These boots are not meant for fighting…yet?

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


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

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

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

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

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


So, simple questions for this week’s discussion.

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

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




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


Not Ripe For Freedom

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


That said, there remain several unresolved vexing issues.


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

Some questions immediately come into the mind:


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


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


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


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


Let’s the discussion begin…



The Acme Co. Army?


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 How can PMSC-military cooperation be improved?


Join the discussion on Twitter, #CCLKOW.



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

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

groundhog day

Gulf War III

The new gulf war will be an amazing thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, off to war we go.

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

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


Reframing the Current Crisis in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


‎Is blowing up social media an act of war?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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


Reflections on President Obama’s IS speech

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In Putin’s Shadow

Quick post, but there’s a very good article by Peter Pomerantsev over at The Atlantic on Russia’s new breed of information warfare. Of particular note is the speed at which the Kremlin has managed to manufacture into importance the concept of ‘Novorossiya’ as a term to define the sections of Ukraine that Russia threatens to separate from Ukraine, or annex outright. Pomerantsev’s points about wanton unreality, and the general attack on the notion of objectivity reminded me, in a tangential fashion, of one of my favourite quotes on power from the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Before continuing, I’d like to point out that this is in no way an attempt to say that anything from George R.R. Martin’s pen is directly relevant to the situation in Ukraine. Rather, it’s an interesting way to think about the interaction between power and truth, and that interaction is important in regards to Ukraine. No “What can Buffy the Vampire Slayer tell us about people dying in Donetsk?”, etc. Since the quote is well reproduced in Game of Thrones, I’ve included the clip below (Safe for work, unlike half the programme, and spoiler free):

For those without headphones at work, the books don’t delve into the riddle’s answer (although arguably the entire series is an attempt at one). Varys (a royal advisor, of sorts) tells Tyrion:

In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me- who lives and who dies?

In the TV version, this conversation continues:

Tyrion Lannister: Depends on the sellsword.
Lord Varys: Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods.
Tyrion Lannister: He has a sword, the power of life and death.
Lord Varys: But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey? The executioner? Or something else?
Tyrion Lannister: I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.
Lord Varys: Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.

In my mind, if we think of the riddle as a question of power, then the answer to the riddle lies outside its formal structure. The person with the true power is Varys, because Varys is the person able to set the categories and terms which constitute the riddle itself. This is similar to the control of belief and ideology epitomised in George Orwell’s 1984. But as a comparison to Russia’s information war, a 1984 comparison doesn’t work. Russia exercises power in setting the terms of debate, but it doesn’t control this in a unilateral fashion. Russia’s power lies in its ability to destroy or undermine faith in the truth of any basic ‘assumed’ categories present in the narratives of others. Where this connects to Pomerantsev’s piece is that he highlights the Kremlin’s ability (via Russia Today and other media channels) to introduce an inescapable element of doubt into almost every area of the debate. In other words, Russia doesn’t need to persuade, instead by coughing up enough static, it can attack the basis of discussion itself.

Controlling narratives, undermining basic precepts for discussion – it’s hard to say which is more powerful. Although nihilistic, the latter might be more important. After all, Varys’s riddle is only a puzzle if one believes that kings are the ultimate political authority, priests are holy and that merchants are rich. If one can’t trust those three basic ideas as true, then the riddle is unsolvable. The best answer to a world order dominated by rich western states which set the terms might be to destroy the assumptions upon which it operates.


Getting ready for war, this time don’t forget a plan for peace

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

At last-week’s NATO summit in Wales, the United States stepped up its diplomatic effort to form an international coalition against Islamic State (IS) forces in Iraq and Syria.

In the wake of the summit, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark will be the “core group” of a larger and extended coalition against the IS threat. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged NATO members to come up with concrete plans to tackle the IS: “We need to attack them in ways that prevent them from taking over territory, to bolster the Iraqi security forces and others in the region who are prepared to take them on, without committing troops of our own.” In addition, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly authorized Iranian military cooperation with the United States and the “core group” countries in Iraq. These latest diplomatic developments seems to give credit to the hypothesis that a major international military campaign against IS militants is about to begin.

While planning for war is clearly underway, not much has been said about any planning for peace. Let’s pretend for a moment that this US-led international military campaign is effective in rolling back IS forces from the territories they have seized astride Iraq and Syria. Who is going to secure and govern such territories? The Syrian Opposition Coalition? The Kurds? The Iraqi government? Whatever the case, the United States and its allies should be aware that any involvement in the current crisis in Iraq has to go well beyond the end of major military operations. In order to have a chance to be successful in the long term, any plan should include a clear commitment by the United States and its allies to continued military engagement in the region, as well as efforts to restore governance and delivery of basic services to the populace. In fact, if newly-liberated territories were to be left ungoverned and unprotected, Assad forces or IS militants could easily manage to reoccupy them, sooner rather than later.

The lack of a plan for peace, while preparing for war, is especially worrying because of its potential for blowback. Let’s take a brief look at three relatively recent military campaigns where an ostensibly effective strategy for war was not followed by a clear plan for peace.

In the 1980s, the United States supported an armed insurgency in Afghanistan against the local communist-led government and the Soviet Union. US officials set up a particularly complex but efficient system to provide economic and military assistance to a number of very diverse Afghan militant groups. US strategy was eventually successful insofar as, on 15 February 1989, the last Soviet troops were forced to abandon Afghanistan. However, the United States had no equally effective peace plan for post-conflict Afghanistan. On the contrary, after the Soviet withdrawal, Washington quickly disengaged from the country. Partly because of that, Afghanistan plunged into a protracted bloody civil war that eventually led to the rise of the Taliban regime.

On 19 March 2003, the United Stated began a military campaign against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. US military operations led to the quick defeat of the Hussein regime by May 1 of the same year. However, many studies of the US invasion of Iraq have provided extensive evidence that the United States had no well-designed peace plan for the country. The lack of such a plan resulted in a costly US military occupation and a decade of continued instability, the negative effects of which are still present in today’s Iraq in the form of Shiite-Sunni sectarian tensions and the rise of the Islamic State.

After exactly eight years, on 19 March 2011, the United States took part in a UN-sanctioned NATO-led military campaign in support of a popular uprising in Libya. Western military superiority was decisive in helping a fledging Libyan opposition to overthrow the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. However, the United States and the other members of the coalition were again quick to disengage from the country they had just helped to liberate. Since then, Libya has been plagued by growing violence and unrest that have driven the North-African country toward an all-out civil war and made the possibility of state breakdown very real.

All that considered, the old saying “once you break it, you own it” appears particularly appropriate. In fact, to get involved in the “war phase” of a crisis without being ready, or willing, to commit the same amount of resources to the “peace phase” of it is likely to have extremely negative consequences, not only for the country experiencing the crisis but also for those countries that decided to intervene in support of one or the other warring party.

The latest international diplomatic moves tell us that the likelihood of a major military campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria is very high. Let’s see if this time, while preparing for a difficult war, leaders in Washington will also find the time to work out a much needed plan for peace.

Eliminate IS

Operation Eliminate the ‘Islamic State’!

Dr. Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces – @andreas_krieg

The ‘Islamic State’ (IS), the self-declared caliphate of believers, continues to rage across the Levant leaving behind a trace of blood and destruction. Ethnic cleansing, mass-executions, rape and other horrific war crimes have become the trademark of an organization trampling Islamic values under foot. While Western publics got used to these atrocities, they have now been roused from a doze of general apathy by the carefully staged and broadcasted beheading of another US journalist in Syria. Sotloff’s cruel execution follows last month’s ferocious beheading of James Foley – both videos are a graphic demonstration of power amid superpower impotence exercised by an organization of merely a few thousand ideologically motivated thugs. Both times, the mummed executioner directly addressed the US President, calling on the superpower to stop its military operation against the ‘caliphate’. In reality, however, apart from intending to spread fear among adversaries or attracting new recruits, IS’ well-staged videos have one purpose: luring the superpower and its Western allies into escalating their military engagement in Iraq. And as it seems, Western publics take the bait. Public pressure on US President Obama is mounting. Both Republicans and Democrats urge the President to not just contain the threat of IS but to eliminate an organization that in the hearts and minds of Western publics has become the embodiment of evil. Yet, there are few Western options for bringing down this pseudo-Islamic empire – even fewer military options. But what can the world do to stop this bloodshed?

So far, the Islamic State does not constitute a direct threat to the West, neither to Europe nor to the US. Although its foreign fighters could become future perpetrators of terror in the West, were they to return, for the time being IS’ butchery primarily concerns the people in Lebanon, Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq – and secondly, the riparian states in the region. The ‘Islamic State’ is a hollow construct, brutally trying to coerce Muslims and non-Muslims alike, into a submission to the radical utopia of a caliphate that in this shape and form has never existed. It is the chimaera of an old vanguard, nourished by decades of fruitless jihad and inspired by the transfigured interpretations of the Prophet’s teachings by unimpressive provincial clerics. The new generation of mujahedeen joining IS to follow this vanguard into abyss, are mostly disillusioned young adults barely able to speak Arabic, let alone recite Quran. They have become the willing executioners of an ideologically motivated criminal organization not just failing to respond to public grievances in the region but most importantly exacerbating public grievances in their area of responsibility. Their uncompromising application of misinterpreted divine laws does not resonate well with the millions of people IS has forced to pledge allegiance to Al Baghdadi, its wizard-in-chief. The economy in the ‘Islamic State’ lies in tatters, citizens have been deprived of their earthly pleasures and civil liberties, women and children subjected to humiliating and gruesome punishments. The little sympathy for the mujahedeen that IS might have initially enjoyed as the people’s liberator from Assad’s or Maliki’s patrimonial regimes, has vanished. In Mosul and Raqqa, the biggest cities in the Islamic State, a few thousand mujahedeen see themselves confronted with the challenge of coercing millions into allegiance whose hearts and minds they have lost a while ago. Public outreach initiatives by IS fighters distributing charity to the poor, cannot belie the long-term fragility of dissident masses being repressive ruled by a delusional band of bearded thugs. If not within the civilian population, where do the ‘Islamic State’s’ centres of gravity lie, and how can they be targeted to bring down this jihadist house of cards?

Strategically, the ‘Islamic State’ has three centres of gravity, namely what the military defines as the “source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act”. The most important strategic centre of gravity (CoG) for IS, are the Sunni tribes that have jumped on the jihadi bandwagon not based on ideological conviction but pragmatist considerations. Marginalized by a widely Shia dominated regime in Baghdad, many Sunni tribes, including members of Saddam’s Tikriti clan, have accepted IS as a vehicle to achieve their objective of ousting the sectarian patronage system permeating state institutions from Baghdad all the way to the local level. Second, IS relies on a well-established ‘jihadi highway’ that allows extra-regional recruits to join the organization. The steady flow of ideologically intoxicated, often Western youngsters making their way from Turkey to Syria, ensures that IS can keep its growing territory in check. Third, the ‘Caliphate’ can rely on an extensive self-sustaining economy of extortion financing its various activities. Although the resources might be scarce to adequately run a proper state of its current size, they generate an income that makes IS probably the most affluent jihadi organization in modern history. On the operational level, IS centre of gravity are its lines of communication enabling IS to rely on well-coordinated swarm tactics, i.e. a hybrid of traditional armoured formations supported by suicide bombers. It grants IS a high degree of manoeuvrability and operational flexibility in its rapid advances.

What good, can the West do in targeting these centres of gravity militarily, both on the strategic and operational level? The short answer is: very little. In a complex environment such as Northern Syria and Iraq, air strikes without boots on the ground can only provide cosmetic solutions at best. Even the employment of the Kurdish Peshmerga as Western proxies can only do little more than cracking the organization’s military façade. Due to its flexible operational approach, Al Baghdadi’s mujahedeen can only be contained by these external military operations, not eliminated. Armour and larger formations of fighters can be destroyed from the air, yet, in an urban environment small groups of mujahedeen become difficult to target. The unlikely alliance of the willing that has opened the front against IS in Northern Iraq, just embarked on a costly and long-lasting war of attrition that will not be won on the battlefield as long as IS’ strategic centres of gravity remain untouched. The solution to the ‘Islamic State’s’ disintegration, the elimination of its forlorn disciples as well as the burial of its crooked ideology, lies with the Sunni tribes who have provided the organization with the momentum it needed to advance. Winning over these tribesmen who are often in the fight for more autonomy and political self-determination rather than religious fanaticism, would be an approach that could eliminate this cancer from within – yet, it would be a strategy doomed to fail if pursued by the West. Given the West’s awful record of meddling with Arab and Muslim internal affairs in past decades, this political solution would have to be implemented by those who first, enjoy credibility among Sunni tribes; second, are abundant with resources to support the tribes; and third, enjoy the stability within a disintegrating Middle East to commit to this solution long-term: the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  Increasingly recognizing the immense threat emanating from IS on its doorstep, the GCC has to overcome its negligible internal differences and assume the leadership role the West groomed it for in the past decade. This means going beyond clamping down on mujahedeen trying to join the ‘Islamic State’ or drying up IS’ increasingly unnecessary external donations. The West, including Turkey, should limit their strategic activities to eliminating the ‘jihadi highway’ and ensuring that IS cannot convert its extorted rents and produced oil into war-sustaining capability. For the GCC to be able to achieve its strategic objective, the international community in general and the West in particular, would probably have to abandon the idea of Iraq as a unitary nation-state. Accepting the de facto political fragmentation of Mesopotamia might be a prerequisite to dealing with the root cause of the current conflict, which IS has hijacked for its own ideological agenda.