How to beat Russia, Swiss-style!

By the graces of social media, I just came across rare footage of several of Switzerland’s covert defence installations. In true James Bond style, the country has used its terrain to camouflage major military assets that, when the time is right, transform into fully fledged and primed weapons systems. Most of these were built in the 1970s to withstand a possible Soviet invasion, raising the germane question of whether Ukraine (and perhaps NATO’s easternmost members…) should have invested in similar capabilities?

Enjoy (video is in French – do not be alarmed):


A moral imperative: sexual violence and the limits of national security

Last week, John Kerry and William Hague, the foreign ministers of the US and the UK, met to discuss the scourge of sexual violence. Their discussion led to the publication of an article for the Huffington Post titled ‘Preventing Sexual Violence is a National Security Imperative’. In parallel, the United States announced a measure to prevent anyone who has ‘presided over or engaged in or knew of or conducted these kinds of attacks’ from receiving an entry visa to the USA. This June, London will host a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, where the world will seek to ‘shatter the culture of impunity for these crimes’. In theory, most countries are already on board, with 140 of them having signed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, put forward last September at the General Assembly.

Sexual violence is a scourge – something that humanity should not allow – yet it is ongoing and shockingly prevalent. Messrs Hague and Kerry should be commended for shining a bright light on the issue and the June conference in London will ideally be but a first step in changing norms, legislation, and practice.

But why did Hague and Kerry feel the need to use the rhetoric of ‘national security’ to galvanise action? Do we live in a world today where only ‘national security imperatives’ are worthy of consideration? Tangentially, the Federal Bureau of Investigations recently changed its ‘primary mission’ from ‘law-enforcement’ to ‘national security’ – perhaps because it, too, felt that national security is where it’s at. This obsession with national security risks not only blurring lines but banalising a term with great utility and whose use demands extreme clarity and care.

Ultimately, claims about ‘national security imperatives’ risk disappointment and distraction from a fundamentally important endeavour. The overview of current practice, bleak as it is, makes it quite clear that preventing sexual violence does not feature very high among states’ typical national security concerns. What tends to receive priority are those threats and dangers that affect negatively the wellbeing of a nation-state or its citizens. To frame sexual violence in such terms, it would be necessary to demonstrate how it, in a general sense and internationally, affects the security of all those states expected to act. On this front, though mass violence, whether sexual or otherwise, certainly has ripple effects regionally, or in the immediate neighbourhood, their implications for national security greatly diminishes for countries further afield. This is, after all, why the scourge of sexual violence has been allowed to persist: isolation, indifference, inactivity.

Given the nature and scale of the problem, it would be far wiser and more accurate to frame the prevention of sexual violence in moral terms: such violence is a crime against the values espoused by the international community, it is ethically and legally spurned and condemned through instruments of law, and structures are set up – or should be created – to prosecute this crime in particular so as to emphasise its seriousness and intolerability across the globe. The moral force of the argument should, on its own merits, be sufficient to advocate, convince, and generate change. A ‘name-and-shame’ mechanism could even be constructed to highlight the worst transgressors – those states (and non-state actors) whose security forces are the worst culprits. All of this and more could posit sexual violence within the realm of jus cogens, where it rightly belongs.

Most fundamentally, the moral argument is superior because states should respond to sexual violence not because it challenges their ‘interests’ but because it is anathema and cannot be tolerated. That in itself is, or should be, the most realistic foundation for action and if we fail on this count, appeals to national interest will likely fail too.

A final point is worth making. Hague and Kerry do not really talk about sexual violence ‘at home’: both frame the issue as something that occurs in other peoples’ countries, particularly in the Third World. The article cites the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and their prepared comments those of Sudan and Bosnia, Colombia, Guatemala, and Liberia. Their point is well taken – war and instability usually provide the setting for the most grievous episodes of sexual violence. But while the US, the UK and other likeminded nations look overseas for change, might it not be worth noting also the very real problems with rape and and sexual violence that these very same countries face at home?

Two years ago, in 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimated that there may have been as many as 19,000 rapes in the US military over the course of the previous year. Even if this number is off by some margin, the overall picture is still entirely unacceptable. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2012 that ‘nearly 1 in 5’ women in the US reported having experienced rape at some point in their life. As concerns Hague and Kerry’s efforts abroad, there is in other words a risk, particularly given the sensitivity about sovereignty, neo-colonialism and meddling in much of the developing world, that their drive to prevent sexual violence comes to be seen, much like human rights, as an instrument of Western interference. Perhaps a more inclusive, de-securitized approach is needed, one that looks inwards as well as abroad, and is fuelled by moral outrage rather than purported security concerns.


‘Not quite dead yet’: the counterinsurgency debate continues…

Though some claim counterinsurgency is dead, the debate about it is still going strong. It remains to be seen whether the raft of recently released and soon-to-be-published books on the topic are the last, parting shots or just another salvo in a campaign with no end. What is certain is that there is still much to be said and understood about the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, about military intervention, and the proper application of strategy. As contributions to this debate, I alert you to three recent items by Kings of War authors (myself, of course, and also Ryan Evans):

  • For your listening pleasure, consider this podcast recorded by the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Advanced Governmental Studies. Mark Stout,  Global Security Studies Program Director, interviews me about my recent book and the strategic context of counterinsurgency. The conversation touches upon the British campaign in Basra, the relevance of counterinsurgency principles to modern warfare and the relation between counterinsurgency and the campaign plan.
  • Over at War on the Rocks, I have penned a short essay on clear-hold-build, examining the central contradiction between the dominance of this approach in counterinsurgency theory and its extremely patchy track-record when put into practice. What accounts for the gap between theory and practice and does ‘clear-hold-build’ have any utility as an approach to local-level counterinsurgency? The article links to a longer treatment of this topic, within Contemporary Security Policy, which the editors and Taylor & Francis have temporarily made ‘free-for-view‘.
  • Finally, Ryan Evans has penned a very useful review for Foreign Policy of three books dealing with Afghanistan: Matt Zeller’s Watches Without Time, Ben Anderson’s No Worse Enemy, and Carter Malkasian’s War Comes to GarmserWhile on the topic of book reviews, I will be reviewing Douglas Porch and Gian Gentile’s counter-COIN books in a forthcoming issue of Small Wars & Insurgencies dedicated in its entirety to counterinsurgency and the debate that it has fostered. Something to look forward to, right?

More to follow, no doubt…


Did CT Kill COIN? – Perspectives on the Special Forces Raids

James Kitfield, author of the classic text Prodigal Soldiers, has penned an interesting ‘five takeaways’ article about the two US Special Operations raids in Somalia and Libya last week. One of his observations is that the raids vindicate the advocates of CT – or counter-terrorism – in their ‘heated debate’ with the advocates of counterinsurgency. He concludes that ‘the news of the nearly simultaneous U.S. commando raids this past weekend drives home just how decisively advocates for a limited counter-terrorism strategy have won the argument’.

I have no doubts that we are or will soon be leaving this particular ‘counterinsurgency era’, a period defined by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Kitfield is also correct in noting the US administration’s and the public’s aversion to protracted, costly and ambiguous state-building operations. Still, there is something a little troubling about the interpretation of this shift, from COIN to CT, as a ‘winning argument’.

1) The notion that the ‘limited counter-terrorism strategy’ has ‘won the argument’ makes it seem as if proponents of counterinsurgency would rather the US conduct counterinsurgencies in Somalia and Libya, and in every other state where al-Qaeda operatives may be present. This is not quite accurate, and is obviously a losing argument, particularly when counterinsurgency is equated with what we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan (not, say, the Philippines and Colombia). There was a CT versus COIN debate in 2009 and 2010, but it concerned only Afghanistan and the Obama’s administration attempts to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat. More broadly – as a global strategy against al-Qaeda – the advocacy of counterinsurgency suggested merely that narrow counter-terrorism operations be complemented by various political, economic and other non-military lines of effort, so as to give the strikes and arrests strategic meaning.

2) This brings us to a second point: there is really no good reason to counterpose counterterrorism and counterinsurgency so that you have a winner and a loser. Much depends on context, strategic objectives, what is needed and what can be done. What is interesting, however, and which John Amble points out over at War on the Rocks, is that our capability to conduct counterterrorism against al-Qaeda is so much more advanced than our capability to engage in the non-military aspects of ‘global counterinsurgency’:

Engaging vulnerable populations in order to degrade popular support for al-Qaeda remains a strategic necessity.  But even an extremely generous accounting of our efforts along these lines over more than a decade would deem them a middling success.  Compared to this, our ability to employ SOF’s kinetic capabilities in a discerning, targeted fashion has been remarkably effective, and remains the best tool available to defeat al-Qaeda and the global network of jihadist groups atop which it symbolically sits.

This imbalance is critical and unfortunate, but we should not confuse our failures to ‘engage vulnerable populations’ with the futility of doing so.

3) Dave Maxwell of Georgetown University is cited in the article as arguing that ‘we’ll eventually look back on Iraq and Afghanistan as anomalies and the debates over counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism as largely unhelpful’. Within the context of the article he is absolutely right, and the second point in particular is alluded to above. But there is a danger of misinterpretation here. Iraq and Afghanistan will hopefully be regarded as anomalies because the uniquely inauspicious manner in which they were planned, launched and prosecuted. In the future (again, one may hope), interventions will be approached more strategically and with greater awareness of the political context in which they are to unfold. This may go some way toward obviating the desperate measures taken in both campaigns to attempt extrication.

But in important respects, as we now exit the counterinsurgency era, Iraq and Afghanistan must not be seen as anomalous, but as typical. This is a point that Robert Egnell and I tried to make in our recent interview with Octavian Manea over at Small Wars Journal:

Robert Egnell: …So long as the operating environment looks as it does today, so long as the character of conflict looks as it does today, the lessons at the tactical level of the last ten years remain highly relevant. Even if we can debate the concept of counterinsurgency and its application today and tomorrow, the lessons of operating in urban environments, foreign languages and foreign cultures will be relevant also in the future. Expeditionary powers cannot escape these challenges. It is not going to get easier: how to engage with a civilian population, how to establish and maintain civil order, how to collect and process human intelligence, how to operate in a foreign environment, how to provide basic services. These are challenges that are here to stay with us as we move forward.

David Ucko: Beyond these common operational challenges, one of the most pressing lessons from the cases discussed in the book [Iraq and Afghanistan] is the need for greater strategic thinking. This sounds like a cliché these days, and becomes a catchall explanation with little substance. But despite great talk about the need for strategy, I don’t think the term or the art is widely understood. Looking at what happened in the last ten to fifteen years – whether we call it counterinsurgency, war, contingency operations, it doesn’t really matter – the ability to craft and implement a viable strategy is absolute, for any power involved in any kind of expeditionary operations. … There are great lessons from these campaigns and we would be absolutely foolish to dismiss them as aberrations just because we don’t like the word “counterinsurgency.”

In other words, what about Afghanistan and Iraq is truly anomalous? The scale of the US role? Yes, for some time such large-scale interventions are unlikely to be repeated. The cack-handedness with which both operations were launched? Hopefully so. But the strategic and operational challenges,  they are always going to be there, whether we choose to ‘own’ them or not. Doing so risks ‘another Afghanistan’, but shirking them – as was attempted in Libya – carries risks all of its own.


Talking with the Taliban: A New ICSR Report

Last week I attended an event at the New America Foundation where Ryan Evans, Peter Neumann and Ambassador Omar Samad presented the new ICSR report, Talking to the Taliban: Hope over History?. The presentations were short, incisive and clear, and the question and answer session a constructive addendum to the event. I would strongly recommend anyone who is interested in this topic to read the report and watch the video.

The report is sceptical about the value of talking with the Taliban, at least in the manner in which negotiations have been approached to date. There are many reasons for the pessimism: the Taliban is not hierarchical, so there are few leaders who can ‘deliver the movement’; the talks critically do not include the Afghan government; too many actors are involved in the process, producing distortion and ambiguity; and whereas negotiations require lengthy commitments, NATO is rapidly running out of time. Most fundamentally, whereas talks require a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, NATO does not have a strong enough hand militarily to achieve what they want at the negotiating table.

This leads to the obvious question: should we nonetheless try? It could be said that talks is a luxury of the strong – you achieve agreements based on the military balance and on that basis NATO is at a disadvantage. Yet fighting on in the hope of a better deal is also a luxury of the strong – at this point it, too, is highly undesirable. So if not talks, then what?

The panelists were unsure. Peter Neumann made the important point that the efforts at negotiation do not occur in a vacuum but are themselves destabilizing: ‘there’s all kind of talk about a secret deal and people are arming in anticipation of some secret deal coming out’. This is an interesting point and worthy of further examination. Neumann also noted that that while he had ‘no doubt that those talks taking place are well intended, at least from the American side…, good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes’.

Still, it may be possible to see some value in the talks, even if they do not result in political progress. Perhaps these talks should be viewed in far more modest terms, not as a process of codifying political outcomes, but as an exercise of familiarization, where we learn more about the enemy, and determine whether there is any scope for future talks, or particular personalities that could prove useful at a later date. As Neumann emphasized in the presentation, talks generally take a good decade to reach an agreement so perhaps this should be seen as the first salvo rather than final settlement? This might be the 1984 first round of negotiations between San Salvador and FMLN, which went nowhere yet opened the door for future talks, which when held some eight years later, under wholly different conditions, helped end the war.

This leads to a second fundamental point: the Taliban is often seen as lacking unity, which complicates diplomatic engagement. As Ryan Evans put it, reflecting upon his own experience in Afghanistan, there is great ‘localism’ to the conflict:  many people are ‘fighting for local reasons and are often only casually connected to the leadership of the Taliban’. Thus even a deal with the Taliban leadership might unravel as weakly connected clusters of fighters decide to go in a different direction, for a variety of local reasons.

The lack of hierarchy within the organization presents a challenge, but is not historically anomalous. As the moderator of the event, Ben Connable, noted, in Iraq, too, every village had its own concerns and preoccupations and would rise up as a new front of coalition. He suggested, and I agree, that there may be some interesting research insights to be gained from studying negotiations or engagement with dispersed insurgencies such as these. Counterinsurgency is armed politics, but how do you engage politically with a dispersed mass of concerns?

My initial take on this question relates to recent research of mine on clear-hold-build. First, it should be noted that, as Amb. Omar Samad reminds us during the QnA, the Taliban is more unified at the top – it shares one worldview and pushes toward conformity, so much so that attempts at dissent are quashed. Second, the localism that Evans speaks of strikes me as an inevitable byproduct of insecurity, which forces small groups to cope and use violence to protect themselves and their interest. Such localism is probably more typical of conflict zones than commonly realised and does not necessarily preclude the possibility of talks. The point would be to separate the wheat from the chaff – the bone fide insurgents, with their grand and ideologically driven ideas, from the population, typically at the village level, who in the midst of protracted conflict do what they can or must to meet their needs.

Such an approach would be based on a distinction between insurgency movements, with a more stable agenda and set leadership, and the endlessly variegated needs of the local population. The former are more accessible through high-level negotiations, the latter must be co-opted and pacified through effective clear-hold-build (for some example of how not to do it, see my latest article). The two processes are the not same but proceed in parallel: to co-opt the village-level militias and reduce overall insecurity, but also to isolate and help identify those ideologically-driven movements with whom negotiations or some form of engagement may one day be possible.

I am not confident that we have the time, wherewithal and partners to implement such an approach in Afghanistan, but it speaks to an important if more general distinction between insurgency at the high level and instability at the village level. So long as these are confounded or confused, the notion of talks will always be a non-starter.


The secret legality of drone strikes

US drone strikes are the new Guantanamo – a focal point for all those railing against America and the excesses of its War on Terror  efforts to counter violent extremist (CVE). The arguments against drone strikes against suspected terrorists will be familiar to the readers of this blog and need scarcely be repeated: the collateral damage ensures radicalisation (and thus more terrorism), the infringement on other countries’ sovereignty equally so, it is a method in search of a strategy and the strikes are conducted arbitrarily (signature strikes) and on a weak legal basis (‘imminence’ is seen in the mere existence of the target, which means strikes are justified by their own occurrence).

Against this list of arguments, some of which have far more merit than others, a number of studies, based on interviews with the populations where most drone strikes take place, provide an antithetical image. In Foreign Affairs last year, Christopher Swift demonstrated that among those he had interviewed while doing field work in Yemen, most accepted the pragmatism of the drone strikes and didn’t mind them so much so long as they were discriminate (which, it appears, is how they were increasingly seen).

In the spring of 2009, the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy conducted similar field-work in FATA, Pakistan, where they found – again – a surprising level of acceptance for the drone programme. Those interviewed were split on whether the drones were accurate, but a majority believed them not to cause anti-Americanism and that they were instead damaging to the militants among their midst. As in Yemen, the main issue was that it was a foreigner doing all of this and that the local government should play a bigger role (we have since learned that the Pakistani government did play a fairly large role, though covertly, in the FATA drone programme).

The latest installment in this discussion is the legal case for the drone strikes. Seeking to change the perception of the U.S. government as a flouter of legal norms, the Obama administration – which has of course massively expanded the use of drones – has for some years been engaged in a process of explaining who can get hit and who cannot. Most of that debate occurred internally but we got a glimpse of the legal case when a leaked memo from the Justice Department appeared online. Much centred on the notion of ‘imminence’; argumentation that critics faulted for misinterpreting an age-old just-war principle to justify basically anything. What’s worse, this would apply not just to stinking foreigners (like me) but to actual Americans too.

This is the background for the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director. One of the hurdles in the way of his confirmation was precisely the legal standard used by the administration to settle who gets killed when. The administration sought to meet its critics half way, as described in today’s New York Times:

On Tuesday morning, the committee’s Democratic chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, said the White House had agreed to give the committee access to all Justice Department legal opinions on the targeted killing of Americans. Two such opinions were briefly shared with senators at the time of Mr. Brennan’s confirmation hearing last month; officials said the remaining two were made available on Tuesday.

But the administration withheld the opinions governing strikes targeting non-Americans that the committee has also sought, arguing that they are confidential legal advice to the president. As a result, the detailed legal rules for a vast majority of drone strikes, including so-called signature strikes aimed at suspected militants whose names are unknown to the people targeting them, remain secret even from the Congressional intelligence committees.

But Ms. Feinstein complained after the vote that the committee still had not been allowed to retain the memos for study and reference. “They brought them for review, and they took them away,” she told reporters. “Committee staff should be able to look at them and take notes.” Without a copy to refer to, she said, “It’s easy to forget the particulars.”

Does the administration appreciate how this all looks? Though there are no doubt many good reasons for treating the legal opinions as top secret, it does rather undermine the point of going through legal channels to begin with. What the administration needs – and what the drone programme needs, to be sustainable – is greater buy-in: among its partners internationally and its own people here in the United States. Otherwise, the benefits of the programme may be outweighed, or at least compromised, by its symbolism and political payload. The point would be to promote the accounts of local acceptance highlighted above and to seek ways of making the drone strike equally acceptable among other audiences.

Such an effort would require public diplomacy, some changes in policy (greater focus on joint efforts, or efforts presented as joint), but also greater transparency. Rather than keeping the legal justification in the shadows and letting conspiracy theorists run wild, show conviction in your actions, make the case publicly, in a way that will persuade. The hush-hush and sneaking around (see the comments by Feinstein above) makes it all look very bad, probably worse than it actually is. And if a compelling case cannot be made so that Americans and others are swayed, perhaps there is a need to reconsider the net gain of this programme, at least in its current form.



‘Muslim Patrol’ as provocation strategy?

Many of our UK-based readers will be familiar with the so-called Muslim Patrol videos posted online earlier this month. The videos feature some young Londoners, presumably Muslim, approaching and intimidating passers-by for drinking alcohol or dressing the wrong way in what they claim are ‘Muslim areas’. The videos are filmed in Whitechapel, east London, whose population is 40% Bangladeshi, and have made an immediate splash not just in London but further afield. Understandably, many of those watching the videos have expressed outrage. Far more problematically, some also perceive this harassment campaign as the latest evidence of Europe’s gradual take-over by ‘non-Europeans’ and nasty foreigners.

This raises the question of what the producers of these videos were trying to achieve. Maybe the young men in the videos earnestly believed that they were helping to create ‘Muslim zones’ or maybe they just wanted to harass a few locals — but why videotape this effort and post it to Youtube? Now, many idiots post videos of their crimes online – why is something of an eternal mystery – but I suspect there may be something deeper at play here. There is little evidence to support this hypothesis, but is it possible that these videos were meant as the opening gambit of the age-old provocation strategy, a tried and tested insurgent method to polarize societies and gain popular support?

In its traditional context, the provocation strategy involves the use of violence by aspiring insurgents to goad state authorities into an overreaction. That overreaction adversely affects relevant populations (targeted because they are thought to sympathize with or shelter the likely perpetrators). Attacked by the state, this population becomes increasingly alienated and starts to look for alternate sources of protection, power and legitimacy. The insurgents then step in, with an empowering message whose anti-state tenor and call to action will now begin to resonate.

In this case, the violence is limited to harassment and intimidation, but the vied-for effect is still polarization and popular support. Most viewers of these videos will feel affronted and share with the victims the sense of being under attack. Among those already resentful of Islam, immigrants or integration, the videos will trigger a more pernicious reaction. The narrative here is of Western governments bending over backwards to appease those who – quite clearly (as the videos would seem to show) – want to subvert ‘our’ country and civilization. Within this narrative, the state cannot be relied upon to defend Western values: it is consumed by political correctness and cowardice. We are under attack and we – the people – must respond.

Returning to the provocation strategy, some of those who react this way play the role traditionally assumed by ‘the state’. They are affronted by the threat to their order, their values, and react. Much like a state has difficulties locating the perpetrators of an insurgent attack, the respondents in this case will also struggle to discriminate – to target only the individuals responsible. Instead, one can well imagine the larger community taking the brunt, due to preconceived opinions about its complicity and the problems it represents. The response might take the form of graffiti on a nearby mosque, racist abuse or intimidation. Under attack, some of the community will look for new sources of protection and strength, at which point the radicals step in with an appealing frame and narrative. Suddenly the need for ‘Muslim spaces’ may not seem so ridiculous after all. Polarization has been achieved.

If that was indeed the intent (and it very well may not have been), how did it play out in practice? It is really too early to tell, but it would seem as if the London authorities and the Islamic community reacted in exactly the correct manner. The authorities have taken steps to arrest the people featured in the videos, which acts as a deterrent and provides catharsis for those – victims and viewers – who felt threatened or affronted. The Muslim community immediately denounced the videos and made it clear there is no space for this type of behaviour in its midst.

But undoubtedly, there are also those who will eagerly use this as another anecdote of social disintegration and weaponize it to meet racist or xenophobic ends. Youtube has pulled the original videos, but they are still being circulated – now by users and accounts with anti-immigration, anti-Muslim agendas. Some right-wing rabble-rouser in the United States calls the Muslim Patrol video ‘the most important political video of the year’ and calls for ‘an end to all immigration from Muslim nations, including North Africa’ to save ‘our Western civilization’. One of the Youtube accounts with the most views for the video in question declares itself as  ‘opposed to the systemic genocide of our people through massive non-European immigration and integration.’ Les extrêmes se touchent, as they say, and in this case as in many others they even work in close symbiosis – much as they do in their mutual promotion of the Clash of Civilizations.

The whole episode points to the need to respond discriminately, appropriately and carefully to deliberate provocations by fringe elements. Caution does not equal accommodation, but allows for an assessment of the threat before blindly walking into the trap being set. Although this post may very give too much credit to those who spawned the Muslim Patrol videos, it is also necessary not to take this type of provocation at face value – to condemn it, yes, but also to ask why it is taking place and what it seeks to achieve.

Three interesting post-scripts to this tale:

  1. Whereas it may in fact be the white population of Whitehall that feels under threat by a growing Muslim population, the Bangladeshi population has declined over the last ten years from 51 to 40 per cent. That’s not to say that this trend is spread more widely.
  2. Anyone attempting to draw conclusions for the United States from this or other European episodes should first consider the recent report by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Its findings, that Muslim terrorism in the U.S. was “practically nil” in 2012, provide sorely needed context to the US discussion of radicalization, Islam and homegrown terrorism. No doubt one can quibble with the methodology but really, no matter how you slice it, reports such as these should help defuse some of the ungrounded paranoia and fear that surrounds the discussion of Islam in America.
  3. Finally, in a sense, the above analysis resonates with a previous post of mine of the Muhammad cartoons. Again, who is provoking whom and what are the dangers of confusing our audiences?

Finding a raw nerve, striking it, and liking it

There is not much to be said about the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ trailer – and the reaction to it in several Muslim-majority countries – that has not already been said. More enlightened commentary has emphasised the right to free speech and expression and framed the violent response as a predominantly local competition for power, to determine the future politics of specific countries or, they hope, of an entire religion. Of course the nuanced analysis is almost by definition reserved to those who bother to think and read about the events of the past few weeks. Others are driven more by gut reaction and you can see the saddening results online, whether it is at Muslims or the West that the hatred and bile is directed.

This blog post is motivated less by the initial volley – the trailer and the embassy riots – and more by the decision this week by French paper Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed. As most people are now abundantly aware, this is considered blasphemous by many Muslims. So the question again has to be why? Following the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens, the burning of American flags and the violence perpetrated in the name of outrage, it was relatively easy to uphold the freedom of speech and to point the finger at those responsible for the bloodletting. There is no moral equivalence between uttering nasty things and killing people, or even threatening violence.

Yet with these cartoons now released to stoke the fire, is there a point at which we must be more circumspect about what we say? The editors of Charlie Hebdo clearly disagree; as editor Stephane Charbonnier tells Al Jazeera English, ‘I’m not asking strict Muslims to read Charlie Hebdo, just like I wouldn’t go to a mosque to listen to speeches that go against everything I believe’. It is a smart defense and the publication of the cartoons is in almost all regards difficult to argue against. There are very good reasons for why the West has its freedom of expression and in a global marketplace of ideas and images, many of which will be insulting to someone, we all have to develop a thicker skin.

But at what point does exercising that freedom of expression become analogous to the obnoxious kid who hurls abuse at passers-by from the safety of his parents’ home? We don’t go around calling people fat, ugly or outright deformed, just because we can. We frown upon slurs, both racial and sexist, and hide all sorts of unpleasant realities with euphemisms. Why then should this same society actively seek out the nerve exposed by parts of the Muslim world and strike it again, and again?

Upon reflection, the only group of people who deliberately strikes raw nerves like that are kids engaged in bullying. You know the story: one kid has been designated as the victim and the others probe until they find the one insult that will cause the most harm – the quickest route to a reaction. Once identified, they pounce. The victim lashes out, violently, and the bullies can then claim outrage over the disproportionate reaction to what was after all ‘only playground taunts’.

There is a fairly good article on CNN.com by David Frum entitled ‘Don’t blame the video; defend free speech’. Nothing here should be read as going against that initial reaction and free speech is not the main problem here. But when free speech is used without any responsibility, or simply to provoke, are there not moral reasons for it to be circumscribed, not by the authorities as in totalitarian states, but by ourselves? Is there not a need for some measure of self-control on the part of outlets like Hebdo Charlie and a suitably adult rejection of hate-mongering by the rest of us? Yes, they are only cartoons and the likely violent reaction cannot be tolerated. But if these cartoons are printed precisely because they will be hurtful to others, we have to question not only the motive but also the righteousness of such action – the righteousness of exercising our beloved free speech.

In this case, it is not just a moral case of not engaging in what is in effect cross-border bullying but also a strategic question, as action such as Hebdo Charlie’s goes against exactly what the West is trying to do to alienate and render irrelevant the extremist forces of al-Qaeda and their ilk. When we through our actions validate their argument that ‘Islam is under attack’, we are contributing to their recruitment appeal and proving correct, in the eyes of many, their narrative. Well done…

One reason the provocation goes on is seemingly because we reject the violent reaction and want to prove a point, as if enough abuse will dull the sensitivity and help them ‘get over it’. I can think of few instances where such shock therapy has worked and the propaganda gift we don our enemies through such action outweigh any benefit accrued.

Another reason, more childish, is that ‘they started it’. Fingers are pointed at the violent sermons in mosques, the burning of flags, the rampant antisemitism and bigotry that one often finds in more extreme contexts. ‘Why should we exercise self-control and “respect the other” when we get so little in return?’ This points to the ultimate challenge of the war of ideas that we are currently in. There is a choice: become like the enemy whom you despise, emulate his tactics, or take a step back and show through your actions and words why such hate-mongering, whether it be by an extremist imam or the editor of Charlie-Hebdo, does not belong in our world and society. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it: ‘He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee’. This is not a matter of rights or entitlements, but of  judgement and responsibility.



Sri Lanka’s ‘illiberal peace’: implications for Western influence

The Washington Post has a very interesting article on Sri Lanka’s apparent slide ‘toward dictatorship’. Since the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has become increasingly autocratic, stifling opposition and silencing – sometimes violently, so the article suggests – those who speak out against it. Family members of the president are occupying influential  government positions and following his last electoral victory, Rajapaksa changed ‘the constitution not only to increase his powers over the police, judiciary and civil service, but also to end the two-term limit for the presidency’. All of this has been possible because of the surge in popularity experienced by Rajapaksa following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the apparent termination of the three-decade civil war.

There are some interesting implications here. First, the polarisation of this discussion – and over what happened in the final months of the war – is striking. Many Tamils in the diaspora cite ethnic cleansing, disappearances and dictatorship. Government and military spokespersons counter that the accusations are ginned up by LTTE remnants who, now out of military options, seek to gain advantage over Colombo by other means. The domains of information and narrative have become the new battlefield.

As one example of the contest over truth and messaging, the government in 2011 released a ‘Factual Analysis Report‘ – that is its title – intended to showcase its good deeds toward the Tamils and quash the ‘false allegations‘ made by ‘Tamil Diaspora together with the LTTE international network’. In the Washington Post story too, the government dismisses the alleged human rights abuses against journalists and critics ‘as a “cloud” thrown up by people who want to claim political asylum abroad’.

This type of fighting over facts is fairly typical in conflict situations, but highlights once again how narrative, information and international sympathies can have a powerful effect on developments on the ground (a topic dealt with by David Betz on this very blog, and in relation to Sri Lanka no less). At this point, it is critical for the Sri Lankan government to retain its mantle of respectability, lest sympathies shift to the Tamil minority, who could certainly do with a receptive audience when seeking political concessions from the central government.

Yet how important is this mantle of respectability really? Back in the day – loosely speaking the 1990s – adherence to Western standards of human rights, at least in rhetoric, mattered because it was felt that the US and the West held the power and would at some point punish those who all too flagrantly defied its emerging humanitarian norms. The causality here was never consistent but there existed a general sense that lip-service to human rights might reap its own rewards. In part this is also what justified Sri Lanka’s sustained tolerance of the Norwegian-brokered peace negotiations, despite their lack of progress.

At some point, the kowtowing to Western-imposed standards ended. Maybe it was 9/11 and its reframing of non-state armed groups as terrorists, the West’s own hypocrisy over human rights during the War on Terror, or the West’s perceived decline amid financial difficulties and strategic exhaustion in Iraq and Afghanistan – regardless, the need to play by the West’s (highly inconsistent) rules now appears far less pressing. Suddenly Norway was no longer the paragon of humanitarianism and liberal peace but a ‘nation of salmon-eaters’ turned ‘international busybodies’.

As Colombo readied itself for the final military solution to its problem with LTTE, it did not seek Western approval or assistance and nor did it concern itself with Western expectations and ‘standards’. The grizzly result is now well documented, though again accounts of what truly happened will differ depending on political sympathies. Channel 4 aired a graphic documentary on the assault that depicted it as exceptionally and exceedingly brutal; the government on the other hand blames LTTE for using the Tamil population as a human shield and characterises its response as ‘the biggest hostage rescue operation in the world’.

The broader point is that the West was not needed nor was its approval sought. Instead, rising powers – predominantly China – have stepped into the breach. As a sponsor and friend, China does not ask any awkward questions but provides a free hand in how to deal with pesky insurgents (or ‘splittists’, as Beijing may call them). Money flows, investment too and there are altogether fewer salmon-eating busy-bodies to contend with. So, while ‘diplomats and officials said the United States and India are determined to remain engaged with Sri Lanka’, what is Sri Lanka’s interest in remaining engaged with the US? Does the case of Sri Lanka show us, as David Lewis has convincingly argued, ‘a growing contestation of international peacebuilding norms, and the emergence of a legitimated “illiberal peace”‘? If so – and the case of Angola can certainly be added to the list – is this something the West can get used to?

The jury is probably still out (or more accurately, ‘I don’t know’), but while considering the effects of slashed defence budgets and financial decline, we ought also to consider the declining currency of our professed Western ‘values’ – not least through our own actions, but also because of the wide variety of viable alternatives. As Groucho Marx put it, those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.


Exhumed and abused: the sorry fate of the Malayan Emergency

The Malayan Emergency is back in the news – again. And once again, bloggers and pundits are invoking this British campaign from the 1950s to say something new about the wars of today. If one were to anthropomorphize the campaign, one would have to feel sorry for the Malayan Emergency: buried only to be repeatedly exhumed and used, in the most simple way, as ammunition for arguments largely unrelated to it. Held up by some as the paragon of counterinsurgencies, it is more frequently derided by others for failing to meet frankly ridiculous standards. All too often missing in this never-ending carousel of a polemic is a genuine interest in the campaign on its own terms.

Exhibit A is the recently penned review of the campaign by Sergio Miller, posted at the Small Wars Journal. To be fair to Miller, he appears to be genuinely interested in the Malayan Emergency and has done some solid research on the case. The text is in many ways good. The trouble is his ‘lede’, or the use to which he puts his research. When Miller titles his article ‘Malaya: The Myth of Hearts and Minds’, he unwittingly or deliberately enters the fray between counterinsurgency proponents (who use the Malaya campaign to validate their doctrine) and counterinsurgency critics (who think the doctrine is frankly suspect). He also picks his side, as dismissing ‘hearts and minds’ and dismissing the Malayan Emergency’s historiography are key hobbies of those who resent the U.S. Army’s adoption of counterinsurgency and want to use the doctrine as a punching bag.

It would be one thing if the article proved that hearts and minds in Malaya was a myth but the author actually ends up arguing something else, leaving some confusion about what is actually being said. First, Miller notes that, at a symposium examining the Emergency, ‘none of the British participants (all military) spoke of winning Malay hearts and minds by military force’ (emphasis in original). But as he goes on to explain, this related to the division of labour in Malaya, which left the police in charge of community engagement. For the Army, ‘There was limited contact with Malay civilians, other than jungle aborigines and Dayaks, used as scouts. Good relations were maintained but this was a matter of pragmatic common sense, not doctrine’.

From this, the conclusion could be drawn that the military should not be used to ‘win hearts and minds’; that this is a civilian task. Still, this division of labour was possible in Malaya only because the British had a full colonial presence there, something modern states typically lack when going to war. Thus, the military has become the main muscle of expeditionary operations, where they are forced to chase insurgents all while engaging with the population and honouring other traditionally ‘civilian’ duties. This is a serious conundrum of modern counterinsurgency but it cannot be solved by basing our division of labour on a colonial infrastructure that no longer exists.

The second implication might be that winning hearts and minds did not occur at all, either by the military or the police and that it was therefore irrelevant to the success of the campaign. If this is Miller’s meaning, he ends up arguing against himself. He writes that ‘it was the consistent show of reasonableness that won over the people of Malaya and the problem was still easier once the country became self-governing’. He continues by explaining that ‘Templer’s hearts and minds was first an economic and social policy, laced with political promises that also served a military purpose’. The British gave the local population, even the transplanted communities ‘a good deal, not least because the policy increased employment’.

From all this and other statements in the article, the conclusion that ‘hearts and minds’ is a myth seems somewhat puzzling. A cynic might suggest that Miller used this lede to sell what would otherwise have been a mere account of what happened in Malaya – a far less interesting story to a bloodthirsty audience. I wouldn’t want to impugn Miller in this way. Instead there appears to be some confusion – or at least disagreement – on what hearts and minds really means.

Miller does not appear to see the many examples of goodwill included in the article as proof of a hearts and mind effort; in fact he explicitly excludes them from consideration. For example, Miller writes that ‘units did interact with nearby settlements… and they were assiduous in respecting local custom and making an effort to learn the (difficult) language’. But this, he argues, was not about ‘hearts and minds’ but ‘more “get to know your neighbour” affairs’. Similarly, Miller appears to see no tension between the broader argument of the piece and his anecdote of one officer ‘bring[ing] along the regimental band to entertain the natives before sitting down for a village feast’.

The reader is left puzzled, then, about what winning hearts and minds might look like. The one instance that Miller paints as such is the ‘handing out [of] sweets and other presents’ to local children – ‘the one example’, Miller writes, ‘where it may be stated that the Army indulged in winning “hearts and minds”… If that is the test by which we understand ‘hearts and minds’, I wonder about the utility of our findings. First, what distinguishes handing out sweets from the other, more serious examples of constructive civil engagement in the article? Second, has it not been firmly established by this point that ‘winning hearts and minds’ entails much more than simply ‘being nice’? Assessing the importance of hearts and minds can no doubt be fruitful, but we must first be clear about what is meant by this term.

Miller later refines his argument: the campaign did in fact win hearts and minds, but they were won ‘not by the British but by the Alliance Government’. Again, this thesis seems to contradict the many anecdotes of community engagement in the article but even if it didn’t, what does it matter that support was won by the local government rather than intervening forces? Isn’t that the way it is supposed to be in counterinsurgency, where the legitimacy of the local government is under threat? It would be one thing if the Alliance Government and the British authorities were operating at cross-purposes, but as Miller himself points out, in the process of getting ‘Malays talking to Malays’, ‘the British played an important role facilitating this dialogue and maintaining stability’.

All this talk of hearts and minds leads nicely to exhibit B: a Guardian article detailing recently unearthed Colonial Office files on the Emergency. The article leads with the revelation that the counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya included the ‘elimination’ of guerrilla leaders. Well frankly I am shocked! In a war, no less! Yet on Twitter and elsewhere, this article has been leapt upon to show, again, just how little the British and its partners cared about hearts and minds.

The new files are interesting from a historical perspective and the Guardian should be commended for covering the recovery of these long-lost documents. But on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, these files do not say anything particularly new or surprising about the campaign. Yes, lethal force was used in Malaya, as it always is in armed conflicts. And yes, there were instances of abuse in Malaya, as there are in all conflicts. The question left unanswered by this article is whether abuse marked the campaign as a whole or was an exception to the rule.[1] So to read this article in isolation and to conclude that hearts and minds was a sham, that the campaign was one of terror and abuse and that counterinsurgency doctrine is therefore entirely bogus, reveals a very parochial mindset that says very little about Malaya.

The point of this post is not to say that winning hearts and minds is strategically decisive, fantastic, and should always take place. Those are separate debates. What is worrying is the hurry with which historical material is weaponised to score points in more recent yet unrelated debates. Of course analytical shortcuts are sometimes necessary but they should always be faithful to fuller accounts that treat the past on its own merits.

By ways of conclusion, let’s quickly deal with one more Malaya-related argument currently in circulation: that the role of Gerard Templer has been exaggerated at the expense of Harold Briggs so as to sell the ‘COIN narrative’. This argument is most often advanced by Gian Gentile and the target is typically John Nagl’s research. I do not understand where this Briggs vs. Templer stand-off comes from but I suspect it was constructed to resonate with the Westmoreland vs. Abrams debate and the separate Casey vs. Petraeus debate in Iraq. In other words, if Briggs can be shown to have been important in Malaya, then Casey mattered in Iraq and the counterinsurgency fanfare around Petraeus can be proved all wrong. This type of historical analysis by analogy is deeply troubling. What’s more, all of the serious scholarship on Malaya (Nagl included) recognises the critical role played by Briggs during his time as Director of Operations. If there is truly a problem with the historiography on Malaya in this regard, let’s discuss it. But let’s be careful so that we don’t talk about Malaya when we actually mean Iraq.

[1] On that point, Miller again contradicts his lead when he argues that ‘there were abuses, or “unfortunate incidents” in the euphemism of the time (the slaying of 24 villagers in Batang Kali by Scots Guards in 1948), but these were an exception’.