Surrogate War and the Illusion of State-Centrism

By Dr Andreas Krieg

This piece is a peek into my new book project that I am pursuing together with my colleague Dr Jean Marc Rickli. The book is called Surrogate Warfare – A Mode of War for the 21st Century and conceptually explores the dynamics of externalizing the burden of warfare to surrogates.

The Arab Gulf States are doing it. The Iranians are doing it. The Russians and the Americans are doing it. We are all doing it. Surrogate warfare has become the prevalent mode of war in the 21st century.

This type of warfare is concerned with the externalization of the burden of war, in all its facets, to a deputy, who can both supplement or substitute the capabilities of the soldier as an infantryman. Thereby the surrogate can be human, i.e. be a strategic proxy, an operational auxiliary or a tactical force multiplier. Increasingly, however, the surrogate is often a technological platform, such as manned or unmanned air power or other autonomous weapon systems. Thus, surrogate warfare as a concept, is more fundamental and all-encompassing than the narrow Cold War concept of proxy warfare or the more recent doctrine of employing Special Forces to train and equip non-state actors in the Near East and Africa. Much more fundamentally, surrogate warfare is a mode of non-trintarian war that allows the state to deal with the uncertainties and risks of the 21st century. It constitutes a break from the classical model of war, where the state employing the citizen soldier fights wars to provide security as a public good exclusively for society as a discretionary national community.

The 1990s and 2000s were a prelude to the 21st century’s conflict resolution and warfare. Today, conflicts are globalized, privatized, securitized and mediatized socio-political phenomena that the nation state, as a historical anomaly, has difficulty dealing with. The state-centric legacy of the 19th and 20th century appears as a memory of the past amid a neo-medievalization of global authority structures. With people, capital and ideas on the move across borders and continents, ‘national’ and ‘international’ have become units of analysis that were replaced with ‘transnationalism’. Conflicts arise everywhere and can potentially affect virtually anyone, anywhere – more importantly no one authority can contain them on their own in an increasingly apolar world.

Conflicts have become more privatized as state and non-state actors compete for socio-political authority in the developed, as much as in the developing, world. The only difference is that in the latter case, states have long lost any monopoly over violence through a bottom-up privatization of war.

Also, conflicts have become more and more securitized. After the somewhat predictable zero-sum games of the Cold War, both the East and West have lost any tangible referent object against which to define their security agenda. The nemesis, the ‘evil empire’ or the archenemy is not as visible and tangible as before. In this context, subjective securitization has replaced the objective definition of threats. In the post-modern risk society, communities feel less secure as subjectively defined risks have become the metric for security. States feel pressured to do something to provide comfort to their communities amid a geo-political environment of unpredictability and uncertainty. Consequently, conflict resolution and warfare have become exercises of risk construction, prevention and management – all this in an environment where new forms of media broadcast warfare as a spectacle to consumers at home and overseas. Any military activity is meticulously documented. Any mishap or error can undermine legitimacy domestically, locally and globally.

Fear mongering in the current cyberspace has increased the public pressure on political decision-makers in liberal AND non-liberal states to contain the invisible enemy, whoever the public makes them out to be, doing so with as little human and financial costs as possible. In the age of risk, the costs of doing nothing are potentially higher than the costs of overreacting. Nonetheless, casualty and war aversion, this being a predominately Western phenomenon, generate a political burden for policy makers when deciding to mobilize its in-house war machinery to deploy overseas to engage a threat the public cannot even see. Hence, warfare by surrogate appears to be the panacea for the state as it promises to allow the burden of warfare, namely human and financial costs of war plus the attached political costs for policy makers, to be externalized. It is not just war on the cheap but war in the dark, off the public radar at least domestically and globally.

Different states have different motivations to externalize the burden of war. The lack of capability and capacity or the need for deniability are as much motivating factors as the need for local legitimacy. Most importantly, however, is the minimization of the cost of military action in comparison to the urgency this conflict generates in terms of national interests or altruistic values.

Looking at the fight against the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) in the Middle East, a coalition of the willing has formed that brings together unlikely partners who despite ultimately pursuing different interests in the region can agree to declare Al-Baghdadi’s mujahedeen as their enemy. As all these actors have a stake in the underlying socio-political instability of which ISIS is just the symptom, the War on ISIS has become a legitimizing cover for a series of surrogate wars whereby the enemies’ enemies remain enemies. None of the actors want to get drawn into direct military confrontation with one another; yet, all feel the need to subtly pursue their strategic interests.

Without getting into the nuances of it: Iran tries to maintain its strategic position in Baghdad, Damascus and Southern Lebanon while protecting sectarian Shia interests. Russia cannot lose Syria as its last forward operating base in the Middle East. Turkey feels the need to protect its southern border from jihadi and Kurdish incursions while hoping to grant Sunni Arab Syrians their right to self-determination. The Gulf is divided – whereas Abu Dhabi is fearful from the surge of political Islam in the Levant, Riyadh and Doha see Islamism in all its shapes and forms as a vehicle to free Arabs from the shackles of Arab Nationalist oppression. The West has for too long looked at the unfolding crises in Syria and Iraq through the humanitarian lens – trying to morally support human rights while avoiding costly commitments. The rise of jihadism in Europe amid the growing influx of migrants from the region, however, has raised the stakes for the West to contain these conflicts.

Employing human and technological surrogates to fight ISIS while at the same time being able to secure advantages for the time after the fall of the ‘caliphate’, has created a massive clash of surrogates. Iran is supporting a range of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah being the most prominent of them. Russia provides air cover for former Russian Special Forces, operating as private contractors for the Kremlin in the fight against ISIS and other opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Turkey employs manned and unmanned air power against ISIS and Kurdish targets. It provides operational support for the FSA and Sunni tribesmen in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Qatar provide support to the FSA as well, plus a range of more extremist Islamist outfits. The US has used the FSA in the past also, while more recently increasing the strategic and operational support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the mostly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the latter being regarded as an offshoot of the PKK by Turkey. The Gulf States have meanwhile functioned as a US proxy to establish and maintain relations with Islamist opposition forces in northern Syria. In Iraq, the US, France, Germany and the UK are backing the Kurdish Peshmerga whose military expansion is being eyeballed suspiciously by Baghdad and Tehran.

And this is just scratching the surface of the issue. The War on ISIS is a typical example of the surrogate wars of the 21st century. Surrogates provide an easy-in and easy-out alternative to major combat operations, supplementing own capability and more importantly substituting for the deployment of their own infantrymen. In Syria and Iraq, surrogates clash but have so far prevented a major direct military confrontation between its patrons. All patrons continue to secure their opposing interests at low costs, with degrees of local and international legitimacy, and most importantly while being able to present themselves domestically as protectors of national security interests. For a short time, all these state actors can look into the mirror and pretend to be somewhat relevant in this hostile, volatile and contested geo-political environment. In reality, these states are mere bystanders. The future of Syria and Iraq will increasingly be determined by non-state actors and their ability to govern ungoverned spaces.

Image: ISIS flag graffiti. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Iran’s DAISH Policy: Pragmatic as ever

Dr Amir M Kamel

This post is the first of a three-part series based on a panel titled ‘Middle Eastern Pragmatism and the Islamic State’ which took place at the Tenth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies 22-24 September 2016 at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s regime (IRI) response to DAISH (aka IS, ISIS, ISIL, among others) demonstrates the Iranian government’s continued pragmatic manner in which it operates in the international political system. Indeed, since the IRI came into being following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the regime has demonstrated its ability to espouse the revolutionary ethos established at the time, whilst pragmatically pursuing issues of national interests simultaneously. Specifically, this ethos has been evidenced by the following two elements of Iranian policy: Rejecting foreign influence and supporting freedom fighters across the world. The IRI’s dedication to these aspects of policy, in a pragmatic manner, have been evidenced in actions since 1979 and including the country’s reaction to DAISH.

Initially, the IRI demonstrated this approach following the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, when Tehran actively sought (and ascertained) support from foreign states in order to recover from the conflict. The Iranian regime did so whilst continuing to maintain its revolutionary mantra in international affairs (exemplified by the fatwa placed on the British-Indian citizen Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses book’s depiction of the Prophet Mohammed and Islam).

Then, following the 2002 revelation that the IRI was carrying out strictly legal, but the necessary measures for nuclear proliferation, Tehran sought to continue along this trajectory by maintaining economic and political ties with ‘friendly’ states in the international system. Ultimately, the sanctions placed on the IRI as a result of the nuclear program were followed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), geared at alleviating the sanctions in return for the scaling back of said program.

The JCPOA presented a framework for the IRI to continue to act pragmatically to achieve its national interest orientated goals (that is to maintain its sovereign right to develop a peaceful nuclear program), whilst implicitly (and explicitly in some cases) engaging with former rivals to combat the DAISH threat.

Indeed, the JCPOA context provided a forum for dialogue with Saudi Arabia (e.g. on the sidelines of 2013 UN conference), whilst simultaneously backing opposing sides in the conflict in Yemen – demonstrating the dedication to rejecting foreign influence (DAISH in this instance) in a pragmatic manner. Further, despite decades of having sanctions levied against it by the US (and still does), the JCPOA demonstrated a first in the sense of the agreement being followed by an US-IRI dialogue. The support for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) forces in northern Iraq, the Shia-led government in Baghdad and support for Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad all demonstrated Iran’s goal of ridding the region of a foreign threat (DAISH) whilst juggling a pragmatic need to maintain influence in these various arenas.

This demonstrates the IRI’s practice of its policy and the significance of the JCPOA when the interests of the IRI are at risk of being negatively impacted upon. As a result, I contend that Iran’s decisions are rooted in its experiences, constitution and actions. This process therefore comes under the three tranches guiding Iranian policies in international affairs, namely: rejecting foreign influence, supporting what it terms as freedom fighters (i.e. those under the control of their respective ‘oppressors’) and the IRI does so in a pragmatic manner in order to ensure its own stability and security.

Image: Parliament (Majlis) Speaker Ali Larijani meets Syrian Defense Minister General Fahd Jassem al-Freij in Tehran, 9 April 2015. Courtesy of Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons.

Degrade and Destroy: Winning the War against DAESH

Dr. Andrew R. Hom

In late June 2016 the ESRC-funded Moral Victories project and KCL’s Department of Defence Studies convened a workshop, entitled ‘Degrade and Destroy: Winning the War against Daesh?‘, which brought together leading experts from the academic, military, policy, and NGO communities to consider the problem of confronting DAESH (ISIS) – both in terms of the results and consequences of extant approaches and of possible alternatives. This day-long meeting was designed to foster knowledge exchange and impact by bringing multiple sectors together for a sustained dialogue. It featured spirited discussions about the use of air power in counterterrorism operations, the linkages between DAESH and the greater Syrian conflict, the humanitarian toll of that conflict as well as regional counterterrorism operations, and the intriguing but largely overlooked question of whether Daesh is an enemy or a threat to the UK and its allies. This latter point in particular prompted some interesting discussions amongst the diverse group who attended.

One of these debates focused on whether DAESH should be seen as primarily a political rather than a military or strategic problem. Is DAESH a properly apocalyptic organisation bent on ‘hastening’ a global cataclysm or is it actually pursuing a territorial caliphate as an alternative to the Western states system? Although elements of both intermingle in DAESH propaganda, they are two distinct objectives with very different implications. If thoroughly apocalyptic, DAESH would likely present a genuinely existential problem, although even here a military response plays directly into its apocalyptic vision. Viewed as more traditionally political in the sense of governing territory, DAESH looks like an adaptable, goal-driven organisation availing itself of various means and messages.

After the fall of Mosul and its initial declaration of a caliphate, DAESH first tried to establish administrators in its territories and to project power to the rest of the world. While the specific means of accomplishing these were no doubt repugnant (e.g. brutal Sharia governance at home and hostage executions turned into spectacles), at issue here is their links to DAESH’s ultimate ends. Indeed, DAESH proved inept at public administration and management – it could not distribute public goods effectively and Sharia law did not enable a viable alternative to a social welfare platform. However, it was only after coalition airstrikes began to reduce DAESH’s territorial gains that its rhetoric shifted toward international terrorism as a religious duty. This supports a trend long known to terrorism experts, which is that attacks abroad signal the weakening of an organisation at home and its pending failure as a political programme. Once again this highlights the fundamental importance of a clear vision of what winning a confrontation with DAESH actually means. Air strikes have been successful at checking DAESH’s territorial ambitions, yet they have also driven DAESH toward a strategy of international terror. These paradoxes of military superiority highlight a parallel question: should we respond to violent non-state actors as if they were states themselves, or do asymmetric problems require novel and perhaps asymmetric responses?

Conventional military power has little effect on the ‘caliphate of the mind’, which DAESH spreads with remarkable effectiveness using social and traditional media. Regardless of the material situation on the ground, such propaganda will continue to appeal to young, marginalised, and misogynistic young men who seek a combination of thrill-seeking and meaning-making. One way for the UK and allied governments to resist the organic diffusion of the Jihadi’s claim to fame is to: 1) resist the urge to invoke overblown, national security rhetoric in the wake of localised or small scale attacks, as this valorises the actions of individuals and small groups; and 2) adapt Cold War programmes of ‘civil defence’ or preparedness protocols to train citizenries to employ standard response procedures in active shooter and rudimentary assault situations. The aim here is to reduce rather than magnify the material and political effects of terrorists’ actions and to focus on societal resilience rather than on large-scale transformations of regional and international political, legal, and strategic orders. It is also a shift that would likely deliver significant cost savings.

Going further, Western governments might even consider an ‘asymmetric’ means of engaging the ‘global Muslim subject’ by issuing a blanket apology for the War on Terror – not as an admission of defeat or sole guilt but as an unexpected step that requires dialogue while also recognising the global importance of Islam as a faith and Muslims as a people who have been disproportionately affected by powerful states’ response to the actions of a razor thin minority of their co-religionists. A public apology flies in the face of the accepted logics and conventional wisdom about the war on terror, a fact viewed by many at the meeting as its strongest endorsement.

Thinking about the politics of confronting DAESH returns us to a central question: Does DAESH represent an actual material and existential threat to the UK and its allies? DAESH is clearly an enemy of the systems, values, and politics enshrined in Western, liberal democratic states. Yet this is not the same as a threat. There was a consensus in our meeting that distinguishing more carefully between enemies and threats would help clarify the menu of political and strategic options for dealing with DAESH and similar actors. Terror attacks abroad and territorial gains within the Levant – especially within two struggling states such as Syria and Iraq, whose issues the UK and its allies helped create and have displayed little facility in resolving – do not rise to the level of a national or international security threat, except for when Western governments treat them as such and act accordingly. Threats require urgent security responses, enemies do not – as was ably demonstrated by the UK and its allies throughout much of the Cold War.

In addition to reframing thinking and discourse in a way that provides greater room for manoeuvre, distinguishing DAESH along these lines offers the opportunity to focus on the sorts of long-term conditions that enable terrorist organisations to emerge in the first place, conditions that are often closely linked to state failure, economic inequalities, and large-scale humanitarian disasters. It would also allow states that are party to the UN Refugee Convention, as the UK is, to begin think about how to meet their obligations to the international community’s most vulnerable peoples without framing this issue as a matter solely of terrorism and security. In general, it would allow the UK and its allies much greater freedom to deliberate how to meet emerging adversaries and issues like DAESH with a full set of political tools rather than only the pointy tips.

Although particular groups will rise and fall, regional and international terrorism are likely here to stay. Yet while specific tactics and dispositions will surely evolve, at root terrorism represents a remarkably narrow and indeed brittle approach to territorial control, political power, and international recognition. Facing a problem that is both sticky and limited, and combined with the underwhelming record of the post-9/11 years, it makes sense for leading states like the UK and its allies to explore more supple forms of response. One way to do this is to re-inject politics, understood in the most expansive sense, into counterterrorism.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The UAE’s Jeffersonian Foreign Policy


A small Arab Gulf State is not the first place in the Middle East that one might expect to fashion a foreign policy according to Thomas Jefferson’s dictum of the importance of separating church and state. Yet this is what the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is doing. Key leaders in the state believe quite deeply in the importance of separating where practical the influence of organised political Islam from political affairs. This central premise has been guiding and driving the UAE’s foreign policy particularly since the Arab Spring.

In Libya the UAE joined in NATO’s operation unified protector to protect the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. The UAE then became involved on the ground supporting specific types of groups and political actors. While Qatar, for example, tended to support Islamists of one variety or another, the UAE purposefully supported nationalist-orientated groups (such as the al-Qaqa Brigade and the conglomerate surrounding the Zintan brigades) ranged Qatar’s Islamists. More notably, the UAE emerged in mid-2014 as the central backer of General Haftar, the former Libyan military commander who returned from exile in the US to lead an anti-Islamist crusade – Operation Dignity. The UAE not only supported him and his movement diplomatically and with materiel, but the New York Times reported that UAE fast-jets and special forces were used to support Haftar in his fight against Islamists.

Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa region, support for nationalists or at least actors other than Islamists, is also evident in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. Though there are exceptions, these are notable by their rarity and thus reinforce the overarching principle.

This Jeffersonian policy stems from lessons drawn by modern-day leaders from the domestic Emirati experience with political Islam. The local chapter of the international Muslim Brotherhood organisation – called al-Islah – opened in the UAE in 1974. It soon gained particular traction and influence in the northern emirates of the federal UAE that happen to be far poorer than those in the south (i.e. Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai). Al-Islah members from Ras al-Khaimah, one of the UAE’s northern emirates, even became federal ministers in the 1980s.

But this growth in power of a foreign-born social group unnerved leadership in Abu Dhabi. From the late-1980s onwards, leaders in Dubai and particular Abu Dhabi began to – as they see it – negotiate with al-Islah to lessen their overt influence on Emirati society. But these negotiations did not work and relations worsened between the two antagonists. Eventually, after foreign al-Islah members were deported and others were fired from their jobs, two Emiratis from the norther emirates took part in the attacks of 11 September 2011 and the fears of those in Abu Dhabi were realised. A greater crack-down ensued, yet still al-Islah refused to be cowed or follow its sister Muslim Brotherhood group in Qatar that dissolved itself voluntarily in 1999. But the Arab Spring was the final straw. It was proof positive for the Abu Dhabi elite as to the insidious nature of Muslim Brotherhood organisations that seemed to wait at the fringes of societies, preaching about social issues only to take power as soon as the opportunity emerged. In reaction to the Spring, the Abu Dhabi-led government instituted aid packages and extra subsidies aimed mostly at the norther emirates to forestall any early grumblings of discontent, and they banned groups like al-Islah, and arrested hundreds of its members.

This experience then came to guide the UAE’s foreign policy as a whole under the rubric that organised political Islam should not be supported but needed to be opposed. While such a policy based on a key tenet of US political thinking may curry favour for the UAE the beltway, there are two key problems with the thesis. Firstly, a Jeffersonian approach to foreign policy can never be applied towards Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s behemoth neighbour that institutionally mixed religion and politics. This rhetorical problem becomes a practical problem when both states are engaged in the same environment as with their intervention in Yemen. Here, the two states are operating with different tactical principles in important strategic cities like Taiz. Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to use local al-Islah commanders in their wider war, while the UAE appears to be far more reluctant to empower such groups.

Secondly, and linked to this point, is the fact that the UAE will need to compromise given that so much of the discourse is dominated by religion throughout the Middle East. Pursuing an active and pure Jeffersonian policy will be, in other worse, something of a challenge overall. Though the UAE can certainly support nationalists or other non-Islamist groups, they will rarely be in the majority.


This post is based on Mosque and State: The United Arab Emirates’ Secular Foreign Policy published by Foreign Affairs on 18 March 2016.

Thinking the Unthinkable over ISIL

This is the third in a series of posts to come out of the Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC) organised Round Table titled ‘Decoding IS [DAISH] – Retrospect and Prospect’, which took place on 8 February 2016. The Round Table covered issues concerned with the evolution, regional linkages, strategy and tactics, as well as the future prospects of IS [DAISH].


Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the war in Syria have focussed on managing the conflict between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the multi-faceted Syrian opposition. On 22 February, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) announced a ‘cessation of hostilities’, brokered by the US and Russia, to begin five days later. When it comes to ISIL, the statement of the ISSG specified that:

Military actions, including airstrikes, of the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, the Russian Armed Forces, and the U.S.-led Counter ISIL Coalition will continue against ISIL, “Jabhat al-Nusra,” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council.

In other words, the diplomatic effort has attempted to ring-fence the war against ISIL and the less prominent threat of the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. But, what if the numerous parties mentioned in this statement simply cannot wage a concerted war against ISIL? Indeed, the war effort against ISIL comprises of a messy patchwork of competing interests. Russia wants to back Assad, as does Iran, through it’s urging of Hezbollah to deploy there. Iran also wants to deepen its influence in Iraq, which has been in the ascent since the US-led Coalition toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Turkey wants, above all else, to remove the Assad regime and check Kurdish gains, while the Kurds fight ISIL to safeguard their territory and to boost their autonomy. Western countries may implore others to focus their efforts against ISIL. But fighting ISIL is rather far down the list of priorities for others.

What if, in years to come, the piecemeal war effort against ISIL fails to roll back the group’s control of territory, and perhaps only manages to keep it under pressure and contained? Will ISIL then have to be spoken to? Contemplating negotiations with ISIL means thinking the unthinkable (a term coined by Herman Kahn during the Cold War). The idea is as much abhorrent as it is unfeasible to envisage, given the scattered territory controlled by the group, the violence it uses to manage its rule, and the hatred it engenders amongst so many around the world. A group so wedded to nihilistic violence and an apocalyptic vision, with a seemingly maximalist desire for expansion, surely could never be spoken to. This is certainly true, but one must not assume permanence in the situation as it is today. The question, therefore, should be rephrased. Could ISIL ever become a fixture on the map of the Middle East? The kind of permanent entity, seemingly impervious to being dislodged and degraded by military pressure, that others have no choice but to work around?

There are no prospects for this at all in the short or medium term. The West wants to destroy ISIL, not talk to it. Moreover, ISIL does not appear to want to exist in a world of states. But, in decades to come, if it can withstand the military campaign against it, ISIL, or its forebears, may need to be dealt with in ways that extend beyond aerial bombing. The unthinkable may be no less palatable in ten or fifteen years from now. But if ISIL still exists, it may become important to consider.

As I argue in an Adelphi Book, which is forthcoming in summer 2016, the perceptions held of armed groups can experience enormous transitions if they manage to perpetuate their existence for decades. Certainly, when Hezbollah carried out a suicide bomb attack on US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, or when the Taliban came to global prominence after abetting al-Qaeda’s September 2001 attacks, nobody could have assumed the continued existence of these groups today. Few would have thought that Hezbollah would become part of Lebanon’s government. Or that the Taliban would absorb the punishment of a fifteen-year NATO military campaign, only to be the subject of an overture by the President of the USA for reconciliation talks.

There is currently no path and no prospects for ISIL to ever achieve any kind of status of this nature. It is absurd, off-putting and defeatist to even contemplate such a future. But that is precisely what thinking the unthinkable asks of us. If the civil war in Syria fails to abate, and the UN effort in support of Security Council Resolution 2254 fails to make progress, efforts to eradicate ISIL’s hold over territory in Syria will be hindered. This, tragically, is not so unthinkable. The patchwork nature of the anti-ISIL campaign is ISIL’s to exploit.

Image: Secretary Kerry Chats With UN Secretary-General Ban Before Hosting the International Syria Support Group Meeting in New York City, 18 December 2015. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Iraq: Shi’a Militias – Partners or Contestants of Iraqi Stability

This is the third in a series of posts to come out of the Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC) organised Round Table titled ‘Decoding IS [DAISH] – Retrospect and Prospect’, which took place on 8 February 2016. The Round Table covered issues concerned with the evolution, regional linkages, strategy and tactics, as well as the future prospects of IS [DAISH].


The fall of Mosul in June 2014 came as a result of series of mistakes committed by the then Iraqi government and Prime-Minister al Maliki. Despite the significant efforts by the international community and the substantial financial resources, dedicated to the strengthening and vocational training of the Iraqi security forces in order to confront both internal and external challenges, the outcome appeared to be rather grim. Notwithstanding the numerous warning signals, the newly established military and security apparatus of Iraq has been plagued with corruption. As a result, it became an arena for irregularities, which by the time of the ISIS invasion, resulted in a complete undermining the Armed forces capacity to confront the threat, as well as the other Iraqi Sunni militant groups. Professionally and ideologically weak, the Iraqi army and security entities were incapable to forecast and thus to plan a strategy on how to approach the terrorist threat.

Sources inside the Iraqi political establishment admitted their shock at these developments, which coincided with the evaporation of the Mosul (and further south) bound Army regiments. The advancement of ISIS and its tactical allies developed with frightening promptness, reaching the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, a.k.a. the Baghdad belt. This was a turning point. As a result of the swiftly developing political dynamics aiming to urgently save Iraq, a fatwa was issued by the Supreme religious authority in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. The fatwa called upon the Iraqi nation to stand alongside the Iraqi army and defend the country. Although the fatwa did not have a discriminatory character, i.e. it did not draw sectarian lines, it was wrongfully interpreted and decisively refuted by the Iraqi Sunni component. The fatwa and the following decree by the new PM Haider al Abbadi, on the establishment of the Popular Mobilization Forces, however served as a perfect pretext for the reemergence of the Shi’a paramilitary forces, a.k.a. the Militias. The biggest among them – the Badr corpus (the former military wing of the SCIRI) managed to swiftly mobilize and deploy hundreds of its members at key blockposts around Baghdad, with the logistical and military support of Iran, at a rate which allowed it to commence a counter-attack in certain areas. Soon, other groups like Asa’ib al Ahl al Haq (ex Sadrists) and Kata’ib Hizbullah followed, thus occupying locations both inside and outside of Baghdad.

With the support of Iran and, at a later stage, of the US-led International anti-ISIS coalition, Iraqi Forces and PMF soon repelled the terrorist attacks in various places around the capital and areas in the North and North-East of the country. This propagated the hope that Iraq would assert its sovereign status to function and defend itself against an enemy. Within a period of over a year, a large portion of previously occupied territories were regained and returned to the Central Government. While Baghdad managed to claim administrative control, at least officially, throughout many places like the Diyala Province, security/military control remained in the hands of Militias.

The campaign for Ramadi revealed serious differences between various power circles in Baghdad. Despite the expectation that the PMF would play a decisive role in the operation against ISIS, the Military command and the PM’s Office decision was to keep their regiments away from the battlefield. That was ill perceived by the high command and led to a serious shift within the balance of coordination between PM Abbadi and Militia forces. Furthermore, the Government began to lose support from the Supreme religious authorities in Najaf and is now facing another challenge – regaining the trust of the Iraqi population by implementing reforms and adopting strict anti-corruption measures. Recently, the PM announced intentions to shuffle ministerial personnel, among them the personal appointee of the Badr Organization – the Minister of Interior Muhammad al Ghabban. This presents an open challenge to the Militias and their clout over Iraqi political environment. Yet to succeed, Abbadi has to convince the Parliament to accept his proposal. As Abbadi is lacking the support of Najaf, this task looks even more difficult. It is already anticipated that the majority of the parties within the largest Shi’a Coalition – the National Alliance, will reject the reappointments. With Iran allegedly supporting the main Abbadi rival – al Maliki, it is quite difficult to foresee which side of the fence the Militias will come down on. Purportedly, al Maliki remains to be the Iranian supported candidate enjoying the strong support from Tehran, while the Militias are highly unlikely to stand against Iranian support as they are quite dependent on its logistical assistance. It is therefore probable that their main question has become whether to choose the national interests over their own.

Image: Left, Nouri al-Maliki meets with George W. Bush, 13 June 2006, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Right, Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq speaking to the media following the Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Meeting in London, 22 January 2015, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Saudi Arabia and its anti-terror alliance


On 14 December 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, called a press conference and announced the formation of a new thirty-four nation-strong Islamic military alliance that would be dedicated to countering the threat of terrorism around the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

But the reaction to this initiative was mixed.

There is currently no evidence of any blueprint as to its incorporation, operation, or evolution. Nor is it clear how anything approaching a meaningful, joint military organisation could be forged between the thirty-four countries. Embarrassingly, the foreign ministries of Pakistan and Lebanon subsequently denied that they have even signed up to any such organisation, while the Malaysian minister of defence refused to contribute troops to the venture.

This is not the first time that leaders in Saudi Arabia have made grand announcements on the hoof.

In March 2015 Saudi announced that Pakistan was joining the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which was news to the Pakistani parliament that subsequently rejected the overture. Similarly, in 2011 King Abdullah al-Saud invited Morocco and Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) without consulting any leaders involved. The fact that Muscat, the capital of Oman, a founding GCC state, would have been closer to Shanghai than Morocco’s capital Rabat, seemingly did not strike King Abdullah as problematic. The plan was abandoned in an embarrassed silence in due course.

Another basic problem for the putative alliance is that it includes neither Iraq nor Iran. These are pivotally important states that are crucial to achieving the purported aims. Without these Shia-dominated states, Saudi’s new alliance is wide open to accusations that it is sectarian in nature or even that this is little more than a new, institutionalised way to combat and contain Iran.

The scepticism pervading the announcement of this new military alliance is, therefore, unsurprising and warranted. Indeed, this announcement is better seen as political rhetoric rather than organisational reality.

The announcement attempts to signal that Saudi Arabia is eager to take the leading role fighting terrorism. This comes after years of criticism that seems to have peaked in recent months with unflattering comparisons between the actions of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State, insinuating or plainly claiming that Saudi Arabia has played a key role in the emergence of Islamic extremism in the MENA region.

Yet as fashionable a refrain as this is, it is not necessarily a statement of the obvious.

It is true that Saudi Arabia has long exported its austere, intolerant version of Islam around the world and supported armed Islamically-based resistance movements such as the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s. But it also exported its particular Islamic creed to India, Professor Bernard Hakyel notes, where little subsequent Wahhabi-based extremism has arisen.

The motivations underlying the bouts of extremism that are currently rampaging around the MENA region are complex. Though some of Saudi Arabia’s historic (or current) policies may play a role therein, it would be far too simplistic – and simply not proven thus far – to charge that the state is the root cause of modern-day Islamic extremism.

It is also possible to interpret this announcement as Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to further burnish his reputation at home and abroad. Without much pedigree, he was elevated to Minister of Defence, third in line to the throne, head of the state oil company ARAMCO, and head of the state’s most important economic council.

But despite launching a war in Yemen of unprecedented scale, it is Mohammed bin Nayef al-Saud, the Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior, who enjoys the more prominent reputation at home and abroad (particularly in Washington DC) as the architect of Saudi Arabia’s relatively successful domestic counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorist policies of the late-2000s and 2010s.

Mohammed bin Salman’s rise is a testament to his political skill among the elite in Riyadh, backed by the support of his father, the King. Without the decades of experience traditionally assumed as necessary to rule even ministries in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman must instead find other ways to reinforce his place and his legitimacy.

His unique selling point is his age with which he can signal the start of a new type of politics in the Kingdom that can chime better with Saudi’s population, two thirds of whom are under the age of thirty. A key strand of this must be reformulating the Saudi approach to terrorism and extremism – at the very least making explicitly clear his commitment to countering them effectively, no matter what their origins.

The young prince may yet forge some alliance; certainly, he has proven capable of undertaking ventures of unprecedented scale, as he demonstrated with the war in Yemen.

But this policy announcement did not get off to a promising start.

The lack of planning evidenced by just how quickly the alliance frayed within the first 24 hours carries strong hints of traditional, preparatory-work-free policy announcements that tend to not come to fruition. And on this topic above all others, neither the Saudi government nor Mohammed bin Salman can afford such befuddled, ill-conceived pronouncements.

Image: Air Strikes in Yemen, May 2015, via wikimedia commons.

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…Deadly rivalries in Syria, Iraq and Turkey

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Bill Park

The politics surrounding the Syrian and Iraqi crises are a mess. The recently announced Saudi-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups is riddled with deadly rivalries and serves only to intensify the sectarian flavor of Syria’s struggle and of the region’s politics. Furthermore, it incorporates jihadi groups that are barely more tolerable than Islamic State (IS) and that undoubtedly intend the west harm. NATO member Turkey backs some of these groups, partly because of their role in fighting regime forces but also in the hope that they can obstruct the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the PYD from advancing further westwards and controlling yet more of the Turkey-Syrian border. However, a consequence of Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian bomber is that Moscow has embarked on a massive bombardment of these Ankara-sponsored groups, which serves both to strengthen the PYD’s position and weaken the opposition to Assad. Given that Washington regards the PYD’s fighters as the most effective force on the ground against IS, this aligns Russian and the US with the Syrian Kurds and against Turkey. On the other hand, Washington’s focus on degrading IS but by and large leaving other opposition groups unscathed, despite the jihadi and anti-western nature of many of them, serves to align the US with Saudi-backed sectarian Sunni groups and entices it towards a forlorn search for ‘moderates’ amongst them. Furthermore, while supporting the PYD despite Turkey’s disquiet, the US simultaneously supports Ankara’s vicious campaign of bombings, curfews and political repression against the PKK, sister party to Syria’s Kurdish PYD. No end to this campaign is in sight, and it is threatening to take on Grozny-like proportions as well as erode what is left of Turkish democracy. Ankara’s campaign extends to PKK bases inside northern Iraq, which is increasingly embarrassing to the KRG leadership, which number amongst Washington’s best friends in the region. Then again, the KRG’s peshmerga, regarded as the best ‘boots on the ground’ against IS in Iraq, are weaker than they could be because the US will only arm them via Baghdad, and which opposes the provision of heavy arms to the KRG. This continuing US commitment to Baghdad in effect aligns it with Tehran, and has led Washington to join Baghdad, Tehran and Moscow in demanding the withdrawal of Turkish forces from a Sunni-supporting base near Mosul. However, unlike those capitals, Washington does not support the Assad regime.

Confusing? Things will get still more so if IS ever is ‘degraded’, which in any case is a meaningless hope as the problem is less IS than jihadiism throughout the Muslim world. Syria’s Sunni groups will fight each other as well as the regime – which Moscow and Tehran will ensure remains in place in some form. The US and its regional allies will struggle to find themselves on the same page in such an intra-Sunni struggle. To add to the complexity, the more the US accepts the reality of Damascus – and it is now showing signs of doing just that, and needs to if a diplomatic agreement is to be found – the more it will alienate its regional Sunni allies. The US will feel obliged, under Turkish pressure as well as that of almost all Syrian Sunni Arab groups, to betray the PYD, which can see the writing on the wall and is already shifting towards Moscow, which will support a decentralized Syria as the best means of maintaining an Alawite presence in the country’s governance, and will also cherish the opportunity to spite Ankara. In Iraq, the territorial struggle between Baghdad and Erbil will resume, only this time Tehran-inspired Shia militias will provide the chief opponents to the peshmerga on the ground. In fact, this fight has already commenced. Which side will Washington take in this struggle? Only the next US president might know, and none of the likely Republican candidates appear to know anything at all about the region’s complexities. Russia will have incurred the wrath of the region’s Sunnis – in fact it has already done so – while the US will be puzzling over how it managed to simultaneously find itself uncomfortably on the same side on so many issues as Moscow, Tehran, and Baghdad, yet also distrusted by its regional Sunni allies for not joining them emphatically enough against Assad and, in Turkey’s case, Syria’s Kurds, and for leaving Iraq’s Sunni Arabs still disenfranchised. Meanwhile, any ‘degraded’ IS will simply reappear, perhaps in a new guise, in other trouble spots – Yemen, Sinai, Afghanistan, Tunisia, most frighteningly Libya, as well as the west’s cities of course. This is what we have to look forward to in 2016 and beyond.

Image: the Za’atri camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees as seen on July 18, 2013, via wikimedia commons.

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…Russia: coming in from the cold?

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Dr Tracey German

As 2015 draws to a close, Vladimir Putin can reflect on the distance that Russia has come in terms of international relations: having found itself isolated from the West at the beginning of the year, following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continuing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, Moscow is now at the centre of a global coalition to tackle IS, as well as UN peace plans for Syria. However, despite these apparent diplomatic successes, Russia faces a series of pressing challenges over the coming year, which could undermine its desire to play a leading role on the international stage. The rouble and the price of oil have continued to plummet, knocking millions off the value of the Russian economy, inflation and unemployment are on the rise, and international sanctions are beginning to bite, pushing the country into recession. The economic crisis has emphasised the vulnerabilities associated with an economy that is over-reliant on energy exports, whilst demographic pressures, interethnic tensions, and growing economic, political and social disparities threaten the stability that Putin has sought to establish.

The continuing sabre-rattling between Russia and Turkey serves as a useful distraction from these domestic problems, a dangerous situation for all, with the risk of further tensions high. Furthermore, with reports of increasing numbers of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, there is the risk that waning Western attention will facilitate Russian activities there. NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit is likely to focus on the security of eastern allies and the issue of further enlargement, both issues which will lead to continued tension between Russia and NATO, over the latter’s attempts to strengthen relationships with countries such as Georgia. Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming year and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means. The Russian political narrative will remain dominated by anti-Western sentiment as Moscow seeks to counter the perceived expansion of Western involvement within its ‘sphere of influence’ to ensure that it remains the predominant power in the post-Soviet area.

Image: Russian Su-24 jet aircraft at Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia, Syria, via Wikimedia Commons.