Andreas Krieg

The End of Iraq as we know it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Dollar Bill

When Checks Imbalance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some questions to consider:

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

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

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

Further reading options:


Chimp war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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)