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!


ISIS, The Slow Insurgency — KOWcast, Vol. 1

What to make of the recent explosion/implosion of Iraq over the last week? First Fallujah, then Mosul, Tikrit, and now Tal Afar have fallen to the forces of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Sham which has thus far blown away the better armed and more numerous Iraqi military forces in what looks, superficially at any rate, to be a sort of jihadist blitzkrieg. On current trajectory, the next sacking of Baghdad may not be far off. The interwebs are already afire with talk of who lost Iraq?, why the Iraqi army collapsed, and the degree to which this is a game changer or not a game changer at all. FWIW, I have found this backgrounder on ISIS by Alex Berger of the Institute for the Study of War ISIS Reports Reveal a Metrics -Driven Military Command (pdf), just about everything by Aaron Zellin, for e.g., The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has a Consumer Protection Office, and this International Crisis Group report Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain  (pdf), to be extremely helpful. Ultimately, though, it is profoundly difficult (for me at any rate) to get a ground and sound sense of what is going on. That’s why I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to speak in our first Kings of War posdcast (KOWcast) with Dr Victoria Fontan, currently Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Duhok University in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Victoria, as you will hear, has been kicking around Iraq in one capacity or another for over a decade now and is currently working on her second PhD with us in the War Studies Department (having turned to the dark side) researching ‘slow insurgency in Iraq’. She has been studying ISIS since 2010 and has done more and more intimate interviews with them than any other researcher I know.  Some key points which emerged from or struck me in the conversation:

1. The  connection between the social movements that have been present and building in Sunni parts of Iraq for a long time and the popular support that has generated for ISIS. The sense of abandonment by the international community and of  victimisation by the government is such that they have resorted to the lesser evil, which is ISIS.  

2. If one misses this point then it is rather easy to talk about a ‘jihadist spring’ (something I have done and am glad to be corrected) and to resort to seeing ISIS as an al-Qaeda/ISI offshoot–which, as Victoria suggests is plain wrong at this point. Al-Qaeda’s beef is with the West, and ISIS’s is with Shi’ites. There are paradigmatic differences between ISIS and AQ. In my view, in today’s Telegraph David Blair makes this mistake as well as the one above: ISIS moved too Far, too Fast: Al Qaeda’s Folloers have Made this Mistake Before. Isn’t it more sensible to credit ISIS’s success to Iraq’s Sunnis being totally alienated from their own government and Iraq’s Shi’ite army being unwilling to fight outside of its own regions and neighbourhoods? 

3. ISIS has not emerged from nowhere.  They were not ‘fading away’ before the onset of the Syrian civil war; rather, they were regrouping, cleaning up their house (imagine the rooftop discussion between Ali La Pointe and Ben M’Hidi in The Battle of Algiers when he declares that before they take the fight to the French they’re first going to sweep up the pipes and dope dealers in the Casbah). Up to July 2013, at least in Salaheddin province, ISIS’s attacks were paid for by the Turkish government, not private donors from the Gulf as is commonly mistaken. ISIS’s presence in Syria did not ‘just happen’; rather, it was orchestrated by Turkey, which then decided to back up the wrong horse–Nusra, in the Spring of 2013. This last aspect of Victoria’s strategic diagnosis is, in my view, the most worrisome.

What we are seeing is not ‘just’ a civil war but an incipient schismatic war with thick tentacles linking it abroad in a patently ominous manner–Iran manipulating one (on which Dexter Filkins’ New Yorker pieces on The Shadow Commander (Qassem Suleimani) and, more recently, The Crisis in Iraq are important reads), Turkey another, the Gulf States another one still, while the West having dropped the slimy thing a few years ago wrings its hands at the prospect of needs grasping it again. While speaking with Victoria the first thought of the near future of the Middle East which sprang to mind was one akin to the Balkan tragedy of the 1990s–only on a larger scale, with more money for weapons and willing suppliers, and with even less scope for external mitigation. But then it occurred the situation is probably worse than that, with a little perspective. I was reminded of this passage from Philip Windsor’s Strategic Thinking: An Introduction and Farewell which comes towards the end of a chapter the just war tradition where he ruminates on the import of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War:

It is perhaps permissible in a book of this kind (which does not purport to be a book of history) to select certain historical ‘moments’ as representative of a more complex historical process. The reformation was one such moment. It was not the cause of the Christian challenge to the authority of the universal church, but the outcome of developments within the church itself and of many years of social as well as intellectual change. It was not an event, but a complex and long, drawn-out process. Yet one might say that the Reformation epitomised the collapse of the ecumen and led to a new kind of conflict in which Christianity was at war with itself. That conflict came to a head in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which was one of the most brutal and horrifying in European history. It brought together many forms of power struggle, both economic and political, but it was also a war of religion, of Protestant against Catholic. It represented the politicisation of religion, which was nothing particularly new (the Protestant Henry of Navarre had already declared that Paris was well worth a mass), but it also represented a religious definition of politics. In those terms, it was a war about everything, which is no doubt why it was so difficult to conclude. And it was also a moral war. A war that is fought about the nature of God and of belief, about the eternal destination of one’s immortal soul, is obviously difficult to conclude in a compromise peace. The combatants cannot simply sign an agreement that God shall be a Catholic on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Protestant on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The war must be fought to an end or else terminated by sheer exhaustion–as ultimately it was. It is also a moral war in the sense that the moral nature of the cause is invoked to justify even the most brutal and ruthless means of destruction.

You can read more of Victoria’s perspectives on her own blog–in particular ‘ISIS, The Slow Insurgency‘. But for now have a listen.


What does a committed strategic relationship look like?

Last week, in preparation for the NATO summit in Wales, London played host to the British and American Combined Chiefs of Staff. That the phrase even has a shared and unique meaning, signifying only the collaboration of American and British military chiefs, is itself an historic achievement. If not unprecendented, it is certainly uncommon to find two sovereign nations who can comfortably imagine a shared vision for the operation of their armed forces. We have both come a long way since the Revolutionary War and not drifted too far from the alliance of WWII.

This is good because the special relationship does serve both the US and UK [1] and, going further, the correct approach to the future should be to consider how to expand its terms and practices. Not only is it in their common interests, but it advances wider needs as well. I will review a few key points to establish the foundation for the position and set up the discussion of the questions at the end.

Dealing first with what might seem the most alarming problem, contrary to what might be expected, the value beyond just the two parties is in fact most important with respect to the rest of Europe. While this way forward could be mistaken for an anti-European or threatening stance, in fact I see the development as a means to improve relations amongst the three parties, continental Europe, the US and the UK. Whereas the UK serves as the comfortable half step to the continent for the US, the Atlantic alliance at its back offers the UK something to balance its sense of separation from the rest of Europe. As for the continental EU, this state of things would reassure engagement of both the US and UK with the continent. It is necessary that both the US and the UK [2]remain integral parts of this political establishment. Notwithstanding its weaknesses and costs, it is a far better development for the benefit of the region than rampant state self interest.

Nor can I deny the terms and validity of the special relationship have taken something of a beating lately [3]. However, beneath the skepticism, cynicism and pessimism (and I’m not sure which of these dominates) there is a fundamental and sensible basis for close relations between the two, both in history and going forwar. It is not my intention here to offer the history of the relationship, but it is reasonable to assert its existence within the framework of the post WWII world. Indisputably something particular and unique has existed between the two countries since that war [4], even as examples where friction or suspicion or competition have arisen can be found.  The breach is not reliable to define of a thing, which is arguably the case here remembering that we are dealing with entities – states – for whom it is not at all easy or natural to work with others as allies outside of war. Unblemished and easy will never be the terms to describe such a thing.

Alternatively, some question such a future given a perception that the US and UK stand to substantially diverge in capabilities. I have heard from the British side here in London that the matter of military parity must necessarily critically undermine the relationship. They argue that the value of future British military contributions, either from a technological (are the weapons and systems adequately advanced) or quantitative (is the British force structure adequately sized) standpoint will not keep pace with American capabilities, but it will also render their contributions irrelevant. Such an accounting is far too narrow. The value that the British bring to the table is not reckoned in simple numerical or material terms – certainly its military capacity is not defined by this alone.

Looking only at the strategic component of the relationship, with respect to armed force, standing capability is not a fixed upper limit. In the event of a future war, British force structure and weaponry certainly would not be governed by the contemporary chosen budget constraints. Rather, it is far more sensible to view the services today as a cadre around which much larger forces could be built. With respect to technological development, I categorically disagree with those who argue that the UK is falling behind irretrievably in military technology or that this will somehow define future capabilities. Spending on weaponry in peacetime is a fraught proposal, and it is never certain that the expenditures in those moments will match what will be needed when war does finally return. Thus, heresy though it may be to dismiss force structure and weaponry as indicators of military capacity, my preference is for the intangibles which cannot be developed nearly as quickly or easily as personnel or weapons. The hardened core of the armed forces is difficult to create. Time can do it. In short order a shared cause will inspire its rapid development. But as the record of foreign military training amply demonstrates, those strengths are not easily acquired and instilled. The long term knowledge and experience contained within the British armed forces regarding the profession of arms, practice in warfare, and conduct of war is inestimably valuable. 

While it may be obvious what the US brings to the table in terms of capability and resources, perhaps the benefit for that side is less clear. If only as a bulwark against the wild swings of isolationism and disengagement such a relationship would serve. Alternatively, taking as the truth that there is not much tangible to be gained for the US, just like man, no state is an island. Even the rich kid with everything needs friends. 

So, rather than challenging our virtual general staff to plan for war or consider how to defeat an enemy, I would like to instead put the issue of imagining a reinterpretation of a bilateral alliance whose intent is the strategic integration of their shared military capacity. The following questions are a broad guide to the issues for discussion (#CCLKOW)


What are the strategic and tactical synergies that can be expected from such a relationship?

What are the comparative advantages each party brings to the combination? (Ricardian economics, appropriate for a discussion related to the UK.)

How might you organize tasks, roles, missions, etc. between the two countries and their respective services? (I have an idea for this, but I will save that for a comment later in the week.)

What are the costs and perils for either or both? Do these outweigh the benefits?



[1] An assessment of the scope of issues and efforts which benefit from the advanced state of relations between the two states is well beyond the capacity of this essay. However, I am not the first person to take this position, nor is it particularly extreme even as it might be contested.

[2] There is much talk in the UK about dissatisfaction with and perhaps departure from the EU. This piece does not intend to argue the case, but it is my position that the UK is better off in the EU – and that the EU cannot afford to lose the UK. At the very least, I think the current global situation would support the notion that disintegration does no-one any good.

[3] The piece linked here is a good example of journalists using historical material badly and for editorial effect. It may be good journalism but it is terribly history and ought not to be read as a serious account of the relationship between two nations. Generally, if it’s a newspaper article it is not history.

[4] Most recently I would cite Blair’s decision to support the Bush Administration’s decision for war in Iraq in 2003. This may seem an odd example, given the unfolding of events in that country (right up to ISIS’s recent offensives in Iraq). In almost every manner possible I think OIF was a terrible choice, but for the British I think something very important was maintained in its alignment with the US. I would have preferred wise counsel from our British friends, but even still this move was political and, in my view, the far better one for both sides.


Reservists and the NAO

(You wait or dread a long time for a Dover post, and then two come along in half an hour.. hardly seems right, does it?)

The government got a thorough drubbing from the NAO about the plan to have in place 30,000 reservists, whilst dialing down the number of regulars to 82,000 (a historically low figure). The NAO concluded that the government was going to fall well short of the required figure of 30,000 by 2018. There was also criticism of yet another government IT project that looks like it can just be added to the litany of computer system gaffs that all governments seem acutely prone…

General Sir Peter was quoted in the media yesterday as saying that the army should not face any further reorganisation or redundancy until after SDSR 2015 – this has to be palpably correct. The thousand redundancy notices poised to be sent to serving members of the army should be shredded until such time as it makes some/any sense to issue them. If the reservists cannot be recruited why go through the self-defeating exercise of expelling regulars.

The NAO were critical of the MoD in saying that the policy had not been rigorously tested. To be fair to the MoD it’s difficult to pre-test a radical departure, there is a sense in which one has to live these things to discover whether they work or not, and whilst many people did highlight the many difficulties with the policy it isn’t right to say it was obviously fatally flawed from the start. I thought and wrote here that it was going to be difficult to persuade regulars made redundant to come back in via the reservists (there is nuance here around statutory compulsion to that effect anyway, but the essence is right) because rightly or wrongly it is seen as a less good contractual basis. I argued that the military covenant was simply not strong nor effective enough to deliver the guarantees to service personnel they needed, nor were the provisions in place for compensating civilian workplaces for reservists going on tour strong enough: they relied (in part, I thought) on a kind of patriotic sense of duty for the employer, that is simply misplaced in this economy.

It is easy to sit back and say that what is really required is another thought about fundamental strategy (that’s right, but the message is out there) and unless I’ve missed something fundamental SDSR 2015 is moving along quietly and without really taking up the time of anyone other than the usual academic suspects. But that’s not to write it off a year and a bit out from when it will be published. Needless to say, it strikes me that the intellectually sound fix to these issues is to appropriately position the UK in the world etc and then to work out how much security one can buy. My friend and colleague Tim Edmunds uses a risk methodology for this equation, and whilst this has its own flaws, one can see that evidence-based joy of it.

Anyhow, the view before breakfast is halt the redundancies, pause, reflect, and wait for SDSR 2015.

FSA_rebels_cleaning_their_AK47s (1)

Isis and the strange wisdom of Vlad?

When I was a student in Nottingham (which is now a scary amount of time ago).. there was a dubious nightclub called ISIS. It was only dubious because of the calibre of us students frequenting it, mostly on a Wednesday night. It had seemingly changed its name from Black Orchid to get away from the connotations of ‘BO’ and the athletics union night that it so famously hosted at that time, although it never got away from the sticky floor it had whatever time of day or night one went in. But on the plus side it wasn’t into world domination, mass beheadings or any of the other nasties that the group that has taken inspiration from its name are clearly into… so that’s a plus.

There are many things to be perturbed about regarding the sudden rush of ISIS through key parts of Iraq. Why was there not the intelligence in place to identify this in advance (and if there was why was the response so poor?), why did 800 armed militants scare of two divisions of Iraqi army.. just how flaky is the Iraqi army? And – worst of all (I jest) – was Putin correct in supporting Assad?

This is a theme I have touched on before on these pages… The simple logic of my enemy’s enemy is my friend, the challenge to it, and the notion that containment of an enemy like Hussein, like Assad is far more effective that toppling or attempting to topple.

Is the chemical weapons using Assad better or worse for our interests, for regional stability than ISIS? An ISIS now using the American supplied equipment that the Iraqi army dropped when it turned on its heel and ran crying a couple of days ago? Well, given that I’d rather containment than rash acts (and cards on the table, I was ghoulishly excited by rash acts in 2003…)  my hunch is that once again we’ve not only dropped a plate, we’ve hurled the plate into the wall and then realised we’re not at a cliched and improbable Greek wedding (I’ve not been to one where anyone has wanted to break stuff… shoot into the air, yes. Curiously. But not break stuff). Putin supported Assad’s Syria because it was one of the last mainstays of Russian support in the Middle East (so, self interest), he also said to us he supported it because the alternative was worse (and he appears to be very correct about that), and because he noted that our ‘civilising mission’ in the Middle East had been differently successful (given the whole running away thing, that’s also pretty correct).

So, we’re in a pickle. And for anyone who follows @SoVeryBritish we are thankful for the definition of this which is: ”A bit of a pickle – Translation: A catastrophically bad situation with potentially fatal consequences.” We actually require Assad to survive. Because we actually cannot have ISIS conducting a cross-border insurgency in Iraq and Syria in which two non-functioning states are (un)created. As a friend whimsically put it yesterday, ‘at least Iraq no longer has WMD’.

ISIS appear to be well-organised (not just because of the recent victories), are very ambitious, and having been disavowed by AQ, present a strong risk to our key interests in the Middle East and nearer to home (mostly because their membership is said to have a large European contingent).

I’m not sure it’s the time to say Vlad was right, but it might be the time to start doing things that could be misinterpreted in that way. Getting Assad somewhere back into the fold and contained is – it would seem – the lesser of two evils and the bastard you know is better than the bastard you don’t…




Islamic State of Who?

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

ISIS’s (Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham) partial seizure of Mosul might be the most significant success for global jihadism since 9/11. Within a matter of hours ISIS has been able to demonstrate why they are such a feared and capable fighting force across the Levant. In a highly cohesive and well-coordinated operation this transnational organization of mujahedeen was able to rout Iraqi security forces from Iraq’s second biggest city, capturing arms, equipment, money and control of a vital part of Iraqi infrastructure. What has started as a local phenomenon during the Anbar Awakening in 2004 has grown into a potent contender of state authority in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Yet, unlike other Islamist organizations in the region, ISIS lacks one crucial ingredient of power: popular legitimacy. Bearing that in mind, what are the implications of yesterday’s operational success for the achievement of ISIS’s strategic objectives?

As an ideological offspring of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS ascribes to similar transnational jihadist. However, unlike Al Qaeda as a global franchise, ISIS has a regional strategic focus: removing the artificially drawn borders of the Levant and creating a new Sharia-based transnational Islamic State. Disavowing AQ-leader Al Zawahiri’s demand not to declare political Islamist entities, ISIS’s self-declared Emir Al-Baghdadi has been on the forefront of an initiative which initially aimed at creating an Islamist State in Iraq. Later, with the Syrian Civil War unraveling, Al Baghdadi broadened his initiative to the Levant as a whole. Ironically, those jihadists sent by Assad over the border to prop up the Islamic State of Iraq in the mid-2000s, were now returning to Syria in 2011. Al Baghdadi now commanded a fighting force that was able to stage more than just sporadic terrorist attacks. Years of high-intensity war fighting and ideological indoctrination had transformed the Islamic State from a local terrorist organization into a highly capable transnationally operating militia comprised largely of foreign mujahedeen. ISIS has become the primary centre of attraction for those foreign fighters in the region who are eager to actually convert the often utopian concept of the Islamist caliphate into reality. In its areas of responsibility in Western Iraq and Northern Syria, ISIS has already started to monopolize religious, political and law-enforcement authority. The strategic vision of a de facto Islamist state has taken shape; a state based on ISIS’s interpretation of Sharia, a state centred on Al Baghdadi’s sole authority as the Emir, a state where non-allegiance with ISIS equals treason, a state where religious authority is held by ISIS, a state where all spoils and financial resources belong to ISIS’s treasury[1]. So what does yesterday’s seizure of Mosul mean for the organization?

First, the fall of Mosul was a publicity victory for ISIS, promoting its resolve and fighting power globally. With the operation in full swing, ISIS was quick to broadcast images, videos and messages to its global audience. Images of bearded fighters in their black uniform under the banner of the Prophet posing in front of seized US-made equipment were flooding social media sites yesterday. Their tactic of shock and awe achieved the desired effect: spreading fear and terror. ISIS’s operational successes over the past year in Iraq but mainly in Syria, have created already an image of an organization fearless in military encounters, ruthless in their dealings with prisoners and unforgiving in their application of Sharia law. Their newly created online publication ‘Islamic State News’[2] was swift to medially exploit the operational success in Mosul. The Mosul Operation will further ingrain the organization’s fierce reputation in the heads of local combatants and civilians alike. It will attract new recruits, and signal to existing authorities in the region that they got another thing coming.

Second, the partial capture of Mosul at the heart of Ninve Province, provides ISIS with a new operational platform strategically well positioned vis-à-vis the Iraqi government in Baghdad as well as vis-à-vis the ISIS-controlled northern areas of Syria. Access to oil pipelines, refineries, the control of water ways (particularly the vital Tigris corridor) and roads connecting the oil-rich north with the regional capital, makes Mosul an important hub for any future military operation against targets in Syria, Kurdistan or the South of Iraq. Moreover, judged by the spoils of war that were paraded on social media yesterday, ISIS was able to seize state-of-the-art armed personnel carriers, artillery pieces, trucks and small arms – the transferal thereof to the Syrian battlefield would definitely constitute a game changer. In view of this reality, the international community might want to reconsider its policy towards supporting the moderate opposition in Syria. Otherwise, the current stalemate in the country might cement a rough division between an Islamist North and an Assad-led South.

Third, the Mosul operation has shockingly exposed the weakness of Iraq’s security services. After billions of dollars being poured into the country as part of the Western security sector reform initiative post the 2003 Invasion, the Maliki government appears to lack a credible law-enforcement mechanism in place to maintain public security. This fact will hardly deter ISIS or other non-state actors in the country from coercively challenging the central government in the future. In the eyes of Iraqis living in contested areas, the central government’s legitimacy fades with every incident that it fails to guarantee for people’s security. Now, Iraq might just be another step down the path of state failure.

Nonetheless, despite all this, not all looks rosy for the Islamic State. The situation today is widely different from the mid-2000s when Al Qaeda in Iraq and later the Islamic State of Iraq were committing to the widely popular struggle against ‘Western crusaders’ in Anbar and beyond. ISIS are barely celebrated as liberators, neither in Iraq nor in Syria. Unlike other Islamist organizations operating in the Levant, ISIS is generally perceived as a foreign organization staffed with foreign mujahedeen. ISIS’s strict interpretation of Sharia, which even fails to resonate with conservative ulama, further contributes to the alienation of local populations in the area. Despite the argument that particularly many Syrians have become more receptive to Islamist ideology, ISIS’s public demonstration of Hadd[3] is not only widely rejected as being too fundamentalist but also unislamic. As a result the Islamic State has lost the hearts and minds of the people it intends to unite. While 200 USD hand money might convince local youngsters marked by the horrors of war to join its fighting ranks, it will not buy the loyalty of hundreds of thousands disenchanted civilians trying desperately to escape ISIS-controlled territories. What does this mean for ISIS’s strategic aim of erecting an Islamic State in the region? Al-Baghdadi might control a quasi-state construct with the coercive means to enforce Sharia law but without the popular consent or support that could legitimize his authority. With the public refusing to pledge allegiance to the ‘Emir’ this state will be void not just in the eyes of the public or the West but also based on the Islamic tenets it tries to appeal to. As Ibn Qutaiba stated famously in his 9th century concept of the ‘Circle of Power’:

The relation between Islam, the ruler, and the people is like that between tent, pole, ropes and pegs. The tent is Islam, the pole is the ruler, the ropes and pegs the people. Every one […] of them is dependent on the others for [its] well-being[4].

As long as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham fails to win over the hearts and minds of the people of the region, its foundations will be weak, particularly vis-à-vis alternative contenders of socio-political authority. In the meantime, ISIS seems to be a problem that could be contained by force if regional players and the international community could agree on a common strategy of containment.


[3] In Sharia Hadd refers to the class of punishments ascribed to certain crimes such as theft, adultery, apostasy or the consumption of intoxicants.

[4] Ibn Qutaiba, ‘Uyun al-Akhbar’, translated by Horowitz, J. (1930), p.185


Doughnut Dollies, 1918 France

Where was your first war doughnut, GI?

Fittingly, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings corresponded with this year’s National Doughnut Day in the United States.

I say fittingly with serious intent.

The inspiration for National Doughnut Day was the Salvation Army. In 1938, to support their fundraising and service efforts during the Great Depression, the organisation pushed for the holiday to recognise the pastry’s role providing comfort to the troops in the previous war. Delightful and little likely to cause offence, the holiday was adopted with little opposition. 

In WWII, providing doughnuts to the American service man and woman was codified and expanded in practice. This time it was the Red Cross and the Donut Dollies who served on the front lines, although the Salvation Army would continue its doughnut service in the US. The machines that were developed to make doughnuts in vast quantities or in constrained circumstances were legion. Here was the rise of the expeditionary doughnut capability.  Describing its role in that war, Red Cross leader Harvey D. Gibson spoke with unexpected eloquence upon this fried delight, contrasting its existence as a “humble brown object of succulent dough” with its stature as not just caloric satisfaction but as “ammunition for the heart and spirit.” It was an epic effort to provide the smallest comfort of home.

In fact, the importance of this comfort was recognised when the US Senate passed a resolution in 2012 in to honour the women who served — as well as those who gave their lives — in support of the doughnut Clubmobile. It also, interesting, called for ”historians of the Second World War to recognize and describe the service of the Clubmobiles, and to not let this important piece of United States history be lost.” Got it and on it, both here and in my wider work.

Today, the doughnut IS American. And there are parts of the country with more doughnut shops than you’d think was reasonable to sustain. (And our neighbours to the north are none too shabby in their love of the sweet ring.) Part of this was, inevitably, the influence of wartime experience, the taste nurtured a post-war demand that a growing service economy was keen to meet.

What happens in war is important. It moves economies, societies, cultures and governments. But these small details also leave lasting impressions for those who experienced them. And they importantly demonstrate the ultimate and enduring importance of the human and individual experience in war. In honour of those WWI women who inspired a holiday, and their daughters of WWII who performed so ably, I would really like to know from veterans about their first or memorable doughnuts of WWII.

Comment here, send an email to or tweet me at @jsargentr.


The Star Chamber, a secret tribunal so worthwhile that Parliament banned it in 1640.

How Terrorists Win

Today the UK government is beginning a full court press to legitimise secret trials for people suspected of terrorist offences. Chris Grayling MP, the justice secretary, went on Radio 4 to defend the need for secret trials in ‘very, very rare’ circumstances. We can trust the government in this matter, because ‘very, very rare’ circumstances are likely to stay ‘very, very rare’ when political circumstances change. Take, for example, depriving UK citizens of their British citizenship. As recent reporting by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism demonstrates, we have nothing to worry about. Between the 2002 Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act, and 2010, when the Labour Government was kicked out of office, the extraordinary step of stripping a dual national of British citizenship was used at least three times: once against Abu Hamza, once to strip David Hicks of his UK citizenship after he had already been to court to get it, and lastly Hilal al-Jedda, a man made stateless by then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Since the ascent of Cameron and Clegg, the UK Government has stripped at least fifty people of British citizenship. Law designed with Hamza in mind now allows the Home Secretary to wash the UK’s hands of anyone the government deems undesirable, and in doing so, frees the government from pesky human rights obligations owed to British citizens. Some of those citizens end up dead, by American hands, shortly after such citizenship-stripping has taken place.

Let’s not kid ourselves: some of the people deprived of UK citizenship are (or were) probably very dangerous individuals, as are many people taken to court on terrorism-related offences. But are these measures to ‘combat’ terrorism worth the damage that they do to British society? I can see the need for changing particular laws to take account of new threats to society (people willing to blow themselves up, people willing to conduct mass casualty attacks), but I can’t, for the life of me, see how two men warrant the sacrifice of a basic principle of English law. Secret trials make sense when one views the legal system in terms of ‘output’ and ‘efficiency’ and ‘performance’, but make no sense at all when one considers the values of accountability and democracy that are meant to underpin them. In war time, most states adopt some form of emergency measures for security, but the British government is studious in stating that ‘we’ are not at war with terrorists, no matter how much they consider themselves to be at war with us. That makes the introduction of secret trials for terrorist suspects all the more dangerous, because it will become the new ‘normal’ in short order. After all, if this is done on the government’s say-so, and there is no-one else allowed to observe the case or proceedings, then who will be able to argue against it? This, I think, is how the terrorists win: they make British society so afraid of two people that we’re willing to sacrifice the basic principles of justice in the UK in order to lock them away for a while. These men are so scary, in fact, that the government can’t tell us anything about them, for our own good.


(Edited to correct error over the date of the 2010 election)


Reversing the Revolution in the name of the people?

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

General Haftar’s announcement in February to topple the current Islamist government was discounted by many as mere rhetoric. In a country that has not come to a rest since the NATO-led toppling of Gadhafi in 2011, claims by yet another armed group to forcefully take control of the failed state are easily disregarded. However, since the self-declared ‘Libyan National Army’ attacked the parliament in Tripoli last week, it seems that Haftar and his men are a force to be reckoned with. His narrative of acting in the name of a Libyan volonté générale[1] to relieve the country from the grip of the ‘Islamist disease’ sounds familiar[2]. After the military’s intervention in Egypt last year, is just another Arab country falling prey to a reactionary anti-Islamist wave rolling from the Gulf over the Levant to Northern Africa?

At the height of the so-called Arab Spring, many Arabs took a pragmatic approach to governance. The initial popular support for Islamist groups was founded on the belief that they could cater most effectively for the people’s volonté générale. The West and the Arab World’s long-established regimes followed this development with suspicion fuelled by a mix of ignorance and Islamist paranoia. Would the era of secular pan-Arabism give way to an era of Islamist authoritarianism? External stakeholders must have looked at those countries in turmoil with relief when initial popular euphoria for Islamist organizations was replaced by a sober realization that Islamism was not the fast-acting panacea people wanted it to be. Growing public discontent in the Arab World seems to have empowered external stakeholders to put an end to the Islamist spook. In 2013 Saudi Arabia and Qatar scaled back their support for Islamist groups in Northern Syria, the UAE were starting to support the Egyptian military leadership around El Sisi in its fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, and the GCC remains divided about the extent to which Riyalpolitik is to sustain political Islam. The West, fuelled by a jihadi paranoia, put armed support for the Syrian opposition on the back burner, turned a blind eye to the Egyptian military’s intervention last summer as well as provided support for any ‘counterterrorist’ operation in Yemen and Northern Africa.

Against the backdrop of this regional trend to contain the spread of unregulated Islamism (as opposed to regulated Islamism in certain Gulf states), General Haftar is moving against a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Libya. He does so under the banner of ‘protecting the will of the people’. Sporadic expressions of sympathy during rallies in Tripoli are evidence enough for the once loyal companion of Captain Gadhafi that the Libyan people are on his side[3]. Similar to El Sisi’s move against Morsi last year, Haftar rhetorically takes the moral high ground of intervening in the civilian affairs of a failed state to restore law and order until an acceptable leader is found. However, a peek at the military intervention in Egypt last summer, shows that military praetorian interventions in state affairs seldom turn out to be the kind of altruistic arbitration for the greater societal good that they pretend to be. Instead, the military’s own political or corporate interests are what drives the military’s intervention. The interpretation of the greater societal good is subject to the individual considerations of senior military leaders who through their career have institutionalized a personal aversion to political Islam. As part of the old guard, the thought of Islamists holding major political power, is something that El Sisi in Egypt or Haftar in Libya refuse to come to terms with. Yet, political Islam might indeed be part of the public volonté générale in most Arab countries, cultivated over decades of authoritarian oppression and marginalization. By disregarding the Islamist element in Arab society, any corrective operation against those voted into power goes against the premise of pluralism.  Given the post-revolutionary fragmentation of the region’s political landscape, pluralism ought to remain an enduring attribute of Arab politics – with it the respect for political Islam as a societal constant.

Traditionally, Libya has been a country defined by pluralism ever since the three regions of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan were merged by Great Power interests into one political entity. The idea of a unitary nation state with one people united behind one civilian authority has been an alien concept for most Libyans. The post-2011 disintegration of central authority structure in Libya has made matters worse. Armed militias refusing to disarm govern their areas of responsibility independently as private fiefdoms without much interference of the central government. Therefore, Haftar’s argument that his ‘Libyan National Army’ operates selflessly in protection of an inclusive societal will to relieve the country from an Islamist terrorist threat appears to be not more than illusionary pseudo-liberal rhetoric. In reality, Haftar probably lacks the coercive means to seize and hold power considering the diversified Libyan security sector. Despite his attempt to emulate El Sisi’s 2013 intervention, Haftar cannot rely on the cohesion of an omnipotent military to overpower those ‘terrorist forces’ supporting the Islamist government. Unlike the Egyptian military’s praetorian capability to act as both arbitrator and ruler, Haftar’s role will most likely not exceed that of an arbitrator. Notwithstanding this fact, following the Egyptian model of purging society from an Islamist peril, Haftar’s agenda is likely dominated by the effectively unachievable goals of seizing power, coercively restoring law and order as well as holding on to political power without returning to the barracks any time soon. In so doing, there is little evidence that the ‘Libyan National Army’ is any more inclusive and selfless than any other armed militia or gang providing ‘public security’ in the streets of Libya today.

Nonetheless, similar to the quiet military intervention in Egypt just about a year ago, the West and key regional players remain silent[4]. Serving their strategic objective of containing unregulated Islamism, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and US might actually welcome Haftar’s offensive. Regardless of Libya’s public will, a Libya under tight military rule with little scope for Islamists to manoeuvre would first, soothe El Sisi’s and the UAE’s security paranoia; second,  guarantee Saudi Arabia that Libya does not become another breeding ground for brotherhoodesque Islamists; while third, provide the West with the stability to ensure an unobstructed flow of hydrocarbons. While one is often inclined in the Middle East to jump from cui bono assumptions to conspirative conclusions, links between Haftar and the US do exist. After two decades in US exile Haftar has repeatedly been the man Langley calls upon. Involved in the failed attempt to topple Gadhafi in 1996 and reactivated during the revolution in 2011, Haftar seems to be an individual predestined to alter the status quo in Libya with the silent consent of the US. Post-Islamist stability in Libya ranks high on the agenda of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Egypt as well. While the UAE have been quite public about replacing Qatar as Egypt’s post-revolutionary patron, they so far have remained silent about Haftar’s ‘Operation Dignity’. However, the UAE’s backing of the few non-Islamist factions during the revolution in 2011, their known Islamist paranoia and their repeated pressure on El Sisi to clamp down on Islamists in Egypt, suggest that Haftar’s anti-Islamist objectives are well in line with the UAE’s foreign and security policy.

Even more, Haftar seems to ride on a reactionary wave of Islamist containment, which does not primarily emanate from the West but the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Among the various factions in Arab society today (first, the secular old guard; second, young liberals; third, the Islamist camp; and fourth, the politically apathetic majority), it is easy to declare that Islamism fails to represent society inclusively. However, one should not be blinded by the pretence of societal concern, aiming at safeguarding the people’s wills by restoring the secular mukhaberat state (repressive police state) through military intervention. Haftar’s declared goal of protecting society and state from the Islamist peril, although widely delusional, does not serve society’s volonté générale but the interests of external stakeholders. Not only would it reverse the achievements of the revolution but also it would fail to create a sustainable government whose legitimacy is not so much based on external support as it is based on the will of the people. If there is one lesson to take away from the Arab Spring, it is that the empowerment of the individual to actively alter the political status quo is a privilege it will not surrender – even in face of coercive military force. Consequently, if the people’s volonté générale is as diverse as it pends out to be in Syria, Egypt or Libya, the only long-term solution is consensus, not the military’s imposition of the tyranny of the majority. That being said, Libya requires constructive external support to achieve consensus – not through coercion but mediation.

[1] The concept of the volonté générale is defined here based on Rousseau’s interpretation as the inclusive aggregate will of all individuals within a polity.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Huw Davies

Trials and Tribulations Translating Policy into Strategy

Two weeks ago, Kings of War joined the Professional Discussion of military affairs on Twitter. We are quite pleased to continue our participation in this endeavour, sparking and helping to moderate discourse on important topics and issues to defense and national security. We have begun well with participation on both sides of the Atlantic, primarily representing the Anglo-American armies and their interested scholaras. This is a great start, but we do wish to invite and welcome professional officers (active duty or retired but still concerned) and scholars from other services and nations to join the conversation. Finally, as for today’s post, I am very happy to introduce Dr. Huw Davies from KCL Defence Studies to Kings of War, particularly as he is bringing us back to the French and Indian, Peninsular, and Crimean Wars with timely and relevant cases and questions. — JSR

. . .

Continuing the Twitter-based Professional Discussion on military affairs and education, I’m this week suggesting we explore the relationship between the political and military levels, and how this impacts on command and priorities in war.

‘Tactics make the steps from which operational leaps are assembled: strategy points out the path’. Aleksandr Svechin (1878-1938) This is a phrase commonly used to encapsulate the relationship between the different levels of war. But in practice, it rarely appears this simple.

Through my own research, discussions at the UK’s Staff College and on Staff Rides with the British Army, I am constantly reminded that military commanders are frequently presented with vague or (sometimes and) contradictory objectives, that serve different political ends. To explore this in more detail, I will briefly describe three case studies from the century between c.1750 and c.1850. They’re all British (I’m a British military historian), but they all occur in different parts of the world, in somewhat different geo-strategic circumstances, and present commanders with different decision and operational challenges.

1. British Strategy in the French & Indian War (1754-63)

This was in many ways an accidental war. It broke out as mutual fears over British and French expansion in North America spiralled out of control. The initial British war aims focussed on preventing French control of the Ohio Valley, and therefore establishing riverine access between Canada and Louisiana.

Within 3 years, the British war aim had clearly evolved from containing French expansionism, to eliminating the French imperial presence in North America. This was largely a response to the tactical and operational problems the British faced in North America: unable to defeat the French outright because of the logistical difficulties presented by the wilderness terrain in the Virginia and Pennsylvania back-country, they engaged in parallel tactical and strategic transformation.

At the tactical level, the British developed and refined the use of Light Infantry, and logistical depots to counteract the irregular threat posed by France’s Native American allies and the terrain. At the strategic level, the government drastically expanded the war effort to isolate French power and set the conditions for a three-pronged dismantlement of the French position in North America. Operations were launched against French strongholds in the Ohio Valley (1758), the Great Lakes region (1758-9), and the St Lawrence (1758-60).

The British commander on the ground, John Campbell, the Fourth Earl of Loudoun, made tremendous advances in transforming the British Army at the tactical level, but he could not keep-pace with the transforming strategic picture. Sacked in 1757, he was succeeded by his second in command, who was in turn replaced with General Jeffrey Amherst, who went on to achieve great strategic success with the army Loudoun had painstakingly reformed.

2. The Peninsular War (1808-14)

Commonly seen as a sideshow to the main party happening in Central Europe, the Peninsular War was nevertheless a huge strategic commitment for the British. Politically, the deployment of Wellington’s 40,000 British troops to the Iberian Peninsula absolved the government of its common characterisation as ‘Perfidious Albion’. Britain was no longer paying others to do its bidding in Europe, but was shedding her own blood in the fight against Napoleon.

But the deployment carried enormous risk. This was Britain’s only deployable field army, and if it was lost, British participation in the war against Napoleon would end. Therefore, Wellington was presented with four contradictory priorities. The first was the security of the British Army itself; second, the successful defence of Portugal; third, this invasion of Spain; and fourth (and only fourth), the outright defeat of France. Yet for the continued smooth-running of the campaign in political terms, all of these objectives had to be satisfied – a difficult prospect when the French army in Spain numbered in 1810 nearly 300,000, compared to the comparably meagre 80,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops Wellington had under his command.

Wellington adopted a long-term strategy, designed to weaken French strength by attriting his enemy whilst preserving his own force. Such a strategy sacrificed crowd-pleasing battles in favour of prolonged campaigns of attrition, a strategy that did not play well in results-focussed Whitehall. Similar concerns existed in the Spanish and Portuguese governments, whose countries were being laid waste to by occupying French forces. Only after four years (1808-12), was Wellington able to go decisively on the offensive, and brought his enemy to battle at Salamanca in July 1812, commencing a process that would result in the liberation of Spain by the end of 1813, and the defeat of France in 1814.

3. The Crimean War (1854-56)

Ostensibly a European War over the independence of the Ottoman Empire, this was in reality a conflict generated by British politicians with the aim of humiliating Russia, whom Britain had come to regard as a threat to her imperial possessions in South Asia. Central to the war effort, and frequently forgotten, was the destruction of Russian naval power in the Black Sea.

This is an example of a war where the commander was unable to translate strategic objectives into realisable operational and tactical goals. The British were in alliance with France and Austria, and when it came to attacking the Crimean Peninsula, Lord Raglan found it difficult to come to a sensible compromise with his French counterpart, Marshal Saint-Arnaud.

Raglan became bogged down in a lengthy and costly siege at Sebastopol, while the campaign as a whole cost the British 16,000 casualties (including Raglan himself). The French lost 75,000, mostly to disease. In strategic terms, the Crimean War was a success – Russian naval power in the Black Sea, and therefore the Mediterranean, was paralysed. Raglan’s main problem was that he lacked the political and strategic understanding that would have enabled him to explain to his political masters what an army, primarily interested until that point in colonial punitive operations, was capable of achieving.

Some questions for the professional discussion then:

How can military commanders anticipate changing strategic goals?

How can military commanders operationalize contrary strategic objectives?

Turn this around: how can military commanders successfully influence the strategic priorities of government?


Join the discussion at #CCLKOW