All the Shah’s Men: The Imperial Iranian Brigade Group in the Dhofar War

The King’s College Research Centre for the History of Conflict will be hosting a symposium, ‘Armed Forces and the Cold War: Operations and Legacies’, at the JSCSC in the Tedder Lecture Theatre on 13th July 2016. All staff and students are warmly invited to attend.


In the autumn of 1972 Shah Reza Pahlavi, the Emperor of Iran, send 150 special forces soldiers from his armed forces (the Artesh) to Oman, commencing an intervention that culminated in the deployment of a brigade group to assist the British-led Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) in their counterinsurgency campaign in Dhofar against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO). At least 15,000 Iranian soldiers, sailors and airmen were deployed to Oman between 1972 and 1979, with over 700 being reportedly killed in combat. Few historians have written about the Imperial Iranian Brigade Group (IIBG) and its interaction with the British-trained SAF, and this subject will be addressed in a paper that I will present to the symposium on ‘Armed Forces and the Cold War’ convened by the Research Centre for the History of Conflict on 13th July 2016.

At a time when the UK and other Western powers favour a ‘light footprint’ in military interventions, the prospects are that British military trainers and advisors will be working with allies like the Artesh – with armed forces with little if any record of alliance interaction with the UK, and with specific weaknesses such as those originating from the coup-proofing of militaries by regimes. In Dhofar, the Iranians could provide the mass and manpower that the British – with their NATO commitments and the worsening crisis in Northern Ireland – could not deploy. They played an important role in winning the war against the PFLO, although the partnership between them, the Omanis and their British allies was not trouble-free.

In the late 1960s-early 1970s the Shah oversaw a massive expansion of Iran’s military might, his intention being to make his realm a regional superpower, filling the power vacuum left in the Persian Gulf by Britain’s ‘East of Suez’ withdrawals between 1968 and 1971. Reza Pahlavi also saw himself as a bulwark against revolution in the region, and was as determined as the governments of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson to save Sultan Qaboos bin Said from being overthrown by the Marxist-Leninist PFLO.

On paper, the Artesh was a powerful force, lavishly equipped as a result of US and (to a lesser extent) British military aid. However, Iran’s military expansion was constrained by several factors. The Shah’s armed forces had an over-centralised and dysfunctional command structure, officers were appointed and promoted on the basis of loyalty to the imperial regime rather than professional competence, and the military and defence ministry was hampered by a shortage of key personnel – senior NCOs, trained staff officers, and also civil servants specialising in procurement.

There were also specific factors which made the Iranians awkward partners in Dhofar. Arab-Persian animosities, and the Shah’s territorial claims in the Gulf, meant that the IIBG’s presence was politically controversial as far as regional opinion was concerned. Traditional Anglophobia – deriving from Britain’s legacy of imperial meddling in Iran’s affairs – meant that British officers seconded to serve with the SAF faced the suspicion and mistrust of their Artesh allies.

Initially, the Iranians were also of questionable quality. The Shah’s special forces contingent attracted the ridicule of their counterparts from the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (22SAS), who had been deployed to Dhofar to organise the firqat forces (tribal militias). In December 1973 Iran sent a battalion of paratroopers to open up the Midway Road that linked Dhofar with the rest of the Sultanate; the road was quickly secured, but as the Commander-in-Chief of the Sultan’s Armed Forces (CSAF), Major-General Timothy Creasey, observed, the Iranian airborne soldiers were trigger-happy and quick to open fire on Dhofari nomads and their herds. While the Iranian Chief of the Army, General Golam Reza Azhari, wanted to confine his forces to Eastern Dhofar, Creasey feared that Iranian troops would antagonise Dhofari civilians with their heavy-handedness, and wanted the IIBG to be deployed in the less-populated West of the province, where the PFLO had its strongest presence. The CSAF was able to persuade Qaboos (and through him the Shah) that the Artesh should fight in the West, which meant that between December 1974 and December 1975 the IIBG became involved in a series of offensives that eventually swept the insurgents out of Dhofar.

The Iranians had a steep learning curve to climb. Their initial performance in combat showed that their soldiers often lacked basic infantry skills. They did not patrol, they did not site their defensive positions with interlocking fields of fire (a challenge in its own right because of the tough terrain) they were unable to fire and manoeuvre in battle, and under fire their troops tended to bunch, rather than disperse. However, their commitment to operations in the West played to their favour. The Artesh had been trained by its US advisors to fight ‘conventional warfare’, and the last year of the war against the PFLO was very much a ‘conventional’ fight. The final offensive in October-December 1975 (Operation Hadaf) involved two brigades of Iranian and Oman forces fighting pitched battles against the insurgents, and required artillery, naval gunfire support and rotary wing manoeuvre to work.

Creasey’s successor as CSAF, Major-General Ken Perkins, noted in December 1976 that ‘without Iranian assistance we would not have won the war’. The IIBG were awkward partners. British liaison officers found it difficult to get even basic information from their allies (such as the location of friendly units), and often felt that they got the blame for Iranian mistakes and incompetence. But the Artesh’s contribution demonstrated the adage, attributed to Josif Stalin, that ‘quantity has a quality all of its own’. The IIBG augmented an overstretched SAF, its helicopters supplemented the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force (which was constantly short of both machines and RAF-seconded pilots), its naval task force helped blockade the PFLO, and both the air base built at Manston (now Thumrait) and the air defence units Iran sent to Dhofar provided both a deterrent – and a potential counter – to any overt intervention by the insurgency’s sponsor, South Yemen.

However, thanks to the Islamic Revolution Iran’s intervention in Oman was to become a forgotten war. After the Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran in February 1979 the officer corps of the Artesh was purged and the Islamic Republic withdrew the limited contingent left in Oman after the PFLO’s defeat. Reportedly some Dhofar veterans saw action in the war against Iraq (1980-1988), but their actual contribution to that particular war, and their effect on operations, is difficult to determine.

Nonetheless, the IIBG’s involvement in combat operations in Dhofar remains worthy of attention, not least because of the parallels between the conflict against the PFLO, and the involvement of Coalition advisors, special forces and air power assisting the Iraqi armed forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga against Daesh. Furthermore, and in spite its own pronouncements on non-intervention, the Islamic Republic has sent its Revolutionary Guard Corps advisors to bolster both the Iraqi government and the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In this respect, the mullahs in Tehran are following in the Shah’s footsteps, using Iran’s military muscle both to protect clients, and to bolster the Islamic Republic’s regional influence and prestige.

I would like to thank Ian Buttenshaw, Ian Gordon and Mike Lobb for their sharing their knowledge and insights on Dhofar, and the Iranian role in that conflict.

Featured image: Iranian troops prepare to deploy on Operation Nader, Christmas 1974. Photograph provided courtesy of Lt Col Ian Buttenshaw, WKhM.


Uncertain COINage


Military manuals do not often attract readers from outside of the profession of arms, and the publication of the US Army/US Marine Corps’ manual on counter-insurgency (FM3/24) by the University of Chicago Press ten years ago was one of those rare occasions where military doctrine gained an audience beyond the armed forces. FM3/24 attracted wider attention because of Iraq, and the protracted insurgency in which US and Coalition forces had become embroiled after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime (March-April 2003). The US armed forces (the Army in particular) had focused almost exclusively on inter-state warfare, and as a result they were collectively unprepared for the challenges of occupying and pacifying Iraq following Saddam’s fall. Abu Ghraib, Haditha, the two battles of Fallujah, mounting American military casualties, and an increasingly disastrous sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis forced the Army and Marines to rethink their approach to counterinsurgency (COIN). The adoption of FM3/24 – and the ‘surge’ of troops into Iraq in 2007-2008 – appeared to herald a ‘COIN revolution’ in American military thinking, and indeed one of its authors (General David Petraeus) became a household name as a consequence.

Britain also had a reality check over Iraq, and subsequently Afghanistan too. Before 2003 there was an academic and professional consensus that the British Army had an instinctive talent for COIN, based on their experiences fighting guerrillas and terrorists from Palestine in the 1940s to Northern Ireland (1969-1998). The experience of peace support operations (PSO) in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone appeared to provide added justification for this myth, with squaddies being supposedly attuned to the complexities of ‘hearts and minds’; possessing the inherent ability to both cow potential adversaries while winning over the local populace with ‘soft posture’ patrolling and the ‘cultural understanding’ that came from phrase-book chit-chat. The increasingly violent occupation of Basra (2003-2007) and the ferocious fighting experienced in Helmand showed that in fact the British armed forces were no more masters of COIN than their superpower allies were.


British colonial police on a patrol in Malaya, April 1949, picture taken from Wikipedia Commons, originally from BBC Hulton Picture Library.

The myth of a ‘British way in counterinsurgency’ – relying on the judicious and humane application of minimum force and ‘hearts and minds’ – has been comprehensively debunked by David French, Karl Hack , Huw Bennett and other historians who have pointed out that the UK’s COIN history was far bloodier and more brutal than received wisdom admitted. The Kenya Emergency in particular was a ‘dirty war’ in which British colonial forces committed particularly egregious atrocities in order to crush the Mau Mau. David Ucko  has also pointed out that the distinctions drawn between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘democratic’ models of COIN also fade with closer scrutiny. Dictatorships may use overwhelming force and terror to crush internal rebellions, but have also used popular mobilisation and the ‘carrot’ of development and socio-economic reforms to build support for their regimes.

Nonetheless, American and British doctrine aspires to match democratic norms and contemporary ethics with COIN, and both FM3/24 and AFM1/10 (its UK equivalent) draw a distinction between ‘enemy-centric’ and ‘population-centric’ operations. In the former, the government side uses maximum force and exemplary violence to smash the insurgents and to terrorise the civilian population into obedience, whereas the latter stresses the protection of the populace from violence, the adoption of reforms to address the grievances that led to the insurgency, the recruitment and development of indigenous security forces able to defend the population, and a policy of reconciliation to negotiate a political solution to the conflict. Both the US and British militaries currently express a preference for the latter over the former.

The distinction is, however, to a considerable degree an artificial one. No state fighting an internal foe can follow a purely ‘population-centric’ approach, not least because it is very difficult to do state-building and war-fighting concurrently. It is both humane and strategically sensible for Western militaries to exercise ‘courageous restraint’ (to use Stanley McChrystal’s term), and to be discriminating in targeting (say) the Taliban rather than Afghan civilians, but there is the risk of forgetting that there is an enemy that has to be fought and beaten. With my own research on Oman, it became clear that Sultan Qaboos’ much-vaunted development of Dhofar was subordinated to a largely military effort by the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF), their Iranian allies and their British advisors to defeat the Popular Front guerrillas. The civil affairs effort and socio-economic reforms had to wait until the ‘adoo’ (enemy) had been driven into South Yemen, and were no longer in a position to offer an armed challenge to Qaboos’ regime. Insurgents are also more often than not part of the indigenous community, and their relatives and clan may not be receptive to appeals to rally to the government’s side. With reference again to Dhofar, the Popular Front still had a base of sympathisers within the local community even after their formal defeat in December 1975, and the province was by no means ‘at peace’ even after Qaboos declared the insurgency over.

M.L.R. Smith also reminds us of the problems of terminology. The special forces of state armed forces all practice ‘guerrilla’ or ‘irregular warfare’. The Cold War-era term of ‘revolutionary war’ doesn’t allow for conflicts where there is a popular rebellion against a radical regime; as was the case with the Vendee in Revolutionary France in the 1790s, the Christeros in Mexico in the 1920s, or the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s. Scholars have yet to provide a precise and commonly agreed definition of the difference between an ‘insurgent’ and a ‘terrorist’; in Syria now, the Assad regime uses this term to describe all of its opponents. Distinctions between insurgency and organised criminality were blurred with the racketeering of Republican and Loyalist gangs in Northern Ireland both during and after the ‘Troubles’, and with the current terror campaign by the Mexican drug cartels.

Much is made of the ‘narrative’, and its value almost as a war-winning weapon in convincing the local population to back your cause. Yet a ‘narrative’ revolving around a better future, and of peace and prosperity for all, will lack conviction if no one believes you can deliver it. The Taliban were not popular in Afghanistan even during the height of the NATO intervention, and it is clear that the majority of Afghans fear their return to power. Yet this has had no appreciable effect on their campaign at all. They are still in a position to destabilise the country and discredit its government, particularly now that the majority of NATO forces have returned home.

It is also perhaps worth asking whether COIN should still be discussed as a distinct type of war. The presumption with ‘guerrilla warfare’ is that insurgents are materially weaker than government forces, but the Viet Minh in Indochina in the early 1950s, UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) in Angola in the 1980s, and the Eritrean and Tigrayan rebels who overthrew Mengistu’s regime in Ethiopia in 1991  all acquired the means to wage ‘conventional’ land warfare – including armour and heavy artillery – whether this was captured after battle or supplied by a foreign patron.

Insurgencies can involve ‘regular’ military forces, particularly in the context of a proxy war, and there are historical examples that precede the Russian intervention in Ukraine. The ‘confrontation’ in Borneo (1962-1966) started with British forces fighting indigenous rebels in Brunei, and ended with an undeclared war with cross-border raids by the Indonesian military and the SAS. During the latter phases of the Dhofar war the Marxist-Leninist regime of South Yemen had committed 250 soldiers to fight the SAF, and by the autumn of 1975 there was a clear risk that the Popular Front revolt could lead to all-out war between Oman and South Yemen.

The presumption that insurgencies can be hermetically sealed within a state has been disproved not only by the current wars in Syria and Iraq – involving Syrian and Iraqi regular forces and militias, Kurdish peshmerga on both sides of the old Sykes-Picot frontier, Daesh, Hezbollah, the Russians, the various Syrian rebel groups and the US-led Coalition – but in Southern Africa in the 1970s-1980s. The apartheid-era South African Defence Force (SADF) conducted COIN against the military wing of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) during South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia, but the SADF also conducted cross-border raids into Angola to destroy SWAPO bases in that country, while Pretoria backed UNITA’s struggle against government forces (FAPLA) in the Angolan civil war. The culmination of this multifaceted struggle came with the battle of Cuito Cuanavale (August 1987-March 1988), pitting SADF and UNITA against FAPLA and a Cuban expeditionary force. The South Africans may have been originally fighting the SWAPO insurgency, but they ended up fighting a ‘conventional’ war.

In summary, we should remember Carl von Clausewitz’s description of war as an act of violence in which the belligerents intend to compel their foe to submit to their will, and his observations that combat is a reciprocal process, and that wars are fought for political objectives. Clausewitz also stated that it was necessary to understand every conflict you waged on its own terms, and that ‘the first, the grandest, and the most decisive act of judgement which the statesman and general exercises is rightly to understand in this respect the war in which he engages, not to take it for something, or wish to make it something, which by the nature of its relations it is impossible for it to be’.

As Clausewitz put it, ‘[everything] is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult’. It would be highly dangerous for governments and their armed forces to be seduced into the logic of ‘clear, hold, build’, and to assume that they can fight a ‘pure’ and binary (government v insurgents) campaign that does not account for the possibility of proxy warfare, internecine conflicts involving multiple actors, state failure, and the potential for either escalation or metastasised violence across borders. Indeed, the characteristics of current conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere suggest that the terminological distinctions between COIN, PSO, ‘stabilisation’, and ‘major combat operations’ are potentially becoming increasingly less relevant.

Image: Yemeni Army soldiers, August 2011, via the Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository.

Palestine 1945-48: the Information Campaign and the Limits of Influence


In the past information, influence or non-kinetic psychological aspects of conflict had a supporting function to the physical, kinetic aspects; today it is seen as central. Militaries have done ‘influence’ for years, but there is a dominant view that in the current information environment all actions, deeds and words are scrutinised in a way that was not the case in previous epochs. Tactical level incidents have the potential to create negative strategic effects, vulnerabilities which adversaries exploit. The information environment is a significant shaper of the conflict space, acting as a force enabler or multiplier. As contemporary adversaries seem to understand, information can be an effective tool in the hands of the weak, even acting as a force equaliser, as a principal means of affecting the strategic centre of gravity: the will to fight.

The inherent political and psychological nature of fighting and countering insurgency means that information and strategic communications aspects are critical. Bard O’Neill argues insurgency is a political legitimacy crisis, ‘a struggle between non-ruling group and ruling authorities in which the non-ruling group consciously uses political resources … and violence to destroy, reformulate or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics’. The identification and remedy of the sources of insurgent discontent and persuading the people that they would gain more by supporting the ruling authorities than they could obtain from the insurgents becomes pivotal to achieving success. The information campaign therefore becomes central to countering insurgency. None of this is new. My examination of how the British government used an information campaign to support its counter-insurgency efforts and to reach a solution to the problem of Palestine can offer insights that may be relevant today.

Palestine 1945-48

Historical examples and analogies should always be used with care, yet this case study offers insights into the challenges of conducting a strategic information campaign to support both a political process and counter-insurgency in the context of an international struggle for legitimacy that was on the front page of newspapers during this period.

Britain had been granted the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922 which allowed Britain to fulfil her strategic aims of access to the Suez Canal, the creation of a land bridge from the Mediterranean to Iraqi oilfields and to prevent French ambitions drifting south from their position in Syria and Lebanon. Britain was responsible for creating ‘such political, administrative, and economic condition as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home … and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion’. As Mandatory power in inter-war Palestine, Britain strove to accomplish institution building and attempted to square the circle between two communities who each believed Palestine belonged to them. Britain was accused of being pro-Arab and pro-Jew simultaneously and faced growing inter-communal violence, which culminated in the Arab Revolt (1936-9) against Jewish immigration and land purchases. By the end of the Second World War the Palestine Mandate had become costly politically, militarily and economically. In the 1944 US election both Republican and Democratic candidates supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The impact of the Holocaust and the refugee situation in Europe also gained the support of international opinion for a Jewish state. Within Palestine, British security forces had to deal with an increasingly perilous situation: a Jewish uprising against the British and widespread inter-communal violence.

In Palestine the competing strategic narratives pitted the victims of the Holocaust who had no alternative than to take up an insurgency against the country that stood in the path of saving the remnant of European Jewry, versus a Britain which was doing its best to achieve a political settlement in the interests of all the inhabitants of Palestine and in accordance with its international responsibilities.

Between 1945 and 1948 the British government tried to implement a long-term policy over Palestine which would preserve British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, while influencing day-to-day decisions over the future of the Mandate. The government favoured an agreed solution to create an independent Palestine as a unitary state, which would guarantee British military facilities and maintain Arab goodwill, on which Britain’s general position in the Middle East was predicated. But there was no clear plan. Instead there were broad policy assumptions – that any settlement leading to independence had to be agreed, and agreed not just between Britain and the Arabs and Jews living in Palestine, but also a settlement that would be supported by the United States and states in the Middle East.

Domestic and International Opinion

Domestic opinion in Britain had to be convinced not to oppose the government’s efforts to reach a solution and that the sacrifices were worth it, but the main target audiences of British information efforts were abroad. British policy in Palestine had to reconcile the differing objectives and opinions of three constituencies: Arab, Jewish and American. Optimally, the information campaign sought to persuade each constituency to consider compromise rather than rigidly holding to its goals. Failing that, it tried to maintain Anglo-Arab and Anglo-American friendship by a damage limitation exercise. The prosecution of counter-insurgency on the ground therefore involved the security forces trying to hold the ring until a political settlement could be achieved.

The Political aim

Most counter-insurgency doctrine stresses the primacy of the political aim. In Palestine the British had a clear political aim: a settlement that was compatible with wider British strategic interests, the preservation of the Anglo-American relationship, and Britain’s position in the Middle East. This was not a clear political aim in narrative terms that could be articulated in a way that could have undermined the insurgency. Britain consistently presented herself as the ‘neutral’ arbiter and honest broker in dealing with this unwanted international responsibility. In reality Britain pursued its own national self-interest. It was not just having a clear political aim, but having one that was credible, that could be translated into a meaningful outcome and set of activities on the ground.

The government was conscious of the ingredients of a successful information campaign and attempted to conduct one, albeit with mixed results. Officials correctly understood both the insurgents’ aims and how they would exploit British vulnerabilities. British persuasion efforts urged the merits of compromise – that Palestine alone was not the answer to the problem of Jewish Displaced Persons, that Britain had responsibilities to two communities in Palestine, not just one, and that there should be a peaceful settlement of the issue rather than terrorist violence or criminal illegal immigration.

The problem was of the policy, not the information campaign. The tempo of the events on the ground was greater than the British ability to deal with them in a way that would ensure the British version of events dominated in the perceptions of what was occurring. Thus the British information effort was often on the defensive, reacting to events rather than proactively controlling how they would be received.

In terms of the battle for the dominant strategic narrative, Zionist ‘legitimacy’ beat the British honest broker. The insurgents made any British attempt to hold on to Palestine morally and economically unacceptable and it was impossible for the British to look good in the process.

Target audiences and agendas

Countering insurgency requires an end state that can be clearly articulated to all audiences and that can also be translated into a campaign on the ground. As Palestine shows us, this is made almost impossible if both or all the protagonists are of equal importance and have what are in effect zero-sum aims.

In Palestine the British identified key target audiences correctly. The regional audience was crucial. It was believed that British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East depended on the maintenance of Arab goodwill and the compatibility of British and Arab interests, particularly in the context of growing Arab nationalism across the region.

The Jewish audience in Palestine represented a population of nearly 600,000 and the active membership of insurgent underground organisations was approximately 45,000 in the Haganah, 1500 in the Irgun, and 300 in the Lehi. These numbers belie the real challenge that faced Britain. While the British information campaign sought to marginalise the insurgent extremists and build an alternative moderate majority, in practice for most of this period the distinction did not exist. This is not to say that all Jews supported the terror campaign, and indeed at times it was seen as counter-productive by the Jewish Agency. However, the British never really understood the nature of political Zionism and the general support for illegal immigration, the one thing that united the Jewish community. Again, the audience was correctly identified, but its agenda was misunderstood.

British public opinion was a less critical audience and no British election would ever be decided in the merits of the Government’s handling of Palestine. Where British press, public and parliamentary opinion did play an important role was as pressure on Britain to withdraw from Palestine because expectations raised by the information campaign were not met and the sacrifices made were questioned.

Again it was correctly identified that the US was the most important audience because it was the power broker with the power to either help or hinder Zionist aims. Britain tried to persuade the US to use its influence to get the Zionists to compromise. But Britain was vulnerable to American policy as she was dependent upon American economic aid.

Maintaining Legitimacy

If an insurgency is primarily a battle for legitimacy, an information campaign can only work if the legitimacy of the counter-insurgents can be successfully demonstrated and defended. This is why tactical mistakes such as acting outside the law or civilian casualties are own goals and a free gift to the insurgent’s information campaign, reinforcing perceptions of illegitimacy. Today it is recognised that a counter-terrorist strategy needs to be holistic, addressing both the causes and the symptoms of terrorism. But how do you address very real grievances without ‘delegitimising’ your own counter-insurgency strategy? In Palestine, denying Jews a state was not perceived to be internationally legitimate.


Information campaigns, influence and narratives are not new areas of activity. But they are difficult areas and even more challenging today because of the proliferation and immediacy of the media, sources of information and opinion. The limits of the information and strategic narratives need to be understood. A strategic narrative is not a substitute for policy. It will not succeed unless it is credible and supported by action and political will. While strong enough to withstand a temporary setback, it is not a panacea or an alternative to a strategy which is ill-conceived.

The target audiences for the counter-insurgent’s information efforts need to be thought through carefully, identifying whose perceptions count in the battle for legitimacy and who can materially affect the success or failure of the insurgency. An information campaign needs to be coherent, ideally a simple and credible ‘truth’ or ‘truths’ based on facts that can be transmitted and reinforced to all target audiences. It should support the wider political process, which in turn should reinforce the government’s credibility and reputation as the legal government, while the campaign should also undermine the insurgents by representing them as a criminal minority. Moreover, the campaign should persuade the wider international community that the state’s political aims are legitimate; its methods are both legal and moral; and that it is intent on promoting a political settlement that addresses the expectations of the moderate majority. This is the ideal, but information alone cannot deliver success. As the case study of Palestine shows, it is also easier said than done.

For more detail see the author’s, ‘Palestine 1945-48: Policy, Propaganda and the Limits of Influence’, in Greg Kennedy & Chris Tuck, British Propaganda and Wars of Empire: Influencing Friend and Foe 1900-2010 (Ashgate, 2014), pp.71-95

Image: British paratroopers enforce curfew in Tel Aviv following the King David Hotel bombing, July 1946 via wikimedia commons.



As Dr Huw Davies suggested in this post, how successfully the British armed forces incorporate their recent experience of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq into doctrine and planning is likely to shape future perceptions of those campaigns. The fight against the Taliban has not ended, even for the West, because some advisory work by core NATO partners is ongoing. However, the main point is that the Afghans have taken ownership of the counter-insurgency effort, and there is some optimism for the future. But victory will not come quickly or cheaply.

The issue of how host nations build up capacity and continue the fight after the withdrawal of intervening international forces is an area which merits far greater study, and is the subject of my current research. Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of books focusing the inherent obstacles in counter-insurgency. While it is preferable for scholars and practitioners to be honest about the challenges, there has been an unhealthy appetite for books such as Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (Yale, 2011). But, worse, is the fact that the reading of such works has been superficial and selective. Several dangerous orthodoxies have arisen as a result: that there is no such thing as outright victory in counter-insurgency; ‘hearts and minds’ is just about soft power; and that if the population is the ‘prize’ in counter-insurgency, kinetic effect has no place in a COIN campaign. The latter point is a view which gained traction in both the US and the UK after the publication in 2007 of the US Army and Marine Corps’ capstone counter-insurgency manual, FM3-24, which was championed by General David Petraeus. Its primary focus on a ‘population centric’ model seemed to be vindicated by the success of the US engagement strategy in Iraq (for which the British Army’s Lt Gen Graeme Lamb should receive greater acknowledgement because of his input). The difficulty which has arisen is that a false dichotomy has been drawn between ‘population centric’ and ‘enemy centric’ strategies, and the use of kinetics is portrayed by many as unsophisticated and destined to cause campaign failure. Not helping is the odd statement from senior military levels, such as General Sir David Richard’s proclamation back in 2008 at a IISS conference in Geneva: ‘in wars among the people, if you are using a lot of firepower, you are almost certainly losing’.

With the current discourse now running perilously close to arguing that any type of kinetic use in counter-insurgency warfare is not merely counter-productive but unwarranted, it is worth making a number of quick observations about the role of kinetics in COIN. The main point, though, is that it depends upon the nature of the conflict that you are waging; a high proportion of kinetics may be required. This is, in fact, acknowledged in FM 3-24: ‘Sometimes lethal responses are counter-productive. At other times, they are essential’ (FM 3-24, 7-24). Several successful counter-insurgency campaigns can be classed as ‘enemy centric’, simply because the insurgents wielded a level of military capability which had to be dealt with by military means (the Greek Civil War, second and third rounds, 1944-45 and 1946-49; Oman, 1957-59; Angola, 1975-2002; Mozambique, 1976-1995; Turkey, 1984-1999). However, even in ‘enemy centric’ scenarios, there will be ‘hearts and minds’ elements. For example, during the ‘second round’ of the Greek Civil War, while air power, tanks, artillery and naval gunfire support were used against Communist insurgent strongholds in Athens, British paratroopers were feeding the local population. In other words, coercion and influence were being achieved through both soft and hard power. A second observation is that almost all COIN campaigns begin with a kinetic-heavy approach. This is because of an almost inevitable lack of intelligence at the start of a campaign; intelligence support to a specific campaign takes time to develop, and initial targeting may not be as precise or proportionate as military commanders may desire. But it is also worth noting that successful COIN campaigns are often those that kill or capture hardline insurgents early on, before the insurgency has had time to gain ground. If an insurgency is allowed to survive beyond a certain point, it will often develop capabilities which are indistinguishable from conventional forces and may even morph into a regular fighting force (the Viet Minh in Indochina and the Greek Democratic Army are good examples of this). Finally, while it is usual for the use of kinetic force to diminish as a COIN campaign progresses, there will always be spikes of insurgent violence which need to be answered with some level of kinetic force. Ironically, heightened insurgent violence is often a sign that a counter-insurgency force is winning, because insurgents will want to make the point that they are still a force to be reckoned with. Even when insurgencies feel that they are in the ascendant, the employment of violent ‘spectaculars’ is common in the lead up to negotiated settlements as insurgents try to gain extra leverage.

Of 71 recognised counter-insurgency cases since the end of the Second World War, half were successful, and of those, about one-third could be classed as ‘enemy centric’. It is also worth noting that of those ‘enemy centric’ COIN examples, most of them resulted in long-term peace and stability. Furthermore, several involved the host nation taking responsibility for a COIN effort before intervening Western forces departed. One of the host nation victories to have had little exposure is the Greek Civil War (1946-49). The orthodoxy among most Anglo-American historians is that the only reason the Greek armed forces were successful against a Communist insurgency was purely because of training and material assistance provided by the US and Britain. While it is true that financial and material aid under the Marshall Plan proved vital to defeating the Communist insurgency, the Greek armed forces learned while fighting and ultimately developed an indigenous strategy for victory. Indeed, on many occasions, advice provided by the Americans and British was politely disregarded because it bore little relation to Greek realities.

Between 1943 and 1949, Greek Communists made three attempts to take power, and what is generally referred to as the ‘Greek Civil War’ comprised the third round between 1946-1949. The first and second bids were prevented mainly because of British intervention, but the third round was characterised by the steady development of the host nation’s capability. After the Second World War, most of the Greek forces had to be rebuilt. The greatest obstacle facing the Greek National Army (GNA) initially was a chronic lack of manpower. By mid-1947, the GNA had 115,000 personnel, but these were spread very thinly throughout Greece. As a consequence, it had difficulty exploiting battles and holding territory gained.

In the meantime, the Communist insurgency was morphing into a regular army (DSE) after its senior leadership concluded that guerrilla tactics were not working. However, the Communists’ desire to create a regular army sowed the seeds of their ultimate downfall. A regular army called for a large support infrastructure and logistics footprint, and although manpower was always a significant constraint on the GNA’s ability to operate, recruitment was a far more serious problem for the DSE. Even at its height in April 1948, the DSE’s strength was no more than 26,000. Voluntary recruitment gave way to forcible recruitment. Women and children were not spared from frontline duty, and this proved to be a public relations disaster for the Communists. So, while the Communists benefitted from sympathetic northern neighbours (Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria), through which a steady stream of Soviet weaponry flowed, they were never able to replace the losses they increasingly sustained.

By 1948, the government’s forces totalled 168,000 personnel, with equipment supplied by Britain and the United States. The tide had turned, both militarily and economically, for the Greek state, but it is important to acknowledge that success against the DSE from 1948 onwards was also due to the GNA’s own conceptual work. Prior to this point, planning and execution of operations largely reflected Anglo-American doctrine, with a focus on traditional schemes of manoeuvre. From the beginning of 1948, the GNA started to apply what would be recognised today as a ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy throughout the country, starting in the south of Greece. The first step involved dismantling the Communist ‘eyes and ears’, followed by the destruction or capture of Communist forces. The final function included robust policing, to prevent the regrowth of Communist infrastructure, and the re-education of DSE prisoners and their eventual reintroduction to Greek society. This strategy was underpinned by Marshall aid totalling $273.2 million during the last year of the conflict, but the strategy itself was indigenous in conception.

British and American training missions remained in Greece for several years after the recognised end of the Civil War as an added insurance policy, but the Communists concluded that they could not match a reformed and re-energised Greek Army. The Greek government had taken ownership of the anti-Communist effort, and succeeded in the long-term.

For a full discussion of the counter-insurgency campaign in Greece, see Goulter, C. ‘The Greek Civil War: a National Army’s Counter-Insurgency Triumph’, Journal of Military History, Vol 78, July 2014, pp. 1017-1055. Moncado prize winner, 2015.

See also: Goulter, C. ‘Irregular Warfare: the Regular in the Irregular’, in A Century of Military Aviation, 1914-2014 (Air Power Development Centre, Canberra, 2014), pp.129-154.

Image: ELAS Guerrillas in the Greek countryside during the Second World War, via wikimedia commons.



In a previous post I commented on the increasing importance of militias in internal conflicts, particular with both the Syrian civil war and the conflict in Iraq against so-called Islamic State. Scholars of Iraqi history can indeed draw parallels between the Kurdish peshmerga’s relevance to the US-led Coalition war effort and the British Empire’s reliance on the Iraq Levies (recruited mainly from the Assyrians and other minority groups) during the mandate era (1920-1932) and subsequently with its informal dominance over Iraq (1932-1958). The Levies guarded the RAF air-bases at Habbaniya and Shaibah, and also fought for the British during the Anglo-Iraqi war provoked by Rashid Ali Kailani’s attempt to align with Nazi Germany in May 1941. Likewise, the peshmerga have proved to be more competent fighters against IS than Iraq’s own army, although this is not to say that the Kurds haven’t suffered their own reverses in battle.

However, it is worth asking why the US and its allies – and for that matter the Iranians with reference to both Iraq and Syria – are so reliant upon irregular surrogates in the first place. It is my contention that part of the reason lies with pre-war political measures that have deliberately undermined the military effectiveness of the regular armed forces, as part of a process of ‘coup-proofing’.

Risa Brooks, Daniel Byman, Kenneth Pollack, and James Quinlivan have all examined the measures that Arab regimes have taken to pre-empt a military coup d’etat, while Robert Springborg argues persuasively that contrary to proponents of modernisation theory Arab armed forces have failed to act as agents of state-building and state-consolidation. Western analysts of military institutions take it for granted that governments develop and maintain professional armed forces that emphasise efficiency in war-fighting, so as to protect state and society from threats to their security. It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a ruling elite may deliberately seek to undermine military effectiveness, but in Syria under the Assad dynasty, Iraq under both Saddam Hussain and Nuri al-Maliki, Libya under Muammar Qaddafi and Yemen under Ali Abdullah Saleh this has clearly happened.

In these four cases, promotion within the officer corps is based on loyalty and clan/sectarian ties to the regime rather than professional competence. The armed forces have also had deliberately divided and convoluted command structures imposed on them, and have been subjected to intensive and hostile surveillance by regime intelligence and security services. Exercises and manoeuvres which would be the norm for Western armed forces are deliberately curtailed – an armoured division issued with ammunition for live-fire practice could be used by its commanding general for a sneak attack on a presidential palace. As a further constraint, the ruling party or elite may well raise parallel military formations focussed on regime defence, which will often receive better weaponry and more generous funding than its ‘regular’ counterparts.

The effect on state security forces is invariably calamitous. ‘Coup-proofing’ institutionalises official corruption, undermines training and doctrine, and also ensures defeat in inter-state wars. Napoleon reportedly observed that there are no bad regiments, only bad colonels, and it has been repeatedly proved that poorly-trained soldiers will not fight well when led by a professionally incompetent officer corps. Syria suffered humiliating defeats against Israel in 1967, 1973, and 1982; Libya’s military adventures in Chad ended disastrously with the ‘Toyota War’ of 1987; and the Iraqi armed forces were crushed by their US-Coalition foes in 1991 and 2003.

Yet the regimes concerned have historically accepted combat ineffectiveness if it leaves them with a military and security force apparatus which can nip coups in the bud and crush insurgencies. For example, Saddam Hussein was more concerned with crushing the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions of March 1991 than he was with the losses Iraqi forces sustained in Kuwait, and up until the US-British invasion of March 2003 he remained far more preoccupied with the threat of coups and rebellions than with that of external regime change. Saddam miscalculated in underestimating the risks of conquest and occupation, but other leaders have accepted that institutionalised military incompetence is an acceptable price to pay provided that the regime has sufficient loyalist forces to destroy its domestic foes. Yet the implosion of the Libyan armed forces in the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, the Yemeni civil war, Bashar al-Assad’s savage and ham-fisted attempt to suppress anti-Baathist protests, and the routing of the Iraqi Army by IS last year all demonstrate that ‘coup-proofing’ is no longer a guarantee against a major internal revolt.

Baghdad is now relying on Shiite Hashid al-Shabi militias because its regular forces have become decimated and demoralised. Iraq’s special forces – the ‘Golden Division’ – have been eroded by months of fighting against IS and finally broke in the defeat at Ramadi in May. The defection or desertion of Syrian Arab Army troops means that Assad’s regime is now dependent upon the National Defence Forces, Hezbollah, and the motley bands of Iraqi and Afghan Shia auxiliaries the Iranians are able to organise. The weaknesses of militia forces – that they can prey on the civilian population, become divided by internecine feuds, exacerbate ethnic and sectarian tensions within society, and weaken the cohesion of a state’s military and police forces – are such that the Iraqi and Syrian government’s dependence upon them could prove as counterproductive as it was for Najibullah’s regime in Afghanistan in the late 1980s or with Sierra Leone’s war against the Revolutionary United Front in the following decade.

The fate of the Syrian state is arguably beyond the international community’s collective control, but the USA, UK, and other allies have committed themselves to defeating IS in Iraq, and to help rebuild the Iraqi armed forces. However, it is important to remember that once US forces left Iraq in 2011 the military and security forces they and the British had raised and equipped ended up being hamstrung by the former Premier al-Maliki. His policies towards the armed forces and police – of dividing the command structure, placing elite units under his direct authority, and promoting officers for loyalty rather than competence – resembled those of the Baathist regime, and ultimately contributed to the Iraqi Army’s lamentable performance against IS last summer.

The sobering conclusion is that the USA and its coalition partners have no firm guarantee that any aid expended on training the Iraqi military will not simply be wasted for similar reasons, with the end result being a similar collapse in a future conflict. Ironically enough, the very characteristics of the Iraqi state which made it easy for the USA and Britain to conquer Iraq 12 years ago have undermined efforts made by the former occupiers to re-establish efficient and viable military and security forces in this state.

Image: A patrol from the paramilitary police Tactical Support Unit leaving a security force base in Basra, Iraq, September 2004. Property of the author, not to be reproduced without permission. 

Military Innovation Studies: Well-Set for the Future?

 This is the fifth of several posts running on Defence-in-Depth arising out of the Military Learning and Innovation Roundtable held at the Joint Services Command and Staff College on Wednesday 17 June 2015. The roundtable explored the various ways in which armed forces have learned, adapted, and innovated in times of war and peace, austerity, and pressure from the eighteenth century to the present day. You can read more about the aims and objectives, research outputs, and future events of the Military Innovation and Learning Research Group at Podcasts from the roundtable are available to download here.


On 17 June, I was given the unenviable task of delivering the final presentation of the inaugural Military Innovation and Learning Research Group roundtable. This was unenviable in two ways. First, if you have read the preceding blogs from Huw DaviesRobert FoleyAimée Fox-Godden and Jill Russell, you will know that I had to follow fascinating presentations showcasing cutting-edge research on historical examples of learning and innovation. Second, I was capping off the day by talking theory; following tales of daring-do, if you like, with philosophical musings on why and how.

As I looked out on my weary audience, nodding along or nodding off, I was sorely tempted to run for the more familiar cover of lessons learned from insurgency in Iraq or ambushes in Afghanistan. However, I was also aware that my temptation to do so was as much a reflection of my own deep-seated aversion to pesky questions of epistemology and ontology as it was of my desire to spare friends and colleagues from the philosophical clutches of the likes of Kuhn, Derrida and Foucault. In the event, I couldn’t face Foucault any more than my audience but serious reflection on the compatibility, or otherwise, of approaches to understanding military learning drawn from competing philosophies of knowledge is a necessary evil even for the most hardened empiricist. Like it or not, we need sound theory if we are to engender good practice. But this is self-evident, surely? Why is it important to re-state it here?

There is a temptation, all too strong in the field of military innovation studies, to leap past or side-step the theory in order to put ideas into practice. This is laudable in as much as it wishes to evade the entanglements of academic debate but dangerous in that, in our rush to have an impact, many of us have perhaps been guilty of taking short-cuts with our theorising. I say “us” because I am every bit as guilty as anyone else. Why is this the case? It is emphatically not because academics interested in how and why militaries learn lack sound theoretical grounding. In fact, as Adam Grissom pointed out in his seminal 2006 article on the state of the field, The future of military innovation studies, the four broad ‘schools’ of thought about military innovation each represent a competing theory about the drivers of change. The big guns of IR theory, though most notably realist and critical approaches, suffuse much of the literature and key figures such as Barry Posen, Jack Snyder, Stephen Rosen, Deborah Avant, Theo Farrell and Terry Terriff all situate their research within the wider IR theoretical framework. However, what is striking about the competing schools of thought is that, in reality, they hardly compete at all. In fact, scholars from each are often at great pains to emphasise that their work is compatible with that of colleagues exploring the issues from different perspectives. In a world where the odds of two academics in a phone-box engaging in a viciously inept game of slapsie are high, what price a whole field of study characterised by mutual respect?

I suspect that the comparative lack of interest in deep theorising and the camaraderie of scholars working in the field stems largely from the fact that most of us routinely work, or have forged good relationships, with the military. Indeed, many of the academics studying military innovation were, or remain, serving officers or conduct their research within the unique environment of professional military education. The result is a close knit scholar-practitioner community that is interested, first and foremost, in applied knowledge. We often ask why in order to answer practitioners’ questions of how: usually “how do we become a better learning organisation?” The answer, alluded to in several of the preceding blogs, is that “it depends” because there is no single template; the learning culture of each military organisation is unique because each military’s organisational culture is itself unique. However, the military are practitioners and practitioners want more concrete answers than “it depends” so we in turn take liberties with the theory in order to advance the practice. As Robert Foley wrote; much of the military innovation literature, old and new, analyses the case studies and develops ‘models’ for instrumental purposes. Instrumentalising history, as Huw Davies explained in an earlier blog, always runs the risk of ignoring or distorting context. By the same token, good history allied to poor theory, or vice versa, may appear far more compelling than it should. Military innovation studies is particularly susceptible to this problem because one of the field’s greatest strengths, its increasingly multidisciplinary character, also makes it vulnerable to misappropriated concepts from one discipline entering the wider corpus via another. Organisational learning theory is a case in point, with its terminology gaining an increasingly influential place in military innovation studies yet comparatively few scholars engaging critically with the original OL literature.

So what is to be done? Well, first, if I have raised a concern that strikes a chord, it should still be just that; a single concern in an otherwise vibrant field of study, enriched greatly by the number of young scholars pushing its interdisciplinary boundaries. To me, increasing interest in the utility of organisational learning theory and the depth of scholarship associated with cultural approaches (both organisational and strategic) are particularly fascinating, offering exciting new avenues for future research. Further, the vast majority of the scholarship is both challenging and challenged; a healthy debate about the drivers of innovation from within military organisations, for instance, is on-going. Just as Theo Farrell and others sparked interest in new research on military adaptation and Robert Foley, Helen McCartney and myself responded to Adam Grissom’s call for more detailed studies of bottom-up innovation with our article, Transformation in contact, so Sergio Catignani’s excellent 2012 article, Getting COIN’ at the Tactical Level in Afghanistan: Reassessing Counter-Insurgency Adaptation in the British Army, enhanced the bottom-up research agenda and identified the flaws inherent within it. Others have followed suit, ensuring an increasingly lively academic debate that should infuse the whole field of study. However, it doesn’t and that is the problem. Most of the debate revolves around the internal dynamics of change and takes it as read that approaches that privilege external factors are both important and compatible with these organisational cultural drivers. We thus side-step some bigger, more awkward questions about how the whole body of knowledge fits together, or whether it even does.

As a scholar who works day-in day-out with practitioners, I’m perhaps the last person one would expect to extol the virtues of greater respect for theory. But too much theory is not the danger here: too little is. The intensely applied-focus of the field is both its greatest strength, encouraging scholars and practitioners alike to focus high-quality research on practical problems, but also its greatest weakness, instilling a sort of subconscious theoretical conservatism (with a very small ‘c’) that encourages academics from very different philosophical backgrounds to gravitate to the same middle-ground. Personally, I’m comfy in that middle-ground; I think approaches that remain open to the possibility that other theories grounded in apparently incompatible philosophies are all the stronger for that openness. However, the likelihood that this is a sentiment shared by most of my colleagues is a double-edged sword because if we gloss over genuine contradictions, we do no-one any favours, including ourselves. Dusting off our Popper, our Waltz and our Habermas may not be such a bad idea after all. Perhaps it is time for a good-natured row about the fundamentals of military innovation: some academic slapsie.

Nixon the Nation-Builder? Strategic Understanding in the Vietnam War


A new book from Evan Thomas reminds us – as if we needed it – of the peculiarities of President Richard Nixon. Brilliant, reclusive, and disturbed, Nixon ought to defy caricature even though he has often been the subject of it. His foreign policy partnership with Henry Kissinger reflected this. By marginalizing groups which traditionally held greater sway over American foreign policy – like the regular State Department and Pentagon bureaucracies – and concentrating decision-making power in their own hands, Nixon and Kissinger created a system that reflected their own highest qualities and most glaring defects.

I had a chance to see this system in action when I delved into the records of the Nixon White House while researching a book on the history of U.S. nation-building efforts during the Vietnam War. Most of what has been written about the administration’s Vietnam War policy focuses on its search for a negotiated settlement, its military moves in Laos and Cambodia, and its build-up of the South Vietnamese armed forces. I instead tapped a rich vein of documents dealing with the administration’s policy towards and understanding of the granular detail of the ground war and nation-building effort in South Vietnam.

They made surprising reading. Like the Johnson administration, Nixon and Kissinger were concerned with the vitality of the non-Communist Government of Vietnam (GVN). As U.S. forces were steadily withdrawn from the country, the GVN needed to be strong enough to maintain control of the people and resources of South Vietnam and contain the Vietnamese Communist movement. Much like during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. aimed to foster the emergence of local proxies who would continue to see that it’s war aims were achieved even after the withdrawal of outside forces.

This general concern with nation-building was hence predictable. But what was surprising was the sophisticated understanding of the process, and especially of its limitations, which White House documents displayed. Disturbed by the informal policymaking processes of the Johnson administration, to which he had served as a consultant, Kissinger set about constructing an analytical apparatus which would give himself and the president a true picture of the ebb and flow of the ground war in South Vietnam.

The result was the Vietnam Special Studies Group (VSSG). Kissinger, who had spent years listening to rosy reports about the war under the Johnson administration and then seeing them proven wrong, was sceptical of analysis about the progress of the war from the field. Instead, he felt that strategic-level decision-makers needed their own sources of analysis. In this spirit, and staffed by the sort of “systems analysts” to whom Robert McNamara’s tenure at the Pentagon had given a bad name, the VSSG was tasked with assessing the prospects for the GVN winning what Kissinger called “the control war”.

The control war was the struggle not to militarily defeat the Vietnamese Communist movement, but rather to bring the people of South Vietnam under the control of the GVN and eject Communist shadow governments. Previously, the mere absence of violence in an area had been taken as evidence it was free of Communist activity. The analysts at the VSSG believed this had given a mistaken impression of the strength of the GVN, as apparent security did not preclude the existence of a shadow government engaged in recruiting, terrorism, and political organization. The prevalence of this underground infrastructure had become clear during the Tet Offensive, which struck at a time when – according to the Johnson administration’s metrics – the countryside was more secure than ever.

By staring hard facts such as this in the face, the VSSG reached a remarkably accurate and prescient picture of the state of the war. It warned that GVN control of the population of South Vietnam was much lower than had been imagined. It also pointed out that the most significant factor in bringing about control gains was the presence of U.S. forces – the exact same forces that were being withdrawn. The analysts warned that the GVN did not have the ability to substitute its own assets for these U.S. forces, and so pointed out that GVN control was likely to decrease and not increase as time went on. Finally, the group was at pains to point out the rising risk of an exogenous shock such as the Tet Offensive – exactly the sort of shock which struck South Vietnam with the 1972 and 1975 offensives, the first robbing the GVN of a great degree of territorial control and the second of the entire country.

The quality and integrity of the VSSG’s analysis stuck out for me in comparison to the Johnson administration’s wishful thinking. Kissinger and Nixon kept abreast of the group’s reports and were the wiser for it.

But the VSSG also stands as a reminder that, as Chris Tripodi has recently reminded us, we ought not to place too much faith in “understanding”. Strategic-level decision-makers ought to have the best and most honest analysis available to them, but it is naive to expect that this alone will lead to successful policy outcomes. Ultimately, information is what you make of it. Having inherited a strategy which required a strengthened GVN to be successful, Kissinger and Nixon remained wedded to this goal despite their pessimism over it ever being achieved. The alternative – to have abandoned the GVN, and hence their war aims, unilaterally – seemed to them unthinkable.

Still, this research ought to stand as a corrective to those who still think that all U.S. policymakers were blindly naive and optimistic about the Vietnam War, or completely ignorant of the true state of the political situation in South Vietnam. The truth is more complex, and more disturbing: they knew, but they carried on regardless.

Image: U.S. President Richard Nixon (left) and Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, at the White House. From the booklet “President Nixon and the Role of Intelligence in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War” courtesy of the CIA.

Militias, Weak States, and Contemporary Warfare


Last month, I was invited to a workshop at the University of Glasgow on ‘Proxy Actors, Psyops, and Irregular Warfare’. This proved to be a valuable experience, giving me the opportunity to share and debate ideas with fellow academics, and also to develop a strand of research that started with an article I co-authored with Christian Tripodi six years ago.

Just under a century ago the German sociologist Max Weber observed that one of the essential attributes of a modern state was that it possessed ‘a monopoly of violence’, and that it alone had both the authority and the means to raise and use military and police forces both for external defence and internal security. Yet throughout history governments have raised militias consisting of irregular volunteers to fight internal foes, and the US-led coalitions engaged in campaigns in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and Iraq (2003-2011) likewise raised local surrogate forces against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The enlistment of local auxiliaries is very much in accordance with Current American and British military thinking on counter-insurgency (COIN). US and British doctrine argues that insurgencies are best defeated if you rally the bulk of the population against them, and that militia forces act as a useful complement to regular armies and constabularies. Militiamen drawn from the communities that they are policing and protecting have the advantages of local knowledge and cultural awareness, and can also provide a focus for any defecting insurgents (‘accidental guerrillas’, as David Kilcullen called them) to rally to the government’s side. The firqat forces in Oman in the 1970s and the ‘Al Anbar Awakening’ in Iraq in 2007-2008 can be cited as examples where the militia model worked.

Due to ‘intervention fatigue’ arising from the Afghan and Iraq wars the USA, Britain, and other Western countries are unwilling to wage COIN campaigns directly against the likes of Islamic State (IS) or Boko Haram – there is a clear preference for training the military and security forces of states threatened by such movements. However, the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the summer of 2014 and its lamentable performance in subsequent battles is such that the Americans and other coalition partners are treating the peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government (shown in combat in the Youtube video above) as an alternative partner. The Iranians, for their part, have sent their own advisory team to Baghdad led by General Qassem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, using the Hashid al-Shabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) raised from Iraq’s Shiite majority to fight IS.

The historical parallels here – and the specific reasons for the Iraqi Army’s failure to defend the state against IS – will be the subject of a subsequent blog post. My comments here highlight the potential implications of subcontracting COIN to the militias.

Firstly, irregular auxiliary forces can and do frequently degenerate into marauders and freebooters, preying on the civilian population. When NATO established the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in 2010, its intention was to replicate the traditional model of Pashtun tribal policing. However, in repeated cases ALP units have gone rogue, and their predatory behaviour has served only to bolster support for the Taliban and further discredit the Kabul government.

Secondly, states using militias have the challenge of ensuring their continued loyalty. The mythology surrounding the firqats in Dhofar (1970-1975) overlooks the fact that the Sultan of Oman and his British backers ensured that they never outnumbered the Omani military, and that its fighters were armed with nothing heavier than machine-guns and light mortars. The equivocal commitment of this militia to the government’s cause was such that in December 1973 Sultan Qaboos summoned tribal leaders to a meeting in which he berated them for maintaining contacts with the insurgents, and gave them an ultimatum best paraphrased as ‘you are either with me or against me’.

The Omani state and its British allies managed the firqat forces so that they could never be sufficiently strong enough to rebel against the Sultan, and also carefully monitored them for their loyalty. In other conflicts the government side has been less successful in controlling its own militiamen.

Thirdly, an excessive reliance on militias can weaken the state’s own regular armed forces and police. In Afghanistan from the late 1980s to 1992 the Najibullah regime became increasingly dependent on the aid of auxiliaries (including ex-mujahidin) to fight the insurgents, particularly after the withdrawal of Soviet combat troops in February 1989. During the war against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) from 1991-2000 the government of Sierra Leone regarded the Civil Defence Forces (including its kamajor tribal fighters) as the mainstay of its support, rather than the increasingly discredited army with its ill-disciplined ‘sobels’ (‘soldiers by day, rebels by night’). The consequences in both cases were grave. When Najibullah ran out of funds his militias went over to the mujahidin, precipitating his regime’s collapse in April 1992. Five years later the Sierra Leonean government was overthrown by a military coup launched in conjunction with the RUF.

Fourthly, the raising of militias carries with it the risk of provoking internecine violence, and also faction-fighting. IS’s own barbaric atrocities against Shiites and Yazidis has provoked reprisal killings of Sunni Arab Iraqis by auxiliaries from both communities. Aid to the Kurds carries with it the risk of reigniting the civil war between the PUK and KDP (which afflicted Iraqi Kurdistan twenty years ago), and also of destabilising the already tense relationship between the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Northern Syria. Given the PYD’s own ties with the PKK – and Turkish hostility towards it – and Kurdish-Arab feuding over Kirkuk and other disputed territory in Northern Iraq, the US and its allies may well find themselves in the embarrassing situation where its local partners may end up fighting a NATO ally, or forces loyal to the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Clearly, some states do not concern themselves with the long-term consequences of enlisting militias. There is no sign that the Iranians care whether the Hashid al-Shabhi further alienate Sunni Arabs from the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, or if the National Defence Forces they have raised and trained in Syria serve only to exacerbate the increasingly brutal sectarian civil war in that country. But if our objective and that of other Western states is to both defeat insurgencies that threaten allied powers, but also to provide a basis for long-term conflict resolution and stability, then we are obliged to consider the strategic as well as the ethical implications of simply arming surrogates, and of encouraging them to fight the battles that public opinion currently shies away from.

The Doctrine of ‘Understanding’ and the Illusion of Control


In an era of supposedly unparalleled challenge and complexity (ignoring for one moment the fact that it isn’t in any way unparalleled), ‘Understanding’ appears to be the current doctrinal plat du jour for Britain’s armed forces. Particularly so for the Army, that service which by and large interacts most closely and personally with the kinds of political, social and cultural aspects of conflict that demand comprehension. The notion of ‘Understanding’ in this context then, as represented by 2010’s Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 04, is instrumental. It is the ability to effectively leverage varieties of information and knowledge open to those individuals and organisations (military and non-military) concerned with planning and prosecuting military operations at a number of levels, in such ways as to afford commanders (and thus their political leadership) the greatest chance of achieving their desired end state. ‘Understanding’ should reach across government, ‘so as to ensure the effective application of all elements of national power in support of UK national security policy’.

So far so good. But, ignoring for the moment the most elementary epistemological challenges regarding the nature of knowledge and understanding – as well as the fairly worrying implication that people have to be reminded by doctrine to understand things – it is obvious that in doctrine, as well as life in general, you don’t always get what you wish for, for a variety of reasons. And when you do then sometimes you realise you should have wished for something else. And while the doctrine of understanding espouses the sort of call-to-intellectual-arms that can only be applauded, the fact remains that any effective drive for such a valuable if intangible commodity is potentially flawed at all levels of war, as well as being open to some serious abuses.

‘Understanding’ and strategic level actors

The intersection between ‘understanding’ and strategic level decision making is always a fragile one for a variety of reasons. Firstly there is the common problem of ‘understanding’ becoming hostage to contrary ideological pressures or psychological defects on the part of strategic level decision makers. Those decisions can take place in a sort of intellectual/information vacuum, and those involved don’t like being told that their ideas are idiotic or unfeasible. Secondly there is the problem of strategic level actors applying developed and reasoned understanding to a chosen course of policy but still cocking it up because that understanding leads to the wrong conclusion and a subsequent chain of mistaken actions. Thirdly there is the problem of correctly understanding matters at all levels, and being right in choosing one’s course of action, but still being unable to engineer a satisfactory resolution.

The first point is well illustrated by interventions in Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011. In both cases these were prompted by powerful yet broad ideological considerations (and humanitarian in the case of Libya) that brooked no interference from those with a more nuanced understanding of conditions at ground level and the potentially even more serious negative effects of intervention, which are now playing out in both instances. In these cases, and numerous others before them, the only ‘understanding’ that political leaders wished to hear was that which reinforced their own chosen course of action. But even if political leaders appear to know exactly what they are doing, ‘understanding’ remains a pretty fragile commodity. Anthony Eden was the foremost Arabist of his time in Government. But his experience of the rise of fascism in the 1930’s, combined with his belief in his own inherent understanding of the Arab psyche, shaped his understanding of the threat posed by Nasser in such a way that he overreacted and made an unholy mess of the ‘56 Suez crisis. The understanding was there but it was mishandled, with disastrous results. And ultimately, even if everyone from top to bottom has got their ducks in a row, the potential for mayhem still exists. On British India’s NW Frontier during the 19th and early-mid 20th Century, political officers with decades of experience and remarkable language skills were distributed among the tribes. From there they delivered the kind of tactical and operational level ‘understanding’ that strategic level actors crave. The result, however, was decades of constant and unending violence. The understanding was there, but it fell foul of the wider strategic perspective held by policymakers which dictated that considerations in relation to the tribal areas mattered to some extent but were far less important than what might be happening elsewhere in India or the Empire as a whole. The correct decision of course, but one that was of no comfort to British forces on the frontier, locked as they were in an endless round of inconclusive, costly and reputationally damaging military escapades and which it appeared no amount of ‘understanding the human terrain’ could ever counter.

‘Operationalising’ understanding: The problem with doctrine

JDP 0-4 is an intelligent piece of work but it falls foul of the basic problem with doctrine, which is that once elevated above the level where it essentially comprises a set of relatively basic instructions, it tends to become inherently reductive in the sense that it seeks to reduce matters of great complexity and nuance to a series of seductively simple principles, observations and recommendations. The problem of course is that simple doesn’t mean easy, or even feasible. It’s simple enough in principle to define the concept of a cross-governmental approach, for example. It’s simple enough to recommend that one goes about seeking to conjoin and coordinate multiple and simultaneous lines of political, economic, military and diplomatic activity in theatre that seek to deliver the same ends. Whether you are actually able do any of that is, however, a matter of blind fortune. Indeed, this problem could be said to apply to large parts of JDP-04, dealing as it does with obscure matters of culture, anthropology, ethos and philosophy. And consider too the fact that the multiple facets of modern conflict theoretically require additional multiple doctrines to be read, considered, and digested. Indeed, the authors of JDP 0-4 recommend that it be consulted in conjunction with JDP 2-00 (Understanding and Intelligence in Support of Joint Operations), NATO’s AJP-2 (Joint Intelligence, Counter Intelligence and Security Doctrine), JDPs 01 (Campaigning), 3-00 (Campaign Execution), and 5-00 (Campaign Planning), JDP 6-00 (Communications and Information Systems Support to Joint Operations) and JDP 3-40 (Security and Stabilisation: the Military Contribution). Presumably AFM Vol 1 Part 10 (Counter Insurgency) should be in the mix somewhere too. That’s a total of some 1800 pages of doctrine. It’s just not going to happen, is it?

‘Operationalising’ Understanding: The problem with (British?) military culture.

The lack of attention to doctrine is partly practical one (it’s dull, and no-one has the time to read it) and partly a cultural one. The oft quoted remark by Rommel that the British write the best doctrine in the world and then fail to read it has more than a grain of truth, still. Many outside the military prefer to scoff at the lack of intellectual sophistication of those within. That snobbery is badly misplaced. But whether the plentiful and powerful intellectual resources that exist within the services are ever able to be properly utilised in the never-ending quest for ‘understanding’ is another matter entirely. The military inculcates in its people certain behaviours and preferences; boldness, decisiveness, action, speed of decision making, (so as to better get inside the enemy’s own decision making cycle) and a broad understanding of the deeply complex phenomenon that is war. And ultimately there is a focus upon common conceptual processes to aid these designs. What there is not is a culture of patient thought, of intellectual cross-fertilization, and of deep reflection. There remains a mistrust and lack of respect for the proper intellectualisation of subject matter. This anti-intellectualism is a consequence of the military’s peculiar role rather than any lack of intellectual competence but the highly varied and unpredictable nature of operations, the crippling time-pressures therein and a general culture of ‘add water for instant expertise’ quite naturally promote superficial levels of knowledge and militate against a culture of deep study, contemplation and consideration. And if the required knowledge or expertise is instead to be bought in from outside when required, as JDP 0-4 recommends, then the military ought to be prepared for the fact that certain sectors of the academic community for example might not be willing to lend their expertise, and that those that do may well offer completely contrary or potentially useless advice, further clouding the issue.

The utility of pre-knowledge

The problem with military operations is that they are generally transformative in nature. The application of military force in the context of expeditionary operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, for example, shattered existing political structures, completely re-ordered certain social hierarchies, and delivered highly unpredictable criminal and political elements into the equation, elements whose dynamics were and are often subject to constant change. Any existing pre-knowledge becomes incredibly precarious, perhaps even completely redundant, requiring the time consuming accumulation of new insights that may well not be delivered in the appropriate timescale. ‘Understanding’ in this context becomes less a matter of judgement and more a matter of just crossing one’s fingers and trying one’s best, as the experience of British forces in post-Baathist Basra 2003-5 illustrated. ‘Understanding’ what was going on at a political level was difficult enough. Understanding what to do about it simply wasn’t an option at that point in time. And then when you do understand, negative consequences can follow (see below).


Linked to this last point is the fact the fundamental point that the acquiring of ‘understanding’ may well deliver perverse results. After a rather rocky start 2003-2006 Coalition forces in Iraq began to properly comprehend the social and political complexities of their surroundings. This led to two distinct approaches by US and British forces respectively. The former, with its cabal of PhD educated senior leadership, engineered a relationship with the powerful Sunni tribes of Anbar Province in order to defeat AQI, while the latter pragmatically manoeuvred their way through the byzantine politics of Shi’te Basra and eventually withdrew from the city in order to aid the delivery of a lasting political settlement among the various competing interests there. In both cases their understanding was sophisticated and nuanced and in both cases albeit in different ways the results have been negative. For the Americans the tribal focus simply reinforced sectarian divides, contributed to the inability of Iraq to function as a unitary state, and encouraged Obama to believe that the country could function effectively without a continued US presence, all of which have contributed to the deeply unpleasant consequences we see unfolding now. For the British, the correct decision to withdraw from Basra city and thus allow the Shia militias to focus on combating a menacing Iranian influence was simply portrayed as weakness, leading onward to a powerful impression of defeat on the part of friends and enemies alike and resulting in a hangover that still casts a dark shadow over the Army. In other words, ‘understanding’ led on the one hand to a narrative of victory that was nothing of the sort, and on the other an unjustified narrative of defeat that has overshadowed British foreign policy ever since.


The American academic (and former US Army officer) Andrew Bacevich stated that once a statesman chooses war, they are in effect simply rolling the dice; their ability to control and direct subsequent events to their liking becomes extremely precarious. The same principle applies to our requirement for understanding. The doctrine reminds us how important it is, and even aims to show us how to achieve it but the most important people in the equation, those at the very top, will continue to roll the dice regardless. And often, as a consequence, those charged with acquiring and providing ‘understanding’ will remain hostages to fortune.

Image: Photo by Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Duran, U.S. Army ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Oman – On the Ground in Dhofar


Please click on the thumbnails in this post for full-sized images.

Forty years ago Oman’s Southern province of Dhofar was in a state of civil war. The Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) was fighting to wrest control of the province from the guerrillas of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO). By the winter of 1974-1975 the insurgents had been driven close to the Yemeni frontier due to the combined efforts of the SAF and an Imperial Iranian Brigade Group sent by Shah Reza Pahlavi, who had decided to assist a fellow absolute monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, to withstand a radical leftist rebellion. By December 1975 the PFLO had been defeated, although elements of the movement continued low-level guerrilla warfare for the remainder of the decade.

The Dhofar war has been a topic of interest for me for nearly a decade now, and in particular the British role in this conflict. In July 1958 Harold Macmillan’s government signed a defence treaty with Qaboos’ father, Said bin Taimur, which led to the establishment of the SAF. The United Kingdom would provide loan service personnel from the three armed services to command and train its Omani counterparts, in return for which the RAF would be granted basing rights at Salalah airfield, outside Dhofar’s capital, and Masirah Island. When the Dhofar insurgency erupted in the early 1960s British officers became embroiled in combat, and successive governments (Labour and Conservative) waged an undeclared war to preserve the Sultanate.

This is not the place for an account of the war itself. I have already written on this topic, and other scholars such as Rory Cormac, Marc DeVore, Clive Jones, Walter Ladwig and James Worrall have also done much to enhance our understanding of this little-known conflict. There are also more populist accounts of the battle of Mirbat (19 July 1972), mainly glorifying the Special Air Service (22 SAS) soldiers who defended this fort against a PLFO attack.

In July and October 2014 I visited Oman in support of a battlefield tour of Dhofar, which gave me the opportunity to see the ground over which the SAF, 22 SAS and their local allies (the firqat forces militia), the Iranians and the PFLO fought. In the late 19th century the German historian Hans Delbruck visited the battlefields of the campaigns he studied, setting the foundations for what Western military professionals call ‘the staff ride’. Examining the ground over which armies fought allows academics and practitioners alike to bring the documentary evidence to life, and to try to understand the conditions and the challenges faced by past generations of servicemen at war. It can also sometimes reveal flaws in the written record, or the myth-making that often surrounds victory and defeat.

Sometimes the battlefield tour/staff ride can be a frustrating experience. In Europe, post-war reconstruction and development often acts against you. In Normandy, for example, once you move away from the beaches you find that there’s a hypermarket, a sports pitch or a corn field at the precise spot where you wished to put a ‘stand’, and to discuss what happened at this phase of (say) the Goodwood and Cobra offensives.

One the key differences with Dhofar is that whilst Oman has experienced astounding socio-economic growth since the mid-1970s, the province is still relatively untouched by modernity. Yes, Salalah has grown and has its luxury hotels, villages have established themselves around the firqa forts, and there is a single carriage road to the Yemeni border that is a triumph of engineering. But many of the key sites associated with the Dhofar war remain almost as they were during the campaign against the PFLO, complete with the remnants of sangars (firing positions), and even the odd stray 7.62mm cartridge, or a piece of link from a General Purpose Machine Gun’s ammunition belt.

Taking Mirbat as an example, the photo below is taken from the Jebel Ali, a small hill overlooking the town which the guerrillas seized prior to launching their attack. The PLFO sited crew-served machine guns on its summit to provide fire support for their comrades. As you can see, the hill gave them excellent fields of fire into the town and the fort.


Mirbat has been the subject of considerable myth-making. The PFLO force attacking the fort was around 200 strong (half the size commonly quoted in the more populist histories), and the fact that the SAS team defending it had 30-40 Omani gendarmes and firqat militiamen fighting alongside them has been downplayed in the mythology of the battle; had the local troops and tribesmen not fought as doggedly as the British special forces troops, the guerrillas would have overrun the latter. A break in the seasonal monsoon also enabled the Sultan’s air force (the SOAF) to strafe the guerrillas, and also to fly in by helicopter reinforcements which turned the tide of the fight.

Nonetheless, even with these qualifications the sight of the battlefield impresses the observer not only with the resolve the defenders – British, Omani and Dhofari – showed, but also the skill with which the PFLO attack was planned. Mirbat fits the description of ‘a close-run thing’.

It is also worth noting Dhofar’s micro-climate here. Between June and September every year the province experiences a monsoon (the khareef), which blankets much of its mountainous terrain (the jebel) under cloud cover. The constant drizzle of rain leads to a brief greening of the province, as shown below with this photograph of the old Davamand line, the defensive positions dug by the Iranians in late 1974.

Davamand July

This picture was taken last July. To put the reader in the scene, it is worth noting that there were no roads in Western Dhofar forty years ago. The SAF and the Iranians relied on helicopter support to move and for re-supply, at least up until the khareef affected air operations. Otherwise, the bulk of troop movement was on foot.

Imagine also being a soldier on one of these hills. You are dug in with your platoon and company in trenches. You have observation posts (OPs) to periodically occupy, and reconnaissance and fighting patrols to conduct. You also have to keep your rifle and other weapons serviceable and clean, and your superiors have the logistical challenge of keeping you fed, watered and with the ammunition and other accoutrements of war an infantry soldier requires. On top of all this, you will in all likelihood be ordered as part of a work party to gather defence stores such as barbed wire and corrugated iron and have to haul them up the hills like a pack animal. Soldiering here would not have been that much fun.

It was an important part of the Omani/Iranian war effort to hold positions on the jebel all year round, and to maintain blocking lines built from South to North (given the names Hornbeam, Hammer, and Davamand) to stop PFLO infiltration to the East, where the Dhofari nomads were concentrated and civil aid teams at work. The reality of that strategic decision was that SAF and Iranian soldiers had to shiver through the khareef and wage a war of constant patrolling and ambushing.

Now take a look at the picture below, which shows much the same terrain in October. You can see a track which follows the ridge-line down into the valley, which follows the old Iranian defensive line. Once the khareef clears, the vegetation starts to die, which gives you clearer fields of fire. The absence of the constant mist makes it less easier for a stealthy enemy to conceal its movements, and you have the clear skies which enable the SOAF and the Iranians to fly and also to spot hostile forces on the ground.

Davamand Line

At the top of this track is an old defensive position known as Everest. This is the view I had last July:

Everest (1)

Three months later, this is what you can see from Everest.

Everest (2)

Everest (3)

With the terrain and the climate it was difficult to believe that we were in the Arabian Gulf. Participants on this tour compared what they were seeing to the North Island of New Zealand, or Cyprus, or Kenya. Once you move north of the monsoon line you start to see ground which looks more like Arizona or New Mexico.

This picture below was taken in June 2014 at Difa, and the cloud cover from the khareef is clearly visible in the distance:

Difa July

Difa was the location of a failed SAF offensive in January 1975 which was known as Operation Dharab. A second SAF attack eight months later (in conditions similar to the photograph below) was more successful, and ultimately led to the PFLO’s final defeat.

Difa October

The campaign for Western Dhofar in 1974-1975 was characterised by fierce fighting. SAF and Iranian troops relied on close air support, artillery and even naval gunfire to rout the PFLO, which was augmented by 250 soldiers from the then-People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Above all, Britain was limited in the amount of aid it could provide. The loan service officers and 22 SAS could be committed fairly unobtrusively, but both the Conservative and Labour governments were loath to send combat units to fight, not just because the British armed forces were already overstretched by existing commitments, but because the presence of Western troops would have antagonised Arab opinion, and also made it easier for the PLFO to present the Sultanate as a puppet regime.

My two visits to Oman did much to enhance my knowledge and understanding of the Dhofar war, and there were two particular impressions that remained with me. The first was to appreciate the significance of the khareef on military operations, illustrated by the picture below. It looks like a photo from an airplane window, but is actually taken from a vantage point overlooking the Yemeni border.


The second was to appreciate how tough the terrain was for the combatants, particularly because prior to the arrival of the Iranians in December 1973 the SAF were always short of helicopters. Without an efficient road network the Sultan’s Omani and Baluchi troops – and the British officers who commanded them – often had to manoeuvre and fight on foot.


For me, the scenery was spectacular and jaw-dropping, but for the soldiers who had to endure it I suspect that the terrain was less of a source of pleasure. After all, it’s easy to admire the mountains, ravines, wadis and re-entrants if you know that you’ve got a comfortable hotel to retire to in the evening, rather than a muddy shell-scrape.

Featured Image: A British officer with Omani troops, Dhofar, early 1970s. Photograph provided courtesy of Lt Col Ian Buttenshaw, WkhM, Royal Army of Oman.