On Chimp War, Vol. Something or Other

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

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




Mitrokhin & lessons learned

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How indeed.


Academia’s ‘Crypto Moment’

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

Jarama_gravestone copy

War Pilgrims

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andreas Krieg

The End of Iraq as we know it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Dollar Bill

When Checks Imbalance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some questions to consider:

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

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

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

Further reading options:      






Chimp war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.