brutality — though this aspect certainly accelerated the breakdown in relations. More fundamentally, the backlash grew out of a wider competition over resources, financial networks, social influence and political power. Differences in these areas were what fuelled the violence, itself a crude attempt by AQI to coerce the tribes into submission.

Secondly, the U.S. military changed its strategy, assisting and even enabling the decoupling of Sunni tribes and extremist groups. In short, a number of U.S. brigades moved from a narrow focus on rooting out the insurgency to a broader effort to “end the cycle of violence,” primarily by examining and engaging U.S. adversaries’ various motivations for picking up arms in the first place. This effort resulted in the identification of individuals within the insurgency with whom cooperation would be possible. By pursuing a strategy of co-opting and cooperating with the middle ground, the U.S. military helped achieve the common goal of greater stability while marginalizing more extremist elements.

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German Special Forces in Afghanistan – Not Licensed to Kill

20 May, 2008

Much has been made by various commentators in recent months about the negative impact national caveats are having on Nato/ISAF operational capabilities in Afghanistan. As well as affecting operational effectiveness, such caveats – which place self-imposed restrictions on the way in which individual national forces may be deployed – are having a corrosive effect on relations between contributing Nato countries, and on overall ISAF morale.

Although forces from all 26 Nato member states are deployed in Afghanistan, only Britain, America, Canada, Denmark and Holland have not used caveats to limit the rules of engagement of their troops. While the French, Italians and Spanish have all come in for criticism in the past, particular ire has been directed at the German contingent, whose forces may only be deployed in a non-combat role in the relatively peaceful north.

Such criticism is only likely to intensify following the revelation yesterday by Der Spiegel that an important Taliban commander – said to be responsible for the November 2007 Baghlan bombing which killed 79 people, including dozens of children – was allowed to escape by German KSK special forces as they were not authorised to use lethal force.

The case has caused disquiet at the headquarters of the ISAF peacekeeping force in Kabul. The current strategy for fighting the enemy is to buy as many Taliban sympathizers as possible, to at least win them over for a while — and to “eliminate” the hardliners through targeted assassinations.

From a military point of view, the so-called targeting has been a success. Close to one-third of the Taliban leaders, about 150 commanders, have since been “neutralized,” meaning they are either dead or captured. Most of the capture-or-kill missions, as the operations are called in military jargon, are undertaken by British or American special forces.

But so far the Germans haven’t wanted to take part. And that causes problems, because the insurgents are increasingly gaining influence in the nine provinces under German command.

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Nonetheless, even in a time of growing threats in Afghanistan, Berlin is sticking to its “principle of proportionality,” stressed one high-ranking official in the Defense Ministry. A fugitive like the Baghlan bomber is not an aggressor and should not be shot unless necessary, the official explains.

Soldiers from Britain’s British Special Air Service or the US’s Delta Force are less bothered about such hair-splitting. For them, this is a war in which it comes down to “kill or be killed,” say sources in military circles in Kabul. The “targets” are identified, tracked down and — often with the help of laser-guided weapons systems — “eliminated.”

The Germans have considerable misgivings about such an approach. They have secretly given “clarification notes” to NATO with far-ranging instructions for their soldiers which expressly contradict the usual procedures: “The use of lethal force is prohibited unless an attack is taking place or is imminent.” Sources in NATO circles regard the confidential document as a “national exception,” a caveat which places restrictions on operational capability. The Germans, for their part, always avoid using the word caveat, out of diplomatic considerations vis-à-vis their allies.

The most remarkable thing about the secret document is its stated justification. The German government considers its allies’ approach as “not being in conformity with international law.” Little wonder that NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is marked by tension and friction.

While the principle of proportionality is an important one in counterinsurgency, the German position epitomised by this incident is clearly pushing the principle to the point of absurdity. However, irrespective of how ridiculous this individual incident is, it is the underlying issue of national caveats that is ultimately at fault, and here the Germans are by no means solely to blame.

Speaking in March, ISAF commander Gen Dan McNeill said that he “would like the caveats to be eliminated”, claiming they were “frustrating in how they impinge upon my ability to properly plan, resource and prosecute effective military operations”. Unfortunately, there does not currently seem any realistic prospect that such wishes are likely to be fulfilled.

Read the full Der Spiegel article here.

[Der Spiegel]
Der Spiegel

Insurgency, the Media and the Propaganda of the Deed

8 May, 2008

IRG member Neville Bolt, who is completing a PhD on the Propaganda of the Deed in the War Studies department at King’s, has added the following to the debate regarding the role played by the media in facilitating insurgent exploitation of the POTD strategy, and the difficult question of how best to respond.

NB: To read John Mackinlay’s original post, criticising the role played by the media in accentuating the propaganda effect of insurgent operations such as the recent Taliban attack on Karzai and the Parade in Kabul, click here. To read the perspective of BBC editor Nick Walton, who edited the World Service’s coverage of the Taliban attack for the Newshour programme, click here.

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Lest we forget Alastair Campbell’s TV studio-offensive that led to the culling of BBC bosses over Iraq, I would make a plea on behalf of the media which walks a permanent tightrope between critical independence and government pressure. John Mackinlay’s article highlights the dilemma for all journalists and news organisations covering Afghanistan and other conflict spots. True, many reports could apply the kind of techniques John mentions, namely the BBC’s intros to Zimbabwe stories reminding viewers of the Corporation’s prohibition from working inside the country, or its exercising a sensitivity to safeguarding the interests of minors or rape victims. Perhaps that could be a useful contextual device to begin to explain what is happening in Afghanistan. But in the end I’m not sure what the public makes of riders saying the BBC is banned from Zimbabwe. In fact it all too often appears that the organisation is cynically attempting to promote the derring-do of its intrepid staff when they do go in. I suspect these riders wear a bit thin or actually go unnoticed by most viewers after a while. To add a studio interview on the back of each report is not realistic for reasons of time. Anyway I sense this might eventually bore the audience (remember news is both information and entertainment) or come across as some kind of propaganda, whose strings are being pulled by unseen hands.

I fully endorse John’s analysis that propaganda occupies the central role in Taliban military strategy, and more generally that postmodern insurgency asserts the primacy of POTD. However, we should not always presume journalistic myopia or misunderstanding, or indeed that every reporter or analyst should share our view. I haven’t spoken to Peter Taylor specifically about the absence of the POTD angle from his BBC2 ‘Age of Terror’ series. However he has offered to come in and address the Insurgency Research Group later this year. We should explore this line with him then.

Equally we need to remind ourselves that the media, even the British media, does not act homogeneously, that television, radio, press, and net do report according to different worldviews, and indeed from divergent political and corporate agendas. Within each of these strands of journalism, and in the larger press or broadcasting groups, there remains a reasonable diversity of opinion. And that’s healthy. Journalists may appear ‘feral’, they may hunt in packs, but that doesn’t mean the wolves see eye to eye. Although BBC News did not carry the Kabul story as POTD, the Economist (3/5/08), by contrast did. Their correspondent describes it as a Taliban ‘propaganda victory’, noting that such ‘spectaculars’ without requiring much logistical input, mould public opinion.

The Western counter-narrative has to live with a permanent dilemma. The Taliban and other insurgents will continue to piggy-back on Western (and non-Western) media outlets. Indeed they will do their best to control them, shaping campaigns within a strategy of ‘political marketing’, completely cognisant of the demands of what makes a ‘good story’. Why are we so surprised? After all, our own political parties and lobby groups do that to each other every hour of every day. However censoring footage from a Taliban ‘spectacular’, crosses the line in the sand. Moreover persuading news editors to remove the violent spectacle from a news compilation (one ingredient of a ‘good story’), and merely replacing it with talking heads recounting what they witnessed, offers a new take on the myth of Sysyphus. Media outlets already exercise discretion, periodically self-censorship. But even if these images were to be self-censored and removed from our screens, we know they will get out somehow from bystanders, non-Western news networks, NATO troops or Taliban propagandists. Consequently the damage to journalistic credibility, built on fair and truthful reporting, with Western domestic and foreign audiences and readerships, risks being even more far-reaching. It’s a dilemma.

What strikes and unsettles many non-Brits about UK media reporting of Zimbabwe, for example, is its unrelenting, hostile coverage of the Mugabe regime – albeit this reporting appears valid and justified to most who have visited that country. But interestingly this is not mirrored by most international broadcast networks. It just so happens that the British media’s approach to Zimbabwe coincides with UK Government policy towards Mugabe. Through their owners’ corporate agendas, public funding rounds or state licensing regulations, our media organisations already stand too close for comfort to government. I suspect John is not suggesting independent media now begin to promote government policies. That would be a dangerous road to go down. What I believe John is really looking for is not a rider, disclaimer or scene-setter on each report, but a fundamental process of re-education, a new way of interpreting and communicating events, so that all outrages and attacks are presented through this permanent prism of POTD. So it is in the conception of the story. That means the reporter at source should interpret events through a lens other than one of political economy, or military gains and setbacks. So perhaps what is needed is for groups like IRG to engage more with the journalistic community, and edge towards this elusive prism through a continuous process of argument and persuasion. The real work needs to be done off-air, not just on.

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Read More:

John Mackinlay:
The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

Nick Walton:
The Propaganda of the Deed: A Perspective from the Media

MountainRunner:
Afghanistan: Americans have the wristwatches, but who has the time?

[My] State Failure:
About an indirect approach to information operations

Registan:
Did the Taliban Master 19th Century Anarchist Theories While We Slept?

The Propaganda of the Deed: A Perspective from the Media

2 May, 2008

Following John Mackinlay’s earlier post regarding the media’s complicity in the use made by insurgents of the propaganda of the deed – which focused in particular on the coverage of the recent Taliban attack on the National Day parade in Afghanistan – the following response has been contributed by Nick Walton, who edited the Newshour programme on BBC World Service radio which covered the Taliban attack in depth.

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From the point of view of an informed layman, I understand and largely agree with your analysis of what happened, from the motives of those attacking, to the resultant images broadcast around the world without a caveat attached regarding POTD.

However, speaking as a journalist, things are a lot murkier! POTD is one layer of context (albeit a vital one) that allows us to understand an event such as this attack. Inevitably much of the context has to be stripped out on the day to day reporting of events such as attacks, actions etc…

For news programmes (with varying degrees of analysis) and other media, the first thing to do is to report what happened – in this case, for instance, we conducted an interview with an MP who was on the podium when it was attacked, along with sounds from TV footage to tell the story of what happened.

Some forms of media stop there. Newshour, for instance, has room to continue further, so we used an interview with our correspondent – the key question being asked was to be brought up to date with any reaction from both within Afghanistan and outside. This added more of the ‘what happened’, and allowed us to touch upon the analysis, although quite superficially. I gather that our focus was on the security-failures aspect of the attack.

We cannot bombard the listener with full analysis and context every time, so, on issues such as this, we generally try to visit certain areas of questioning to provide a narrative over time that helps people to understand or at least interpret what is happening. Tactics such as POTD fit in to this, but will not be brought up at every instance.

Other media, obviously, are less able to spend even the time that we spend – but that does not mean that they are not doing their job. For the six o’clock news, for instance, much of what they do is predicated on the assumption that for those who wish there are other sources that allow people to access the context and so on as appropriate.

One of those sources would be an in depth programme such as The Age of Terror – and I agree with your point regarding that series. But then I would never look to TV for anything too intelligent or subtle.

Ah, but the one thing that I have signally failed to address is why do the insurgents’ jobs for them by showing the attack at all (in particular without the context of the POTD)? On that count, why show, on the day that it happened, September 11th? Well news is sensation, news is things happening, news is stories with beginnings, middles and ends, that fit the medium. The attack made an interesting start to the programme – it was vastly more engaging than most other things happening on Sunday – and thanks to the TV sounds and the MP eye witness, it made engaging radio.

No one would seriously argue that it was not news – the motives involved are a consideration, but we cannot self censor an event such as this attack on the grounds that those carrying out the attack did it for the publicity. If Greenpeace dress up as rabbits and hold a protest to draw our attention to the rainforest, that’s not news for me – but if they gain publicity by means of a terrorist attack, I’m afraid it is (provided it is treated responsibly).

Obviously we need both awareness of any motives, and sensitivity while dealing with the material. This certainly does not happen, as there is very little understanding or awareness of such unfashionable military concepts in journalism these days (as there isn’t understanding of areas like economics or science – too many bloody English Lit graduates in journalism, if you ask me).

This is only a partial defence, and probably only a surface explanation of the media’s actions regarding Sunday’s attack. After all, I am only an accidental journalist, and mostly a reluctant one too. There is more to say, but a skimpy e-mail would not do it justice…

The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

29 April, 2008

The following post was contributed by IRG member, indeed IRG founder, John Mackinlay.

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On Sunday 27 April Taliban fighters attacked Afghanistan’s National Day parade with light mortars, RPGs and AK 47 fire. The firing started during the 21 gun salute at the climax of the parade and the presence of camera crews and reporters from every major TV station and international news agency ensured that the story and above all the images were instantly beamed across the world in several major languages in time to make the evening news. After the initial reactions, there has been no intelligent acknowledgement in the US and European print stories which followed on Monday that this attack is part of Taliban’s propaganda of the deed (POTD) campaign and the extent to which the media are its major propagating asset. Are our “defence correspondents” too shy to scrutinise their own indispensable part in the Taliban POTD strategy or genuinely unaware of their central role in post modern insurgency?

In his yet to be published paper “Hearts and Minds: Time to Think Differently” Steve Tatham (researching at UK’s Defence Academy) shows convincingly that Taliban moved to a much more sophisticated propaganda approach in 2006 when it became the “key component in their campaign”. It is also possible that Taliban were increasingly aware that their previous efforts fell far short of the expectations of a potential audience that was multilingual and routinely exposed to the best television products in the world and therefore educated and very demanding in a visual sense. This point is also made in Nicholas O’Shaughnessy and Paul Baines about to be published 2008 paper “British Muslim Susceptibility to Islamist Propaganda: An Exploratory Study”. According to Steve Tatham Taliban’s re-branding project began by sending a start up team as interns to Al Qaeda’s video production unit Al Sahab in 2006 and very soon afterwards in early 2007 their own production standards visibly improved. In April 2007 the new, media savvy Taliban began to promote themselves as “the people’s movement” thanks to a five part series screened by Al Jazeera and compiled by their credulously enthusiastic Pakistan reporter. In June 2007 images of a Taliban suicide bombers graduation ceremony augmented this new image of themselves on the internet and in June a spokesman announced that they were henceforth the “New Taliban”.

Seen in this context Taliban’s recent attacks in Kabul (in January at the Serena Hotel and yesterday at the National Day parade) should be considered by our defence reporters with greater rigour as part of a new and highly sophisticated POTD campaign in which they themselves are a key factor. It is unlikely that the National Day attack was conceived as just another event in a series of random bang – bang attacks, which is how it has been reported. Had Karzai’s parade gone according to plan there would be no images of Sunday’s National Day ceremony now appearing on any of the international channels or newspapers. A burst of small arms fire and a few mortar bombs transformed it into a much more sensational event for the press who with steadfast incomprehension have filed exactly the images and moments that the Taliban’s own propaganda manager would have chosen himself. By doing so they boost up a global interest in the particular aspects of its disgrace, the sense of pantomime, the rout of be-medalled parade soldiers scampering across the parade square before the Taliban fire and worst of all rows of dignitaries diving for cover behind their seats on the flag decked parade stand. Thanks to the media all that remains of this tragic day are these relentlessly unforgiving and unqualified images.

The incident on Sunday demonstrates a classic propaganda of the deed partnership in which the insurgents with growing skill select a media-significant target and with witless incomprehension international reporters beam the most sensationally damning images of the event around the world so as to deliver the worst possible interpretation. There is no need for a Taliban subtext or even a photo caption, the images speak powerfully for themselves sending messages of a stricken regime put to flight in their gilded uniforms by the daring fighters of the Taliban.

The failure of frontline reporters to understand their role in a POTD campaign is emphasised in BBC 2’s flagship series on terrorist attacks “The Age of Terror”. In it Peter Taylor, who has been reporting on terrorism for 30 years makes a “thoughtful and intelligent examination” of the Palestinian hijack to Entebbe and the PIRA bomb at Enniskillen. But in both programmes so far his cameras dwell endlessly on the kinetic details of the attacks and at no time does he explain the two campaigns in terms of their significance in the evolution of insurgency. In particular the fact that neither attack had any military or tactical significance and that to succeed as part of a nascent POTD campaign their respective stories and images had to reach the outside world via the media, and that the assumption that the media would was central to the operational concept in each case. Taylor seems to view the attacks from a moral island without appearing to understand the concept that was being played out and above all that the media were part of the problem.

In the media’s defence it could be argued that on Sunday in simple, unqualified descriptive terms they showed what took place, and how are we to trust them if they withheld images and stories so that a different account emerges? However newspapers and TV stations have always been biased towards an editorial perspective or a particular audience. They also impose restrictions on themselves for apparently honourable reasons – to protect the privacy of children, rape victims, Prince Harry’s military service and caveats on impending military and police operations. The BBC routinely prefaces its news from Zimbabwe with the notice that their reporters are banned from that country. Why not therefore include in this category of honourable exceptions a constant qualification and declaration of their status in the reporting of a post-modern insurgency in which the POTD motive is central to every attack? Why not explain the propaganda context of their images or better still embargo the use of all images when reporting a sensational terrorist incident, including the endless resuscitation of images of previous attacks? But short-termism and golden–goose-egg syndrome ensure that no ambitious editor will forgo immediate profit to prevent the emergence of a regime in which their own function would be banned.

Defending Stalemate

27 April, 2008

In an earlier post on this blog, entitled The Impregnable Force: A Case for Stalemate in Iraq, Jeff Michaels proposed a ‘stalemate strategy’ as an alternative to current counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Following comments from David Ucko and Stéphane Taillat, Jeff has composed the following response.

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I hope you don’t mind, but for brevity sake I’d like to respond to both David’s and Stephane’s comments in a single response of my own. I must warn you that I will take a somewhat long-winded way of explaining the logic behind the stalemate strategy, but in the process, hopefully respond to all of their points.

1. One of the problems of offering a ‘radical’ take on any given subject is its shock value. In this particular case, to suggest that an approach other than the counter-insurgency type currently being employed in Iraq under Petraeus might be better for US national security in the long-term, definitely seems to go against the ‘dominant discourse’ of the day.

However, please consider this. Iraq does not constitute the only mission for the US armed forces. Nor does Afghanistan. That being said, too many counterinsurgency advocates look at a conflict such as Iraq and immediately see COIN as the ‘only’ strategy, without recognizing the broader context of these conflicts.

2. By contrast, an alternative grand strategy-based outlook must examine the long-term gains versus losses of maintaining the current approach, and compare these with other options.

This outlook mimics in a somewhat analogous way the view of a certain group of Vietnam dissenters (mostly military officers) who objected to US military involvement there, not for any moral reasons, but rather because they challenged the assumption that Vietnam was a critical battleground in the broader Cold War. Instead, they saw Europe as the central battleground, and viewed Vietnam as a sideshow that was consuming a disproportionate amount of national resources.

Obviously, the Vietnam/Cold War and Iraq/Global War on Terror are not entirely analogous. On the other hand, in both cases, the conflicts have been linked to broader struggles, at least within US political discourse. Iraq is purported to be the ‘central front in the GWOT’ and this mantra is used to justify the disproportionately large US military presence there versus Afghanistan, the Philippines, Horn of Africa, etc., which are presumably viewed as ‘lesser fronts’.

3. It is worthwhile considering for a moment the resources devoted to Iraq in relation to the broader GWOT. Why is it that Iraq requires 140,000+ troops, Afghanistan 30,000, Horn of Africa 1,500, and so forth? Is the US choosing its approach to the conflict because it is the ‘ideal’ approach, or because the approach is defined by the amount of resources available?

To put it bluntly, I would argue the fact that following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the US actually had hundreds of thousands of troops in the area, that this was the most important factor determining America’s subsequent approach to the conflict. In other words, had the US only had 30,000 troops in theater at the time, the US would have had to decide whether to massively increase the force level in order to wage a counterinsurgency campaign, or to keep its military presence at that level and choose an alternative strategy to deal with the problem.

The real issue here is that there are always different ways of doing things. The basis for the stalemate strategy rests on the assumption that US military resources are limited, and therefore present force levels in Iraq cannot be sustained indefinitely. In this case, keeping in mind that US forces in Iraq are bound to decline in number over time, what options are available?

The option many COIN advocates seem to push for, is to keep force levels at their maximum for as long as possible, until conditions have improved to the point where withdrawals can be justified. There are several faults in this logic.

Firstly, there is the assumption that once Iraqi forces are deemed capable of taking over security, thereby allowing US forces to leave, that this will increase the likelihood of stability. Secondly, is the belief that there actually can be ‘stability’. Thirdly, it presumes Washington would be able to recognize ‘stability’, or define it in terms that would allow for troops to be withdrawn? Fourthly, and perhaps most important, is that it ignores the fact there are many groups interested in, and capable of, maintaining a low-level of violence indefinitely.

Indeed, many COIN experts are well aware that it is usually, if not always, the insurgents that control the rate of attrition. As such, looking at the cost-benefit calculus of groups that wish to keep Iraq unstable and to ensure the US overstretches itself (I would include Tehran amongst these), how much effort on their part is required to ensure the US keeps itself committed at its current level until it exhausts itself. I would say this would not require very much effort at all. Even if violence was reduced by 90% but sustained indefinitely, would the US declare ‘victory’? Or would the prospect of the violence increasing again force the US to wage counterinsurgency indefinitely as well?

4. The stalemate strategy has been developed precisely to counter the notion that violence in Iraq will ever be eradicated or reduced to a ‘manageable level’. Instead, it assumes that low-level violence has the prospect of continuing indefinitely, that this violence in all likelihood has the prospect of escalating again, and that US military intervention can at best play only a limited role in containing the multitude of crises involving a multitude of actors.

The question for US policymakers is not whether a stable Iraq is possible. Even in the best case scenario in which stability emerges, will it be a stability that is beneficial for US interests? For instance, would the US gain anything from a stable Iraq that is run predominantly by pro-Iranian Shiites? Is such a rosy scenario worth the ‘three trillion dollars’ in expense and ‘breaking’ the army? Best-case scenarios are not the most likely ones, and without suggesting that worst-case scenarios of civil war are the likeliest either, the reality will probably be somewhere in between.

5. In the meantime, there seems to be no consensus amongst US policymakers about what they believe can actually be achieved in Iraq, nor about what the long-term US interest is. Instead of knowing what they want, most policymakers can at least agree about what they don’t want. Quite simply put, they don’t want to lose, they don’t want to be seen to lose, they don’t want to overextend the military, they don’t want to risk heavy casualties, they don’t want to break the bank, they don’t want Iraq to be the next Afghanistan, and they don’t want Iran to emerge as a winner.

As such, rather than develop strategies to achieve best case, yet highly unrealistic outcomes, it seems much wiser to develop a strategy that achieves the minimum requirements of policymakers. The stalemate strategy is intended to achieve precisely this.

6. Rather than overextend US forces indefinitely, hoping that elections will bring to power virtuous Iraqi leaders who are capable of reversing Iraq’s sinking fortune, a prospect that not only does not exist, but even if it did, it would take many years to accomplish, it would be at risk from any number of potential catastrophes, it would be opposed by all those groups that stand to lose out, and incidentally it would require a heavy US military presence during this entire process.

As much as I would like to have faith in the Iraqi electorate, Iraq’s politicians, and Iraq’s civil service, I’m not entirely sure history provides any grounds for optimism. It is certainly not the sort of optimism that I would base a strategy on. This is not to denigrate the Iraqis per se; I’d assume it would take US and British civil servants faced with the same circumstances many years to begin making real progress as well. To suggest that elections may provide a ‘real turning point’ seems to be the same sort of false expectation that existed prior to the last elections. As to whether or not elections would be held, or could be held effectively, without a massive troop presence on the ground providing security on election day, one would hope that the Iraqi security forces can turn out in full force and provide an adequate level of protection.

7. Waiting for the Iraqi political and administrative system to reform itself runs completely counter to reaching the set of minimum requirements mentioned earlier. In the meantime, US forces are focusing on managing low-levels of violence that seem to remain low-levels of violence year in and year out. As the years go by with few results to show for all the effort, the army becomes frustrated and the US public becomes restless. At some stage, something will have to give.

It is my contention that the longer US forces remain in Iraq at the present levels, the more likely there will be calls for ‘total’ withdrawal. However, if the forces can be reduced significantly, with a corresponding drop in financial cost, the minimum requirements can still be met, and the American public will more likely support an indefinite military commitment. In other words, the more steep the drawdown, the longer it can be sustained.

8. As mentioned in the article, the US drawdown should be based around the concept of an impregnable force that is based around a division headquarters as its main operational component, rather than the present day corps headquarters. The purpose of the force would not be to take part in countering low-level violence; instead it would act to ensure the long-term survival of the Iraqi state, to include protecting the center of administration.

Maintaining the Green Zone maintains the Iraqi state, or at least the illusion of the Iraqi state. Even under the best of circumstances, the Iraqi government based in the Green Zone has only a marginal impact on the day-to-day running of the country. However, despite the limitations of their actual power, they still constitute a legitimate government, and one that still has far greater capabilities than any other group that could threaten to overthrow it.

With a secure base, the Iraqi government can gradually assert control, or at least grant limited sovereignty to parts of the country until such time as the power of the federal government has strengthened to the point where the balance of power is in their favor.

9. In the event of civil war, or heightened levels of sectarian violence, it is unclear what role either the Americans or the Iraqi government would play, except perhaps to stand aside, or support various factions. Under the present counterinsurgency strategy, there is no way to guarantee that civil war won’t occur, particularly once US troop numbers drop below pre-surge levels.

Likewise, there is no guarantee that a civil war will occur if the US opts for the stalemate strategy. The risk of civil war hangs over Iraq no matter which strategy is chosen. That being said, the US military is not supposed to be in the business of stopping an Iraqi civil war. Again, this is why it is important for the US to remain on the sidelines. No matter which group emerges they will ultimately have to deal with the US. Meantime, maintaining the impregnable force in Iraq would serve to dissuade any Iranian attempt to overtly intervene in the conflict.

10. There is no question the current Iraqi government is ‘far from sacrosanct’. Indeed, this makes any defense of COIN all the harder to justify. How can COIN possibly work if the Iraqi government is such a shambles? How on earth can we tell Iraqis to support a government that we have no faith in ourselves?

The stalemate strategy has no great expectations as far as the Iraqi government is concerned, and is not reliant on this government to improve life for ordinary Iraqis. The US interest in the Iraqi government would be limited to ensuring the Iraqi government continues its support of the US presence.

To clarify this Catch-22 situation, it is necessary to refer back to the minimum requirements. For the US, not being defeated, or seen to have been defeated, is a paramount concern for numerous reasons to include its positive impact on Al Qaeda propaganda, lowering of US public and military morale (the Vietnam syndrome), etc. The best way to avoid defeat is to remain in Iraq, and the only way to remain legitimately in Iraq is to have the support of the Iraqi government.

As such, the impregnable force becomes the guarantor of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi government becomes the guarantor of the US presence. The main purpose of the US presence will have little to do with domestic Iraqi politics except as it relates to the presence itself. As mentioned in the article, because the Iraqis cannot force the US out of Iraq by military means, they can only do so by legislative means. Thus, the US can work to ensure the various factions that constitute the Iraqi legislature do not develop a consensus aimed at removing the US presence.

11. Maintaining the US military presence will not be an end purely in itself, but will give added teeth to enhanced diplomatic and covert efforts, and also provide a reliable staging post should US forces be required for any other regional contingencies. The US should not employ its military forces on direct action missions against low-level adversaries.

Defining the enemy is no easy task as has already been alluded to. The names have changed over time, and different groups have different motivations. The key point that needs to be emphasized is that the only enemy that will potentially be a target for US forces is whatever adversary emerges that challenges to overthrow the state. In other words, the various insurgent groups, to include Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), will not feature on an enemies list for the US military. These groups are too small to merit a massive military campaign aimed at eradicating them.

Instead, the Iraqis (both government and non-government) can take the lead, but supported with US funding, training, and arms; in other words, all means short of direct military intervention. An important goal of US efforts will be to ensure no group gains too much power at the expense of the central government or develops capabilities that could threaten the overthrow of the central government.

12. Should any group emerge as a potential challenger to the state, it is inevitable they will have to mass in which case they will be vulnerable to superior US firepower. Likewise, groups that intend to control territory must have armed forces to defend it. In the recent case of Basra, Mahdi Army militiamen were out in force. Had the Iraqi government forces been better armed and led, they would most likely have inflicted very severe blows on the Mahdi Army, certainly to the extent that it would have severely degraded their capabilities.

The notion behind using heavy firepower is not one that is limited to the stalemate strategy. Indeed, it should be remembered that under Petraeus’s command, the US Air Force has employed B-1B bombers dropping heavy ordnance against reported Al Qaeda sanctuaries. The key difference between the two approaches is that whereas Petraeus has been content to employ heavy ordnance to counter low-level violence, a stalemate strategy would limit use of heavy ordnance only to those cases where the enemy had massed in significant strength and could not be dealt with by other means.

13. The acquisition of intelligence will not be significantly hindered by adopting a stalemate strategy for the fundamental reason that the nature of the intelligence required to aid commanders will undergo a significant shift. The requirements of intelligence in a counterinsurgency are considerably different from those in a stalemate strategy.

For instance, due to the fact they would no longer be carrying out raids, US forces would no longer need to acquire such detailed intelligence on the whereabouts of insurgents living in a unit’s area of responsibility. Intelligence collection would be directed away from providing tactical intelligence and concerned more with strategic warning. Needless to say, HUMINT is just one means of collecting intelligence, and after 5 years of occupation, I am pretty certain the US intelligence system will not come crashing down over night.

14. When conceptualizing what a stalemate strategy would look like in practice, it is necessary to dispense with many of the preconceptions of counterinsurgency. As was mentioned in the article, the goal of stalemate isn’t to win; merely not to lose. This distinction is more than mere semantics. It reflects on an entirely different mindset and strategic approach, and this has operational consequences.

As such, there is no need to achieve ‘momentum and initiative’ for the purpose of ‘winning’, since ‘winning’ is not the objective. Nor is there a need to engage with the populace at the lowest levels. Indeed, apart from the Green Zone, the further away American forces are from the Iraqi populace the better. Engaging with Iraq’s political elites should suffice, and this will be more a function of the State Department and CIA than it will be for the US military.

15. Iraq is not a ‘total war’ for the US. It may be a ‘total war’ for the Iraqis, but US interest in Iraq must be viewed in a broader superpower framework of national security priorities. The counterinsurgency approach in Iraq compromises US security elsewhere.

This is a crucial point. With the bulk of the army committed to Iraq, it is not available for contingencies elsewhere. As a result, all other ‘crises’ become lesser crises, simply due to the fact there are less resources to deal with them. Thus, the ‘war’ in Afghanistan gets less attention from policymakers, and fewer resources devoted to it.

The current counterinsurgency approach in Iraq is unsustainable, and some sort of strategic shift in policy is probably inevitable. This is not to say that COIN is necessarily bad, or that it couldn’t work given time. However, at this particular moment in time, and projecting forward, it is more harmful than helpful. By contrast, the stalemate strategy offers a better chance to bring the US military commitment in Iraq more in line with national priorities, while ensuring that its minimum requirements are met.

An Impregnable Force? A Response by David Ucko

25 April, 2008

The following post, by IRG member David Ucko, offers a response to Jeff Michaels’ earlier post ‘The Impregnable Force: A Case For Stalemate in Iraq’, and has been promoted from the Comments section of that post.

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Jeff, you are a good friend and I often agree with you. This time however, I think you are – well – almost entirely mistaken. In the spirit of fostering debate, let me quickly go over a few problems I had with your argument.

First, I do not think that the approach you suggest in this piece is either feasible or advisable. Your suggested strategy would perhaps be OK if the goal of the exercise was to secure the Green Zone. If we are OK with that plan, of course we would need to change strategy. But I don’t think that protecting the Green Zone would constitute any sort of victory (or absence of defeat), nor would it be sustainable in a country falling back into civil war.

You also seem to suggest that your approach would protect the Iraqi ‘state’, or government, and therefore constitute some sort of victory (by not letting it be overthrown). There are many problems with that assumption. The current government in Iraq is itself far from sacrosanct and I do not think that the US military should or would like to lean on it indefinitely as the answer and manifestation of all things ‘good’ about Iraq. In fact, the ‘government’ – fragmented and intensely identity-driven – has itself been responsible for some of instability, denial of services, deep mistrust that we see in Iraq today. Simply protecting it in the name of ‘having a government’ won’t do, unless you favour endless ethnic violence and cleansing, the type of instability that could just as well be achieved by a complete withdrawal.

This leads to the nature of the current strategy, which I think you mischaracterise, leading to a poor diagnosis. There is much more to the current strategy than gaining hearts and minds on the local level, though this – in a way – is an important part of it (though I wouldn’t characterise it like that). Another major component would be achieving greater buy-in in the political system or central regime, by encouraging peaceful political participation, by integrating tribal fighters into and also reforming the Iraqi security forces. Put differently, as I understand it, the US military is pursuing a top-down process of reform by deterring obstructionist elements, promoting legislation to be passed, professionalising and expanding the membership of the Iraqi security forces, etc., while also achieving local ceasefires from the bottom-up, providing – in aggregate – the security situation and, ideally, buy-in necessary for the top-down reform to take place. The real turning-point for this process will be the provincial elections in October 2008 and the national elections the year after.

Now, I do agree with you that the characterisation of the enemy has at times been confused. Having said that, many of the groups you list, seemingly as interchangeable, can and should in fact be isolated for the purposes of analysis and policy. They have their own motives, origins, etc. Furthermore, the terms you list span the duration of the campaign, from 2003 to now. Better to focus on the particular groups active in one area. In correspondence with a brigade commander who was active in Iraq in 2006, he provided a precise break-down of the groups he needed to address. It was informed by local intelligence and close familiarity and recognised the multitude of distinct but sometimes overlapping motivations for resistance.

Taking this one step forward, you seem to assume that the ‘enemy’ – which for your criticism of the US characterisation, you yourself have not defined – that the enemy’s conception of victory is overthrowing the state. That may not be the case: resource exploitation, local territorial control, or just fostering instability are as, if not more, likely motives. A narrow protection of the Green Zone would therefore bring about a situation similar to 2004-06, when the US military leadership in Iraq by and large favoured FOBs and Iraq experienced rising periodic attacks, ethnic violence, leading to civil war. As I have said before, that outcome can be achieved simply by withdrawing.

And even if the Iraqi state’s survival could be guaranteed through your approach, without any capacity, which the Iraqi state would struggle to maintain without active US support, isn’t the Iraqi ‘state’ just a hollow shell anyway? Then what’s the point of defending it against those who threaten to ‘overthrow’ it…? And how would it be defended? The US can go in heavy but where has this ever truly worked. And why would any ‘enemy’ worth his salt mass for the sake of our JDAMs. The effective use of force in Iraq will always require intelligence and precision and if you think about how intelligence is gained and precision is achieved, you realise that you must return to the ‘dispersal of troops in urban centres’ that you deride in your piece…. Call it counterinsurgency, call it whatever you want, but launching heavy operations from a fortified base simply won’t substitute – in effectiveness – for the understanding, access and relations built up through the on-the-ground, population-centred approach now put in effect.

A final problem with your approach is elections. I assume that you would still want elections to take place. Yet if the Green Zone is an island of tranquillity in a country undergoing civil war, how would those elections be organised and, as important, who would they bring to power, assuming they could be held in the first place?

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Read Jeff Michaels’ original post here.


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