Archive for the ‘Military Affairs/Thought’ Category

Dirty little wars of 2014 go back 100 years
Europeans must wake up to the fact that they live in a dangerous neighbourhood, says Timothy Garton Ash
The Globe and Mail (Canada) | August 1, 2014

There is war in Europe. No, I’m not using the historic present tense to evoke August, 1914. I’m talking about August, 2014. What is happening in eastern Ukraine is war – "ambiguous war" as a British parliamentary committee calls it, rather than outright, declared war between two sovereign states, but still war. And war rages around the edges of Europe, in Syria, Iraq and Gaza.

I do not say "Europe is at war." Most European countries are not directly engaged in armed conflict. Still, we should be under no illusions. For decades, we have lived with the comforting notion that "Europe has been at peace since 1945." This was always an overstatement. In parts of Eastern Europe, low-level armed conflict continued into the early 1950s, followed by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the 1990s, the former Yugoslavia was torn apart in a series of wars.

For all the differences, the dirty little wars of 2014 have an important connection to the horrendous "great" one that began in 1914. Many of them involve struggles of definition and control over patchwork territories left behind by the multiethnic empires that clashed 100 years ago, and their successor states. Thus, for example, the battle for eastern Ukraine is about the boundaries of the Russian empire. Some of the Russians, from Russia itself, who are now leading the armed proRussian movement in eastern Ukraine, have characterized themselves as "imperial nationalists."

During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, jigsaw pieces from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were fought over, and then reassembled into new, smaller puzzles, such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

Many of the frontiers on today’s map of the Middle East go back to the post-First World War settlement, when Western colonial powers spliced together disparate parts of the former Ottoman Empire into new protectorates – Iraq, Syria, Palestine. The big exception is of course the state of Israel; but that, too, can trace a lineage back to the deadly after-life of European empires. For Nazi Germany, which attempted to exterminate the Jews, was the last hideous fling of German racial and territorial imperialism.

So what is Europe going to do now about its own long-term consequences? The first thing Europeans must do is simply to wake up to the fact that we live in a dangerous neighbourhood. Being Greater Switzerland is neither a moral nor a practical option: not moral, because Europeans, of all people, should never be silent while war crimes are being committed; not practical, because we cannot insulate ourselves from the effects.

Today’s fighters in Syria will be tomorrow’s terrorists in Europe. Today’s dispossessed are tomorrow’s illegal immigrants. Let these little wars burn, and you will be shot down out of the sky on your way from the Netherlands to Malaysia on Flight MH17. No one is safe.

Whereas in the past the irresistible wake-up call was the annexation of a territory, most West Europeans slept through Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea. As Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev point out in Foreign Affairs, the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner on July 17 was a turning point, not least because commercial air corridors are the place where business people live.

Without that transformative event, it is unlikely Chancellor Angela Merkel could have persuaded German public opinion, and German business, of the need for tougher sanctions on Mr. Putin’s Russia.

But what use is the EU’s slow, soft economic power against the Kremlin’s rapid, hard power? Or, indeed, against all the rapid hard powers of the Middle East? What use is butter against guns? The answer is: more than you might think. Europe alone cannot stop war in the Middle East. Only working with the U.S., and with some more co-operation can it bring peace to Syria or Gaza. It does, however, have the power to punish Russia for having its artillery shell the regular Ukrainian army, from Russian soil, while that army tries to reconquer its own territory.

Even the minor sanctions that Europe has thus far implemented have been gnawing away at the edges of the Putin regime. The larger sanctions Europe agreed to this week will, with time, have a larger impact. Liberal democracies are usually slower to act than dictatorships, and a voluntary community of 28 such democracies is bound to be slower still. Economic measures take more time to bite than military ones, but they can be more effective in the end.

One hundred years ago we had "the guns of August," in Barbara Tuchman’s resonant phrase. Now we have the butter of August. Note the different role played by Germany, then and now. Slowly, step-by-step, the Berlin government is doing the right thing. Germany is bringing the unique weight of its economic relationship with Russia to bear, while quite reasonably insisting that the pain is shared with France, Britain and Italy. Some things do change. Some even get better.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution

Path Of Least Resistance Or A Shortcut To Chaos?
Investor’s Business Daily | August 4, 2014

The Obama administration often denies responsibility for the current global chaos or claims it erupted spontaneously. Yet most of the mess was caused by, or made worse by, growing U.S. indifference and paralysis.

Over the last 5-1/2 years, America has had lots of clear choices, but the administration usually took the path of least short-term trouble, which has ensured long-term hardship.

There was no need to "reset" the relatively mild punishments that the George W. Bush administration had accorded Vladimir Putin’s Russia for invading Georgia in 2008.

By unilaterally normalizing relations with Russia and trashing Bush, Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only green-lighted further Russian aggression that has now spread to Crimea and Ukraine.

There was no need for Obama, almost immediately upon assuming office, to distance the U.S. from Israel by criticizing Israel’s policies and warming to its enemies, such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hamas.

Any time Israel’s enemies have glimpsed growing distance in the U.S.-Israeli friendship, they seek only to pry it still wider.

We see just that with terrorists in Gaza who launch hundreds of missiles into Israel on the expectation that the U.S. will broker a favorable deal that finds both sides equally at fault.

Sanctions had crippled Iran to the point that it soon would have grown desperate to meet U.S. demands to stop its nuclear enrichment. Instead, Obama eased trade restrictions just as they were coming to fruition. Iran is now on its way to acquiring a bomb, while supplying missiles to Hamas and Hezbollah.

We had an option in Libya to let the tottering but reforming Moammar Gadhafi government fend for itself. Or we could have taken out Gadhafi and then sent in peacekeepers to ensure a transition to ordered government.

But the Obama administration did neither. Instead, the U.S. participated in a multination bombing campaign and all but guaranteed that a failed state would be left on Europe’s doorstep. Now we have just closed our embassy in Tripoli and fled the country entirely.

There were once viable choices in Egypt. Instead, the administration managed to alienate the old Hosni Mubarak regime, alienate the elected Muslim Brotherhood that immediately tried to subvert the democracy, and alienate the military junta that stepped in to stop the Islamization of Egypt. All of these rival groups share one thing in common: a distrust of the U.S.

We could have made a choice in Iraq to negotiate a bit more with the Nouri al-Maliki government, leave behind a few thousand token peacekeepers and thereby preserve the calm achieved by the surge.

Instead, the administration pulled out U.S. soldiers to ensure that a withdrawal would be an effective re-election talking point. The result of that void is the present bloodletting and veritable destruction of Iraq.

The U.S. once had choices in Syria. We could have loudly condemned the Assad government and immediately armed the most pro-Western of the anti-Assad rebels. Or we could have just stayed quiet and stayed out of the mess.

Instead, we chose the third — and worst — option: loudly threaten Assad while doing nothing. Both a bloody dictatorship and its bloody jihadist enemies share a general contempt for a perceived weak America.

There were choices on our border too. Obama could have advised Central American governments that our southern border was closed to any who would cross illegally, while attempting to remedy the violence in those countries.

Instead, the administration opened the border, welcomed in thousands without scrutiny, and has all but destroyed federal immigration law. The result is chaos.

The Obama administration apparently has assumed that calm, not conflict, is the natural order of things. The world supposedly can run on autopilot without much guidance from its only superpower.

If conflict does arise, the U.S. counts on sermonizing without the need to back up tough and often provocative rhetoric with any action. When occasional decisions must be made, the U.S. usually chooses the easiest way out: withdrawals, concessions and appeasement.

Behind these assumptions also lie the administration’s grave doubts that the U.S. has in the past played a positive role in postwar affairs, or that in the present and future America can claim the moral authority — or has the resources — to confront aggressors.

In 2017, Obama may well leave office claiming to have reduced our military while avoiding conflict during his tenure. But will he also be able to assure us that China, Iran and Russia are less threatening; that the Middle East, the Pacific and the former Soviet republics are less explosive; that our own border is more secure — and that America is safer?

To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost: Two roads diverged in the world, and we always took the one of least resistance — and that has now made all the difference.

How to rein in the dogs of war
Peter Hartcher
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) | August 5, 2014

How are we supposed to make sense of a world that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket?

The Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other, dreadful enough as more than 1700 people have been killed to date. But right next door the civil war in Syria rages unchecked after more than three years, and where more than 170,000 people have been killed so far.

And spilling out of Syria is the new terrorist force, the savage Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. Apparently unstoppable, it continues to win territory in Iraq.

As Australians have recently become keenly aware, another war is escalating in Ukraine. Russia invaded Crimea and is now fighting to take more of its neighbour.

Then there’s Asia, where China is using its muscle to expand its territory at the expense of its neighbours. All of these clashes are continuing without any sign of let up.

These are just some of the troubling conflicts under way. Is this an unbalanced selection that makes the world seem bleaker than it really is?

Crisis Watch, a conflict-monitoring non-government organisation, publishes a monthly overview of the world’s wars.

It lists those where tensions are easing and those where war is intensifying. There are seven wars on the worsening list published on August 1. And on the improving side of the ledger? It’s blank.

Is there a way of seeing any sort of organising construct in this grim survey?

Two prominent US thinkers on foreign policy have offered prisms for viewing this worsening state of the world order. One is Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times and author of books including the 2005 work The World is Flat: A Brief History of The Twenty-first Century. He urges us to see the world through the prism of the Middle East. Specifically, the Arab-Israel conflict. Why? "Because it is to the wider war of civilisations what Off Broadway is to Broadway. A lot of stuff starts there and then goes to Broadway. So what’s playing Off Broadway these days?

"The Israeli-Arab conflict has become a miniature of the most relevant divide in the world today: the divide between the ‘world of order’ and the ‘world of disorder’."

As for dealing with disorder, Friedman expresses the hope the great powers may collaborate to impose order, but dismisses it as unlikely. "No power these days wants to lay hands on the world of disorder because all you win is a bill. And even if they did, it would not be sufficient." Friedman’s prescription? "In my view, the only way Israel can truly curtail the Hamas rocket threat is if the Palestinians of Gaza demand that the rockets stop … The only sustainable way to do it is by Israel partnering with moderate Palestinians in the West Bank to build a thriving state there, so Gaza Palestinians wake up every day and say to the nihilistic Hamas: ‘We want what our West Bank cousins have.’ The only sustainable controls are those that come from within."

Friedman’s analysis is striking for its narrowness. It makes the Israel-Arab struggle central. It proposes a possible solution, no matter how unlikely. But the Israeli fight with the Arabs takes up so much of Friedman’s view that he finds no room to see anything else. He ventures no responses whatsoever to the other great forces challenging order: ISIL, for instance, or Russia or China.

The other prominent thinker is Francis Fukuyama, a fellow at Stanford University and author of one of the most remarked-upon works of the late 20th century, The End of History, published in 1992.

Fukuyama also sees a world where order is being challenged, but his prism for dealing with it is a very different one: "The focus of today’s debate ought to be: how should we prioritise the threats facing us and how bad are the most serious?" he wrote in the Financial Times.

Fukuyama takes issue with his president. Barack Obama said in a key speech at the West Point military academy in May that the only direct threat facing the US was terrorism. "He said virtually nothing about long-term responses to the two other big challenges to world order: Russia and China," Fukuyama rebukes. "Despite the recent successes of ISIL, I would argue that terrorism is actually the least consequential of these challenges in terms of core US interests. What we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria is the slow spread of a Sunni-Shiite war," he says. "However, we could barely contain sectarian hatreds when we occupied Iraq with 150,000 troops; it is hard to see how we can act decisively now."

But Russia’s annexation of Crimea, says Fukuyama, threatens to impose tectonic instability with far-reaching consequences along Russia’s frontiers with Europe and central Asia.

China poses a similar danger, but on a bigger scale: "Russia’s power is based on a flawed economic model that in time will weaken its power," argues Fukuyama. "Not so with China." He summarises: "The extremism of ISIL will in the end prove self-defeating. By contrast, the allies the US is sworn to defend are now threatened by industrialised nations with sophisticated militaries."

Fukuyama’s solution? He urges Obama to apply US power to strengthening international institutions. NATO should be reinvigorated as a military alliance to deal with Russia. And Asia needs a multilateral order to deal with China.

Friedman is all about the Middle East; he’s resigned to inertia for the great powers. For Fukuyama, it’s about making use of the power of nations working together to impose order. But on one thing they readily agree: the forces of disorder are winning.


A World Desperate for a Little Good News
The New York Times | August 10, 2014

”The world is too much with us,” wrote the poet, a sentiment President Obama most likely shared this past week as he reluctantly ordered warplanes back over Iraq. As he did so, another Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire ended in resumed bombardment, Vladimir V. Putin defiantly ordered his own sanctions against the West and a terrible virus spread farther through West Africa.

A president who has taken great pains to pull the United States out of the world’s squabbles, Mr. Obama made no effort to conceal his distress at being pulled back in, for even a limited mission to protect minorities. ”I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” Mr. Obama said on Thursday night. But the old ”slippery slope” cliché figured in more than one analysis of his decision.

Still, the markets somehow managed to find a hopeful note in a world that seemed totally out of tune. Though Russia was reported to be massing troops on the Ukrainian border, and the government imposed a ban on most food imports from the United States and its allies, American stocks rallied on Friday when the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai P. Patrushev, said in an interview that ”Russia will continue to make all efforts for a very fast de-escalation of tensions.”

That ”continue” carried the dubious suggestion that Russia had been making such efforts all along, but the fact that the markets latched on to the secretary’s statement testified 1) to the predominance of the Ukraine crisis over the Middle East in the minds of market strategists, and 2) that ”the market is really tired of receiving one negative news item after another, and so is on the lookout for something positive,” as the Citigroup economist Ivan Tchakarov told Bloomberg.

Dragged Back Into Iraq

Following Mr. Obama’s authorization of the first significant military operation in Iraq since he pulled American ground troops out in 2011, the Air Force reported on Friday that two United States F-18 fighter jets had dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs onto an artillery target near Erbil, the Kurdish capital.

Mr. Obama’s hand in Iraq was forced by ISIS, the fanatical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and its advance in northern Iraq against the Kurds, reliable American allies who have maintained a modicum of order in their semiautonomous region. Thousands of Yazidis — an oft-persecuted religious minority — fled to remote Mount Sinjar, where they were stranded without food or water.

ISIS was left in control of a two-mile-wide hydroelectric dam on the Tigris River notorious for its structural instability. Even if ISIS did nothing, officials said, leaving the dam unattended could lead to its collapse, sending a 65-foot-high wall of water through Mosul.

Though Mr. Obama said he had ordered the strikes to protect American personnel, the fact that he did so only when the Kurds became threatened — and not earlier in the year when ISIS seized FallujaH? and marched through Mosul and on toward Baghdad — was bound to raise questions. One explanation was in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki continued to resist all demands that he go away. The failure of Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, to include Sunnis, Kurds and others in a government of national unity is widely blamed for the disarray that made it possible for ISIS to rout the Iraqi Army. Even his lieutenants have urged Mr. Maliki to step down. But having made innumerable enemies, he is said to be demanding immunity and a security detail paid for by the state.

Mr. Obama has insisted that there is ”no American military solution” to the mess, and he no doubt hoped that limited strikes would enable Iraqis to turn the tables on ISIS. But what if they fail? Will he be forced to further action?

Israeli Fire, Russian Threat

Faith in military solutions, however, seemed to prevail in the fight between Israel and Hamas. No sooner had a 72-hour truce expired than rockets began to rain on southern Israel, and Israeli warplanes and naval vessels opened up on targets in Gaza. The pause in hostilities had been the longest since they broke out on July 8.

The Palestinians insist that the blockade of Gaza be lifted, and about 100 prisoners held by Israel be freed, if there is to be a truce. The Israelis insist that Hamas disarm. The Egyptians have been trying to get both sides to lower their demands, and to leave more complex issues for subsequent talks.

In the meantime, the Palestinian death toll stands at almost 1,900, mostly civilians, while Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians.

On the Ukrainian front, forces loyal to Kiev continued tightening their ring around Donetsk, the seat of secessionists armed by Russia.

There was no evidence that Mr. Putin was prepared to back down. On the contrary, his prime minister, Dmitri A. Medvedev, announced on Thursday, in retaliation against Western sanctions, a one-year ban on many food imports from the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia and Norway — a move that is likely to reduce food supplies and raise inflation in Russia. So far, his efforts to ”de-escalate tensions,” to use Mr. Patrushev’s words, have consisted of insisting that Kiev stop attacking the rebels and that the West stop helping Kiev. And there remains the chilling possibility that Mr. Putin could send troops into eastern Ukraine on a ”humanitarian mission” to the besieged denizens of Donetsk.

Ebola Spreads in Africa

Wars were not the only scourge making the news last week. With the death toll from an outbreak of the Ebola virus approaching 1,000 in West Africa, the World Health Organization on Friday declared an international public health emergency. And Doctors Without Borders called for a ”massive deployment” of medical workers to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the countries hit worst by the outbreak.

The Ebola virus causes a severe and often fatal illness, and while some drugs are being tested, there is no vaccine or treatment yet available to prevent or cure the disease. The virus is caught through close contact with the bodily fluids of infected people or animals.

Because it is not ”spread through the air,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the W.H.O.’s head of health security, it can be contained.


Strict military censorship covered up much of what was really happening in the trenches, says Michael Nicholson
The Daily Telegraph (London) | August 4, 2014

War correspondents fight on many fronts. Censorship is the most persistent and pernicious. From William Russell reporting the war in the Crimea to the wars of today, the correspondent struggles to tell it how it is. The censor comes in many guises but usually in uniform, and his veto is final. A state of war exists between the reporter and the establishment – and the reporter invariably loses. It was never more thoroughly and tragically so than in the First World War. The conspiracy to hide the scale of casualties condemns the principal conspirators, prime minister David Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener, minister for war and munitions. Kitchener had been vehemently hostile to journalists ever since the Sudan. He had seen no reason for them to be there and was outraged by the slightest criticism in reports of his war against the Dervishes, the Mahdi’s army. "Get out of my way, you drunken swabs!" he shouted at them on his arrival in Khartoum.

Within months of the declaration of war, he introduced blanket press censorship, the most severe by any British commander yet. In the first year of the war, all press accreditation was refused. The public, anxious to understand the reason for British involvement in a Continental conflict, had to be satisfied with clumsy propaganda from the government’s newly formed Press Bureau that censored even military communiqués before passing them on for publication. Its mantra was simple: "Do nothing. Say nothing. Keep off the front pages."

David Lloyd George, who was soon to become prime minister, told C P Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, that if people knew what was going on in the trenches, the war would be stopped immediately. At the time, the government even denied trenches existed.

Kitchener was adamant. There would be no press anywhere near the action. Instead, he appointed the loyal and subservient Colonel Ernest Swinton as the official war correspondent, later joined by a conscripted journalist, Henry Tomlinson. Only untrained, army cameramen were allowed anywhere near the Front. Their filming was amateur, underexposed, grainy – and more often than not faked. British journalists, as well as those from other countries based in London, were obliged to write stories of a war that was just across the English Channel, relying entirely on the barely believable and infantile releases from the Press Bureau. It prompted Winston Churchill, then at the Admiralty, to complain about "the fog of war", a phrase that has echoed down the corridors of every news organisation ever since.

It could not continue. The truth of what was happening on the Western Front was filtering back by other means, much of it from returning wounded troops. The British public, saturated by the daily barrage of government propaganda, became more suspicious, more inquisitive and newspaper editorials more vociferous. In 1915, Theodore Roosevelt, the US president, wrote to the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, warning him that barring journalists from the Front "was harming Britain’s cause in the United States". Prime minister Asquith and Kitchener bent to the president’s will. In March, four journalists were invited, under strict supervision, to visit the British Field Headquarters during the battle of Neuve Chapelle, among them the war artist and correspondent Frederic Villiers of The Graphic and Illustrated London News. Others, including Henry Nevinson of The Daily Chronicle, joined the fleet on its way to the Dardanelles. It was Nevinson who, reporting later from the Western Front, coined the phrase "lions led by donkeys" in his criticism of the High Command.

Two months later, permanent accreditation was given to five more reporters but on a severely censored "pooled" basis, the five sharing their information for general distribution to all news outlets in the United Kingdom and abroad.

In another more sinister development kept secret at the time, a register was kept by the War Office of reporters "whose patriotism was in no doubt, were on the military’s side, could be trusted to comply with regulations and not betray military information to the enemy either by accident or design".

The military were less than subtle in their wooing of the few correspondents permitted to witness the fighting. They were given officer rank, special quarters, often a grand requisitioned house, ate officer’s rations and provided with transport and army driver. But journalists paid for the privilege as censorship was ratcheted up. They were accompanied at all times by a "minder", mostly junior officers who despised the press and made it their business to obstruct them. Dispatches were examined by a senior staff officer who had the authority of immediate veto before they were relayed to the War Office. There a press officer, usually a minor bureaucrat and suffering no crisis of conscience, moulded the stories to suit the official version. They were then sent by couriers to the newspapers but with no indication that what they were about to print bore any resemblance to the stories their reporters had written.

Phillip Gibbs was sent by The Daily Telegraph to France soon after the outbreak of the war and he quickly became hyper-critical of the British command and its determination to suppress the truth. He managed to smuggle some reports back to his newspaper describing conditions in the trenches that appalled readers. But when Gibbs revealed the bitterness and hostility between officers and other ranks, sometimes bordering on mutiny, Kitchener decided enough was enough. Gibbs was arrested on charges of "aiding and abetting the enemy" and warned he would be put up against a wall and shot.

Instead, he was given a military escort back to Britain and told he would not be allowed to return. He was not out of favour for long, such was the influence of the newspaper. A month later he was given full military accreditation and returned to the Front, where he stayed for the rest of the war. His output was prodigious but even he paid the price, submitting, as most did, to ever sterner censorship.

This note to his editor was never published: "Journalism has been throttled. We are so desperate for information that we will report any scrap of any description, any glimmer of truth, any wild statement, rumour, fairy tale or deliberate lie, if it fills the vacuum." He had his revenge when the war was over, publishing his memoirs, The Realities of War, in which he gave a very caustic and unflattering portrait of Field Marshal Douglas Haig.

There were other honourable exceptions, those who preferred to write nothing rather than government untruths. Some found ingenious ways to avoid military control. Henry Hamilton Fyfe of the Daily Mail, having angered the generals with a smuggled dispatch, was threatened with arrest and deportation. He joined the French Red Cross as a stretcher-bearer and continued reporting.

Another was Charles à Court Repington. He was a former Lt. Colonel in the Rifle Brigade and had served in Afghanistan, Burma, in the Sudan under Kitchener and as a staff officer in the Boer War. After an affair with a fellow officer’s wife became public, he was forced to resign his commission but was promptly offered the post of military correspondent for Lord Northcliffe’s Times. Repington had privileged access to senior officers and diplomats that enabled him to bypass the restrictions that so frustrated his colleagues. His high-ranking contacts fed him valuable titbits of information, assuming that as an officer and a gentleman they could depend on his discretion and confidentiality. This cosy relationship abruptly ended with his scoop, remembered as the "Shells Crisis" story.

In May 1915, in conversation with the BEF Commander-in-Chief General Sir John French, Repington was told that a shortage of shells had contributed to the failure of the attack on Neuve Chapelle and Auber’s Ridge two months earlier, resulting in appalling casualties. Repington wrote: "The want of an unlimited supply of high-explosive shells was a fatal bar to our success."

The story caused a furore that forced Asquith to dissolve his Liberal government and form a coalition. French was replaced by Haig, and newspapers demanded Kitchener’s resignation. He kept his seat in cabinet but was replaced as minister responsible for munitions by Lloyd George. Kitchener exacted his revenge on Repington by ensuring he was promptly barred from the Western Front, an order not reversed for another year and then only under pressure from the new government. Repington became a campaigner for a national army, later known as the Territorials. Towards the end of the war, he resigned from The Times after a disagreement with Northcliffe over his style of reporting and promptly joined the Morning Post. He was later arrested and charged, under the Defence of the Realm Act, with disclosing classified military information in an article. After he was found guilty and fined, he wryly commented that the military had a long memory and a revengeful, unforgiving nature.

Despite all the frustration and humiliation they had to endure, there was little resistance from national newspapers. In turn, reporters seemed resigned to a form of journalism that demanded they exchanged their professional integrity for the limited access the military provided. Many defended themselves, arguing that being near the battle front, whatever the restrictions, was better than sitting in London rewriting War Office handouts.

Men in the trenches were nauseated by reports that portrayed the war like a football match. Even the Battle of the Somme was initially reported as a victory, with some newspapers omitting to mention that, on the first day, 20,000 British troops were killed. After the war, some correspondents wrote of how deeply ashamed they were at what they had written, a shame compounded when the government offered them knighthoods, which many accepted. There were honourable exceptions, those who saw it as a bribe to keep their silence. Had they the courage to break that silence when it mattered most, how different it might have been.

Michael Nicholson is the former chief foreign correspondent with ITN. His latest book, ‘A State of War Exists: Reporters in the Line of Fire’ (Biteback, £20)

Digging Our Own Grave? The Results of CT, COIN and Regime Change
Greg Simons
Small Wars Journal | July 30, 2014

This is intended as an opinion, and a reflection on the current state of affairs and possible future trends regarding the West’s involvement in numerous irregular wars and revolutions. War should be a final resort, and for good reasons, rather than the apparent policy tool it is now. This has been the experience of philosophers and theoreticians of war through the ages, war needs to be carefully considered and executed, otherwise the wielder of the sword may face dire consequences. War is not only an opportunity cost, in other words the country needs to give something else up. But it also bears a diminishing return, if wars are too long and costly (in terms of blood and finance) it will begin to erode not only the tangible assets of war (soldiers, military hardware and so forth), but also the intangible assets are affected negatively (belief in the political and military leadership, will to fight). Ultimately, if there is a lack of strategic vision in fighting wars, rather they have a tactical or operational character, the lack of consideration of side effects shall ultimately haunt the actor. The recent events in Iraq and Syria with ISIS and their battlefield success are just one hint and lesson in this regard. Such lessons may take some years to emerge, but given the opportunity they shall. As Sun Tzu once said “strategy without tactics is the slowest road to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

In the Western world (United States centric and led) there needs to be a fundamental reassessment of how and why we fight wars. Events and actions in the Global War On Terrorism (GWOT) and the Arab Spring have been causing contradictory results and have actually ensured an increase in insecurity through threats of radicalisation and terrorism in the Middle East and in Western countries with significant Muslim communities. There has been a tangible display of this form of insecurity through events such as the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, the murder of the soldier Rigby by radicals, Belgium citizens being tried for war crimes committed in Syria fighting for Jihadi forces and the recent suicide bombing carried out by an American citizen in Syria.

There is also the issue of what protracted conflict does to soldiers that have been fighting in Counter-Terrorism (CT) and Counter-Insurgency (COIN) operations for years and with only a vague end possibly in sight. The concerns caused by effects of psychological trauma was sufficient for the European Union within the framework of their FP7 research programme to have a specific call to study this problem. Crimes, violence and an inability to readjust to civilian life, together with a lack of support for these people have caused a dangerous situation. This situation is sufficient to raise the question, are we fighting the current wars and engaging in the various regime change exercises in tactics only, and lacking strategy?

It seems that there is somewhat of an obsession to try and not only learn basic lessons from the past from action in small wars, such as insurgency and terrorism, and then to create a ‘blueprint’ that can be used universally in a kind of cookie-cutter approach. However this ignores the basic dilemma, which is that best practice does not necessarily equate to best strategy. David Ucko evaluated the performance of COIN in Afghanistan very critically. “The lack of clear strategy behind the campaign resulted in the elevation of COIN from the operational to the strategic level. In parallel, the doctrinal best practices of COIN – population security, good governance, and legitimacy – were confused with strategic ends and pursued simultaneously. In practice, these were not adapted to specific problems and objectives and remained little more than slogans.”[i] Ucko likened COIN as being “armed politics” (this is in-line with Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz who both classified war as politics by another means) and warned that doctrine should never replace strategy.

Haroro Ingram stated that there are three lessons from the experience of recent small conflicts. “1) Counter-insurgency thinking and practice typically lags behind that of its insurgent foe; 2) insurgencies succeed or fail based on their ability to synchronise competitive systems of meaning with competitive systems of control and 3) the core assumptions of the dominant hearts and minds approach to COIN should be re-examined in light of recent insurgent successes.” He noted that between the years of 1775-1945 only about 20 per cent of insurgencies were successful, after 1945 this rate has doubled.[ii] The situation described above points to problematic issues in the way that wars are fought.

Analysts in the United States in the late 1980s and 1990s noted changes in the way that wars were organised and fought. One of these was the concept that was brought to light by William Lind and others in the Marine Corps Gazette in 1989, when they talked about the changing nature of war into what was termed as being fourth generation warfare (4GW). This was the decentralisation of warfare and the loss of the state monopoly on prosecuting armed conflict. A number of elements were associated with this kind of conflict: complex and long-term; terrorism, insurgency and guerrilla tactics; non-national/transnational base and highly decentralised; attack the enemy culture; use of psychological warfare and propaganda; political, social, economic and military pressures all used; low intensity conflict involving networks of actors; lack of hierarchy. Non-state actors are small in size and very agile in terms of their organisational structure and ability to make decisions (with long-term planning). The basic goals of this kind of warfare are for survival or to prevent the success of enemy decision-makers by demoralising them. There was another development in military strategy that is in some ways related, which followed 4GW.

In the 1990s, the US Department of Defence pioneered the theory of warfare that came to be called network-centric warfare. This involves taking advantage of the innovations taking place in information communication technology within the sphere of military operations. Publications, such as, Understanding Information Age Warfare by David Alberts and others (2001) outline the basic tenets of the theory, of which there are four. 1) Thoroughly networked force improves information sharing; 2) by sharing information, shared situational awareness and the quality of information is enhanced; the effects of shared situational awareness includes enabling collaboration and self-synchronisation, bettering sustainability and speed of command; which greatly improve mission effectiveness. This form of warfare creates a competitive advantage by linking and keeping well-informed, geographically dispersed forces and it allows for permitting new forms of organisational behaviour. This is especially useful when the nature of the armed conflict is in-line with the notions outlined by 4GW.

Although these forms of warfare theory have been developed in the West, they seem to have been co-opted by the radical Islamist insurgent and terrorist movements. The current style of prosecuting war seems to be more in line with third generation warfare principles, where information plays a supporting role to military operations. However, the opponent is certainly fighting the current conflict by 4GW means, and where military operations play a supporting role to information. It is asymmetric warfare that is being fought very different by the sides engaged in the conflict. The West plays a more tactical and short-term approach, which sometimes is at odds with goals and objectives. For instance, by engaging in regime change within the Arab Spring context (Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and currently Syria), it provides opportunities for their opponent to seize upon. The ‘victory’ in Libya with the toppling of Gaddafi has rapidly turned into a nightmare, which has spilled into Algeria, Mali and Syria. It has also provided an enemy that is very agile and networked the opportunity to regain a lot of strength and create new places to gain support and base their power. Social media certainly enables the Islamic insurgency to simultaneously wage a real and a virtual struggle against a currently stronger enemy. It enables networking, recruiting, planning, logistics, propaganda and many more such operations that are needed to sustain an insurgency. Narratives of radical Islamic groups are carried by social media to geographically dispersed socially displaced individuals in the West and elsewhere. It uses norms and values, especially around aspects of social justice and the defence of Islam to compete with the Western narrative of democracy and security. This is shown in the tangible results of the 13-year long GWOT.

Since 2010 there has been an increase of 60 per cent in the number of radical Islamic groups and a 300 per cent increase in the number of attacks committed by al Qaeda and affiliated groups according to a study conducted by RAND.[iii] One of the threats comes from the radicalisation of youth in Muslim communities in Western countries. American intelligence and CT officials estimate that some 70 Americans have travelled to Syria to join the fight against the Syrian government. There may be as many as 3000 Westerners having travelled to Syria. The British Home Office has stripped 20 Jihadis of their citizenship and in January-March 2014 British police have made some 40 “Syria-related arrests” (up from 25 for the whole of 2013).[iv] Of the estimated 11000 foreign fighters in Syria, at least 400-500 are from France (President Hollande estimated publicly 700 French residents). In Bosnia, someone convicted of trying to fight in a foreign war (i.e. Syria) can be given a 10-year prison sentence, in France the sentence is three-five years (on a charge of plotting terrorism).[v] Norway has also joined in arresting those wishing to travel to Syria to fight or in supporting radical Islamic groups.[vi] The concern is that the activities of these fighters may not be solely restricted to foreign acts of terrorism or supporting terrorist organisation. There is some substance to this reasoning, in 2012 Mohammed Merah returned to his home city of Toulouse where he killed three French soldiers, three Jewish children and a Rabbi. The murder of Lee Rigby (an off-duty soldier) in Woolwich, England in May 2013, when two Islamic converts ran him down in a car and then hacked him to death (the reason giving was for the killing of Muslims by British Armed Forces) serves as another reminder of the dangers.

Soldiers in Afghanistan were, at one stage, being killed more as a result of suicide than enemy action at one stage. On the home front in the US, some 22 veterans per day are committing suicide. There are long waiting times for access to mental health, some waiting at least two months for an appointment.[vii] The inability of returned personnel to cope with daily life has seen a surge in various forms of violence and crime as well as those that withdraw from mainstream society. The matter points to the situation where the intangible assets of the West are in decline and being degraded. At the same time, the insurgent foe’s intangible assets are gaining further strength, often as a result of what the West is doing and perceived to be doing within the contexts of GWOT and the Arab Spring.

There has been a refinement, amalgamation and harmonisation of 4GW and network-centric warfare, not by Western political and military circles, but by the diverse groups of the Islamic insurgency. They are a much more flexible and responsive organisation to their operating environment than their Western counterparts that seek to rely on procedure (doctrine) and short-term planning cycles. It is likely to be a matter of time, assuming the current trends continue their present path, the tangible elements of Western strength and power shall decline and become noticeable. The current military-centric approach to CT and COIN seems to ignore or at least underplay the important and decisive embedded political aspects to armed conflict.

End Notes

[i] Ucko, D., Best Practice or Best Strategy: Can New COIN Doctrine Win Future Wars?, ISN,, 27 May 2014 (accessed 31 May 2014)

[ii] Ingram, H., Three Lessons from the Modern Era of Small Wars, ISN,, 26 May 2014 (accessed 31 May 2014)

[iii] Ernst, D., Al Qaeda Surge: Islamic Radical Groups Skyrocketed Since 2010, Study Says, The Washington Times,, 4 June 2014 (accessed 5 June 2014)

[iv] De Freytas-Tamura, K., Foreign Jihadis Fighting in Syria Pose Risk in West, The New York Times,, 29 May 2014 (accessed 31 May 2014)

[v] Rubin, A. J., Fearing Converts to Terrorism, France Intercepts Citizens Bound for Syria, The New York Times,, 2 June 2014 (accessed 3 June 2014)

[vi] Staff Writers, Norway Arrests Three Suspected of Supporting Syria Jihad, AFP in Space War,, 27 May 2014 (accessed 31 May 2014)

[vii] McElhatton, J. & Klimas, J., Mental Health Delays at VA System Five Times Longer Than Reported, The Washington Times,, 4 June 2014 (accessed 5 June 2014)


Best Practice or Best Strategy: Can New Counterinsurgency Doctrine Win Future Wars?
David Ucko
ISN | 27 May 2014

If counterinsurgency theory supposedly succeeded in Iraq, why did it fail in Afghanistan? For David Ucko, the answer is clear – theory is no substitute for practical strategies that appreciate the ‘nature and grammar’ of real conflicts.

Two weeks ago, the United States Army and the Marine Corps updated their counterinsurgency doctrine, last published in November 2006 before the ‘surge’ in Iraq. The publication of the new doctrine has raised fresh questions about the role of counterinsurgency in campaign planning and strategy. Was the 2006 field manual in some way responsible for the subsequent stabilization of Iraq? If counterinsurgency succeeded there, why did it not meet expectations (some might say ‘fail’) in Afghanistan? And will the doctrine published last week allow for better results in campaigns to come?

Counterinsurgency and strategy

These questions suggest two fundamental points. First, as the most recent counterinsurgency manual states, ‘counterinsurgency is not a substitute for strategy’. Counterinsurgency theory offers a collection of insights collected from past operations, which, if adapted to local context, can help in the design and execution of a campaign plan. To the degree that counterinsurgency theory worked in Iraq, it was because it was tied to a campaign plan informed by the specific contextual enablers relevant to that operation: the Sons of Iraq, the Anbar Awakening, and splits within the main Shia political structures. Counterinsurgency was then implemented in Afghanistan, but without an appreciation of these contextual enablers, which explains why the same approach produced such different results. Best practice is not best strategy.

An important reason for the success of counterinsurgency in Iraq was the cooperation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who during the surge recast himself as a national rather than sectarian leader. Of course, the Iraqi leadership was far from perfect. For example, US support for Sunni tribes and former insurgents was not accompanied by the support of the central government, and this has complicated the reintegration process for the Sunni forces that fought against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Nevertheless, in broad terms, the Iraqi leadership compared favorably to that in Afghanistan, which has proved either unable or unwilling to move against the warlords who have established themselves (often with coalition assistance) in recent years.

Furthermore, in Iraq the coalition was far more invested in reforming the ministries that had been penetrated by Shia radical elements, transformed into sectarian fiefdoms, and used to target Sunni communities. Ministerial reform is an under-appreciated aspect of the surge, but speaks to America’s leverage and familiarity with Iraqi politics at the time. Equivalent efforts in Afghanistan came too late and were insufficient, partly due to the absence of a host-nation partner and the desire of NATO to withdraw just as the shift to counterinsurgency was announced. Thus, the government is still largely corrupt and illegitimate, which has fueled the insurgency.

Another factor was the ability of the U.S. military in Iraq to exploit the emerging rift between AQI and the Sunni tribes of Anbar province. The coalition has found no similar partner in Afghanistan, meaning that its local counterinsurgency operations have had to be conducted in isolation. Attempts to create Afghan equivalents to the Sunni Awakening and Sons of Iraq have stuttered because, whereas the latter were based on preexisting structures with their own interests, the Afghan ‘replicas’ were manufactured from scratch. This means that these local defense forces lack the necessary unity of command, training, and purpose, which has in turn resulted in poor discipline, accountability, and effectiveness.

There were important differences between the two cases in the level of Western commitment and in the underlying financial realities, but the difference in unity of command was particularly significant. In Afghanistan, three separate operations with different requirements were being conducted simultaneously: the American-led counterterrorist effort against al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, the NATO-led ISAF operation to provide security and to enable a third mission led by the UN and devoted to political and economic development. The issue of counternarcotics overlapped with these missions, especially after 2009. This multitude of objectives made the ability to prioritize among them and tie long-term aims to a resourced campaign plan indispensable for effective warfare. These were areas where NATO fell woefully short.

The lack of a clear strategy behind the campaign resulted in the elevation of counterinsurgency from the operational to the strategic level. In parallel, the doctrinal best practices of counterinsurgency – ‘population security’, ‘good governance’, and ‘legitimacy’ – were confused with strategic ends and pursued simultaneously. In practice, these were not adapted to specific problems and objectives and remained little more than slogans.

Counterinsurgency is armed politics. This means that it must be informed by a strategy that is sustainable, resourced, feasible and responsive to the situation at hand. Although doctrine can be valuable in tying carefully defined strategic aims to the design of operations, it cannot be allowed to replace strategy. For strategic purposes, the estimate of the particular situation is a critical starting point because it reveals the threats, opportunities and challenges that can be exploited within a specific response.

The contribution of counterinsurgency

This leads us to the second point: if counterinsurgency doctrine fails to defeat insurgencies, what good is it? Historically, the modest yet crucial value of counterinsurgency doctrine lies in the challenge it poses to many of the preconceptions about war that have dominated Western strategic thinking. Specifically, counterinsurgency provides a corrective to the view of war as militarily decisive and apolitical. In essence, the principles of counterinsurgency touch upon the importance of achieving a nuanced political understanding of the campaign, of operating under unified command, of using intelligence to guide operations, of isolating insurgents from the population, of using the minimum amount of force necessary to achieve objectives, and of maintaining the legitimacy of the counterinsurgency effort in the eyes of the populace.

To the casual observer, these principles will appear self-evident. Nonetheless, they illustrate the unique logic of counterinsurgency and its distinctiveness from the ‘conventional’ types of war for which most Western militaries train and prepare. For military institutions that regard the utility of force as a ‘stand-alone’ solution, the principles of counterinsurgency are an important corrective.

Similarly, counterinsurgency also challenges the traditional peacekeeping mindset and its expectations of ‘impartiality’ and ‘consent’ in largely non-violent operations. Whereas these terms are appropriate in certain ‘permissive’ environments, they are inadequate for contested settings, which is where the military is typically deployed. In these settings, adherence to peacekeeping principles has resulted in interventions so unobtrusive as to be negligible; elsewhere, their limiting effect on the intervening force has been deftly exploited by wily and versatile adversaries. In contrast, counterinsurgency doctrine emphasises that a permissive operational environment cannot be expected to obtain but must be actively worked towards and sustained. Similarly, the consent of the local population is not a function of how much force is used, but of how that force is used and why. Political influence is not achieved through acts of kindness, but by maintaining security and a firm monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The contribution of counterinsurgency theory, then, is to elucidate the common requirements of working towards and sustaining a secure environment, of engaging with some local actors against others, and of using force – in parallel with other means – to achieve a particular, rather than a general, peace.

Can we win next time?

Will the further study of counterinsurgency help Western nations in their future interventions in war-torn countries? The question is timely, given the likely rejection of the term following the troubled campaign in Afghanistan.

The modest contribution of counterinsurgency is to provide a corrective to our understanding of war and warfare. It reinforces the need for political primacy to address what are fundamentally political problems and the need to couch military activity within a broader strategy. This contribution is modest because the principles and guidance counterinsurgency provides are often banal, even if they represent an improvement over traditional military thinking on war. Careful study and research is needed to determine how best to apply these principles to future operations, and it is fair to say that the theory is better at raising the right questions than in providing the answers.

In learning to answer these questions, there must be fewer assumptions about the nature of insurgency. Rather than accepting slogans like ‘winning hearts and minds’ or ‘population control’, future counterinsurgencies must craft strategies based on the local context, grievances and politics – and their exploitation by specific groups. The indispensable starting point is a strategic assessment of the situation: where does the insurgent organization gains its strength, how does it operate, and why will it win? Only through such an assessment and through a clearer understanding of our own interests and objectives will the fortunes of future campaigns improve.

David H. Ucko, PhD, is an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs and an adjunct fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is the author of Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare (Columbia University Press, 2013) and of The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars (Georgetown University Press, 2009).


After Afghanistan
Lessons for NATO’s Future Wars
Antulio J Echevarria II
The RUSI Journal | Volume 159, Issue 3, 2014


One of the key issues to be discussed at the forthcoming NATO summit will be preparation for future military engagements after more than a decade of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. Antulio J Echevarria II revisits some of the key lessons to be drawn from this experience, and highlights the questions that will need to be addressed if the Alliance is to be equipped to meet future challenges in a changing world.

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Three Lessons from the Modern Era of Small Wars
Haroro Ingram
ISN | 26 May 2014

In the case of ‘small wars’, what are the basic lessons we should have learned since 1945? Try these, says Haroro Ingram – successful insurgencies must create and provide meaning; counterinsurgency thinking is reactive, and therefore always one step behind the insurgent; and the ‘hearts and minds’ approach to counterinsurgency has to be revised.

The ongoing withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan punctuates an era of ‘small wars’ that stretches beyond the “9/11 decade” to the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War. Although asymmetric military contests between established authorities and irregular guerrillas are among the oldest of military phenomena, the modern period of small wars represents a departure from this history. Before this period, irregular guerrillas tended to be overwhelmed by their stronger and better resourced adversaries. Modern small wars, by contrast, have seen significantly higher rates of insurgent victory. Between 1775 and 1945, about 20% of insurgencies were successful. After 1945, the success rate of insurgencies has doubled. What explains this trend?

Overall, three lessons can be learned from the experience of modern small wars: 1) counterinsurgency thinking and practice typically lags behind that of its insurgent foe; 2) insurgencies succeed or fail based on their ability to synchronize competitive systems of meaning with competitive systems of control and 3) the core assumptions of the dominant ‘hearts and minds’ approach to counterinsurgency should be re-examined in light of recent insurgent successes.

Modern small wars: a dual contest

Despite the rise in the success rate of insurgencies since the Second World War, most insurgencies still fail to achieve their objectives. Insurgencies are at their most fragile in their early stages – soon after discontent has given way to violence. Surviving this formative period is crucial to the success of an insurgency. However, the ability to survive this formative period often depends on the same complex mix of strategic and psychosocial factors that helps to determine an insurgency’s ultimate success or failure.

This mix of strategic and psychosocial factors depends on effectively competing in the two simultaneous contests that characterise a small war. The first is a contest to implement a system of control (i.e. a ‘political’ apparatus) by ‘winning’ the support of a population. This clash between incumbent and aspiring ‘competitive systems of control’ (to borrow Bernard Fall’s terminology) typically involves ‘top-down’ military-political forces attempting to establish control over a population. This contest is the raison d’être of any small war: the ascendancy of one system of control over all others.

The second is the contest to implement a system of meaning. In almost all modern small wars, ‘competitive systems of meaning’ seek to leverage the contested population’s identity and its perception of crisis (which is the defining psychosocial condition of civilian populations in wartime) in order to shape assessments of the conflict and of the actors involved – and to influence decisions about whom the population supports, and how.

Competitive systems of meaning: The insurgent’s advantage

In the modern period, insurgents have demonstrated an acute appreciation for the strategic and psychosocial power of a competitive system of meaning. Analysis of a global cross-section of insurgency thinkers – from Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh to ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz Al-Muqrin, the Irish Republican Army and Che Guevara – reveals extraordinary doctrinal uniformity: all of these thinkers prioritize the strategic role of ‘information operations’ (IO) and regard military and political activities as largely supporting functions. In contrast, ‘Hearts and Minds’ counterinsurgency strategy, especially as practised in Afghanistan and Iraq, has reversed this strategic logic.

Modern insurgents have also understood that there are gradations of a population’s support. While behavioral support (or collaboration) is the most palpable form, it is also usually the weakest. This is why modern insurgents tend to pursue deeper perceptual and attitudinal support from contested populations – support that may belie occasional behavioral support for their opponents during the hardships of war. As Mao Tse-Tung has reminded generations of guerrillas: “In a war of long duration, those whose conviction that the people must be emancipated is not deep rooted are likely to become shaken in their faith or actually revolt.”

No matter their ideological persuasion, modern insurgents have tended to use IO as a mechanism to target the ‘identity landscape’ of a population, attaching perceptions of crisis to ‘out-group’ identities (i.e. the counterinsurgency and incumbent authorities) and solutions to themselves (i.e. the insurgency) as members of the shared ‘in-group’ identity. This can have a powerful psychosocial effect because it is designed to shape and reinforce the same identity paradigms through which perceptions of crisis are framed and understood. The result is a cyclical process of cognitive reinforcement.

It would be mistaken to interpret the insurgent’s competitive system of meaning as simply ‘good’ IO. Competitive systems of meaning consist of a combination of IO and military-political activities. As Guevara contends: “Every act of the guerrilla army ought always to be accompanied by the propaganda necessary to explain the reasons for it.” Equally, the actions of the counterinsurgency are often accompanied by insurgent IO messaging (reinforced by insurgent action) to shape how those actions are perceived. Modern insurgents understand that, if they can shape how contested populations perceive the conflict, its actors and their actions, IO becomes a dual mechanism of compounding returns: a ‘force multiplier’ for the insurgency and a ‘force nullifier’ for their opponents.

From the modern insurgent’s perspective, small wars are not about winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of contested populations but about shaping their perceptions in order to polarize their support. In short, modern insurgencies succeed or fail based on their ability to synchronize competitive systems of meaning and control – in that order of priority – to ‘survive, outlast and outcompete’ their more powerful adversaries.

The Taliban

The recent successes of the Taliban insurgency exemplify these dynamics. Within weeks of the commencement of Coalition military operations in 2001, the Taliban had been almost completely routed. In what former CIA Officer and Obama Administration advisor Bruce Riedel described as “one of the most remarkable military comebacks in modern history”, the Taliban then began trickling back into southern Afghanistan in 2003 and, within two years, the insurgency was gaining momentum through Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt.

A major feature of the Taliban’s revival has been the evolution of its IO strategy and the synchronisation of its IO operations with its military and political activities. While its local IO strategy remains a tactical and operational strength, it has shown a willingness to communicate with regional and global audiences via multilingual spokesmen and maintains an active online presence. There is also a consistency to the Taliban narrative that reflects an understanding of the strategic and psychosocial dynamics described above. The Taliban has effectively leveraged the identity landscape of the target population, i.e. Afghans, especially Pashtuns, and the broader ummah; it has attached perceptions of crisis to the ‘out-group’, i.e., the foreign counterinsurgency and the Afghan government; and it has attached solutions to itself as the noble representative of the ‘in-group,’ i.e., Afghans and Muslims.

Enhancing the effect of the Taliban’s evident appreciation for the strategic and psychosocial dimensions of insurgency warfare is the speed with which Taliban IO responds to events in the field. The Taliban often enjoys the advantages inherent in being the first to shape perceptions of events, especially for local audiences. As former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stated: “When there is an incident in Afghanistan, the Taliban are quick to say there have been high numbers of civilian casualties… This goes around the world in minutes. …our response comes days later – if we are lucky. By that time, we have totally lost the media battle.”

IO is broadly recognized as a Taliban strength and a weakness for Coalition forces. Three explanations for this are significant. First, Taliban IO holds a central position in the broader insurgency strategy. Counterinsurgency IO, on the other hand, has tended to be used as a supporting mechanism for what is the central focus of ‘hearts and minds’ strategy: using military force to create time and space for the counterinsurgency’s system of control to function effectively.

Second, while insurgents use IO to shape perceptions and polarize support, counterinsurgency IO tends to focus on a population-focused ‘hearts and minds’ narrative to encourage behavioral support. As Tim Foxley asserts: “Much of ISAF IO work is based around the promotion of ISAF and Afghan government narratives…. The work highlights ‘good news’ stories: a bridge built here, a school built there, a small child taken to hospital….”

Finally, Taliban IO is the centrepiece of an attempt to establish an entire system of meaning that is designed to both enhance the appeal and assist in the design of a competitive system of control. Coalition forces may be losing the IO battle in Afghanistan, but they have barely attempted to establish a competitive system of meaning.

The counterinsurgency lag

This is a critical juncture for the small wars field. It was only in the aftermath of the failures of military-centric counterinsurgency strategies in Indochina and Algeria – driven by the recognition that modern insurgencies are first and foremost ‘political’ phenomena – that the population-centric ‘hearts and minds’ approach to counterinsurgency was born. While this approach is now the status quo in counterinsurgency thinking and practice, the military-centrists of the time doggedly defended their positions – dismissing failures in the field as the result of faulty application. Decades later, the mixed results of ‘hearts and minds’ counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflicts are defended in a similar manner. To overcome the counterinsurgency lag, the fundamental assumptions underpinning this dominant counterinsurgency approach must be examined and the lessons of insurgent successes must be learned.

Dr Haroro J. Ingram is a Research Fellow with the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies (Australian National University, Canberra). His Australian Research Council funded project, ‘Through Their Eyes’, analyses insurgent ‘information operations’ and explores its role as a determining factor in the success of insurgent movements.

Michael Silverberg
Quartz | 11 Aug 14

Herlinde Koelbl/Agentur Focus

You can often tell a country’s enemies by the targets its soldiers use for shooting practice. That’s what Herlinde Koelbl found while visiting the military shooting ranges of nearly 30 nations over the course of the past six years. Her photographs are collected in a recent book, Targets, and an exhibition at Berlin’s Deutsches Historiches Museum, up through October 5.

At every stop in her travels, Koelbl wondered, she writes in the book’s introduction, “Who is the bad man? What does he look like—the enemy that they are later expected to kill? Is he an abstract figure? Does it have a gender and if so, which? Are there cultural differences? Has the image of the enemy changed?” For the US, the target of choice was once a Soviet figure—”Ivan”—with a red star on his green helmet. Now, reflecting a change that’s taken place in much of the world, Ivan has largely been supplanted by Middle Eastern-looking men in jeans and keffiyehs or balaclavas.

USA Herlinde Koelbl/Agentur Focus

In Afghanistan and Ethiopia, “where every bullet counted,” the targets were makeshift and minimal: a mattress, a silhouette in wood. Non-state forces like the Kurdish PKK in northern Iraq and the Polisario Front in northwestern Africa used basic targets like stones, tin cans, or a painted circle. Britain’s colonial legacy was visible in South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda, all of which had the same targets as the UK. Elsewhere, duplicate designs told of the modern empire of globalization, with targets that were simply ordered from the same catalogue.

Lebanon Herlinde Koelbl/Agentur Focus

Koelbl saw more than just paper targets. She visited entire mock towns, created so soldiers can familiarize themselves with the enemy’s urban environment. One, in the California desert, was conceived by Hollywood designers, complete with minarets and shops laid out with rugs and plastic cuts of lamb. Israel gave a training village street signs in English and Arabic.

No matter which army she observed, Koelbl discovered common goals in its targets. One was to turn shooting into an exercise of muscle, not conscience. “It sounds horrifying, but you have to learn to kill automatically in order to function,” one soldier told her. Another was to establish a firm line between the soldiers and the enemy. “Who is the enemy here?” Koelbl writes. “The enemy is always the other one.”

Germany Herlinde Koelbl/Agentur Focus

Austria Herlinde Koelbl/Agentur Focus,1/