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Keeping one’s eggs in two baskets

Friday, August 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- hedging bets, as Kilcullen says ]

How would game theorists describe this strategy, where “both and” is half “either”, half “or”?


Posts from my Coursera classes 2 — angles on the Taliban

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a follow-up post, includes the "brother against brother" issue & Afghan Taliban  ]


Following up on my previous post in this series, I’ll begin with some comments specific to the Taliban that address the issue of dehumanization I raised there… and conclude with some comments on “brother against brother” in warfare in general and Afghanistan in particular.


Since various people have mentioned the Taliban in this thread, and some have attributed the actions of al-Qaeda to them — even actions taken many thousands of miles away from Afghanistan and Pakistan — it may be helpful to recall that the Taliban is not al-Qaeda, and has from the beginning had its own bones to pick with them.

Two western journalists who have lived in Afghanistan for years, Alex Strick van Linschoten & Felix Kuehn, have made this very clear in interviews, articles and books like An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan:

Most importantly, in their paper for New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, Separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan, Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn report:

Afghans have not been involved in international terrorism, nor have the Afghan Taliban adopted the internationalist jihadi rhetoric of affiliates of al-Qaeda.

This 2011 article titled The Taliban is not Al Qaeda summarizes some of the more significant differences between the two groups:

Kuehn points out that the Taliban and Al Qaeda adhere to different strains of Islamic thought, the Taliban associated with Saudi-influenced, Wahhabi-style Hanafi beliefs, and Al Qaeda associated with the more radical, more rigid Hanbali school. The Taliban, of course, are Afghans, and Al Qaeda mostly Arab and almost entirely non-Afghan. Generationally, they are different, too, with most Al Qaeda leaders older than the young commanders of the Taliban, and whereas many Al Qaeda people are professionals and well educated, the Taliban are rural, unschooled, and grew up in places like Kandahar where newspapers were nonexistent and even radios were in the hands of only a privileged few.

The Taliban, in other words, are Afghans concerned mainly about Afghanistan, while al-Qaeda is a multi-national franchise operation, originating in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and focused largely on “the far enemy” — ie the United States.


And how do the Taliban themselves feel about dehumanization? Do they recognize the effects of war in those terms?

One of the best ways to get a glimpse into their hearts and souls is via their poetry, which van Linschoten and Kuehn have painstakingly collected, translated and published in The Poetry of the Taliban — it was researching this book for my review in Christianity Today’s literary review, Books and Culture that led me to several of the quotes I’ve used above.

Here’s a Taliban poem from that collection which directly addresses dehumanization, but through “enemy eyes”…

We are not animals,
I say this with certainty.
Humanity has been forgotten by us,
And I don’t know when it will come back.
May Allah give it to us,
and decorate us with this jewelry,
the jewelry of humanity,
For now it’s only in our imagination.


That pretty much wraps up the “dehumanization of the enemy” side of things for me, at least for now. Next up, the question of brother fighting against brother, and its implications in Afghanistan. What follows is also drawn from the thread on “Marines Urinating on Taliban” in the Princeton Paradoxes of War MOOC


I’m going to bypass the “urinating on the dead” side of things for a moment, and offer a comment on the Afghan Taliban, specifically, and more generally the Afghan mujahideen (vs the Soviets) and  more generally still, the
issue of families that find themselves on both sides of a conflict. I’ll work in from the most general case, and wind up with the specifics of the contemporary Afghan Taliban.


Not without reason, the American Civil War is sometimes termed a war of “brother against brother”.

There seem to have been many families where some members sided with the Confederacy and some with the Union forces. I am usually wary of believing Wikipedia without further research, but it appears that there were two instances in which a pair of brothers were each brigadier generals on opposite sides of the conflict: George Bibb Crittenden (Confederate) and Thomas Leonidas Crittenden (Union), and James Barbour Terrill (Confederate) and William Rufus Terrill (Union). The letters between James and Alexander Campbell are instructive on this point:

I was astonished to hear from the prisoners that you was colour Bearer of the Regmt that assalted the Battrey at this point the other day.  When I first heard it I looked over the field for you where I met one of the wounded of your Regt and he told me that he believed you was safe.  I was in the Brest work during the whole engagement doing my Best to Beat you but I hope that you and I will never again meet face to face Bitter enemies in the Battle field.  But if such should be the case You have but to discharge your deauty to Your caus for I can assure you I will strive to discharge my deauty to my country & my cause.

Interestingly enough, there’s an echo here of Matthew 10.21 in the Christian New Testament:

Brothers will turn against their own brothers and hand them over to be killed.

— although here it is the new religious view which causes families to split apart…


But there’s another strategy which pits brother against brother, not because of ideological principle or geographic sympathies, but as a means of risk management…

Kalvyas (The Logic of Violence in Civil War, p 229) quotes Stone (Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642, p. 144):

Particularly risky (and less frequent) is the family strategy of purposefully sending offspring to serve in competing armies. During the English Revolution, “some contemporary cynics argued that these family divisions [between belligerents] were part of a carefully arranged insurance policy, so that whichever side won there would always be someone with influence among the victors to protect the family property from confiscation and dismemberment”

And this appears to be a regular feature of Afghan Pashtun culture. Here’s Vern Liebl writing in “Pushtuns, Tribalism, Leadership, Islam and Taliban: a Short View”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol 18 iss 3, Sept 2007:

This is a historical tendency among Pushtun tribes; most families/-tribes will play multiple axes, just in case. For example, during the Soviet occupation era, it was not unusual at all to send a son (either of the family or the khel) to join the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Army, essentially serving the Communist
regime, another son or sons to join one or more of the various mujahedeen groups, another son to a madrasah in Pakistan, another son to the West to study and/or work, and a last son to stay and work to keep everybody else alive.

Jonathan Goodhand and Mark Sedra in “Bargains for Peace? Aid, Conditionalities and Reconstruction in Afghanistan” (Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, Conflict Research Unit, August 2006) put this in terms of the conflict of (presumed) opposites:

Afghans on both side of the conflict consistently subverted the bi-polar logic of their external backers; alliances in the field were constantly shifting back and forth between the mujahedin and pro-government militias. At the micro level Afghans would have family members in both the government forces and the mujahedin as part of a political risk spreading strategy.

And the Australian David Kilcullen — a senior counter-insurgency advisor to US General Petraeus — puts it very simply:

A lot of families in Afghanistan have one son fighting with the government, and another son fighting with the Taliban. It’s a hedging strategy.

So — a given Taliban fighter may have a brother working beside ISAF team members in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Is he perhaps “Taliban” only as a risk-avoidance strategy, on behalf of his father, mother, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, cousins? Because that’s not the same as hating all Americans…

And that’s yet another of the paradoxes of this particular war, I’d suggest…


Once again I’m offering these mini-essays here in their original form, which offers opinion backed by research sources, hoping that comments here will point me in new directions and allow me to reconsider and rewrite these materials as I move towards book form…

Thanks in advance!


Manea interviews Kilcullen at SWJ

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Octavian Manea, the interviewer par excellence of Small Wars Journal, steps up with an interview with COIN guru and former USG senior adviser Dr. David Kilcullen:

Future of Warfare in a Post-COIN Conflict Climate


SWJ: Should we expect that when we see all these clustered elements conflict is more likely, the societal environment more conflict prone?

David Kilcullen: There are two different ways to look at this set of relations. If we look at this from the standpoint of the military or law-enforcement, then it is pretty clear that we really need to get comfortable with operating in a very littoral, very urban and very highly networked environment because that is where the bulk of the people on the planet are going to live in the next generation. If you are not comfortable operating in such an environment you are not going to be effective. But this doesn’t mean that the solution to this problem is a military one. Seen from the perspective of the city in itself, it is pretty clear that the solution is not to bring the hawk cops in, and apply hard power tools to stabilize the environment. This is often a recipe for disaster. The paradox is that, on the one hand, there are no military solutions, but at the same time there are no solutions at all without security. Someone will provide that security and it is better for it to be the locals, but if the locals cannot do it, then history suggests that we will be drawn into this kind of conflict with about the same frequency as in the past.    

SWJ: You emphasized in your book, and also at the New America Foundation launching event that in the future we will face operational continuity and environmental discontinuity. What if the environmental discontinuity can in itself be a variable able to change the operational continuity?

David Kilcullen: That’s possible, to the extent that we have data — information based on historical patterns. On one hand, it seems that there is a lot of unwillingness on behalf of the American politicians to contemplate future engagements like Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress has no appetite as we’ve seen in the case of Syria for further military activity overseas. The military leadership is very reluctant to recommend that kind of operation. But going back to the 19th century we see a cyclical pattern in American military history where we repeatedly have leaders coming out with this kind of statement and yet we end up doing these kinds of operations anyway, on about the same frequency. There are deep structures about the way the US is connected to the international community that lead to this kind of behavior. It is possible that we won’t do this in the future, but it is not the way to bet. If you are going to bet on what is likely to happen, the pattern suggests that we are going to see a specific “conflict climate” (shaped by population growth, urbanization, littoralization and connectedness) within which wars will arise.

Read the rest here.


R2P is the New COIN

Monday, September 19th, 2011


The weirdly astrategic NATO campaign in Libya intervening on the side of ill-defined rebels against the tyrannical rule of Libyan strongman Colonel Moammar Gaddafi brought to general public attention the idea of “Responsibility to Protect” as a putative doctrine for US foreign policy and an alleged aspect of international law. The most vocal public face of R2P, an idea that has floated among liberal internationalist IL academics and NGO activists since the 90′s, was Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Policy Planning Director of the US State Department and an advisor to the Obama administration. Slaughter, writing in The Atlantic, was a passionate advocate of R2P as a “redefinition of sovereignty” and debated her position and underlying IR theory assumptions with critics such as Dan Drezner, Joshua Foust, and Dan Trombly.

In all candor, I found Dr. Slaughter’s thesis to be deeply troubling but the debate itself was insightful and stimulating and Slaughter is to be commended for responding at length to the arguments of her critics. Hopefully, there will be greater and wider debate in the future because, in it’s current policy trajectory, R2P is going to become “the new COIN”.

This is not to say that R2P is a military doctrine, but like the rise of pop-centric COIN, it will be an electrifying idea that has the potential fire the imagination of foreign policy intellectuals, make careers for it’s bureaucratic enthusiasts and act as a substitute for the absence of a coherent American grand strategy. The proponents of R2P (R2Peons?) appear to be in the early stages of following a policy advocacy template set down by the COINdinistas, but their ambitions appear to be far, far greater in scope.

It must be said, that unlike R2P, an abstract theory literally going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, COIN was an adaptive operational and policy response to a very real geopolitical debacle in Iraq, in which the United States was already deeply entrenched. A bevy of military officers, academics, think tank intellectuals, journalists and bloggers - some of them genuinely brilliant - including John Nagl, Kalev Sepp, Con Crane, Jack Keane, David Petraeus, Michèle Flournoy, David Kilcullen, Fred and Kim Kagan, James Mattis, Montgomery McFate, Thomas Ricks, Andrew Exum,  the Small Wars Journal and others articulated, proselytized, reported, blogged and institutionalized a version of counterinsurgency warfare now known as “Pop-centric COIN“, selling it to a very reluctant Bush administration, the US Army and USMC, moderate Congressional Democrats and ultimately to President Barack Obama.

The COIN revival and veneration of counterinsurgent icons like Templer and Galula did not really amount a “strategy”; it was an operational methodology that would reduce friction with Iraqis by co-opting local leaders and, for the Bush administration, provide an absolutely critical political “breathing space” with the American public to reinvent an occupation of Iraq that had descended into Hell. For US commanders in Iraq, adopting COIN doctrine provided “the cover” to ally with the conservative and nationalistic Sunni tribes of the “Anbar Awakening” who had turned violently against al Qaida and foreign Salafist extremists. COIN was not even a good theoretical  model for insurgency in the 21st century, never mind a strategy, but adoption of COIN doctrine as an American political process helped, along with the operational benefits, to avert an outright defeat in Iraq. COIN salvaged the American political will to prosecute the war in Iraq to a tolerable conclusion; meaning that COIN, while imperfect, was “good enough”, which in matters of warfare, suffices.

During this period of time and afterward, a fierce COINdinista vs. COINtra debate unfolded, which I will not summarize here, except to mention that one COINtra point was that COINdinistas, especially those in uniform, were engaged in making, or at least advocating policy. For the military officers among the COINdinistas, this was a charge that stung, largely because it was true. Hurt feelings or no, key COINdinistas dispersed from Leavenworth, CENTCOM and military service to occupy important posts in Washington, to write influential books, op-eds and blogs and establish a think tank “home base” in CNAS. Incidentally, I mean this descriptively and not perjoratively; it is simply what happened in the past five years. The COINDinistas are no longer “insurgents” but are the “establishment”.

R2P is following the same COIN pattern of bureaucratic-political proselytization with the accomplished academic theorist Anne-Marie Slaughter as the “Kilcullen of R2P”. As with David Kilcullen’s theory of insurgency, Slaughter’s ideas about sovereignty and R2P, which have gained traction with the Obama administration and in Europe as premises for policy, need to be taken seriously and examined in depth lest we wake up a decade hence with buyer’s remorse. R2P is not simply a cynical fig leaf for great power intervention in the affairs of failed states and mad dictatorships like Gaddafi’s Libya, R2P is also meant to transform the internal character of great powers that invoke it into something else. That may be the most important aspect and primary purpose of the doctrine and the implications are absolutely profound.

Therefore, I am going to devote a series of posts to analyzing the journal article recommended by Dr. Slaughter, “Sovereignty and Power in a Networked World Order“,  which gives a more robust and precise explanation of her ideas regarding international relations, sovereignty, legitimacy, authority and power at greater length than is possible in her op-eds or Atlantic blog. I strongly recommend that you read it and draw your own conclusions, Slaughter’s argument is, after all, about your future.

ADDENDUM – Related Posts:

Slouching Toward Columbia – Guest post: Civilian Protection Policy, R2P, and the Way Forward

Phronesisaical -Dragging History into R2P

Dart-Throwing Chimp - R2P Is Not the New COIN

Committee of Public Safety -With Outstretched Arm | The Committee of Public Safety



Saturday, October 30th, 2010

On the BBC:

Hat tip to SWJ Blog.


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