Archive for the ‘Opinions & Queries’ Category

The Impregnable Force: A Case for Stalemate in Iraq

24 April, 2008

The following post was contributed by IRG member Jeff Michaels, and offers a radical and controversial take on the current counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.


The US military’s ability to bring heavy firepower to bear in Iraq offers the best means to maintain a favorable balance of power in the long-term. A US policy that reflects this view provides the most effective way of reducing force levels while retaining leverage over the many competing interest groups who seek to challenge the integrity of the state. Rather than continue adhering to the goal of defeating or degrading US adversaries in Iraq, a new approach could aim to achieve a stalemate. In other words, the strategic emphasis would shift from offense to defense, and place the onus of victory on the enemy. The goal of a stalemate strategy would be to ensure the inability of a third party to take over the Iraqi state. As such, the definition of victory would be limited to avoidance of defeat. The definition of defeat would be the forced removal of the US from Iraq, or even a voluntary decision to withdraw, which would in any case be portrayed as being forced out.

This approach contrasts sharply with the current unsustainable counterinsurgency strategy; a strategy that aims to maximize security gains at the local level and win ‘hearts and minds’. For the last five years, the adversaries in the US-led occupation have been what can best be described as ‘flavor-of-the-month’ enemies. The labels US forces have applied to them have shifted regularly over time, and include: ‘dead-enders’, ‘former regime elements’, ‘Al-Qaeda’, ‘illegal armed groups’, ‘special groups’, and so forth. The primary problem with the constant change of terminology has been to entrench within American discourse the perception that the main adversaries that must be confronted are a combination of perpetrators of low-level violence, as well as groups that wish to maintain dominance of their turf rather than cede it to government control. This has had the effect of elevating the importance of these adversaries into a significant threat, instead of the nuisance they actually constitute. Consequently, the US military has been jumping from one hot spot to the next and from one adversary to the next, with little or no conception of what purpose they are serving, other than as local firemen putting out very small fires. It would seem a paradigm shift away from counterinsurgency is long overdue. Such a shift should inform, and be informed by, a revised set of political objectives.

An alternative concept would have the US avoid intervention in cases where it would be countering low-level violence. Unlike the current approach that relies on dispersing forces in cities throughout Iraq, a new strategy should emphasize concentrating US strength outside the main urban centers, thereby allowing a reduction of forces to the point where a division-plus base level commitment can be sustained indefinitely. One of the key benefits this ‘stalemate option’ provides is to give the US the advantage of time; an advantage the enemy currently holds.

Under this new strategy, the US military would remain committed to supporting Iraq’s government, but would limit future interventions only to those cases where the balance of power had shifted away from the government. In other words, any direct action would be limited to countering those groups having the capability to overthrow the state itself. As such, groups with limited capabilities, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), would no longer be a focus for the US forces. This approach would accept the strategic reality that the US has the heaviest firepower, and that groups such as AQI cannot dislodge US forces from Iraq by force. Within the Green Zone, and on their large bases throughout Iraq, the US military constitutes an impregnable force. No other armed force has the firepower of the Americans, and a new US strategy should stress this comparative advantage.

Since 2003, US adversaries have fought on the strategic defensive, even if they have occasionally engaged in tactical offensive operations. However, in every instance when confronted with US heavy firepower, the adversaries disengage from the fight. This firepower advantage guarantees that adversaries must limit their methods to ‘asymmetric’ means. Advocates of the counterinsurgency approach have traditionally argued this reflects a US weakness rather than an enemy one, and is the primary reason they use to justify restructuring US forces to fight this low-intensity type of war. However, if the US chooses to limit its political objective to denying victory to its adversaries, there is no reason to fight the war on enemy terms. Instead, the US can ensure any group attempting to seize power must ultimately fight on American terms.

There are only a limited number of ways US forces will be removed from Iraq. Whether it is political opposition to the war, fiscal strain, armed forces overstretch, or a combination of these that contributes to withdrawing US forces, this will be a decision made in Washington. The only power the Iraqis potentially have to evict US forces is to legislate them out. By contrast, as long as US forces maintain local firepower superiority, they remain a force to be reckoned with, no matter who takes power. It should be remembered that yesterday’s ‘insurgents’ are today’s ‘Sons of Iraq’. US strategy should reflect the reality that employing the US military to take direct action against adversaries is an option rather than a necessity. There are almost always indirect means available that can be employed to ensure a lack of unity amongst the various groups vying for power. At the end of the day, America’s most important long-term objective is to sustain a favorable balance of power, preferably at a far lesser cost in terms of blood and treasure. Such an approach ensures the US ability to deny perceived victory to both Al Qaeda and Iran, avoids the consequences of defeat, and significantly reduces the strain on the US armed forces. The term ‘stalemate’ may be considered a dirty one, but the time has come to dispense with any pretensions of ‘victory’, and not let false expectations serve as an alternative to sound strategy.


The Taliban, Executions & the UN

21 April, 2008

Reuters ran a story yesterday that caught my eye. It seems the Taliban have appealed to the UN, the EU, and just about anyone else who will listen, to place pressure on President Karzai in order to try and prevent him from approving the execution of around 100 (mainly Taliban) prisoners whose death sentences have recently been approved by the Afghan supreme court.

A statement on their web site read:

“We … demand the UN, the European Union, Red Cross and human rights organisations to take quick steps for stopping this barbaric act and stop the killing of innocent prisoners.”

While not personally in favour of the death penalty, my first reaction was a certain wry amusement that the Taliban – who are not exactly known for their liberal sentiments, or for their sense of restraint when it comes to executing criminals or prisoners of war – should take such a moral stance against “this barbaric act”.

However, beyond the apparent hypocrisy, this story is also of interest on another level. Irrespective of the content of the Taliban’s complaint, the actual appeal to the UN itself is highly significant.

A central and non-negotiable tenet of radical Islamist groups, from the Al-Qaeda nexus through to legal entities such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), is a rejection of all ‘man-made’ rules and organisations – particularly democracy, and its globalised embodiment, the UN – which are seen by the Salafists as rivals to the word of God, as dictated in the Qur’an.

This position is set forth by one of the most influential jihadi ideologues, Abu Muhammad ‘Aasim al-Maqdisi, in his treatise Democracy: A Religion! [PDF]. Similarly, Article 186 of the draft HT constitution reads: “The State is forbidden to belong to any organisation that is based on something other than Islam or which applies non-Islamic rules”.

As such, while it may seem a small matter, the Taliban’s appeal to the UN, which in and of itself is a de facto recognition of the UN’s authority, clearly distinguishes it from groups such as Al-Qaeda and HT, who on point of principle would never appeal to the UN under any circumstances. Taken in isolation this might not be regarded as significant, however, as has been detailed in earlier posts on this blog, it is symptomatic of an emerging cleavage between the Taliban – whose goals are essentially local – and Al-Qaeda type groups, whose goals are more disembodied and transnational.

Iraqi IDPs, COIN & ‘Competition in Government’

16 April, 2008

In his 1966 classic, The Long, Long War: Counterinsurgency in Malaya and Vietnam, British soldier and academic Richard Clutterbuck described the battle between the insurgent and the counterinsurgent as essentially ‘a competition in government’, echoing the analysis of Lt General Sir Harold Briggs, the predecessor of the more celebrated British commander in Malaya, Sir Gerald Templer.

It is in this light that the findings of a report entitled Uprooted and Unstable: Meeting Urgent Humanitarian Needs in Iraq [PDF], produced by Refugees International, should be interpreted.

Five years after the US-led invasion, Iraq remains a deeply violent and divided society. Faced with one of the largest displacement and humanitarian crises in the world, Iraqi civilians are in urgent need of assistance. Particularly vulnerable are the 2.7 million internally displaced Iraqis who have fled their homes for safer locations inside Iraq. Unable to access their food rations and often unemployed, they live in squalid conditions, have run out of resources and find it extremely difficult to access essential services. The US , the government of Iraq and the international community must begin to address the consequences of leaving Iraqis’ humanitarian needs unmet.

As a result of the vacuum created by the failure of both the Iraqi Government and the international community to act in a timely and adequate manner, non-state actors play a major role in providing assistance to vulnerable Iraqis. Militias of all denominations are improving their local base of support by providing social services in the neighborhoods and towns they control. Through a “Hezbollah-like” scheme, the Shiite Sadrist movement has established itself as the main service provider in the country. Similarly, other Shiite and Sunni groups are gaining ground and support through the delivery of food, oil, electricity, clothes and money to the civilians living in their fiefdoms. Not only do these militias now have a quasi-monopoly in the large-scale provision of assistance in Iraq, they are also recruiting an increasing number of civilians to their militias – including displaced Iraqis.

The way in which Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza, gained local legitimacy and a comparatively broad constituency through the provision of welfare services that a dysfunctional state apparatus was unable to provide is well-known. In the face of both military pressure and political manoeuvring from the Maliki government, Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to pursue a similar strategy is therefore a smart move, and plays to the Sadrists’ strengths – namely, their identification and affiliation with the urban Shia working classes.

If the emerging cleavage between the central government and the various local factions that exist within the country is not to worsen, it is therefore vital that the Iraqi state retakes the initiative and begins visibly addressing welfare issues such as those posed by internally displaced people (IDPs). While the Refugees International report is right in arguing that the international community should be addressing this, it is critical that welfare measures are widely seen as resulting from Iraqi government initiatives, rather than international aid, if the central state is to win the competition in government with the militias.

Helping the Iraqi state address the IDP issue is important for another reason too. As described in the NPR report linked to below, a consequence of their usually violent displacement is the fact that the Shia and Sunni IDPs gravitating towards the various militias – whether al-Sadr’s Jaish al Mahdi [Mahdi Army] or the Awakening movements – are commonly more radical in their outlook, less sensitive to the concerns of the local communities in which they find themselves, and less open to compromise and reconciliation than their non-IDP peers.

While there are all kinds of reasons not to force through a hurried return of IDPs to their original communities, some of which are elaborated upon in the Refugees International report, if we wish to prevent these IDPs becoming spoilers of any future political settlement, or footsoldiers for any aspiring rabble-rouser, they must not be left in limbo with their grievances unaddressed. The danger of failing to resolve the plight of such IDPs is well-illustrated throughout the Caucasus, where IDP populations, such as the Georgians displaced from the separatist Abkhazia region, are a radicalising force and a critical obstacle to the resolution of several ‘frozen conflicts’ left over from the early 90s.

Read more:

Displaced Iraqis Turn to Militias for Help [Audio] – Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR

Iraqi Militias Offering Aid To Displaced – Walter Pincus, Washington Post

AEI will spin this one as a triumph of American-style limited government – Abu Muqawama

China, Tibet, the Olympic Games and Proto-Insurgency

10 April, 2008

First, I should get something off my chest. I hate the Olympics–I always have but it gets worse with each iteration of the ‘best Olympics ever’. The false bonhomie and brotherhood of nations in friendly competition crapola, the dreadful opening ceremonies featuring synchronized flag-waving and other pseudo-mythic symbolism so beloved by dictators through the ages, ‘amateur’ athletes doped to the eyeballs, and all run by the International Olympic Commission–an organization so corrupt it could probably offer master classes in corruption to officials from places like Myanmar or Somalia. The Games should not have gone to Beijing (that they did is proof of point that the Olympic Games in practice are a travesty of the ideals which they purport to represent). So I agree more or less with the main sentiment of this editorial May the Torch be Harassed (the caveat being that the author thinks that they ought to have gone to Toronto instead; I hate Toronto too but not so much that I’d wish to inflict the Olympic Games on the place).

But I’ve a more serious interest in the Tibet-China-Olympic Games story. If you are interested in contemporary insurgency you should be interested too. For I would suggest that what we are seeing here is that most interesting of academic cases to study: a proto- or almost-insurgency. Whether, why and how it becomes a full-blown insurgency (or not, as the case may be) is something of great interest. In common with other groups, Tibetans are using some of the cutting edge techniques of post-modern insurgency. These include virtual networks involving a diaspora, alliances with other groups with similar or related aims, global connectivity, and a really rather sophisticated and effective propaganda campaign. There is also a strong religious dimension. This is already a pretty rich stew; what’s missing is a final spicy ingredient.

That ingredient is violence. I’m not ignoring or explaining away the recent riots in Lhasa. Those seem to me to have been a spontaneous outpouring of rage not the organized instrumental use of violence for political ends. (There’s still not enough known about the riots, their cause, extent, and leadership to judge, in my view). There would seem to be more than a passing similarity here to the outbreak in December 1987 of the first Palestinian Intifada which, if not altogether spontaneous, nonetheless caught both the Israelis and the major Palestinian resistance movements off-guard. In other words, Tibetan ‘resistance’ may be on the verge of the biggest strategic decision that any non-state actor seeking a change in the status quo must ultimately face: whether to add violence to its repertoire or not.

It bears emphasizing that most non-state actors do not choose to adopt violent means and there are good reasons why they should not. For one thing, non-violence has quite a good record of success. For proof of this see Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s rather fine book A Force More Powerful. For another thing there is in almost all cultures a strong taboo against the use of violence. This taboo is evident in various dimensions: Legal (violence is criminal in pretty much every society which has bothered with even a rudimentary code of law); Political (the notion that states hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of force is a powerful norm); Social (violent individuals are generally socially excluded); and, religious (most religious beliefs embody some moral injunctions against violence). Additionally, non-violence is attractive to non-state groups as a technique because it is less likely to expose the group to a violent state response. In plain terms, non-violent resistors are less likely to be killed or incarcerated for long periods. Nonetheless, the taboo against violence may be weakened or overridden by other considerations almost all of which exist to a greater or lesser degree with respect to Tibetans:

  • Political and legal norms may be weak or lack legitimacy, especially in a failing or corrupt regime. Whether or not the Chinese Communist Party constitutes a failing regime is a question for another day; what should not be in dispute is its corruption and its deficit of legitimacy.
  • Social norms may become more accepting of the use of violence to settle disputes, and religious norms may be ineffectual or reinterpreted to allow violence under specific conditions. Insofar as the Dalai Lama commands what Tibetan Buddhists regard as the norm regarding the use of violence we can say that this dimension of the taboo still holds. See: Why the Dalai Lama Might Quit. Nonetheless, there is good reason to ask how long this might remain the case –not so much that the Dalai Lama will change his mind but that activists will decide that his opinion on the matter should not rule.
  • The group’s ideology may portray its adversary as an existential threat and thus a legitimate target of violence in the name of self-defence and political/social justice. Here too it seems to me this is an area where the taboo against violence is being eroded. Tibetans, and many non-Tibetans, do view China as an existential threat to that country through a process of cultural, linguistic and economic assimilation hastened by the mass , government-sponsored migration of Han Chinese. See: BBC Inside Tibet click on the ‘Cultural Shift’ tab.

And there are other incentives for the use of violence which probably apply:

  • It may be seen as the only viable option against an authoritarian regime (check)
  • It is more attractive if the state is weak or failing (probably no check)
  • or if the group is unable to mobilize the general population to mass protest which is the hallmark of non-violent resistance (check, cf Tiananmen Square 4 June 1989)
  • It may be seen as necessary and proportionate if the state is already using violence at a low or high level (check).
  • And finally, violence will be chosen where it is seen to have been effective

On the last, watch and wait.

Endnote: My thinking on these things is strongly influenced by a PhD student in the department, Jeni Mitchell, who is working on strategies of violence in non-state actors. You might not have heard of her yet. In a couple of years when she gets her thesis done you will.

US Army: To be or not to be… (relevant to actual contemporary wars, that is)

7 April, 2008

Officer Questions Petraeus’s Strategy –

Via the ever-useful Small Wars Journal I came across this super piece in the Wall Street Journal by Yochi Dreazen on the recent contributions of LCOL Gian Gentile to the on-going US defence reform battles. There’s a back story to this; if you’re unfamiliar with it you might want start with the Small Wars link; otherwise press on to the WSJ article which is excerpted below.

WEST POINT, N.Y. — When Gen. David Petraeus testifies before Congress on Tuesday, lawmakers from both parties will praise him for reducing violence in Iraq. President Bush will try to use his popularity to bolster support for the war. Some Republicans will muse about the general as a vice-presidential candidate.
[David Petraeus]

Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, a history professor here who served two tours in Iraq, begs to differ. He argues that Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency tactics are getting too much credit for the improved situation in Iraq. Moreover, he argues, concentrating on such an approach is eroding the military’s ability to wage large-scale conventional wars.

“We’ve come up with this false narrative, this incorrect explanation of what is going on in Iraq,” he says. “We’ve come to see counterinsurgency as the solution to every problem and we’re losing the ability to wage any other kind of war.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, and with the greatest of respect, I think LCOL Gentile has got this completely wrong. I believe his argument rests upon a false premise and his proposals are a harbinger of the worst possible institutional outcome of the Iraq War fallout.

The false premise is the hoary-old dictum that it is easier for a war-fighter to ‘gear down’ to COIN, peacekeeping, nation-building and other similar ‘lesser included contingencies’ than it is for the COIN specialist to ‘gear up’ to high-intensity war-fighting. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that it is useless to try to have the same people in the same uniforms perform both roles. That’s rubbish. A fine illustration of this false dichotomy can be found in this prize-winning essay:

We want our nation-builders to be open, approachable, and easy to communicate with. We want nation-builders who understand and care about the locals. We want nation-builders to dialogue first and rely on force only as a last resort. . .. We want our soldiers to have none of these qualities. The US soldier should be the wrath of God, able to bring death and destruction anywhere at any time. Let the nation-builder be the good guy and the soldier the bad guy.

Gentile does not say how he feels about nation-building, whether any Americans should be doing it; clearly, however, he thinks it is not the job of the US Army at any rate, because it diminishes its ability to generate raw combat power which would be needed to fight large battles against a conventional enemy. I’d concede that point with a few caveats: A/ We aren’t fighting any wars like that right now; B/ if the major task at hand were the simple generating of raw combat power that can be done with just a handful of troops on the ground; and, C/ in the wars we actually are fighting right now nation-building has become more or less synonymous with ‘war-winning’.

It is true that it is hard to develop troops who are one part diplomat (and possess other ‘soft skills’) and one part soldier, but not impossible. It means sacrificing some combat power because there’s still only 24 hours in a day and so many days in a training schedule. But what’s lost if we do? There are always pros and cons too be weighed. Food for thought: the war in in Iraq stands as a testament to the folly of judging the likelihood of strategic success on the basis of the ability to generate raw combat power. Mistake or no (a debate for another day) it has been immensely costly in terms of treasure and blood. I don’t know if the Surge will reverse the disastrous situation enough before the political stopwatch in Washington DC clicks down to zero. Neither does anyone else; hence the massive interest in Petraeus’s testimony next week.

As will be clear by now I’m a partisan of the COIN side of this debate (a partisan of the partisans); and so I hope very much that Gentile’s views represent those of a minority. But there’s a lot at stake. It still remains to be seen whether or not the United States will draw from Iraq something like the lesson it drew from Vietnam: that its strategic and political culture and national military tradition simply ill suit it to irregular wars. Jeffrey Record has argued along these lines forcefully and convincingly, drawing the conclusion that it should therefore abstain from getting involved in them. Still, one may agree with Record’s estimation of American strategic culture while questioning the validity of a conclusion that rests on the false assumption that such wars can be avoided. ‘If this analysis is correct,’ says Record, ‘the policy choice is obvious: avoidance of direct military involvement in foreign internal wars unless vital national security interests are at stake.’

But, as Herfried Munkler writes in his book The New Wars, ‘War “smoulders on”, “spreads out”, “extends over” and so on . . . War as the subject of events will not stop at the frontiers of Europe and North America but will sooner or later move beyond them.’ In other words, fighting ‘wars amongst the people’, my preferred term, is not a sideshow or an optional extra that the Army may do or not do – this is the main event. In the words of Michael Howard, ‘The military may protest that this is not the kind of war that they joined up to fight, and taxpayers that they see little return for their money. But as I said earlier, this is the only war we are likely to get: it is also the only kind of peace.’ So, if Howard is right, the policy choice is stark: achieve a cultural change, as mammoth a task as that may be, or grow accustomed to defeat.

Right now the bulk of the land forces in just about every Western army are focused on regular, inter-state war-fighting of like against like, a task which technology is making possible to do with relatively few ground troops working in conjunction with precision fires delivered by air and naval assets; but the main threat is posed by irregular opponents, non-templatable, hybrid enemies in ‘wars amongst the people’ scenarios, the fighting of which calls for skills and mindsets that are still too often seen as a niche or separate capability. If the problem of meeting current and future threats could be solved merely by taking, holding or destroying this or that objective, then the current arrangement of forces could be continued. The problem, however, is winning ‘wars amongst the people’ and for that, the battlefield must be repopulated by soldiers whose training and mindset is inherently opposite to the ‘never put a man where you can put a bullet’ logic of the Revolution in Military Affairs and its derivative concepts. If land forces in future are going to have to fight a succession of big ‘small wars’, then the ‘big army’ is going to have to shoulder the burden of nation-building, recognize it as the core and substance of warwinning, and compose its forces accordingly. And that’s why Gentile is wrong.

For any who have read this far and wish to read on my thoughts on this issue are more fully developed in this article which appeared in Contemporary Security Policy a couple of issues back Redesigning Land Forces for Wars Amongst the People.

Could the British Army have fought a successful COIN in 1776?

31 March, 2008

IRG member and KCL PhD student Andrew Exum is raising hackles over at the Guardian’s Comment is Free

At the moment, Americans are reliving their revolutionary era through HBO’s slick new mini-series on founding father John Adams. But this interest in the American Revolution surely opens the door onto an interesting thought experiment: What would have happened had the British army applied contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine against those pesky colonists in the 18th century?

This question is one currently being asked by several smart US army and Marine Corps officers who have taken their experiences fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and applied them to historical analysis of other American wars. In his paper [PDF] on British counterinsurgency efforts in the American south during the revolution, US Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Paul Montanus notes with incredulity that while the British army garrisoned over 15,000 troops to defend New York City, only 8,500 men were left to execute counterinsurgency operations in the south. That meant the British had a troops-to-population ratio of 2:195 – far below what most contemporary military planners would deem necessary to fight an effective counterinsurgency campaign.

I’d not venture a strong opinion on the matter–not my area really. It strikes me, however, as the descendant on one side of United Empire Loyalists (aka ex-American colonists)) who fought against the Revolution and fled to Canada after it, that there was quite a bit of loyalty to the British Empire which was eroded/squandered. Doesn’t this make the troop ratio something of a red herring? Anyway, it’s too bad we lost.

Exum notes that his ancestor Colonel Benjamin Exum fought the British in the mountains of North Carolina which is rather cool. It’s nice to be in the winning side. My Empire Loyalist ancestors, on the other hand, were French Huguenots who fled France to America via a stint in Yorkshire. Twice-refugees, in other words; and intercontinental refugees at that–not bad for the 18th century. Another ancestor, Henry Lapp, fought the Americans in various places in Upper and Lower Canada and the northern states in the War of 1812. He narrowly escaped death in 1813 when they attacked York. He was the only survivor of an artillery battery of 12 men–the rest were killed by an explosion of the cartridge chest hit by an American shell.

War of 1812. Now there’s an interesting bit of historical parallelism, Andrew. (Ps. You lost that one, you know?) Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have said ‘the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent.’ Canadian nationalism (such as it is) has strong roots in the idea that they showed in 1812 that they could and would fight for their country against American aggression and hubris. We can be quite chippy about it actually. Evidence: this hagiographical site on General Sir Isaac Brock (‘Canada’s Originial War Hero’) where you can find, believe it or not, a Brock action figure(!). Brits hardly remember the War of 1812 which might have something to do with Andrew Jackson and New Orleans (mutter, mutter) but for Canadians it’s a big deal because we kicked American ass and you lost. Did I just drop all scholarly pretense, use vulgarity, and bold at that? You see what I mean? Chippiness. And I haven’t lived in Canada for over a decade. Sadly, speaking of chips, we failed to defend this mighty icon of Canadiana against American incursion some centuries later. But I digress…

Ah well, the Anglosphere’s a big happy family now.

Interview with Defence Secretary Des Browne

29 March, 2008

Today’s Daily Telegraph has an interview with UK Defence Secretary Des Browne. The interview covers a range of topics, and some of what he has to say is likely to prove controversial.

Browne’s assessment of the situation in Iraq is upbeat, despite (and even because of) this week’s developments in Basra:

The Defence Secretary is remarkably calm under fire. Last week, he visited Basra and returned “as optimistic as I have ever been about the future of Iraq”.

That optimism has not been blown apart by the violence this week. “The Iraqis have decided that they’re ready to take on the militia. Their very presence in the city engendered a response. That was to be expected.”

The British did not, in his view, cut and run. “We left at exactly the right time. The majority of the violence when we were in Basra was directed at us.”

There is no plan for British troops to return to the city, although he does not altogether rule out re-engagement.

To my surprise he says the British withdrawal of troops could be “accelerated” rather than delayed by recent events.

“This operation is taking place on a timescale that’s quicker than we would have thought as a consequence of the growing confidence of the Iraqis. We hope by spring to be able to get to about 2,500 [British troops]. I’m not thinking that everybody could be home by Christmas but when the time is right we can reduce our forces.”

Such optimism isn’t entirely misplaced. As Max Boot has argued, “If Maliki is now getting serious about asserting the supremacy of the Iraqi state over the militias, that is a development to be cheered.” This echoes an argument put forward in the Financial Times, in which Steve Negus states that, while enormously risky, “If the prime minister succeeds, the pay-off would deliver a big boost to the credibility of a shaky government, proving that the growing national army is capable of taking on powerful militia and addressing fears that a withdrawal of US troops would leave Iraq’s fragile state at the mercy of armed factions.”

However, Browne’s repetition of the standard government line that the initial withdrawal from Basra was justified by the fact that the majority of the violence in the city had been directed against British troops is less convincing. The argument fails to acknowledge that the current clashes are in part a consequence of the British failure to displace the militias from the city, which made the kind of reckoning we are seeing now inevitable eventually.

Browne goes on to argue that we should be talking to militants such as the Taliban and Hizballah. This is likely to be questioned by some, coming as it does after the controversy that erupted following comments made by Jonathan Powell – a former aide to Tony Blair – who suggested it was a mistake not to be talking to groups such as Al-Qaeda. It is worth noting, however, that unlike Powell, Browne draws the line at engaging with Al-Qaeda:

In his view, the West must be seeking diplomatic as well as military solutions. Controversially, he argues that Britain should be willing to talk to extremists groups.

“What you need to do in conflict resolution is to bring the people who believe that the answer to their political ambitions will be achieved through violence into a frame of mind that they accept that their political ambitions will be delivered by politics.”

A former Northern Ireland minister, Mr Browne says there will always be some people who are “irreconcilable” to a peaceful path – he draws the line at al-Qa’eda because “their demand is an end to our way of life”.

But, he argues that the West should be willing to talk to people with a history of violence – including elements of the Taliban and Hizbollah.

“In Northern Ireland I talked to people with a past. There are different varieties of these organisations. There’s no question that some of them if we succeed will transfer into the political dimension.”

Read the interview here.

Comic Strip Heroes vs. Al-Qaeda

26 March, 2008

In a novel effort to combat the Al-Qaeda narrative, innovative officials in the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) state in Germany have turned to comic strips in a bid to counter the radicalisation of young Muslims.

Following the success of a similar campaign against right-wing extremism in 2004, in which schoolboy hero Andi stood-up against xenophobia and racism, a new strip has been produced in which Andi helps his Muslim girlfriend rescue her brother from the influence of a radical friend and an Islamist “hate preacher”.


The comic — printed in 100,000 copies and distributed to every secondary school in Germany’s most populous state — aims to show young people the difference between peaceful mainstream Islam and the violent, intolerant version peddled by militants.

“We were always careful not to hurt feelings and anger people by painting a caricature of Islam,” said Hartwig Moeller, head of the NRW interior ministry’s department for protection of the constitution, responsible for intelligence gathering.

“We had to make clear we weren’t aiming against Muslims, but only those people who want to misuse Islam for political aims,” added Moeller, who despite his intelligence role says 50 to 60 percent of his work is educating the public about threats.

The cartoon, featuring boldly drawn Manga-style figures, is designed to be used in citizenship and religion lessons for schoolchildren aged 12 to 16.

“We have learned from our opponents. This is exactly the age at which the Islamists are trying, through Koranic schools and other means, to fill young people with other values,” Moeller told Reuters.

Athough unconventional, reaction from German Muslims has been generally positive, although there have been some reservations:

“We found the basic approach was right and good, we only regretted (the authorities) didn’t tell us about this initiative in advance, then it could have been made much better,” said Aiman Mazyek, general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany.

He said the portrayal of the Islamist hate preacher was “a bit overdone”, but added: “There are people like that, I can’t say there aren’t.” He said copies of the comic have been distributed in mosques.

Another regional government, Hamburg, is also using the Andi story, and there has been interest from Austria, Denmark, Japan and the United States.

It’s hard to say whether the strategy will be effective, or should be adopted elsewhere. However, with the campaign in NRW state costing just 30,000 euros ($47,440) for the artist and the print run, as long as any such campaign is not counter-productive, which could be ensured via proper prior consultation with Muslim youth workers, there would seem very little to lose.

Read the Reuters article here.

Update 1:

A copy of the comic strip (in German) can be downloaded here. A follow-up piece from Reuters is available here.

Update 2 (15 April 2008):

Newsweek has a feature about a similar intitiative being run in the Middle East, with an X-Men style series called The 99, which is a creation of Kuwaiti psychologist and entrepreneur Naif Al-Mutawa.

A graduate of Tufts University in the United States with a triple major in clinical psychology, English literature and history, the 37-year-old Al-Mutawa also has a keen sense of symbols. Mainstream comics in the West have drawn heavily on Judeo-Christian narratives and iconography, he says. Why not create a cast of characters whose powers echo Muslim history and traditions? And because his company, Teshkeel, is the distributor of Marvel and DC comics in the Middle East, Al-Mutawa knows just where to find top writers, pencilers and inkers to make his new publications as polished as any on the market.

The Bombers Who Weren’t

25 March, 2008

While it is increasingly recognised that success in the fight against Al-Qaeda inspired militancy requires we gain a thorough understanding of the processes by which self-selecting individuals become radicalised, there is less appreciation of the lessons that might be learned from an understanding of the processes by which potential terrorists have in the past de-selected themselves, and become de-radicalised.

In an article entitled The Bombers Who Weren’t, Michael Jacobson – a former staff member of the 9/11 commission, and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – argues that such processes of de-radicalisation represent ‘fault lines that counterterrorism officials should exploit.’

It’s become a truism of counterterrorism that we must understand how and why individuals become jihadists in the first place. But almost nobody is studying the flip side of radicalization — understanding those who leave terrorist organizations. We’d do well to start. Figuring out why individuals walk away from terrorist groups can help governments predict whether an individual — or even a cell — is likely to go through with a plot. Understanding the dropouts should also make it easier for governments to determine which terrorists might be induced to switch sides, help stop radicalization and craft messages that could peel away people already in terrorist organizations. The more we know about why terrorists bail, the better we can fight them.

Jacobson illustrates his argument with reference to a number of Al-Qaeda operatives who did de-select themselves – including Sajid Badat, who was supposed to conduct an identical mission to that of ‘shoe-bomber’ Richard Reid, but who pulled-out at the last minute, leaving his dismantled bomb at his parents’ house.

Jacobson identifies a number of factors which in the past have caused individuals to break with Al-Qaeda, some of which are ‘strikingly prosaic’. Common reasons include:

  • Disillusionment with the group’s tactics and strategy.
  • Lack of respect for the group’s leadership, particularly their lack of battlefield military experience.
  • Money, particularly when inadequate compensation is perceived as unfair treatment towards an individual.
  • Petty slights and personal animosities between operatives and leadership figures.
  • Family ties and personal connections, particularly as experienced by an operative following his re-insertion into society following a period of detachment in a training camp or other retreat.

Unfortunately Jacobson has no suggestions on how this might be translated into practical counterterrorism policy, acknowledging that ‘there’s no obvious silver bullet here’. Nevertheless, such ‘fault lines’ seem an avenue worth exploring, and understanding and then exploiting processes of de-radicalisation should be incorporated as a goal within broader counter-radicalisation strategies.

Read the full article here.

Lessons from Lebanon

18 March, 2008

Two pieces out this week seek to illustrate the lessons that should be drawn from Israel’s disastrous engagement with Hizballah in 2006. The Combat Studies Institute of the US Army Combined Arms Center has published a 96-page monograph by Matt Matthews, entitled We Were Caught Unprepared: The 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War [PDF]. Meanwhile, the latest issue of CTC Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, has an article by IRG member and King’s College War Studies PhD candidate Andrew Exum, entitled Drawing the Right Lessons from Israel’s War with Hizb Allah [PDF].

Much in the Matthews piece is perceptive, including the assessment that the IDF adopted a strategy that was over-reliant on air power, technology and a faulty interpretation of effects-based operations:

As enemy rockets rained down on northern Israel, the IDF attempted to orchestrate the strategic cognitive collapse of Hezbollah through the use of air power and precision firepower-based operations. When this failed, the IDF sought to produce the same effects by using its ground forces to conduct limited raids and probes into southern Lebanon. These restrained initiatives designed to create a cognitive perception of defeat also failed to produce the effects necessary to incapacitate Hezbollah. The presence of several IDF mechanized divisions north of the Litani in the first 72 hours of the war, combined with a violent, systematic clearing of Hezbollah’s bunkers and tunnels, might have brought about the cognitive collapse [Chief of the IDF General Staff] Halutz so desperately sought. Unfortunately, the new IDF doctrine failed to incorporate a large land maneuver component into its effects-based approach.

According to Ron Tira, one of the major problems within the IDF was “the over-zealous embrace of the American effects-based operations (EBO) idea. EBO’s aim is to paralyze the enemy’s operational ability, in contrast to destroying its military force. This is achieved by striking the headquarters, lines of communication, and other critical junctions in the military structure. EBO [was] employed in their most distinct form in the Shock and Awe campaign that opened the 2003 Iraq War. However, the Americans used EBO to prepare the way for their ground maneuvers, and not as an alternative to them.”

However, in an echo of the ongoing debate in America regarding whether or not US forces are becoming overly focused on counterinsurgency rather than conventional warfighting, Matthews argues the inability to ‘step-up’ from COIN to conventional operations was key to the IDF’s failure in Lebanon:

Another crucial factor in the IDF’s reverses in southern Lebanon was the dismal performance of its ground forces. Years of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations had seriously diminished its conventional warfighting capabilities. The IDF was completely dismayed to find that its land forces could not conduct a successful ground campaign in southern Lebanon. Although Naveh was heavily criticized, his observations are astute and timely. “The point is, the IDF fell in love with what it was doing with the Palestinians,” he stated. “In fact it became addictive. You know when you fight a war against a rival who’s by all means inferior to you, you may lose a guy here or there, but you’re in total control. It’s nice, you can pretend that you fight the war and yet it’s not really a dangerous war…. I remember talking to five brigade commanders…. I asked them if they had an idea… what it meant to go into battle against a Syrian division? Did they have in mind what a barrage of 10 Syrian artillery battalions looked like?”

In the conventional arena, the IDF ground forces performed unsatisfactorily. The fight at Wadi al-Saluki, for example, revealed the failure of tank commanders and crewmen to use their smokescreen systems, the lack of indirect-fire skills, and the total absence of combined arms proficiency. The IDF lost many of these perishable combat skills during its long years of COIN operations against the Palestinians.

While there is undoubtedly some validity in this argument, it requires qualification. As Exum argues in his article, “The greatest mistake the U.S. military can make in studying the lessons of 2006… is to study the 34 days of fighting that took place in southern Lebanon in July and August of that year without any context.”

The IDF’s failure was not over-learning the principles of counterinsurgency, but not having applied them effectively in the years prior to the 2006 war: “Israel never dealt with the root political problems in southern Lebanon that led to the rise of Hizb Allah. The 2006 war did not take place in a 34-day vacuum; it was merely the latest bloodshed in a dispute between Israel and Hizb Allah that has been fought with varying degrees of intensity since 1982.”

As such:

The 2006 war was not evidence, then, that Israel had over-learned the lessons of counter-insurgency, but rather the opposite: Israel has never effectively learned counter-insurgency in the first place. Even in the West Bank and Gaza, the IDF continues to approach the fighting there as a counter-terrorism mission instead of a counter-insurgency mission. Moreover, while the presence of both a radicalized settler population and historical animosities might preclude the application of an effective counter-insurgency strategy in the Occupied Territories, Israel has never developed and applied counter-insurgency doctrine along the lines of FM 3-24 despite years of experience in irregular warfare dating back to Jewish guerrilla groups in pre-state Israel.

Read the Matthews piece here, and the Exum piece here.