‘Not quite dead yet’: the counterinsurgency debate continues…

Though some claim counterinsurgency is dead, the debate about it is still going strong. It remains to be seen whether the raft of recently released and soon-to-be-published books on the topic are the last, parting shots or just another salvo in a campaign with no end. What is certain is that there is still much to be said and understood about the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, about military intervention, and the proper application of strategy. As contributions to this debate, I alert you to three recent items by Kings of War authors (myself, of course, and also Ryan Evans):

  • For your listening pleasure, consider this podcast recorded by the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Advanced Governmental Studies. Mark Stout,  Global Security Studies Program Director, interviews me about my recent book and the strategic context of counterinsurgency. The conversation touches upon the British campaign in Basra, the relevance of counterinsurgency principles to modern warfare and the relation between counterinsurgency and the campaign plan.
  • Over at War on the Rocks, I have penned a short essay on clear-hold-build, examining the central contradiction between the dominance of this approach in counterinsurgency theory and its extremely patchy track-record when put into practice. What accounts for the gap between theory and practice and does ‘clear-hold-build’ have any utility as an approach to local-level counterinsurgency? The article links to a longer treatment of this topic, within Contemporary Security Policy, which the editors and Taylor & Francis have temporarily made ‘free-for-view‘.
  • Finally, Ryan Evans has penned a very useful review for Foreign Policy of three books dealing with Afghanistan: Matt Zeller’s Watches Without Time, Ben Anderson’s No Worse Enemy, and Carter Malkasian’s War Comes to GarmserWhile on the topic of book reviews, I will be reviewing Douglas Porch and Gian Gentile’s counter-COIN books in a forthcoming issue of Small Wars & Insurgencies dedicated in its entirety to counterinsurgency and the debate that it has fostered. Something to look forward to, right?

More to follow, no doubt…


Did CT Kill COIN? – Perspectives on the Special Forces Raids

James Kitfield, author of the classic text Prodigal Soldiers, has penned an interesting ‘five takeaways’ article about the two US Special Operations raids in Somalia and Libya last week. One of his observations is that the raids vindicate the advocates of CT – or counter-terrorism – in their ‘heated debate’ with the advocates of counterinsurgency. He concludes that ‘the news of the nearly simultaneous U.S. commando raids this past weekend drives home just how decisively advocates for a limited counter-terrorism strategy have won the argument’.

I have no doubts that we are or will soon be leaving this particular ‘counterinsurgency era’, a period defined by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Kitfield is also correct in noting the US administration’s and the public’s aversion to protracted, costly and ambiguous state-building operations. Still, there is something a little troubling about the interpretation of this shift, from COIN to CT, as a ‘winning argument’.

1) The notion that the ‘limited counter-terrorism strategy’ has ‘won the argument’ makes it seem as if proponents of counterinsurgency would rather the US conduct counterinsurgencies in Somalia and Libya, and in every other state where al-Qaeda operatives may be present. This is not quite accurate, and is obviously a losing argument, particularly when counterinsurgency is equated with what we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan (not, say, the Philippines and Colombia). There was a CT versus COIN debate in 2009 and 2010, but it concerned only Afghanistan and the Obama’s administration attempts to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat. More broadly – as a global strategy against al-Qaeda – the advocacy of counterinsurgency suggested merely that narrow counter-terrorism operations be complemented by various political, economic and other non-military lines of effort, so as to give the strikes and arrests strategic meaning.

2) This brings us to a second point: there is really no good reason to counterpose counterterrorism and counterinsurgency so that you have a winner and a loser. Much depends on context, strategic objectives, what is needed and what can be done. What is interesting, however, and which John Amble points out over at War on the Rocks, is that our capability to conduct counterterrorism against al-Qaeda is so much more advanced than our capability to engage in the non-military aspects of ‘global counterinsurgency’:

Engaging vulnerable populations in order to degrade popular support for al-Qaeda remains a strategic necessity.  But even an extremely generous accounting of our efforts along these lines over more than a decade would deem them a middling success.  Compared to this, our ability to employ SOF’s kinetic capabilities in a discerning, targeted fashion has been remarkably effective, and remains the best tool available to defeat al-Qaeda and the global network of jihadist groups atop which it symbolically sits.

This imbalance is critical and unfortunate, but we should not confuse our failures to ‘engage vulnerable populations’ with the futility of doing so.

3) Dave Maxwell of Georgetown University is cited in the article as arguing that ‘we’ll eventually look back on Iraq and Afghanistan as anomalies and the debates over counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism as largely unhelpful’. Within the context of the article he is absolutely right, and the second point in particular is alluded to above. But there is a danger of misinterpretation here. Iraq and Afghanistan will hopefully be regarded as anomalies because the uniquely inauspicious manner in which they were planned, launched and prosecuted. In the future (again, one may hope), interventions will be approached more strategically and with greater awareness of the political context in which they are to unfold. This may go some way toward obviating the desperate measures taken in both campaigns to attempt extrication.

But in important respects, as we now exit the counterinsurgency era, Iraq and Afghanistan must not be seen as anomalous, but as typical. This is a point that Robert Egnell and I tried to make in our recent interview with Octavian Manea over at Small Wars Journal:

Robert Egnell: …So long as the operating environment looks as it does today, so long as the character of conflict looks as it does today, the lessons at the tactical level of the last ten years remain highly relevant. Even if we can debate the concept of counterinsurgency and its application today and tomorrow, the lessons of operating in urban environments, foreign languages and foreign cultures will be relevant also in the future. Expeditionary powers cannot escape these challenges. It is not going to get easier: how to engage with a civilian population, how to establish and maintain civil order, how to collect and process human intelligence, how to operate in a foreign environment, how to provide basic services. These are challenges that are here to stay with us as we move forward.

David Ucko: Beyond these common operational challenges, one of the most pressing lessons from the cases discussed in the book [Iraq and Afghanistan] is the need for greater strategic thinking. This sounds like a cliché these days, and becomes a catchall explanation with little substance. But despite great talk about the need for strategy, I don’t think the term or the art is widely understood. Looking at what happened in the last ten to fifteen years – whether we call it counterinsurgency, war, contingency operations, it doesn’t really matter – the ability to craft and implement a viable strategy is absolute, for any power involved in any kind of expeditionary operations. … There are great lessons from these campaigns and we would be absolutely foolish to dismiss them as aberrations just because we don’t like the word “counterinsurgency.”

In other words, what about Afghanistan and Iraq is truly anomalous? The scale of the US role? Yes, for some time such large-scale interventions are unlikely to be repeated. The cack-handedness with which both operations were launched? Hopefully so. But the strategic and operational challenges,  they are always going to be there, whether we choose to ‘own’ them or not. Doing so risks ‘another Afghanistan’, but shirking them – as was attempted in Libya – carries risks all of its own.


You Can’t Shoot Rioters*

When you are a military historian and you are contemplating engagement strategies and tactics, this fundamental difference between the general standards of public order policing and combat is good to keep at the forefront of one’s thinking. While public order policing may share many similarities with combat, it is the restraint of the former with respect to force that distinguishes the two. This characteristic also defines a critical and difficult feature of public order policing. As well, it is an issue which most interests me, both in my analytical approach to the London Riots and my conceptualization of the relationships between urban mayhem, future security, COIN, and what I generally see as the merging territory of concern between policing and defence. [1]

Putting aside lethal force, global public order standards allow a multitude of lesser options. But do not let their less than lethal status confuse, none of these are nice, not at all. Water cannons. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Armoured vehicles. And yet, as bad as things were in London during those bleak days of August 2011, the police use of force remained remarkably restrained. Confronted with unbridled passion and anger, the targets of pelting violence, the Met’s officers (and those of other jurisdictions and branches who deployed to assist) on the streets and in command struggled to adhere to a standard of least force. This does not mean that there were not individual actions which exceeded this standard. Rather, as a whole, as an institution, the commitment to pushing back against the easy recourse to force was a clear priority. While many in the immediate aftermath brayed about the lack of “robustness” – and I have to sympathise with the police position that although such criticisms have delightful political romance they have no practical meaning – in the police response, I cannot help but find much to consider optimistically in the restraint exercised. [2]  Perhaps some was incidental to personnel mobilisation issues, restraint being a factor of insufficient numbers, but that only explains the smaller part of the story. Although this meant chaos and much damage and concern in the short term, in the longer run the value of this factor will be highlighted. And before you argue with this perspective please do read the end note to this below. [3]

Alas, the title is snappy, but it is not entirely accurate and hence the asterisk. There are important and meaningful exceptions even in an environment in which the use of force is constrained. For example, where disorder merges with extreme criminal behaviour, the use of potentially lethal force is acceptable when damage and violence to property and against the authorities spill over to threaten the physical security of members of the public. [4] And as the troubles in Egypt have accelerated from bad to worse to whatever comes after that in the past months, I paused to rethink this as the title for a piece on the use of force in public order policing. However, as I considered the context it became clear that this seeming Egyptian exception does not undermine the point because of the strategic and political ramifications of those events. [5] Sometimes you can shoot rioters. But you really do not ever want to have to do that, because it means you have arrived at a bad place.

Although the exceptions seem to be overtaking the title, the extreme nature of these situations in fact sustains the primary point that the use of force must be handled carefully in the bulk of public order policing. The complications of this issue, particularly for British policing, are many and important. Taking account of the manner in which they affect the landscape of public order, both in advance, during, and in retrospect, is critical to an understanding of the events of August 2011.

Returning to the extreme cases, I have used them intentionally. At the extremes one finds clarity – as Chesty Puller noted of his regiment’s status at Chosin, “we’re surrounded, that simplifies things.” [6] [Un]Fortunately, these extremes do not define the bulk of public order policing. Most of it operates within the space where force is unnecessary or inappropriate, where it creates more problems than it might be hoped to solve. Force is also problematic given the legal commitment to individual political and human rights, wherein the first obligation of the police is to commit to the facilitation of protest. And even as the extreme looms it should be quite clear that to err on the side against approaching use of force limits is best. The rioters, after all, really are your babies. [7] Thus, most decisions regarding any use of force must take place within a vast zone of ambiguities, relying on the discretion of officers, either in command or individually, who must keep a host of legal, customary, and professional requirements and standards to mind. And it must be remembered that there is no public consensus on what constitutes “appropriate” force in public order circumstances. To what must be the great frustration for the police, as they try to divine the correct path, “appropriate force” too often resembles the approach to art – people know what they like when they see it. Finally, much more than is obvious constitutes force in public order policing – and the evidence seems to be mounting behind the negative influence of police use of force on crowd behaviour. Clearly this is not easy or simple stuff.

On top of these complexities, the use of force presents unique issues for British policing. The essential challenge is that the unarmed stance of the bulk of officers has created the greater need and propensity to use physical methods at the lower end of policing, many for officer safety reasons (e.g. “distraction techniques”). Add to this the “toe to toe” philosophy of the police in public order which puts them within the potentially rising tide of anger. [8] Further complicating things, there is the current reality here that no images of the use of force, or violence generally, and the police redound to their benefit in the public eye. They lead to criticisms that the police must be either thuggish or timid, storm troopers or incompetents. At the foundation of all of this there is the office of constable and the individual officer’s obligations to the law to consider.

Together all of these factors combine to create the conditions for a very thin margin for success and almost contradictory, often shifting standards for what constitutes proper conduct in public order policing. 

Thus, every tactic and approach the police can use in public order situations has a use of force consideration. In every grade of public order event, from a kumbaya pro-peace rally to full on riot, every choice, plan, resource, and tactic must be “fit for purpose.” This charmingly economical term packs tremendous punch in the meaning it conveys – seriously, think about it a moment – good, right? I intend to use it liberally in future writing. Returning to the point, this means that for every planned or spontaneous decision or action in any situation the force component must be well-suited to the standards, laws and objectives, both strategic and tactical. [9]

Finally, with respect to force and public order the police must now accept a new understanding of their influence upon events. Recent findings in crowd psychology have expanded the lexicon of force in public order policing so that it is wider than overt acts. It is now recognised, for example, that how the police appear communicates force – or lack thereof. [10] And where mere demeanour and equipage [11] can be taken as a form of force, then any uses of force will of necessity have a larger meaning. The importance of force in public order policing is also evolving to comprehend a new understanding of the role of police behaviour upon the tone of an event and the crowd. A light touch – or rather, the lightest possible touch permissible under circumstances – seems to have a positive effect. [12]

I am in the vanguard of none to put forward the strategic and tactical stance of least force across a broad spectrum of conflict. Good. Do consider that most of future conflict – both domestic turmoil and war – will occur in urban settings or among civilian populations, and so least force capabilities will be valuable. Collateral damage, in rubble or lives, will become too costly to continue at currently tolerated levels. The costs in resources and strategic consequences are already manifesting themselves and will only get worse. And so it is the component of lesser force that is part of what has attracted me to examine this piece of history and the larger subject matter of public order policing. There is a very intriguing model in the British approach to public order policing, difficulties and complications notwithstanding. [13]

Larger considerations aside, London, England, and beyond are all better for the fact that no rioter or officer was killed in those 4 days in August.



1. Other issues, such as training and equipment, exert a great influence upon public order policing. Although they are not the subject of this discussion, I am aware of their role, especially when one considers the matters of national coordination and inter-force reciprocal assistance.

2. Police Oracle article, Chief Constable Ian Learmonth, national lead on public order, discusses the issues surrounding the use of more extreme tactics in the aftermath of the London Riots. He seems to suggest that greater leeway is being established. However, even as forces are trained in the use of these tactics, and “top cover” is being provided, whether they will ever be resorted to remains a significant question. “The Changing Face of Public Order,” 22/08/2013.

3. I choose not to make this a direct part of the discussion in this essay because it is a bit harsher than the rest. To sustain my conclusion above I reckon in part that least force was exercised given that no police fatalities resulted. This should be recognised as to the benefit of the rioters, sparing them the burden of a lifetime’s guilt over taking the life of an officer cut off from his or her comrades by the overzealous applications of offensive tactics. The very unfortunate consequence of the level of anger necessary to go over to riot is that it leads to a nearly uncheckable group mentality which too often can become lethal. And yet, no matter the anger and righteous justification, to cause another’s death is a wound that can never fully heal.

4. I prefer to think I would recognise this fact in the moment, but I was grateful from the writer’s perspective to have this distinction brought to my attention. It remains a brutal truth to accept and even further to ask of people, which is the need to take a life to save a life.

5. I do not intend to speak to the justification for the actions taken by authorities there, but I would argue that the specific nature of that drama highlights the strategic and political potential of urban disorder in some instances. Those masses are not merely expressing discontent but are in rebellion against the [barely] standing rule – again. While it is easy to counsel not to stray from the above injunction when dealing with public expression even as that might cause some degree of social or commercial disruption, whether a regime or a society must stand by and allow its own collapse or violent overthrow is another matter. However, at that point you must decide whether civil war is worth what you hope to achieve. Of course, it bears remembering that how expression is handled on a regular basis will likely exert a significant influence upon whether the dilemmas posed by serious political disorder will become an issue.

6.  It is a terrible tactical situation, but there are very few questions about what must be done.

7. I have written earlier that the appropriate mentality for COIN is one which frames the insurgents and population as “babies” in your charge. As in, you do not and cannot win in parenting if the baby dies.

8. Home Affairs Committee, (2008/2009), Policing of the G20 Protests, “toe to toe” reference, p. 23.

9.  What constitutes public order policing? What are the standards? What laws control? What societal expectations govern? Very comprehensively the ACPO (et al.) 2010 Manual of Guidance on Keeping the Peace lays out the current doctrine and standards in public order policing, to include relevant discussions of use of force in each area of concern [e.g., command, planning, tactics, resources…]. It’s a gripping read, an excellent follow on to the 2004 edition.

10.  Adapting to Protest, p. 9, for example, discusses the force implications when the police deploy “with officers in NATO helmets…”; “Hermes Insurgent” makes mention that the police officers on the Strand were in low profile black uniforms. As it turns out this is a proactive choice. Ha! See ACPO manual, p. 36, “Setting the policing style and dress code. For example, Code 1 dress and shield deployment may be a justifiable level of protection, but may also send a message to the crowd that should be reserved for higher levels of threat.” This, in fact, was part of the decision-making and planning for Tottenham on 6 August 2011. See 4 Days in August, pp. 28, 29, 36 and 37; on page 40, discussing the moment when the event shifted from protest to disorder, the report notes that at 2045 the PSU which had been assigned to the station to provide support for the demonstration first deployed with their full public order gear.

11. Kit – shields, batons, helmets, trucks (armoured and more armoured). The first several facilitate close quarter interaction (the toe to toe model) and the last allows go forward options into the maelstrom. All involve as well issues of officer safety. Remember as well that different batons have different uses and capabilities – MPS extensible baton suitable for downward slashing movements, others better to provide space by poking. (Holy hell I need a better way to describe that. Please, if you have read this far and have a better suggestion do let me know.)

12. See, e.g., Stephen Reicher, Clifford Stott, Patrick Cronin, and Otto Adang, “An integrated approach to crowd psychology and public order policing,” Policing, Vol 27, No. 4, 2004. Has anyone done research on whether (and if so which) there are any circumstances were police ‘passivity’ has sparked anger and disorder?

13. Yes, some of it ends up a bit left hand, right hand, but that could certainly be remedied without harm to the model. In the worst case scenario that it cannot ever be perfectly remedied, better that flaw than many others.



Talking with the Taliban: A New ICSR Report

Last week I attended an event at the New America Foundation where Ryan Evans, Peter Neumann and Ambassador Omar Samad presented the new ICSR report, Talking to the Taliban: Hope over History?. The presentations were short, incisive and clear, and the question and answer session a constructive addendum to the event. I would strongly recommend anyone who is interested in this topic to read the report and watch the video.

The report is sceptical about the value of talking with the Taliban, at least in the manner in which negotiations have been approached to date. There are many reasons for the pessimism: the Taliban is not hierarchical, so there are few leaders who can ‘deliver the movement’; the talks critically do not include the Afghan government; too many actors are involved in the process, producing distortion and ambiguity; and whereas negotiations require lengthy commitments, NATO is rapidly running out of time. Most fundamentally, whereas talks require a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, NATO does not have a strong enough hand militarily to achieve what they want at the negotiating table.

This leads to the obvious question: should we nonetheless try? It could be said that talks is a luxury of the strong – you achieve agreements based on the military balance and on that basis NATO is at a disadvantage. Yet fighting on in the hope of a better deal is also a luxury of the strong – at this point it, too, is highly undesirable. So if not talks, then what?

The panelists were unsure. Peter Neumann made the important point that the efforts at negotiation do not occur in a vacuum but are themselves destabilizing: ‘there’s all kind of talk about a secret deal and people are arming in anticipation of some secret deal coming out’. This is an interesting point and worthy of further examination. Neumann also noted that that while he had ‘no doubt that those talks taking place are well intended, at least from the American side…, good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes’.

Still, it may be possible to see some value in the talks, even if they do not result in political progress. Perhaps these talks should be viewed in far more modest terms, not as a process of codifying political outcomes, but as an exercise of familiarization, where we learn more about the enemy, and determine whether there is any scope for future talks, or particular personalities that could prove useful at a later date. As Neumann emphasized in the presentation, talks generally take a good decade to reach an agreement so perhaps this should be seen as the first salvo rather than final settlement? This might be the 1984 first round of negotiations between San Salvador and FMLN, which went nowhere yet opened the door for future talks, which when held some eight years later, under wholly different conditions, helped end the war.

This leads to a second fundamental point: the Taliban is often seen as lacking unity, which complicates diplomatic engagement. As Ryan Evans put it, reflecting upon his own experience in Afghanistan, there is great ‘localism’ to the conflict:  many people are ‘fighting for local reasons and are often only casually connected to the leadership of the Taliban’. Thus even a deal with the Taliban leadership might unravel as weakly connected clusters of fighters decide to go in a different direction, for a variety of local reasons.

The lack of hierarchy within the organization presents a challenge, but is not historically anomalous. As the moderator of the event, Ben Connable, noted, in Iraq, too, every village had its own concerns and preoccupations and would rise up as a new front of coalition. He suggested, and I agree, that there may be some interesting research insights to be gained from studying negotiations or engagement with dispersed insurgencies such as these. Counterinsurgency is armed politics, but how do you engage politically with a dispersed mass of concerns?

My initial take on this question relates to recent research of mine on clear-hold-build. First, it should be noted that, as Amb. Omar Samad reminds us during the QnA, the Taliban is more unified at the top – it shares one worldview and pushes toward conformity, so much so that attempts at dissent are quashed. Second, the localism that Evans speaks of strikes me as an inevitable byproduct of insecurity, which forces small groups to cope and use violence to protect themselves and their interest. Such localism is probably more typical of conflict zones than commonly realised and does not necessarily preclude the possibility of talks. The point would be to separate the wheat from the chaff – the bone fide insurgents, with their grand and ideologically driven ideas, from the population, typically at the village level, who in the midst of protracted conflict do what they can or must to meet their needs.

Such an approach would be based on a distinction between insurgency movements, with a more stable agenda and set leadership, and the endlessly variegated needs of the local population. The former are more accessible through high-level negotiations, the latter must be co-opted and pacified through effective clear-hold-build (for some example of how not to do it, see my latest article). The two processes are the not same but proceed in parallel: to co-opt the village-level militias and reduce overall insecurity, but also to isolate and help identify those ideologically-driven movements with whom negotiations or some form of engagement may one day be possible.

I am not confident that we have the time, wherewithal and partners to implement such an approach in Afghanistan, but it speaks to an important if more general distinction between insurgency at the high level and instability at the village level. So long as these are confounded or confused, the notion of talks will always be a non-starter.


4/29: When Casualties Came Home from War

When the casualty incident described in this piece occurred, it fell to me to tend to the unit’s “family.” Beyond those directly affected, the rest experienced these events through my messages. They chronicle a small piece of what happens on the home-front when casualties come home. [1] These events unfold regularly in our midst, but most in the general public have no experience of this aspect of war; they should.


Reflecting upon the decade of conflict that has been unleashed in Iraq at the instigation of the military operations to end the regime of Saddam Hussein, there are so many issues. Most fundamentally for me I never believed it was a good idea. Breaking states should only be a strategy choice of last possible resort, and even then it is probably best avoided.

But my professional and intellectual opposition was challenged by personal obligations. In 2004, when I attended their Summer Seminar in Military History, I remember watching the veterans among the West Point faculty experiencing both cognitive dissonance as well as resonance as they confronted their intellectual material. I could tell that they were comparing their experiences with their scholarship, but I did not understand what that meant at the time. Humbled by my own small experience, I have a sense of how they must have felt and thought. My hope is that this glimpse into the wider experience of war and conflict will offer a similar bit of enlightenment for others.

My former husband was a Marine. In 2007, as a Major, he deployed to Iraq in command of a Military Training Team (MTT). I was the unit Key Volunteer, which made me the point of contact between the unit/Marine Corps and the families of the serving Marines and Sailor. For the most part my job was to provide official and correct information to the families on a timely basis. Secondarily, as possible, I tried to offer some measure of additional information and support, as well as to coordinate any assistance the unit or the families might require. [2] It is the sort of responsibility that anyone not afflicted with terrific arrogance will feel that they have done inadequately.

By way of background on the deployment, Fallujah in the first half of 2007 was roiling. At the time of these events the Marines and the Iraqi Army battalion they were training had already seen significant and regular combat action. Their AOR, an area known as the “Pizza Slice,” was particularly dangerous, with regular and daily insurgent activity. The commanding officer of the Iraqi battalion was a professional officer who had served during the Hussein regime. [3] Pragmatic and hopeful, he was a willing and able partner in the rebuilding of Iraq. The battalion and its training team would endure several months of sustained attacks until the insurgency broke – of its own stupidity and the civilian population’s shifted allegiance – early in the summer.

Before that break, on 29 April, in the afternoon, towards the end of a day’s activity a sniper ambush which led to the casualties occurred. An element of the battalion and its trainers had been conducting a dismounted patrol of Marines and Iraqi soldiers with vehicles in support. As the last task of the patrol, they had stopped to conduct a search. With the units’ vehicles deployed along narrow and twisted streets, the dismounted elements cleared a building which had been identified as a potential insurgent base. Finding nothing in the building, as the Marines made their way to their vehicles the attack opened with precision sniper and general supporting fire.

Within short order, no more than five minutes of fighting, the three casualties had been taken. The remaining 15 to 20 of minutes combat was fought as the dismounted Marines struggled to safely remove the fallen to the vehicles and those in the vehicles provided cover for them. Fighting to hold the ground, the timely arrival of the QRF (quick reaction force) ended the engagement. It was a close run thing, as the Marines engaged on the ground were running out of ammunition to continue their fight.

I think I was munching bagels and driving with my son and dog from NY to Newport, RI, while these events were occurring. (Yes, you do stop to note the surreal aspects of such moments.) I remember this period clearly. I had just returned from the annual Society for Military History conference and was energized for my research. [4]

It was later that night when the Major sent me the following email:

Do NOT say anything/tell anyone.  The worst happened.  Notifications are being made.  I’m still alive.


 [Continues on page 2]




‘Muslim Patrol’ as provocation strategy?

Many of our UK-based readers will be familiar with the so-called Muslim Patrol videos posted online earlier this month. The videos feature some young Londoners, presumably Muslim, approaching and intimidating passers-by for drinking alcohol or dressing the wrong way in what they claim are ‘Muslim areas’. The videos are filmed in Whitechapel, east London, whose population is 40% Bangladeshi, and have made an immediate splash not just in London but further afield. Understandably, many of those watching the videos have expressed outrage. Far more problematically, some also perceive this harassment campaign as the latest evidence of Europe’s gradual take-over by ‘non-Europeans’ and nasty foreigners.

This raises the question of what the producers of these videos were trying to achieve. Maybe the young men in the videos earnestly believed that they were helping to create ‘Muslim zones’ or maybe they just wanted to harass a few locals — but why videotape this effort and post it to Youtube? Now, many idiots post videos of their crimes online – why is something of an eternal mystery – but I suspect there may be something deeper at play here. There is little evidence to support this hypothesis, but is it possible that these videos were meant as the opening gambit of the age-old provocation strategy, a tried and tested insurgent method to polarize societies and gain popular support?

In its traditional context, the provocation strategy involves the use of violence by aspiring insurgents to goad state authorities into an overreaction. That overreaction adversely affects relevant populations (targeted because they are thought to sympathize with or shelter the likely perpetrators). Attacked by the state, this population becomes increasingly alienated and starts to look for alternate sources of protection, power and legitimacy. The insurgents then step in, with an empowering message whose anti-state tenor and call to action will now begin to resonate.

In this case, the violence is limited to harassment and intimidation, but the vied-for effect is still polarization and popular support. Most viewers of these videos will feel affronted and share with the victims the sense of being under attack. Among those already resentful of Islam, immigrants or integration, the videos will trigger a more pernicious reaction. The narrative here is of Western governments bending over backwards to appease those who – quite clearly (as the videos would seem to show) – want to subvert ‘our’ country and civilization. Within this narrative, the state cannot be relied upon to defend Western values: it is consumed by political correctness and cowardice. We are under attack and we – the people – must respond.

Returning to the provocation strategy, some of those who react this way play the role traditionally assumed by ‘the state’. They are affronted by the threat to their order, their values, and react. Much like a state has difficulties locating the perpetrators of an insurgent attack, the respondents in this case will also struggle to discriminate – to target only the individuals responsible. Instead, one can well imagine the larger community taking the brunt, due to preconceived opinions about its complicity and the problems it represents. The response might take the form of graffiti on a nearby mosque, racist abuse or intimidation. Under attack, some of the community will look for new sources of protection and strength, at which point the radicals step in with an appealing frame and narrative. Suddenly the need for ‘Muslim spaces’ may not seem so ridiculous after all. Polarization has been achieved.

If that was indeed the intent (and it very well may not have been), how did it play out in practice? It is really too early to tell, but it would seem as if the London authorities and the Islamic community reacted in exactly the correct manner. The authorities have taken steps to arrest the people featured in the videos, which acts as a deterrent and provides catharsis for those – victims and viewers – who felt threatened or affronted. The Muslim community immediately denounced the videos and made it clear there is no space for this type of behaviour in its midst.

But undoubtedly, there are also those who will eagerly use this as another anecdote of social disintegration and weaponize it to meet racist or xenophobic ends. Youtube has pulled the original videos, but they are still being circulated – now by users and accounts with anti-immigration, anti-Muslim agendas. Some right-wing rabble-rouser in the United States calls the Muslim Patrol video ‘the most important political video of the year’ and calls for ‘an end to all immigration from Muslim nations, including North Africa’ to save ‘our Western civilization’. One of the Youtube accounts with the most views for the video in question declares itself as  ‘opposed to the systemic genocide of our people through massive non-European immigration and integration.’ Les extrêmes se touchent, as they say, and in this case as in many others they even work in close symbiosis – much as they do in their mutual promotion of the Clash of Civilizations.

The whole episode points to the need to respond discriminately, appropriately and carefully to deliberate provocations by fringe elements. Caution does not equal accommodation, but allows for an assessment of the threat before blindly walking into the trap being set. Although this post may very give too much credit to those who spawned the Muslim Patrol videos, it is also necessary not to take this type of provocation at face value – to condemn it, yes, but also to ask why it is taking place and what it seeks to achieve.

Three interesting post-scripts to this tale:

  1. Whereas it may in fact be the white population of Whitehall that feels under threat by a growing Muslim population, the Bangladeshi population has declined over the last ten years from 51 to 40 per cent. That’s not to say that this trend is spread more widely.
  2. Anyone attempting to draw conclusions for the United States from this or other European episodes should first consider the recent report by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Its findings, that Muslim terrorism in the U.S. was “practically nil” in 2012, provide sorely needed context to the US discussion of radicalization, Islam and homegrown terrorism. No doubt one can quibble with the methodology but really, no matter how you slice it, reports such as these should help defuse some of the ungrounded paranoia and fear that surrounds the discussion of Islam in America.
  3. Finally, in a sense, the above analysis resonates with a previous post of mine of the Muhammad cartoons. Again, who is provoking whom and what are the dangers of confusing our audiences?

Sri Lanka’s ‘illiberal peace’: implications for Western influence

The Washington Post has a very interesting article on Sri Lanka’s apparent slide ‘toward dictatorship’. Since the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has become increasingly autocratic, stifling opposition and silencing – sometimes violently, so the article suggests – those who speak out against it. Family members of the president are occupying influential  government positions and following his last electoral victory, Rajapaksa changed ‘the constitution not only to increase his powers over the police, judiciary and civil service, but also to end the two-term limit for the presidency’. All of this has been possible because of the surge in popularity experienced by Rajapaksa following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the apparent termination of the three-decade civil war.

There are some interesting implications here. First, the polarisation of this discussion – and over what happened in the final months of the war – is striking. Many Tamils in the diaspora cite ethnic cleansing, disappearances and dictatorship. Government and military spokespersons counter that the accusations are ginned up by LTTE remnants who, now out of military options, seek to gain advantage over Colombo by other means. The domains of information and narrative have become the new battlefield.

As one example of the contest over truth and messaging, the government in 2011 released a ‘Factual Analysis Report‘ – that is its title – intended to showcase its good deeds toward the Tamils and quash the ‘false allegations‘ made by ‘Tamil Diaspora together with the LTTE international network’. In the Washington Post story too, the government dismisses the alleged human rights abuses against journalists and critics ‘as a “cloud” thrown up by people who want to claim political asylum abroad’.

This type of fighting over facts is fairly typical in conflict situations, but highlights once again how narrative, information and international sympathies can have a powerful effect on developments on the ground (a topic dealt with by David Betz on this very blog, and in relation to Sri Lanka no less). At this point, it is critical for the Sri Lankan government to retain its mantle of respectability, lest sympathies shift to the Tamil minority, who could certainly do with a receptive audience when seeking political concessions from the central government.

Yet how important is this mantle of respectability really? Back in the day – loosely speaking the 1990s – adherence to Western standards of human rights, at least in rhetoric, mattered because it was felt that the US and the West held the power and would at some point punish those who all too flagrantly defied its emerging humanitarian norms. The causality here was never consistent but there existed a general sense that lip-service to human rights might reap its own rewards. In part this is also what justified Sri Lanka’s sustained tolerance of the Norwegian-brokered peace negotiations, despite their lack of progress.

At some point, the kowtowing to Western-imposed standards ended. Maybe it was 9/11 and its reframing of non-state armed groups as terrorists, the West’s own hypocrisy over human rights during the War on Terror, or the West’s perceived decline amid financial difficulties and strategic exhaustion in Iraq and Afghanistan – regardless, the need to play by the West’s (highly inconsistent) rules now appears far less pressing. Suddenly Norway was no longer the paragon of humanitarianism and liberal peace but a ‘nation of salmon-eaters’ turned ‘international busybodies’.

As Colombo readied itself for the final military solution to its problem with LTTE, it did not seek Western approval or assistance and nor did it concern itself with Western expectations and ‘standards’. The grizzly result is now well documented, though again accounts of what truly happened will differ depending on political sympathies. Channel 4 aired a graphic documentary on the assault that depicted it as exceptionally and exceedingly brutal; the government on the other hand blames LTTE for using the Tamil population as a human shield and characterises its response as ‘the biggest hostage rescue operation in the world’.

The broader point is that the West was not needed nor was its approval sought. Instead, rising powers – predominantly China – have stepped into the breach. As a sponsor and friend, China does not ask any awkward questions but provides a free hand in how to deal with pesky insurgents (or ‘splittists’, as Beijing may call them). Money flows, investment too and there are altogether fewer salmon-eating busy-bodies to contend with. So, while ‘diplomats and officials said the United States and India are determined to remain engaged with Sri Lanka’, what is Sri Lanka’s interest in remaining engaged with the US? Does the case of Sri Lanka show us, as David Lewis has convincingly argued, ‘a growing contestation of international peacebuilding norms, and the emergence of a legitimated “illiberal peace”‘? If so – and the case of Angola can certainly be added to the list – is this something the West can get used to?

The jury is probably still out (or more accurately, ‘I don’t know’), but while considering the effects of slashed defence budgets and financial decline, we ought also to consider the declining currency of our professed Western ‘values’ – not least through our own actions, but also because of the wide variety of viable alternatives. As Groucho Marx put it, those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.


My correct views on COIN

In the last few weeks there seems to have been a spate of ‘Counterinsurgency: Now What the Hell are we Going to Do?’ conferences. One of these at the Robert Strauss Centre in Austin, Texas on Reassessing Counterinsurgency attended by a bunch of colleagues from King’s amongst other heavy hitters was reported on in Foreign Policy ‘Counterinsurgency: A Debate far From Over‘. That’s a great title (though the immortal Rod Tidwell said it even better) but I’m not sure it’s true. I think as far as the people who sign the cheques are concerned the debate is over, for now–but it’ll come back, probably sooner than most think. For the time being, small wars=bad business, therefore: get away/stay away.

I participated in a less well reported but similar event in Washington around the same time called ‘Irregular Warfare Revisited: History’s Lessons for the Future’. There’s no website for it and actually I’m not sure that I can talk about it. At any rate it was also full of vastly more eminent people than me. My contribution was a paper entitled ‘Callwell in Wonderland: Small Wars their Principles and Practice Redux’ (yes, if you’re paying attention I am sort of overusing that word lately) which will appear in Survival sometime soon so I guess I can’t really talk about that either.

But what I can talk about is an even less well reported but similar event, the Kingston Conference on International Security, which was mostly attended by several handfuls of Canadian defence officials, a couple of handfuls of American ones, a handful of British officers and a smattering of academics from here and there, plus me. I was asked to speak on the question: ‘Are counter-insurgencies/wars among the people/stability operations now the core business of armies? If so, what are the implications for force structure?’ No title was given. In honour of Leszek Kolakowski’s classic essay ‘My correct views on everything‘ I decided to entitle mine ‘My correct views on COIN’. Reader, if you’ve any stomach left for the COIN debate click on the ‘more’ button below.

(By the way, these are my speaking notes stitched together from various places the night before and lack footnotes. The last line is  a doozy though and lest and lazy cut-and-paster should think to steal it be aware that it’s a close paraphrasing of a line from Michael Howard’s essay ‘A Long War?’ and not my own original formulation.)

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Europe’s big problem is that Breivik is not the alpha or omega of terrorism but squarely in the middle of a readily apparent trend to the worse

In Norway the trial of Anders Breivik who killed 77 people last summer has begun. Over the last couple of days he has been giving testimony in his defence arguing that he was acting for the good with a ‘preventive attack against state traitors‘ who themselves were guilty of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Nordic race enacted through aggressive multiculturalism and mass immigration. It has been hugely discomforting to survivors and families of victims, and Norwegian society more generally. The courts have placed restrictions on reporting of Breivik’s ‘day in the sun’ and there is consternation, as Daniel Bennett observes at the Index on Censorship, of the ethics of journalists propagating his views and political agenda. There is an understandable temptation to declare him insane, which may or may not be the case. That would be tidier for practically everyone, except Breivik; but the law is as it is and due process in Norway, as it should be in all democracies, means that even heinous terrorists get a fair trial. In the Telegraph today Dan Hodges captures the essence of the problem:

But there is something faintly sickening, not validating, about the process unfolding before our eyes. For one thing, I find its sterility demeaning. The cramped, featureless courtroom. Brevik seated casually at the table between his attorneys, looking like a man taking part in a civil custody hearing, rather than someone on trial for 77 murders.

It’s an environment that appears to be framing Breivik, not cowing or reducing him as I’d hoped. There is no banality of evil on display here. Breivik actually appears quite an imposing figure, his physicality if anything enhanced by his calm, softly spoken interventions.

That’s not how this was supposed to be. We were supposed to grow in proximity to him, not the other way around.

He concludes, again quite understandably, that it would have been so much better if ‘they’d just killed him‘. It would be interesting to generalise from that point to the wider ongoing debate over ‘targeted killing’ which we’ve talked about on KoW before, see Adam Stahl’s Pro et Raffaello Pantucci’s Con. But that’s not my main interest today which is, rather, to stick to the case at hand. The Oslo bombing and Utoya shootings on 22 July 2011 really struck me because they occurred at a time when I was just beginning to grapple with the impact of connectivity (the Web, basically, but not just the Web) on domestic security, the prospects of ‘revolution’ particularly in Europe, and the whole phenomenon of ‘super empowerment’ which, it seemed to me, was manifesting before our eyes in a pretty uncongenial way. A few weeks before the attacks I wrote a post here entitled ‘Revolution! Is anyone really up for it?‘ After the attack I hesitated to say what I was thinking. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions before brooding a lot more on the evidence.

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Exhumed and abused: the sorry fate of the Malayan Emergency

The Malayan Emergency is back in the news – again. And once again, bloggers and pundits are invoking this British campaign from the 1950s to say something new about the wars of today. If one were to anthropomorphize the campaign, one would have to feel sorry for the Malayan Emergency: buried only to be repeatedly exhumed and used, in the most simple way, as ammunition for arguments largely unrelated to it. Held up by some as the paragon of counterinsurgencies, it is more frequently derided by others for failing to meet frankly ridiculous standards. All too often missing in this never-ending carousel of a polemic is a genuine interest in the campaign on its own terms.

Exhibit A is the recently penned review of the campaign by Sergio Miller, posted at the Small Wars Journal. To be fair to Miller, he appears to be genuinely interested in the Malayan Emergency and has done some solid research on the case. The text is in many ways good. The trouble is his ‘lede’, or the use to which he puts his research. When Miller titles his article ‘Malaya: The Myth of Hearts and Minds’, he unwittingly or deliberately enters the fray between counterinsurgency proponents (who use the Malaya campaign to validate their doctrine) and counterinsurgency critics (who think the doctrine is frankly suspect). He also picks his side, as dismissing ‘hearts and minds’ and dismissing the Malayan Emergency’s historiography are key hobbies of those who resent the U.S. Army’s adoption of counterinsurgency and want to use the doctrine as a punching bag.

It would be one thing if the article proved that hearts and minds in Malaya was a myth but the author actually ends up arguing something else, leaving some confusion about what is actually being said. First, Miller notes that, at a symposium examining the Emergency, ‘none of the British participants (all military) spoke of winning Malay hearts and minds by military force’ (emphasis in original). But as he goes on to explain, this related to the division of labour in Malaya, which left the police in charge of community engagement. For the Army, ‘There was limited contact with Malay civilians, other than jungle aborigines and Dayaks, used as scouts. Good relations were maintained but this was a matter of pragmatic common sense, not doctrine’.

From this, the conclusion could be drawn that the military should not be used to ‘win hearts and minds’; that this is a civilian task. Still, this division of labour was possible in Malaya only because the British had a full colonial presence there, something modern states typically lack when going to war. Thus, the military has become the main muscle of expeditionary operations, where they are forced to chase insurgents all while engaging with the population and honouring other traditionally ‘civilian’ duties. This is a serious conundrum of modern counterinsurgency but it cannot be solved by basing our division of labour on a colonial infrastructure that no longer exists.

The second implication might be that winning hearts and minds did not occur at all, either by the military or the police and that it was therefore irrelevant to the success of the campaign. If this is Miller’s meaning, he ends up arguing against himself. He writes that ‘it was the consistent show of reasonableness that won over the people of Malaya and the problem was still easier once the country became self-governing’. He continues by explaining that ‘Templer’s hearts and minds was first an economic and social policy, laced with political promises that also served a military purpose’. The British gave the local population, even the transplanted communities ‘a good deal, not least because the policy increased employment’.

From all this and other statements in the article, the conclusion that ‘hearts and minds’ is a myth seems somewhat puzzling. A cynic might suggest that Miller used this lede to sell what would otherwise have been a mere account of what happened in Malaya – a far less interesting story to a bloodthirsty audience. I wouldn’t want to impugn Miller in this way. Instead there appears to be some confusion – or at least disagreement – on what hearts and minds really means.

Miller does not appear to see the many examples of goodwill included in the article as proof of a hearts and mind effort; in fact he explicitly excludes them from consideration. For example, Miller writes that ‘units did interact with nearby settlements… and they were assiduous in respecting local custom and making an effort to learn the (difficult) language’. But this, he argues, was not about ‘hearts and minds’ but ‘more “get to know your neighbour” affairs’. Similarly, Miller appears to see no tension between the broader argument of the piece and his anecdote of one officer ‘bring[ing] along the regimental band to entertain the natives before sitting down for a village feast’.

The reader is left puzzled, then, about what winning hearts and minds might look like. The one instance that Miller paints as such is the ‘handing out [of] sweets and other presents’ to local children – ‘the one example’, Miller writes, ‘where it may be stated that the Army indulged in winning “hearts and minds”… If that is the test by which we understand ‘hearts and minds’, I wonder about the utility of our findings. First, what distinguishes handing out sweets from the other, more serious examples of constructive civil engagement in the article? Second, has it not been firmly established by this point that ‘winning hearts and minds’ entails much more than simply ‘being nice’? Assessing the importance of hearts and minds can no doubt be fruitful, but we must first be clear about what is meant by this term.

Miller later refines his argument: the campaign did in fact win hearts and minds, but they were won ‘not by the British but by the Alliance Government’. Again, this thesis seems to contradict the many anecdotes of community engagement in the article but even if it didn’t, what does it matter that support was won by the local government rather than intervening forces? Isn’t that the way it is supposed to be in counterinsurgency, where the legitimacy of the local government is under threat? It would be one thing if the Alliance Government and the British authorities were operating at cross-purposes, but as Miller himself points out, in the process of getting ‘Malays talking to Malays’, ‘the British played an important role facilitating this dialogue and maintaining stability’.

All this talk of hearts and minds leads nicely to exhibit B: a Guardian article detailing recently unearthed Colonial Office files on the Emergency. The article leads with the revelation that the counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya included the ‘elimination’ of guerrilla leaders. Well frankly I am shocked! In a war, no less! Yet on Twitter and elsewhere, this article has been leapt upon to show, again, just how little the British and its partners cared about hearts and minds.

The new files are interesting from a historical perspective and the Guardian should be commended for covering the recovery of these long-lost documents. But on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, these files do not say anything particularly new or surprising about the campaign. Yes, lethal force was used in Malaya, as it always is in armed conflicts. And yes, there were instances of abuse in Malaya, as there are in all conflicts. The question left unanswered by this article is whether abuse marked the campaign as a whole or was an exception to the rule.[1] So to read this article in isolation and to conclude that hearts and minds was a sham, that the campaign was one of terror and abuse and that counterinsurgency doctrine is therefore entirely bogus, reveals a very parochial mindset that says very little about Malaya.

The point of this post is not to say that winning hearts and minds is strategically decisive, fantastic, and should always take place. Those are separate debates. What is worrying is the hurry with which historical material is weaponised to score points in more recent yet unrelated debates. Of course analytical shortcuts are sometimes necessary but they should always be faithful to fuller accounts that treat the past on its own merits.

By ways of conclusion, let’s quickly deal with one more Malaya-related argument currently in circulation: that the role of Gerard Templer has been exaggerated at the expense of Harold Briggs so as to sell the ‘COIN narrative’. This argument is most often advanced by Gian Gentile and the target is typically John Nagl’s research. I do not understand where this Briggs vs. Templer stand-off comes from but I suspect it was constructed to resonate with the Westmoreland vs. Abrams debate and the separate Casey vs. Petraeus debate in Iraq. In other words, if Briggs can be shown to have been important in Malaya, then Casey mattered in Iraq and the counterinsurgency fanfare around Petraeus can be proved all wrong. This type of historical analysis by analogy is deeply troubling. What’s more, all of the serious scholarship on Malaya (Nagl included) recognises the critical role played by Briggs during his time as Director of Operations. If there is truly a problem with the historiography on Malaya in this regard, let’s discuss it. But let’s be careful so that we don’t talk about Malaya when we actually mean Iraq.

[1] On that point, Miller again contradicts his lead when he argues that ‘there were abuses, or “unfortunate incidents” in the euphemism of the time (the slaying of 24 villagers in Batang Kali by Scots Guards in 1948), but these were an exception’.