Colonel Panter-Downes Introduces the US Armed Forces to British Adventure

Today’s piece is a departure of sorts from that usually provided for the professional discussion. It marks the first in what will be fairly regular pieces from a new author, whom we will be calling Colonel Panter-Downes. This name is taken from a famous London “correspondent” to America in the early years of WWII, Mollie Panter Downes. She wrote regularly for the New Yorker, describing her view of the life of London and the UK at war for an American public. In our contemporary case, we have a British Army field grade officer reporting from the US in a time of different conflict. We can consider these pieces his “American War Notes.”

Obviously it is a delicate thing for a serving officer to report and remark upon life with the armed forces of an important ally. But if done well, a professional observer able to reflect and comment sensibly can offer a novel and valuable perspective of the institution’s many sides. Our author is more than adequately experienced of service in the combat arms, repeated deployments, as well as the rigours of military administration. That is, our author has a trustworthy voice, the fruits of which are what we hope to bring to Kings of War readers.

Today’s piece was commissioned. I had heard about the program from the author and thought it a fascinating thing to put before the American readers. I shall take a small bow now for my prescience in selecting a topic that would resonate so perfectly with the publication of the Army Operating Concept. Many 1s and 0s have already been spilled on the topic over at The Bridge. Here we narrow the focus to a specific idea. 

So, dear #CCLKOW readers, I give you this British idea for your consideration. Read Colonel Panter-Downes’s piece and the accompanying questions and join the discussion on Twitter.


20 years ago as a platoon commander I led the planning and deployment of a small team of British soldiers to the volatile North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. [1]  I was responsible for all elements of the operation, from conception, to execution and then exploitation. I researched and developed the concept of operations, arranged the logistics, selected and trained the team, organized the movement and conducted the follow up briefings. In country I liaised with the Embassy and Pakistani government agencies, recruited the in-country support team, dealt with the unexpected when caught up in an anti-Western riot in Peshawar, practiced the robustness of my contingency plans when we suffered casualties [2] and conducted numerous impromptu shuras and medical clinics in my area of operations. All this was done in the absence of radio or cellular communications to my higher headquarters.  Despite already being operationally experienced from a deployment to Northern Ireland, this was the defining moment of the start of my army career. I learnt more about the art of leadership and the loneliness of command, of logistics and working across cultures in this deployment then I had before or even since in structured training. I was adventurous training.

Adventurous Training (AT) is a singularly British military activity and is a fundamental element of its training ethos and regime. Defined as “Challenging outdoor training for Service personnel in specified adventurous activities that incorporates controlled exposure to risk,”[3] AT is invaluable as “the only way in which the fundamental risk of the unknown can be used to introduce the necessary level of fear to develop adequate fortitude, rigour, robustness, initiative and leadership to deliver the resilience that military personnel require on operations.” [4] There are currently nine core AT activities [5] and all UK Service Personnel are required to undertake this training as part of their basic training as well as post-operational decompression activities. I had my first taste of AT as an officer cadet and have continued active participation ever since, progressing through experience from participant to practitioner in my chosen disciplines. In all this time I have trained in many different countries, developed new skills and learnt hard lessons; I have been a planner as well as a climber, a logistician as well as a skipper and I have placed myself outside of my comfort zone and to confront my fears on more occasions than I care to remember.

The US Army has recently released its Army Operating Concept (AOC), a conceptual doctrine which “determines how we think about what the Army does”. [6] Much of the AOC emphasizes the human aspect of conflict and stresses the requirement to develop its human capability, in particular developing agile and adaptive commanders.  What is the connection between the AOC and AT? If the US Army is serious about developing its human capability, if it wants to develop leaders who “think critically, are comfortable with ambiguity, accept prudent risk, assess the situation continuously, develop innovative solutions to problems, and remain mentally and physically agile to capitalize on opportunities,” [7] then it should consider AT as a means to achieve those goals.

Now not everyone is going to undertake a high altitude trekking trip to the Hindu Kush, attempt Everest or challenge the Antarctic. [8] But year in, year out, U.K. service personnel conduct adventure training exercises in the U.K. and overseas, and in fact most overseas warfighting exercises have an adventure training element incorporated into the deployment. In all circumstances the value is always that this training challenges practical and leadership skills in uncertain environments with real risk. The skills they use are fundamental to soldiering: leadership, planning, and risk management. Conducted out of uniform and in small groups these personnel also often encounter a significantly different dynamic with the locals than when in uniform. Overseas adventure training is by definition expeditionary and physically the conditions are very often austere. Not that the U.S. Army need conduct significant amounts overseas, being blessed with some of the finest adventure training opportunities within its own boundaries, but it can incorporate adventure training into the rising tempo of small scale deployments already envisaged under the AOC.

Important to the training and the value it would offer the needs of the AOC, less specific highly qualified experts, AT tends to be a junior officer and senior NCO dominated activity. This allows these two elements to operate with normally significantly more autonomy than they get in conventional training; it fosters trust up and down the chain of command, that vital and often lacking ingredient in inculcating Mission Command. Significantly AT is also cheap compared to conventional military training. Infrastructure costs are minimal and the expertise can be brought in from a thriving civilian sector. Lastly AT is recruitment and retention positive. Soldiers enjoy adventure training and most activities undoubtedly have an element of glamour to them. [9]

If the U.S. Army is serious about developing its next generation of leaders to win in a complex world, then perhaps it should consider AT within the AOC framework.  If so, perhaps the ‘Ascent of Rum Doodle’ [10] will in future become as well read in the U.S. Army as ‘The Defence of Duffer’s Drift’ currently is.


Questions: Today’s questions are brought to you by the Editor.

First, and simply, what do the Americans think of Adventurous Training as a form of military training?

Second, do the US armed forces have the manpower flexibility to allow the pursuit of such activities? Consider personnel policies and routinized progress of billets and promotions.

Third, do the US armed forces have the institutional flexibility to allow and foster the initiative necessary for such a program? Does it trust junior leaders sufficiently?

Finally, how many of the Americans briefly wondered whether there was an exchange program to get on one of these expeditions?


Join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW and keep an eye out for the Colonel’s next posts.



1 The expedition staged through Peshawar before undertaking high altitude trekking towards Gilgit.

2 Two casualties total; one was bounced over a car in Peshawar and one suffered from altitude sickness.

Joint Services Pamphlet 419 ‘Joint Service Adventurous Training Scheme’ 3-1, para 7.

4 Ibid, p 1-1, para 1.

5 Offshore Sailing, Sub-Aqua Diving, Canoeing and Kayaking, Caving, Mountaineering, Skiing, Gliding, Mountain Biking, Parachuting and Paragliding.

6 Army Times, Interview with TRADOC Commander General David Perkins, Oct 13, 2014.

7 TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1 ‘The U.S. Army Operating Concept’ page 19, para 3-4 a. (4).

8 Everest and the Antarctic have been recent significant U.K. military AT expeditions.

9 Less caving, in my opinion a strange sport for strange people!

10 A comic novel on how not to run a mountaineering expedition.


Putin the ‘Strong Man’ has not protected his people

Despite his publicly cultivated image as a strong leader protecting his people, Vladimir Putin’s Russia still sees terrorist attacks with depressing frequency.

It is the twelfth anniversary of Moscow’s Nord-Ost theatre siege in which 130 people were killed, partly by terrorists and partly by Russia’s botched storming. Here is the story.

In 1999 Prime Minister/soon to be President Vladimir Putin raged about terrorists who blew up Moscow apartment buildings that, “we will waste them on the toilet…. the issue has been resolved once and for all.” More than one respected journalist has since cited what they say is evidence that Putin and the Russian state may have blown up the apartment buildings themselves in order to create popular support.

It was in September ten years ago that North Caucasus terrorists took hundreds of children and teachers hostage in a school in Beslan. Again the terrorists, and again what some say was a botched storming lead to more than 330 deaths, 186 of which were children. 447 Russians have gone the European Court of Human Rights to argue that Russia breached the victims’ right to life over Beslan.

These are a few examples which should prove that that Russia’s large, military and regular ‘anti-terror’ operations don’t work. In its turbulent North Caucasus, the home of Chechnya, Dagestan and countless terror attacks over the past 15 years, a suicide bomber recently blew himself up in Chechnya’s capital Grozny, which Moscow had previously thought pacified. Elections there have regularly returned near 100% of votes for Putin. But don’t mistake toleration, under the barrels of Russian guns, as support for Putin and Moscow. The security forces are about the only ethnic Russians left in the North Caucasus.

Putin may make a macho show of things. But the words of a Russian government spokesman at the European Court hearing into Beslan are more telling: ”It is no secret that terrorist attacks, particularly hostage-takings, are very difficult to predict. The sad experience has shown that even the strongest states, with a high level of public security, are not guaranteed against such cases and very often have nothing in the face of the terrorist threat.”

Before and since Beslan, huge expenditures of Russian money and the heavy handed use of force have failed for ignoring the root causes of terrorism in Russia. Kicking in people’s doors all over the North Caucasus, killing people there, and moves like trying to make the families of terrorists pay for their acts do nothing to endear the Russian government to locals. And it is that continued antipathy and fear on the part of non ethnic Russian populations which fuels the continued recourse to terrorism.

Russians shouldn’t believe in Putin’s strong man image. He promised to protect them. But he hasn’t.


The Arab Spring: The graveyard of terrorism

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Follow me on Twitter @EugenioLilli and on

Soon after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in early 2011, Al Qaeda tried to take credit for the popular revolutions that were upsetting the Arab world. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri claimed that the Arab Spring was a direct consequence of the September 11th terrorist attacks a decade earlier. Al Qaeda and other likeminded extremist groups depicted the objectives of the revolutions as in line with their rejection of the status quo in the region of the Greater Middle East. Despite their efforts, such groups had a marginal role in the initial phases of the revolutions. In fact, economic, political, and social grievances, and not violent extremist rhetoric, were the main reasons that brought the people into the streets. At the time, many observers (including myself) argued that the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the Arab Spring seemed to have fatally discredited the extremists’ argument that only violence could achieve significant change in the Arab world. After all, two weeks of peaceful mass protests in Egypt had driven Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out of office; something that extremists like al-Zawahiri had failed to achieve after decades of armed struggle.

What is the situation in late 2014?

In this post, I collected maps from recent reports produced by the US Congressional Research Service to provide a picture of the major current extremist threats in the regions of the Greater Middle East and Africa.

The first map refers to the area of the Levant and to the activity of groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. (click on the maps to enlarge)


The second map illustrates the situation in the Horn of Africa and the operations of Al Qaeda affiliates there.

Horn of Africa

The third map is about the areas of North and West Africa and the activity of local extremist groups.

West and North Africa

After having seen these maps, what is your opinion about the popular argument of early 2011 that the peaceful nature of the Arab Spring had undermined the extremists’ narrative that only violence could bring about change in the region?

I would like to hear your comments.


These boots are not meant for fighting…yet?

Continuing the weekly professional discussion of military affairs upon Twitter, today’s piece dovetails off of a piece by our Defense Studies Department, “Land Power and the Islamic State Crisis.”  It is a very good summary of the issues, and leads the reader to the unexpected conclusion that the thing which had seemed to be the answer to the current conflicts may, in fact, not lead to a satisfactory conclusion. This piece, for the purposes of discussion, will argue that tactical prowess notwithstanding, at this point Western land power cannot win this war. Read Dr. Tuck’s piece and this one, then join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW. 


“In the end, then, the dilemma facing policy-makers in the fight to stop Islamic State lies is the fact that land power might have the intrinsic power of decision in war; but there is nothing intrinsic to land power that guarantees a decision in our favour.”

That is the money quote from our Defense Studies colleague, Dr. Christopher Tuck. So many have been shouting for Western “boots on the ground” over the past weeks, but there is vastly less real consideration of what that would mean at any level of concern to military affairs, from tactics to policy. Despite absolute tactical proficiency to do so, to enter the conflict on the ground to fight and defeat ISIS is not currently in American interests or, more importantly, those whose lives and fates are so intimately tied to whether and where the ISIS flag continues to fly.

It must be very clear that casualties caused by Western and American armed forces, whether civilians or even the enemy, have a pernicious negative effect. In the former, it increases the moral and human distance between us and those on the ground we mean to support. While it is entirely possible to successfully prosecute a military campaign where local casualties are high and local support is maintained – the campaign in Western Europe to overthrow the German occupation in WWII, for example – this requires a significant foundation of trust and strong shared objectives. Neither currently exists in the region, although it may be possible that Iraq is beginning to manifest the necessary will and interest. Recent calls for increased American assistance from the Government (which is enjoying some greater amount of legitimacy than Maliki’s), from local civilian leaders, and from Iraqi Kurdistan suggest that such support might be growing. Cultivating this sentiment will take smart and sensible diplomacy, both from US/Western actors as well as regional partners. But that will take work, and does not change the contemporary problems.

With respect to the latter, you will likely pause to question why I believe that enemy losses to our military action are detrimental to our strategic purposes. However, as it must be clear at this point, ISIS’s strengths are not wholly or even in the majority on the battlefield. They are, in that domain, adequately sufficient, making good use of their strengths and mitigating their weaknesses. There are certain aspects of their campaigns that have been relatively sophisticated – the reconnaissance and battlefield preparation for the campaign in Anbar [1] should not be undervalued. Nevertheless, we should also note that their military success has been built more significantly upon their abilities to parlay the sentiments of local populations to their tactical and strategic benefit than upon their abilities to fight. But at the end of the day, ISIS’s strength is in its communications and propaganda. And it is in this realm that every fighter killed by Western action becomes nightmarish for us, as each becomes a martyred hero capable of encouraging the recruitment of future fighters. Simply put, the blood we spill is like fuel to the fire.

“We are your sons. We are your brothers. We came to protect your religion and your honour.” This, more than anything else, is ISIS’ selling point on the ground, why they have not yet been pushed out by the locals in whose name they are fighting and attempting to govern. That is where the fight is. And as it stands, on their own Western boots have neither the strategies nor the tactics to sell or make that promise.


So, simple questions for this week’s discussion.

1. In the short term you cannot change the context. So, what do you do? Contrary to the hype, “boots” are not the limit of Western military power – and for that matter, neither is airpower. So, what are the remaining elements of our military capabilities that could be used to strategic advantage against ISIS?

2. In the medium to longer term, the context is malleable. What military and political efforts would help to shape the context and increase the effectiveness of Western military activity, to include the option to use ground troops if that is deemed necessary and of potential utility?




[1] In “Clanging of the Swords, IV” the Raafidah hunters which targeted Iraqi military personnel were brutal, but that should not belie the sophistication of the preparation and execution of the mission to utterly dislocate the Iraqi Army forces. The video is awful, but does offer good military insights.


Not Ripe For Freedom

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Follow me on Twitter @EugenioLilli and on

Ask a person if all men should be free and the likely answer will be “yes”.

Move the conversation from the theoretical to the empirical, from the general to the specific, and you will be surprised by the kind of different answers you may receive.


In recent conversations on the outcome of  the popular uprisings that have upset the Arab world since early 2011, I have been repeatedly confronted with the argument that some people, for cultural, religious, or whatever reason, “are not ripe for freedom.” Supporters of different strands of this argument use the current examples of chaos in post-Qaddafi Libya, violence in post-Mubarak Egypt, disorder in post-Saleh Yemen, and protracted armed confrontation in post- (?) Assad Syria to prove that some people, especially in the Arab world, are not ready to be “free”. It seems to me that hidden behind many of these arguments is the legacy of the XVIII century concept of the “white man’s burden”, according to which the “better” people should encourage the “lesser” people to develop socially, politically, and economically until the latter can eventually take their own place in the world.


Nevertheless, if one accepts the assumption that some people are not ripe for freedom, freedom will never be achieved;

for one cannot arrive at the maturity for freedom without having already acquired it; one must be free to learn how to make use of one’s powers freely and usefully.

The first attempts will surely be brutal and will lead to a state of affairs more painful and dangerous than the former condition under the dominance, but also the protection, of an external authority.

However, one can achieve reason only through one’s own experiences and one must be free to be able to undertake them.

To accept the principle that freedom is worthless for those under one’s control and that one has the right to refuse it to them forever, is an infringement on the rights of God himself, who has created man to be free.


Those are not my words but Immanuel Kant’s (the above excerpt is cited in Michael Bakunin’s Etatism et Anarchie, ed. Arthur Lehning, 1967). Kant’s remarks are especially interesting because of their context. In fact, the German philosopher wrote them during the so-called Reign of Terror (end of XVIII century) in defense of the French Revolution. Kant was defending the Revolution against those who claimed that the violence unleashed during the Reign of Terror showed that the masses were unprepared for the privilege of freedom.


I cannot help being impressed by the contemporary relevance of Kant’s words.


I believe that no rational individual should condone violence and terror. However, the same rational individual should not be too quick to condemn the violence that often occurs when long-subdued people rise against their autocratic oppressors and take the first difficult steps toward freedom.

It seems to me that when we look at the popular uprisings in the Arab world we are quick to condemn the violence associated with the upheaval but we easily forget what triggered such violence in the first place. Autocrats generally seize and maintain power through violence. Unfortunately, a certain level of violence might be the only way for oppressed people to take that power back from them.


That said, there remain several unresolved vexing issues.


In order to prompt a debate on the topic, let’s narrow down the concept of freedom to political freedoms, and in particular to those political freedoms generally enjoyed in a sound form of democratic government.

Some questions immediately come into the mind:


1) What if democratic institutions bring to power elites or groups that are not committed to democratic values? Or, at least, to the kind of democratic values that we cherish in the West? Put in other words, what if political freedom becomes license to opt for destructive radicalization?


2) Could we expect autocratic leaderships to be credible mid-wives for countries undergoing difficult processes of democratic transition? How do we value the establishment of democratic institutions and practices (a parliament or elections) in terms of achieving political freedom?


3) Is there any factual ground to the argument that a specific culture or religion makes people more or less “ripe” for political freedom?


4) What does history tell us about the path that western societies followed to free themselves from their own oppressive autocrats? Was it a peaceful or a violent one?


Let’s the discussion begin…



The Acme Co. Army?


This week’s CCLKOW piece is brought to us by another colleague in War Studies. In this one we confront the seemingly never-ending debate: Do we need a private army to do our dirty work? As domestic politics further complicate the use of own troops in defense of interests but not threat and conflicts seem to demand rapid response, the appeal of the privatization of force grows again. Although of less importance in this latest age of state war, armies for hire are not new to the battlefield. Whether this is wisdom or wishful thinking is another matter. Enjoy the post and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW


It seems to be the debate that never dies: Last week saw the airing of yet another proposal to establish an army of private contractors, armed and ready to go into combat. One US news host thought it would be a good idea to establish such an army to fight ISIS. Now the idea of a private army is of course neither new nor practicable and has rightfully not attracted much serious discussion. However, a closer consideration of the issues attached to this proposal – such as political control, military effectiveness, and lawfulness – should revive discussion about the role of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) in contemporary warfare.

First, we should remember that the idea to employ a private force in lieu of state forces has been made previously not only by those trying to sell such an army but also by leading figures in the international community. In 1997, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed to use PMSCs for peacekeeping and the running of refugee camps. This idea did not find much support, but it is worth noting that the proposal was made after the international community failed to respond adequately to the genocide in Rwanda during a period that saw much soul-searching about which reasons could provide legitimacy to an infringement of state sovereignty.

As other commentators have pointed out there are many armed contractors operating around the world at this moment [1], working not only for governments but also private clients such as oil and gas and shipping companies. Also, not all PMSC employees are armed – unarmed guarding, security risk analysis, intelligence gathering and technical support are among the functions frequently contracted out. For all these tasks it is challenging enough to maintain adequate oversight, control and coordination. So intuitively the establishment of a private army is a bad idea. Or is it?

To answer that question, it is worth revisiting some of the classic arguments for and against PMSC usage in armed conflict. The most common arguments for contracting are as follows. PMSCs are cheaper than the military. They are more flexible. They free up military capability. They have specialist knowledge. The public cares less about contractor deaths than about military deaths. Now none of these is actually proven across the board – as with most other things it depends on the specific situation. [2] For example, short-term savings might be eaten up in the long term when a contractor acquires specialist knowledge on a contract, meaning the company is in a prime position to bid on a follow-on contract and charge more than before.

Arguments against employing PMSCs are just a varied as those in favour of it. The most common ones are: It is unethical to use PMSCs. They are too expansive. They are unpredictable and have a vested interest in a conflict to continue. They are not accountable to the public in the way the military is. Oversight is insufficient. Each of those of course has a counter-argument. For example, PMSC oversight and regulation have improved significantly in the past few years, not least through the establishment of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers. It is also not clear why PMSCs or their employees should be more interested in the continuation of a conflict than military personnel.

Why then does the private army idea keep coming up? Because it seems to be an easy option, a ‘quick fix’ instead of developing a strategy to counter what caused a crisis in the first place. It also might seem politically more appealing to present a one-stop solution rather than spending months or years reforming outdated protocols and structures. While I am by no means in favour of it there are a few questions I would like to put up for discussion. I would especially welcome input from those with field experience with security contractors. 

With all this in mind, the questions for this week’s discussions are:


In an age of wars of choice, do ‘private armies’ offer states a better option for armed intervention than traditional armed forces?

Can PMSCs be of use in the fight against ISIL, and in which capacities?

What are the most significant challenges to their use from a military practitioner’s perspective?

 How can PMSC-military cooperation be improved?


Join the discussion on Twitter, #CCLKOW.



1. See the Washington Post blog post by Ishaan Tharoor See also Erik Wemple’s earlier  post

2. In fact Avant and Sigelman found that the US population cares almost as much about contractor deaths as it does about military deaths, but was less informed about the former. Avant, Deborah D./ Sigelman, Lee (2010): Private Security and Democracy: Lessons from the US in Iraq. Security Studies 19(2), 230-265.

groundhog day

Gulf War III

The new gulf war will be an amazing thing.

It won’t be like the previous two in any way.

This time there will be a clear strategy from the start: to kill the bad people.

And the range of activities to be performed will be tightly bounded: we won’t go into ground operations unless all the air operations turn out to be not quite as effective as we thought. Then we’ll vacillate about whether we meant we weren’t going to go in on the ground, agonize about whether we have the correct authorities to do so, and then under resource it. To make it interesting.

We know exactly that this is the thing that the enemy least wants: the people cutting off heads and making videos of it precisely don’t want us to attack them. That’s the thing they’re most seeking to avoid. Because if we don’t attack them they’ll be able to find cohesion amongst Middle Eastern populations to widen the caliphate. It’s either that or it’s precisely what they want. Bit like AQ and the death by a thousand cuts that bin Laden predicted for Gulf War II.

We won’t turn a blind eye to who is – predominantly – funding these groups, and we will certainly make stiff representations to them: unless they have lot of money. In which case we’ll pretend the root cause is something else. Because that’s less inconvenient.

We will give our armed forces the %GDP funding and capabilities to deal with these endless interventions: or, alternatively, we’ll keep forgetting that we said we’d stop intervening, cut the funding and wonder why it’s all a bit touch and go. God forbid we actually and seriously engage in drumming out duplication in Europe to make sure that our buck is delivering a bang not a sizzle. (Sorry, I realise I went far too far there….)

This time when we break the china in the shop, we’ll own the shop. Definitely. We won’t cut and run with the shop still broken and a big sign saying ‘easy thieving opportunities here’ placed in the window. No sir. Unless we get bored of the people not being able to stop killing each other.  Which is, afterall, very tedious.

So, off to war we go.

But it would be nicer to have an exit strategy from the start, and a range of things that looked like an understanding of what success in this space is.

Most importantly, I wonder whether Chilcot will manage to report before Gulf War IV?


Reframing the Current Crisis in Iraq

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Follow me on Twitter @EugenioLilli and on

During the past few months, politicians, media outlets, and pundits alike have framed the current crisis in Iraq in a seemingly straightforward fashion.

The popular narrative goes as follows: a barbaric, Islamic extremist group, called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has established control over areas astride the border between Syria and Iraq. Vastly larger, but mostly ineffective, Iraqi armed forces have not been able to stop the ISIS advance whose militants have come close to reaching the outskirts of the capital Baghdad. Iraq, vexed by ineluctable sectarian conflict, now stands on the brink of civil war. However, the ISIS threat goes beyond the area it currently controls. In fact, the ISIS has ostensibly displayed global ambitions: its leadership has announced the creation of an Islamic caliphate and has called on Muslims worldwide to vow allegiance to its self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

There are at least three aspects of this popular narrative that are inaccurate and somewhat misleading.

1) First aspect: the current crisis in Iraq is all about the ISIS.

Although the ISIS has undoubtedly achieved the status of “ the public face” of the Iraqi insurgency, it could hardly be described as the only actor involved in the fighting. Reliable accounts, in fact, provide evidence that the insurgency in Iraq is a complex aggregation of diverse militant Sunni groups. An all but complete list of these groups includes, along with the ISIS, other Islamist extremist factions (such as Ansar al-Islam), the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq (that comprises as many as eighty tribes), and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (a militant group that claims to have Kurdish and Shiite members and surely hosts many Sunni Baathists once loyal to the regime of Saddam Hussein). Notably, antipathies exist among members of this heterogeneous alliance. As an example, some Islamic extremist groups consider former Baathists to be infidels.

2) Second aspect: the root causes of the current crisis in Iraq mostly stem from religion and sectarian tensions.

Although the armed confrontation in Iraq has indeed pitted a Sunni insurgency against Shiite and Kurdish forces, the current conflict is by no means a theological confrontation rooted in the seventh century. The root causes behind the fighting are primarily political. Sunni political grievances include: fair access to government revenue and services, a say in the process of national decision-making, an end to rampant corruption in the Shiite-led government, and a modicum of social justice. These are clearly secular and not religious grievances. Notably, they are not new grievances either. During the last years of the George W. Bush presidency, in fact, the United States already acknowledged the existence of a number of such potentially destabilizing issues. Tellingly, embedded in the eighteen political “benchmarks” identified at the time by the United States to foster political reconciliation in Iraq, there were laws to distribute oil revenue equitably and provisions to reverse the purge of Baathists from government positions.

3) Third aspect: the goal of the ISIS leadership is to create a global caliphate.

It is true that the ISIS has announced the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the territories the group has seized in Iraq and Syria. It is also true that the ISIS leadership has asked Muslims living beyond the areas under its direct control to swear their allegiance to the new caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, there are clear limits to the ISIS capability to achieve global reach. To begin with, the ISIS has scored its major military successes in areas where local populations were mostly friendly to the insurgency. ISIS is going to face a stiffer resistance in Shiite and Kurdish majority areas. Moreover, and this is linked to points 1 and 2, the current Iraqi insurgency is primarily a marriage of convenience. Cooperation among the above mentioned unlikely Sunni allies will probably terminate as soon as the common Shiite enemy is defeated. Ensuing infighting will likely weaken the insurgency and degrade its ability to seize additional territory. Furthermore, the appeal of the ISIS to Sunni communities in the wider Middle East should not be overestimated. Moderate Sunnis might not feel comfortable with ISIS extremist doctrine and tactics. Finally, the international coalition that is presently forming under the aegis of the United States will represent a huge obstacle not only to the ISIS potential expansionist goals but also to the extremist group’s very existence.

What does this tell us about the way the international community should respond to the current crisis in Iraq? I see at least two important implications:

1) The international community would be mistaken in considering the Iraqi insurgency solely, or primarily, as a terrorist threat.

2) Any international military intervention in Iraq must be followed by a serious long-term commitment by the international community to facilitate sectarian reconciliation and to pressure the government in Baghdad to resolve the political grievances that fueled the Sunni insurgency in the first place.


‎Is blowing up social media an act of war?

We find ourselves on the cusp of another significant military intervention in Iraq. When last we met here in 2003 it was over the question of the threat posed by the supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein. Today it is in response to the use of a social media as a weapon of mass effect. If the calculus for war was incorrect at that time, to varying degrees of negative consequence depending on the party, then we should take the time to consider whether the threat against which we propose to act is correctly framed and understood. Read, reply here and join the discussion at #CCLKOW.


At the very heart of what the military professional does is the moral authority of the sober calculus between war and peace. Taking life being the first and most basic restriction we commonly acknowledge, the justifications to do so must be serious. We should not be in the business of asking fellow citizens to do such things lightly. Hence such ideals and guides as just war. Rather, however, than consider our moral correctness in responding to the Group Formerly Known as — and Now Referred to as — [1],  I would prefer to examine the claims that THEIR actions of late demand a response which makes use of, as one pundit put it, “every force at our disposal.” Does THIS GROUP’s actions rise to the level of an act of war?

The execution of lone citizens, bereft of any consolation of camaraderie or deed in defence, in desolate surroundings, is just one type of the extreme perceived brutality THAT GROUP seeks to impose upon its enemy audience. Even as many eschew the actual images, just knowing about the event now is enough to feel the agony that situation must have evoked and inspire justified anger. And right we should feel that way, for the sake of our humanity – if you do not, I should like to weep for you and maybe also put you in a cage.

Certainly these images shock, offend, anger and infuse with righteousness. As individuals.

As individuals is not, however, the way in which the state is meant to think and behave. The state represents the whole, and for good reason. The whole has an entirely different set of needs and qualities. The whole is greater than the sum of our fears and grievance; it is also the sum (and more) of our strengths.

Let’s be clear. Lone Americans or Britons or Japanese, et al, will always be vulnerable to THEY WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED. Their respective countries? I am going to be bold and say no. [2]

I have in the past discussed the use of traditionally non-threatening acts such as auto accidents as acts of war. As well, I have examined the role of sub rosa conflict. I am perfectly happy to grant the asymmetrical actor his due in pursuing war according to the means he finds handy and effective. [3]

However, whether such ‎acts are a reasonable threat to the target societies – and thus demand a use of force in keeping with such a challenge – has not been at the forefront of the discussion. Because the actions are so brazen and awful they have assumed a weight and authority which seems unassailable. That is a dangerous path to the use of force and the recourse to war.

Worse, while THEY pose little risk to the West, THEY (and some others) do seem to be causing a problem for the region. THEY (and other factions) are killing their own in a heart-breaking fashion, in numbers we mostly dare not consider. And it is for this that the misconstruction of their threat is really problematic. There is a role to be played in support of local action. But that sensible action will be steamrolled by rationalised vengeance without a proper accounting of the threat. If we do not correctly apprehend the issues then our policies, strategies, and tactics will be flawed and unlikely to achieve much beyond continued chaos.

I suspect this is less a piece about a specific set of questions and more taking a moment to question the consensus. However, in honour of my place, I’ll frame the essential question in these terms:


Are we over-egging the threat pudding? And in the process, might we be forgetting the roast?



1. The article linked above is an interesting analysis of the legitimacy of THAT GROUP’s political claims regarding statehood by Lieutenant Colonel Tyrell Mayfield, a U.S. Air Force Political Affairs Strategist, There is much concern about how to name THEM and why.

2. Well, qualified no – we could certainly flail ourselves into submission.

3. And let’s be clear, the strong have every reason to use low spectrum hybrid options – the asymmetry of their obvious power superiority is at times a hindrance to action. Putin could not INVADE Ukraine, the mismatch alone would be the outrage, no matter the provocation. But he can do so in the gray zone of plausible deniability. Whether HE poses a larger threat hangs on whether Ukraine is part of a revanchist march (yes) or a means to distract domestic criticism (no, but pay attention).)


Reflections on President Obama’s IS speech

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Follow me on Twitter @EugenioLilli and on

On September 10, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech on the threat represented by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. A lot has already been said and written about Obama’s four-point strategy to tackle the IS.

In this blog post, I would like to draw your attention on two aspects that have received less coverage but that I believe to be quite important nonetheless.


First, Obama said: “Now let’s make two things clear: IS is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of IS’s victims have been Muslim. And IS is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. IS is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

For President Obama, the Islamic State is “a terrorist organization, pure and simple”. This is a clear oversimplification of a much more complex phenomenon. As we know, the IS includes former Iraqi Baath party members and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen that do not squarely fit Obama’s definition of terrorists and are not simply fighting or supporting the IS for the sake of slaughtering all who stand in their way. My concern is that by narrowly defining the IS threat as a terrorist threat, the US response will be inadequate to solve the crisis in the long term. The United States, in fact, may be tempted to focus too heavily on military means while discounting the importance of addressing the political, economic, and social grievances that enabled the rise of the IS in the first place.

Second, Obama said: “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out IS wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.

Here, I am skeptical about President Obama’s description of the US counterterrorism strategy in Yemen and Somalia as “successful”. This point is also discussed in an interesting article by Hayes Brown.

As for Yemen, years of US counterterrorism have failed to eradicate the local branch of Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, National Counterterrorism Center Deputy Director Nicholas Rasmussen recently stated that “We [the United States] continue to assess that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [which is based in Yemen] remains the Al-Qaeda affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United State.”

As for Somalia, the United States has been fighting the US-designated terrorist group al-Shabaab at least since 2008. In his speech, President Obama singled out the killing of Ahmed Godane, the top commander of the group, as evidence of the effectiveness of US counterterrorism strategy in the country. However, as noted by Brown, rather than discouraging the remaining members, the killing of Godane has led al-Shabaab to quickly name a new leader and to renew its allegiance to al Qaeda.

Given the persistent threats represented by AQAP in Yemen and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, it is not straightforward to understand President Obama’s choice of these two countries as successful examples of the US strategy of counterterrorism.

These are my thoughts. Now, I would like to hear from you. What is your take on these two issues?