Finding the virtue in austerity

Necessity is not only the Mother of Invention, but it is often the case that the creations begot by this inspiration are of the highest quality. Consider an example from the culinary world, duck confit. One of the ancient means to preserve meat, in this case the meat is encased within a barrier of fat nearly impenetrable to bacteria. It was, historically, a humble means for peasants to keep the fruits of their summer and autumn labors. Many today would consider it as belonging to the realm of “high dining,” and in fact it is a product which commands prices a 19th century farmer would find impossible. From austerity and need was created a product of disproportionate value and quality.

Your appetites whetted, I will point out that relative poverty has its application to military organizations and war. For the US, the Interwar period is a good example of such a context. Defense budgets were limited, and the forces were constricted and remained small until the last moments. Nevertheless, the people kept thinking and innovating, and for the organizations it was a time of education and experimentation. During this time the US armed forces:

- wrote strategies which spanned the imagination of possible conflict, much of which was ultimately drawn, in whole or part, into the plans for the campaigns against Germany and Japan;

- pursued professional education in every corner of the modern industrial economy as this period marked the rise of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (lectures on the differences between packing and packaging and the relative merits of various forms of each alone suffice to indicate the seriousness of the work);

- and finally, were sufficiently flexible to allow Evans Carlson to travel as a professional observer throughout the theatres of the Sino-Japanese War, which would lead to his concept for Marine Raiders during the Pacific Campaign five years later.

These are just a few iconic examples of a period rich in innovation and learning for the US. I suspect the same could be said of the British experience in this time. More recently, since WWII one cannot deny the rise of “poverty ingenuity.” Weak actors have ritually and regularly proven their ability to successfully confront the armed forces of the rich and strong.

Despite this record, news of budget cuts are being met with unbroken choruses of gloom and doom. While I accept that there are indeed ways in which austerity can lead to a great fall, I am also certain that these are not the only paths forward from such a point, because at the very least I recall the Marine Corps of the 1990s – limited budgets, unlimited skill and preparation. This might not be a period of large standing forces, high acquisition budgets, or generous training allotments, but it need not be a moment of stagnation.

So, for this week’s Professional Discussion (#CCLKOW) I would put to you the following questions which rely upon the virtues of austerity and ingenuity to answer.

- As leaders of units, how can you make up for the resource constraints which will limit the available fuel and bullets to provide valuable experience to personnel?

- As members of your services, how can such a period serve the constituent and integrated capabilities of the services, whether strategically, doctrinally, or tactically?

- As an individual, what opportunities might this period provide that one of high op-tempo (either training or fighting) would not?

In sum, tell me how you will make lemonade of the budgetary lemons you are being served.


Britain’s naval moment

I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts on British strategy and defence policy for a while now but have lacked the certain sense of urgency required for blogging to supersede the normal end-of-academic-year-and-holiday-is-looming desk clearing obligations. Not that it matters much, it would seem, as the British government has already been on vacation from reality for months. The news last week that Sangin, Nowzad, Musa Qala, and Kajaki in the Army’s old stomping grounds in Helmandshire have all been under siege passed largely without comment in the press. I gather that a British chinook was also shot down, thankfully without casualties and the wreck was recovered–but, still, the sort of thing which might have been remarked upon in earlier times. The British Army remaining in the area, by dint of not leaving its bases, has not suffered any casualties; though by my reckoning, rough I must admit, the US Marine Corps which still has some appetite for the fight has lost eight dead over the last couple of weeks. At any rate, for Britain, it’s clear that no one’s particularly interested in the war–the whole enterprise is a write off and best dropped down the memory hole. It’s hard to be wholly unsympathetic to this line of reasoning. That said, the time, it would seem to me, for taking stock of things strategic is nigh, indeed ’tis now.

We should probably start with the observation that our current strategic condition is noteworthily FUBAR, to use the technical term. 2010′s Strategic Defence and Security Review, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty was an avowedly short-termist and budget-driven exercise further constricted by the May 2010 election and political-military dysfunction in general. On the latter point see James De Waal’s Depending on the Right People Chatham House report (also this Oxford University Changing Character of War programme’s podcast Generals, Politicians, and Mandarins: The Malfunctioning Military-Political Relationship in Britain). For that matter, the Royal United Service Institute’s director Michael Clarke’s characterisation of the UK’s ‘strategic moment’ from A Question of Security: The British Defence Review in an Age of Austerity is more burningly pertinent now than it was when he said it in 2011:

The fact is that even if the assumptions underlying the 1998 SDR had not been exceeded; even if the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had been unambiguous triumphs; even if the current defence programme was not unaffordable; even if the savage economic crisis had not materialised; even then, the United Kingdom would still face some strategic choices unprecedented in modern times. More than most other Wstern countries, the UK finds itself at what might be termed a ‘strategic moment’, driven by developments over which it has very little real influence. Not since the 1930s has the country faced so wide a range of global developments generating as much political uncertainty. It is more than seventy five years since British politicians have had to confront a world that offered so little indication of what is best for the country, and with far less power to wield than was habitually available to their predecessors. (p. 9)

In short, the situation is bad–has been bad for a good while–and, in my view, is uncomfortably plausibly likely to get even worse over the coming decade. In broad brush there are four things that are worrisome:

1. As Sir Richard Dearlove, formerly head of the Secret Intelligence Service, recently remarked in a speech at RUSI on Terrorism and National Security: Proportion or Distortion? our current prioritisation of counter-terrorism over all other threats is distinctly out of whack with the degree of actual danger. As he put it,

I feel deeply uncomfortable to see our national media making national security monsters out of rather misguided young men from our Muslim communities who frankly, I think, cut rather pathetic figures… Thanks to the media coverage they achieve celebrity status beyond their wildest dreams and are probably actually encouraged by the attention towards fulfilment of some of their more extreme radical fantasies… Surely better to ignore them and assume the means to control them, if and when they do come home, are sufficient to meet the threat that they pose… It is time to move away from the distortion that 9/11 understandably created in our national security stance… Counter-terrorism activity will remain an important requirement but it should no longer dominate our national security thinking and planning, rather a problem we have learned to live with and that should seldom be given, either by the Government or the media, the oxygen of publicity… We must continue to cover the Middle East as a political requirement but without putting the incipient terrorist threat to ourselves at the centre of the picture…

I find this hard to gainsay and David Cameron’s recent declaration that ‘No-one should be in any doubt that what we see in Syria and now in Iraq in terms of ISIS is the most serious threat to Britain’s security that there is today’ to be rather unjustifiable hyperbole. There are bigger things to worry about.

2. For instance, the European Project–not to put too fine a point on it–is toast. I personally consider this a good thing and the cessation of Britain’s participation in the whole economy-destroying, sovereignty-eroding, democracy-traducing, and empire-building-on-the-sly cannot come soon enough. That said, its demise represents a profound alteration of long-standing assumptions concerning Britain’s foreign relations and place in the world generally.

3. The United States is also screwed. Don’t get me wrong–America is enormously powerful and it has also very large powers of regeneration. However, again, that said, its economic difficulties are extremely formidable. Moreover, I’m surely not alone in marvelling at the degree and speed at which its position in the world has gone from one of respect, if not admiration, amongst its allies to suspicion and rancour. The recent contretemps vis-a-vis Germany over CIA spying on German officialdom is but one of a fleet of examples. This is to say nothing of the attitude of existing and potential enemies who clearly apprehend America’s strategic lassitude and are behaving accordingly. At the very least it seems very likely that the United States is likely to turn inward–this is, after all, one of its distinct historic proclivities–and something it is able to do as a gigantic continental power with a large, if currently ailing, domestic economy and increasing energy independence. As America’s appetite for foreign adventure and, it must be said, for subsidising the security of well-being of its allies through massively disproportionate defence spending diminishes, yet another prop for Britain’s strategic dilly-dallying will fall away.

4. The above would be bad enough if Britain’s economy was in comparatively robust good health. Unfortunately, Blighty also faces serious economic and social headwinds notwithstanding this recent relatively positive outlook. Moreover, as opposed to the United States, Britain really needs to seek its fortune abroad for as an island nation with relatively few of its own resources and a relatively small population it cannot afford to look in. For what its worth I thought this part of the National Security Strategy actually hit the right notes both rhetorically and realistically:

…Britain’s interests remain surprisingly constant. We are an open, outward-facing nation that depends on trade and has people living all over the world. In fact one in ten British citizens now lives permanently overseas. We are a country whose political, economic and cultural authority far exceeds our size… In order to protect our interests at home, we must project our influence abroad. As the global balance of power shifts, it will become harder for us to do so. But we should be under no illusion that our national interest requires our continued full and active engagement in world affairs.

Where I would differ with the government is how they seem to be imagining that they can achieve this ‘active engagement’ and the desired strategic effect. We’re now barely managing to achieve defence spending of 2% of GDP–and honestly it cannot be said that even that 2% is spent wisely–which really is not enough, as ex-Chief of Defence Staff Sir David Richards lost no time in pointing out (after his retirement). The government, if it believes its own strategy, needs to put its money where its mouth is. Instead, though, we get the ludicrous idea that we should enshrine in law that henceforth Britain should devote 0.7% of GDP per annum to foreign aid despite their being precious evidence that this does anything much to generate security (actually much to the contrary) or economic growth–our own or that of the recipients of this (borrowed) largesse. For three hundred years, on the other hand, a cornerstone of British policy has been the maintenance of a very good, at times world preeminent, navy–even through the 20th century during which its relative power progressively diminished (on which point have a listen to Admiral Lord West’s Britain at Sea). On current trajectory, presently we shall have a not very good navy at all with serious gaps in capability and depth. The surface fleet is being reduced significantly (for the nth time). Two new large aircraft carriers are being built–one’s just been christened but the other is due to be mothballed when it is eventually finished. Moreover there aren’t any airplanes to fly off them until the F35 comes along, which it may not do since the version that we’re buying still doesn’t work. The country no longer has a maritime patrol aircraft–a lack which became embarrassingly apparent a couple of months ago when Britain’s contribution to the search for a lost British yacht in the Atlantic consisted of a C130 Hercules and the US Coast Guard had to be cajoled into continuing the search with their much greater assets. Our anti-submarine capability is weak; for that matter is our submarine capability full stop. I could go on… This is not the way that a country which declares itself to be at the ‘heart of many global networks… [have] an outward-looking disposition and is [to be] both a geographical and virtual centre of global activity’ ought to comport itself.

The next Strategic Defence and Security Review is due in 2015, though who will be in government then is anyone’s guess. It has been argued that the review must not be distracted by ‘fruitless discussion of grand strategy’ and struggle amongst the services over who gets the ‘largest slice of a diminishing cake’ (see Fifty Shades of Purple? A Risk Sharing Approach to the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review). I disagree. I think it’s high time for a discussion of grand strategy. Why not? And balance be damed when it comes to whether or not someone’s ox gets speared because it seems to me the key imperative for this country, in peace and in war, is having a navy that is in line with its maritime dependence and global aspiration. If it were up to me every damned penny currently earmarked for overseas aid would be redirected to the Royal Navy permanently. There’s nothing better for lifting poverty than trade.

Photo by Mark Empson from


On Chimp War, Vol. Something or Other

A while ago our own Kenny Payne waxed philosophically about Chimp War.  ’Is war a uniquely human phenomenon?’, Ken asked. ‘I think not. Chimpanzees also wage war.’ Now Ken’s a theorist but I’m an empiricist. So I give you evidence:

Scientists, top men, have studied this clip and translated the chimp’s triumphal grunting. ‘Come on! Come on! Come and get it, baby! Come on! I don’t got all day! Come on! Come on! Come on you bastard! Come on, you too! Oh, you want some of this? Fuck you!’




Mitrokhin & lessons learned

Two thousand pages of Mitrokhin’s notebooks have been cleared by the vetters and released into Churchill College for all to see.

The FBI described Mitrokhin’s files as the most complete set of intelligence ever gifted to them from a single source, and there was much that was compelling within them. There were particular revelations that shook the various institutions they touched. But I was asked by a journalist-friend to provide a comment about what these files taught us about ‘the Russian playbook’, and how to deal with Russia now. And I provided an answer that partly skirted the issue, because I think it’s a misreading of the utility of the files and how we should understand intelligence agencies in general.

The Mitrokhin files tell us that intelligence agencies operate in a slightly different way to common public perception’s understanding. These government bodies operate mostly as agents of influence – very rarely do they directly recruit high value operatives (and Mitrokhin is scathing about the Cambridge spy ring’s actual abilities) but they mostly establish low-level relationships in which the party being used has very little understanding of their role. That’s partly because of the transaction costs (in terms of time, opportunity and risk) of recruiting high-value targets (and presumably the low success rate) and partly because the role of an intelligence agency is as a norm entrepreneur, not just a collector and assessor of raw information. A wider net is more useful for these purposes, and just as in business is likely to throw up unexpected bonuses.

I also think that a lesson from the files is that the European security system has changed. If we take the UK as a snap-shot of a post-Cold War security state – the relief at the end of the nuclear confrontation has allowed foreign adversaries to hold large financial positions in London – which has, for example, undermined the Prime Minister’s ambitions to leverage sanctions recently – and to allow what could uncharitably be called influence operations to be conducted against educational establishments, think-tanks and the like.* Most European governments have focused their security attentions away from their traditional adversaries (who have not gone away) and onto newer threats in the Middle East and neighbouring regions whilst simultaneously trying to make financial savings or efficiency gains.

So, I think it’s a mistake to think of this as only a Russia issue or a Russia problem. The logic of security competition means that all states with active intelligence capabilities enthusiastically engage in these activities. The lesson to be learned is not a country specific one… it’s to embrace the notion that hyper-competition involves influence and the constraining of autonomy across intellectual, financial and infrastructural lines. Mitrokhin provides a rich, but limited case study of one nation’s efforts in this regard. The pattern of behaviour is somewhat more ubiquitous though. 


*Be cautious, also, of over-reading the impact of these target groups: it was well-known in Russian security circles that over-reading these groups cheered up the Politburo, but little else.


The Books of August: A Reader’s Guide to the Centenary of the start of the First World War

Unless you are completely illiterate (in which case, unless your friend or Siri is kind enough to read this post aloud, you will be missing out on some very witty stuff, Dear Read…I mean Dear Non-Reader), you will not have failed to notice the literal deluge of books out and about on the First World War.  Scholars may not be very well socialised (sorry, but it is true.  Some of my best friends are academics) but they figured out about recycling yonks before the rest of us.

There are ‘new’ books, there are re-written ‘special editions’, there are ‘popularised revised editions’, there are ‘re-issued classics’…the list goes on.  Some focus on the causes of the war, others concentrate on the combat, or a particular ‘under-appreciated’ theatre, or the homefront, or the legacy.  Buy them, read them, go on, I dare you.

Why have all these books been written?  A good question, and I am glad you asked.  The short answer, to paraphrase Barbara Tuchman, is this:

To turn around the publication of a million books at the very moment of commemoration would have taken a more iron nerve than most publishers disposed of.

Much of the output this year is re-hashed, or recast, work from research conducted long ago.  Very little ‘new’ evidence, say from a recently unlocked archive, is contained within these works.  It is not to say that they are poorly written; they are not.  The prose is as good as there is to be found.  But, really, honestly, many of the books did not need to be written.  They are cash cows many of them, publishing houses’ attempts to take advantage of the time.  It is a shame.  And so it goes.

Moving on from my pitiful attempt to stand, Canute-like, against the tide of wanton commercialism, I would say that the First World War was terrible and terribly important.  It deserves our study and our scrutiny.  But in doing so, I put forward, Dear Readers, two key pieces of guidance, two words of wisdom, perhaps.  

1.  Do not make corny, irrelevant attempts to tie together the situations of 1914 and 2014.  The South China Sea is not the ‘powderkeg of Asia’; Iraq is not the ‘sick man of the Arab World’. Putin is not the Tsar.  ’Why not?’, I hear you shout.  Because.  That was then and this is now.  Our own day’s troubles (and they are legion) are rooted in history, to be sure.  But they are rooted in their own, contingent history.  They cannot be crammed into a tidy template and made to fit an existing script.  That’s why not.

2.  Upon reading a book, ask yourself if it can pass the acid test: can it explain why it all happened?  Many will try.  It was because of alliances, some say.  It was not because of alliances, others will intone; the alliances actually prevented it from happening earlier.  It was the Kaiser!  It was the Serbs! It was the aristocracy!  Even books that do not have as their primary aim the explanation of the origins of the war will have, embedded somewhere in their narrative, a short-form for why it all came about.  But do any of those explanations actually work?  Do they increase our understanding of how it all began and for what purpose?  Most of the time they turn on points of historiography, or even ideology, rather than actual insight into the events.

After having read perhaps more than my share of these books over the past 30 years or so, I still wonder if any of us can really give an answer to the key question, set by Baldric in Blackadder Goes Forth:

The thing is: The way I see it, these days there’s a war on, right? and, ages ago, there wasn’t a war on, right?    So, there must have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right? and there being a war on came along.   So, what I want to know is: How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?

How indeed.


Academia’s ‘Crypto Moment’

Like many, I am saddened to hear that Tajikistan is charging a researcher from Exeter University with treason. I am saddened, but not shocked. Authoritarian regimes are prone to detaining people that they perceive as threats, or, in the case of Egypt, jailing journalists on pathetic charges. In the specific instance of Tajikistan, the outcome is uncertain, though like (I imagine) most people, I hope for Alexander Sodiqov’s release. Even if Sodiqov is released tomorrow, the incident is likely to have a chilling effect on academic research involving field work in authoritarian states. Research Ethics Committees are, by and large, considered to be risk-averse entities, and they are likely to become even more averse to approving research where an academic is at risk of detainment by an authoritarian government. This is a problem, not least because to understand political violence and separatist disputes, the best data comes from the people involved, who invariably live in places where Big Brother tends to throw its weight around. If we want to know more about the world, that means academics going to dangerous places. The alternative is that we let ethics committees decide for us that the world is too dangerous, and the field of inquiry closes to political violence close at hand, such as homegrown radicalisation and Northern Ireland. Both of these are important areas of inquiry, but in a globalised world, its necessary to go outside and talk, otherwise the horizons become awfully limited, awfully fast. Continue reading

Jarama_gravestone copy

War Pilgrims

As a thought experiment: consider the position of a British Shia muslim contemplating Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to arms to defend Iraq and Shia holy sites. Sistani’s call was directed at Iraqi citizens to defend the country against ISIS‘s recent military advances, who threaten places such as Samarra, a holy place for Shia, and one with a recent history of desecration by Sunni muslims. In such a thought experiment, we might conclude that, yes, on the balance of available evidence, that sacred religious sites were in danger of being desecrated. Furthermore, we might consider that given their relative significance, a reasonably devout Shiite might feel quite upset at the prospect of this occurring. On what basis, therefore, should our imagined British citizen be prevented from travelling to Iraq to join a state-sanctioned militia whose express purpose is the defeat of a reviled group of terrorists/insurgents?

The reason for this thought experiment is that the UK government has now kicked into high gear about preventing British passport holders from travelling to Syria and Iraq to participate in the wars there. The constant refrain is that returning jihadis will pose a threat to British national security ‘for years to come.’ I am inclined to both agree and disagree to this notion. On one hand, I think that some people will come back from Syria intending to kill people in Britain, and I think that it’s quite probable that some of them will succeed. On the other hand, like Simon Jenkins, I don’t think that this threatens the state itself. The government’s policy response is to prevent people from travelling to Syria, and to delete material that might ‘brainwash’ them from the internet. Both of these are profoundly illiberal policies, and, I think, unwittingly place a secular/Christian state on one side of a religious civil war as a by-product. Returning to our thought experiment, a British Shia could, quite rightly, claim that they had no intention of joining a terrorist group, but helping a state which is confronted by very well armed and trained terrorists. Furthermore, fighting to defend religious sites from desecration is quite different from fighting to establish a Caliphate.

I have long held to a laissez-faire attitude towards foreign fighters. That is, if a British citizen wishes to go to Syria to step on landmines, then let them. At the same time, I can see that the movement of foreign fighters no doubt causes issues for states facing them. ISIS, I think, is the best example of why my attitude might be wrong. Does the British state have a responsibility to entomb its angry ‘radicalised’ youth within our borders? The government appears to think so. Football fans who (unlike me) follow football when the World Cup isn’t on will see echoes of this policy in Football Banning Orders, except in the case of Syria/Iraq, the test appears much less stringent. The problem, I think, is that the British government is afraid to grasp the twin nettles of public post-conflict monitoring, and in-conflict abandonment. We’re all too happy to reduce civil liberties, restrict travel and freedom of speech, but don’t, for heaven’s sakes, mention watch lists, surveillance and other measures that the security service could implement to track these people afterwards.

Here’s a second iteration of a laissez-faire policy towards ISIS devotees, and anyone else who might want to run off to war in a foreign country: The UK Government declares that participation in an armed conflict (of whatever kind) halfway around the world which the UK does not involve itself in means that any British passport holder who willingly involves themselves in it has to accept the consequences. No crocodile tears or exceptional diplomatic efforts if you wind up captured by the Syrians, ISIS, or the Iraqi government. This should, I think, be an open declaration or standing policy. It is also better, I think, than unilaterally stripping a citizen of their passport prior to the Americans dropping a bomb on their head, or other Janus-faced hijinx to stay within the limit of the law.

Combined with this, there should be an open-source watch-list, with emphasis on openness. The government should collate a public list of citizens who are identified as having participated in a given armed conflict of concern to the British security services. If someone wishes to contest their participation, for example, they merely wanted to take a battlefield tour, or happen to be a journalist or NGO worker, then they can do so, in some public manner (requiring the submission of a statement/evidence). There are plenty of journalists and academics identifying people in an ad-hoc fashion, but let’s make it official. The key point is that if you have no ‘good reason’ to be in a warzone (helping people, reporting, etc), then, I think, it’s reasonable for the government to state that you were there. I suspect some might disagree with this. But such surveillance should be as public as possible, the reasons for it transparent to all prior to people taking decisions that might place them at risk of being placed on such a list, and to the greatest extent possible, a person should be able to challenge their position on a given watch list. Otherwise we end up like the Americans with a kafka-esque ‘no fly list’.

I can think of problems with the above. For example, the point that publishing a watch list would allow people to see who has slipped through the net. But the point is that a public list of people known to have travelled to an armed conflict is different from the kind of watch lists that the security services use (and need to use) in secret. Someone on the public list would not know whether they are being investigated, nor would someone not on the public list be able to verify whether they haven’t been detected in secret. More to the point, someone who finds themselves on the public list and doesn’t care wouldn’t have to take any action at all. Returning to the thought experiment, the British Shiite considering going to holy war in a foreign land might think twice, which, I think, is the point of the government’s bluster. After all, if someone believes in a cause enough to die for it, this fact places a limit on what any government can do to prevent their death. If someone goes to war and gets themselves killed, then that’s their own fault. If the British government wants to prevent death and destruction in the middle east, then it needs to pursue diplomatic solutions that end wars. Stopping a couple of people at the UK’s border is, in the context of Syria/Iraq, of less use than a band-aid at the Somme.

Andreas Krieg

The End of Iraq as we know it?

Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces

Looking at the atrocities committed, the sable rattling on both sides, and the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, many have asked me in the past week whether recent events in Iraq might be the prelude to the end of Iraq as we know it. There is surely no easy answer to this question. When approaching the question one has to bear in mind the historical legacy of Iraq, its domestic sectarian dynamics and the arbitrariness with which France and Britain marked out their spheres of influence in the Middle East – ultimately defining the territorial integrity of Iraq today. The result of the Franco-British Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 was the shuffling together of sectarian groups not based on their cultural heritage but based on the strategic interests of the Great Powers. Thus, some might say that there is nothing natural about Sunnis, Shi’as and Kurds living under one rule in one country – particularly not when this country’s central government is dominated by either one of the groups. So the question of whether ISIS’ operational victories will translate into the effective end of Iraq as we know it can mean different things. For one, will Iraq’s territorial integrity seize to exist with all three groups seceding from the unified state of Iraq? And two, will the current American-built Shi’a dominated governance system under the leadership of Maliki disintegrate giving way to a more effective and inclusive governance system?

The short answer is, yes Iraq as we know has inevitably seized to exist. As territorial gains stand today, Iraq in the short-term is effectively divided into Kurdistan in the North, a Sunni heartland dominated by the propaganda machine of ISIS and a Shi’a South. Turning towards the north of Iraq, the Kurds are probably the great winners of the current state of anarchy. Ever since 2003, the Kurds have enjoyed a degree of autonomy from Baghdad that almost equals quasi-independence. With Kurdish territorial gains in the Kirkuk area, Kurds might now exploit the current situation to take another step towards independence uniting Kurdish majority areas under its green-white-red flag. Kurdistan will then control the significant hydrocarbon riches of Northern Iraq. At this point it seems unlikely that ISIS can rally the necessary support in the Sunni community to snatch these areas away from the Kurds. Equally, in the South, Shi’as will probably be able to withstand the advance of ISIS into its Southern heartlands where most of Iraq’s current hydrocarbon revenues are being generated. Iran, Hezbollah and even the US would not allow ISIS to advance on the Shi’a shrine cities of the South: Najaf and Karbala.  Shi’as will put up a fierce fight to protect their oil-rich heartland. Considering the number of Western oil companies operating there and the number of private security companies securing these facilities, it would be a fight that ISIS cannot win. Also, despite the West’s recent reputation of drawing almost transparent red lines in the sand of the Levant, an ISIS advance southwards would be a red line the West would have to defend. Further territorial gains of ISIS in Baghdad seem to be unlikely as well. Neither Iran nor the US will want to see Baghdad fall into the hands of the ‘Islamic State’. Apart from Iranian Al Quds Brigades, the Iraqi Armed Forces’ Special Force units, neighbourhood watches and Shi’a militias will fight fiercely to defend their homes in urban combat. While the battle can be bloody, it is not one ISIS will ultimately win. Thus, looking at Iraq in the short-term, the country will remain at least de facto tripartite. Yet, ISIS might not be the big winner in the short-term. The mujahedeen will be left with those territories in the North-West, which are not as rich in hydrocarbon resources as the rest of the country. Nonetheless, looking at the financial resources, equipment and arms they have acquired over the past weeks, they might be able to retain key areas in Anbar Province and around Mosul even against a US-supported Iraqi offensive. This certainly depends on whether ISIS will continue to enjoy the support of Sunni militias.

What is going to happen with these three areas of responsibility in the mid or long term? Option number one: maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq under new governance structure, appreciating the new status quo. Thus, Iraq will not return to a pre-ISIS state with Maliki as its head. Although the Shi’a population might continue to support him, Maliki has lost most support among Sunni and Kurdish communities. He has failed to create an inclusive governance system able to provide socio-economic and physical security equally to all people in Iraq. Maliki’s Iraq has developed into a state where some were always more equal than other. So if Iraq was to continue to exist within its current borders, the system has to be reformed. There needs to be a stronger focus on federalism granting all groups more autonomy within their majority regions. Similar to the Kurdish status within today’s Iraq, Sunnis and Shi’a alike should be allowed to develop their own policies on the provincial level while trusting a more consocialist federal government to determine matters of foreign and defence policy. Needless to say, Maliki and his patronage system would not be part of such a system. Since for the Sunnis he embodies the corrupt and nepotistic governance system of Iraq, the future of Iraq, if it had any, would be one without Maliki. Yet, what candidate would be able to lead a consocialist system inclusively? It is hard to imagine that the highly diverse and internally divided Sunni community could agree on an alternative candidate – leave alone Iraq’s highly divided society. The current apparent unity of the Sunni front is a fragile and cracky reality of temporary nature. What unites local Sunni militias and the mostly foreign mujahedeen of ISIS is the animosity towards the ‘Maliki System’ – a flimsy form of negative integration. The huge ideological differences between ISIS and Sunni militias are bound to cause friction as soon as the inevitable happens: Maliki leaves.

Option number two would be thinking the unthinkable: the disintegration of Iraq into three de jure independent states. Thinking outside the box, a redrawing of the externally imposed borders might be a solution to the intractable conflict of the Levant and Iraq. Rethinking the borders might be a bold move but one that ultimately might solve the long-standing sectarian friction. Some might say that what is happening in Iraq right now is evidence for the end of the consocialist experiment of building multi-sectarian nation-states in the Middle East. In times when transnational, sub-state or subnational affiliations are on the rise, when religious, tribal or clan affiliation supersede national affiliation, the end of the territorial arbitrariness in the Levant and Iraq might give birth to more inclusive governance regimes.

Nonetheless, it is important to highlight that the redrawing of the borders should not be left to a jihadist, fundamentalist organization such as ISIS – an organization that neither respects Western nor Islamic norms of inclusive governance. A future of Iraq, whether as a united entity or three separate states, should be one without ISIS. Stopping ISIS means targeting its current centres of gravity, namely first, its local support of Sunni militias, and second, the influx of foreign mujahedeen. Particularly, winning over the Sunni militias and their social base will be crucial in undermining the organization’s momentum. US air strikes even with the support of ‘advisors’ are only cosmetic short-term military solutions that might contain the spread of ISIS but will not defeat the idea of the caliphate. Eventually, it will be a created rift between the mujahedeen on one hand and popular as well as militia interests on the other, that will weaken ISIS tremendously. It is up for the Arab World to identify and support those Sunni militias who might have joined the cause of ISIS not out of ideological but self-interested reasons. Promising these Sunni militias a stronger stake in any future of Iraq, might be just the way to win those armed men over. Both the GCC and the weak giant of the Arab League ought to become more proactive to act responsibly on behalf of the people of the region instead of their own individual national interests. The West should refrain from fiddling any further with Iraq’s internal affairs. ISIS is a threat to the region, both to Iran and Iraq’s Arab neighbours. That is why both sides should consult with each other on how to tackle this common problem before setting off to discuss the future of Iraq.

One Dollar Bill

When Checks Imbalance

Today’s author, Elizabeth B. Oakes, completed her doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London in May of this year. The title of her thesis , “Too Baroque to Fix: The US Army’s Future Combat System.” Her work focuses on strategic planning and defense acquisition by way of a case study of the rise and fall of a major acquisition program. She currently lives and works in London. 

Although the specific subject of concern for today’s professional discussion (#CCLKOW) is the American defense budget, I would certainly encourage our British and other participants to point out how their processes, benefits and challenges compare and contrast with these.  JSR

Negotiating and passing the US Department of Defense budget is a complicated slog that normally lasts nine months each year. The process is shrouded in side deals and unrelated amendments. Its straightforward elements are highly contentious. The defense budget is a political beast: stakeholders fighting over resources in an attempt to retain relative power. It is also a tedious subject to discuss. Words like committee mark-up, sequester, and title usually cause eyes to glaze over. But at nearly $500 billion, the defense budget is big and important. It warrants attention.

Here are some fun and easy details to focus this discussion. At the beginning of the year, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Armed Services, submitted a defense budget for Fiscal Year 2015 which totaled $495.6 billion. This budget largely reflects the beliefs of the Obama administration, which hold that the budget and size of the military should decline following the end of large overseas operations. In pursuit of this proposed budget, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel requested that each Armed Service suggest its own cost-saving measures. Among many on these lists were the retirement of the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog aircraft and the end of procuring the Army’s M1A1 Abrams tank. The Army and Marine Corps will begin their size drawdown. Each Service also nominated some lesser-used bases for BRAC decrease or closure, and Secretary Hagel’s office suggested widespread reforms to mitigate drastically rising personnel costs (such as TRICARE co-pays for retirees, reduced pay increases, and commissary closures).  All in all, the Pentagon’s proposed budget stays within bounds of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and loyal to the White House’s overall goals for the DoD.

A quick civics lesson reminds us that the Executive Branch doesn’t pass the defense budget. Congress does. Its power as purse holder is part of the American checks and balances system, which contends that inefficient negotiations yield a more balanced, measured result for the country. In this case, Congress is supposed to check the power of the Pentagon by forcing it make difficult or innovative choices based on limited resources. However you find this process, what matters more is that it isn’t happening. Congress isn’t checking or balancing the FY15 defense budget in any meaningful way. The House version of the defense bill totals $521.3 billion. It declines to retire/discontinue many procurement programs, including the A-10 and the Abrams. It refuses to allow the closing of un- or under-used bases. It delays personnel entitlement reforms, and it aims to slow the drawdown of troops. In short, it defers the hard decisions to a later date in an effort to retain production facilities and base economies in home constituencies.

Two important points surface at this point. The first is that the House version is probably more generous than the final version will be as the Senate usually negotiates a more moderate approach. Of course, this year experts are divided on how moderate the Senate intends to be. Secondly, the Armed Services not-so-secretly relish these generous budgets. No Service likes to lose personnel or equipment, especially if such losses are greater relative to the other Services. Thus, on the whole, two more upward pressures on this year’s defense budget are likely to emerge this summer.

So where is the problem? Why should the military be concerned by more generous budgets? Isn’t this all a good thing? The answer is mostly no. Flexibility and perhaps innovation are greatly stifled by budgets such as the one proposed by the House of Representatives. Readiness and modernization are most at stake. In a budget-constrained environment with so many required pet programs, bases, and personnel costs, the Services are left with few options for how to train and base their personnel and what equipment to buy. As near-, mid-, and long-term threats emerge, the Services will grow more and more constrained to face them. They will be too occupied executing the demands of the defense budget; too little will be left for new training, new solutions, and new equipment. The military has a right to question such moves. A big defense budget is a prize horse, but it must be looked in the mouth.

Some questions to consider:

How can the Services respond to a budget that contains unwanted elements such as equipment or personnel requirements?

Is it possible for the defense budget to overcome short-term political gains in favor of longer-term strategies?

What can the DoD do to protect its decision-making flexibility?

Further reading options:


Chimp war

Is war a uniquely human phenomenon? I think not. Chimpanzees also wage war.

In saying that, I differ from the great primatologist Frans de Waal, who holds not just that war is uniquely human, but also a product of the agricultural revolution. But de Waal thereby confuses the essence of war with its cultural manifestations. He’s not the first to see nature as more peaceful than civilisation either.

First, my definition of war: politically motivated group violence against other groups (of the same species, though I wouldn’t rule out inter-species war) .

‘Politics’ just means that it reflects some sort of collective arrangement and the the violence is in some respect instrumental – it serves someone’s purpose. War is collective in the sense that it’s coordinated and communal, involving multiple individuals; but not necessarily that it serves the interests of the whole community. What is its purpose? Material, certainly – territory, access to food, sex. In humans, it is also an expression of hierarchy; honour and esteem are involved – either of the group, or of its leaders. In chimps; perhaps, but perhaps not.

Primitive and primate war look a lot different from industrial war, or even agricultural war. Rather than pitched battle, both are marked by raid and ambush. The most effective tactics are surprise and overwhelming odds. The numbers involved are small, weapons are limited, and tactics are basic, reflecting smaller social groups and less role specialisation, but, as Lawrence Keeley and Steven Pinker argue, the violence involved in primitive human warfare is proportionately severe.

What about some evidence? Here’s a spectacular sequence from the BBC of a chimpanzee ambush, killing a colobus monkey for food.

Extraordinary. That’s hunting – what about war? Here’s another episode, I think I posted it before. This time, the chimps are attacking rival chimps.

Being (partly) purposive, war demands strategy to meet those goals. Strategy involves complex sequencing of tasks building towards a goal. In war, strategy is a collective activity – which may require communication. Are these chimps strategic? I say yes – even though theirs may be instinctive strategy rather than arrived at via a conscious sense of self and agency.

I wouldn’t bet against some degree of consciousness though. As de Waal handsomely demonstrates, chimps have evolved cooperation and empathy to enable them to manage larger social groups. The groups provide physical safety from predation and enhance the capacity to gain resources through coordinated action. To do so, the chimps have to be sophisticated in tracking social relations – remembering who owes what to whom, and who to trust. That may require a sense of self and other – and chimps at the very least are self aware – passing mirror self recognition tests.

Seen from the other side, perhaps we humans who pride ourselves on our rationalism and sense of agency are not as self-aware as we think. I see consciousness is the icing on the cognitive cake – enabling greater social complexity and reflection on how we fit within groups. But we know that much of our own decision making is shaped outside of our conscious minds. Introspection does not allow faithful access to the real reasons we do things. We are Strangers to Ourselves. In that sense, our conscious selves are rationalisers, not rationalists. So the chimps can have a sense of the future and the capacity to undertake complex steps towards it without us needing to suppose they are sentient in the way that we are. We don’t even need to suppose that we ourselves are sentient that way.

How much fighting of the sort captured by the BBC do chimps do against other groups of chimps? I don’t know – but I want to find out!