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New Article up at The Chicago Progressive

Friday, November 28th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

As I mentioned previously, I was invited to be a contributor to the new (and evolving) e-zine The Chicago Progressive   where I will tackle much the same subjects that we do here, albeit for a general audience attuned toward music, culture and the arts instead of for the natsec nerds, strategy wonks and milblogger crowd. here’s my latest piece:

The Nature of the Menace 

While the 2014 election results which gave Republicans control over the next Congress promise a change of direction and increased conflict in Washington over hot-button issues like immigration reform and Obamacare, one issue that is not likely to change: American policy  toward Syria and ISIS. Republicans, no less than Democrats are deeply divided over what to do, as are key figures in the administration. Part of the problem is the nature of the menace posed by ISIS itself – violently barbaric, growing in strength and implacably hostile to the West, yet only indirectly threatening to America at best. The steady-stream of ISIS atrocities keep it on the front pages – along with demands that the Obama administration “do something” – without ISIS taking actions threatening enough to Americans justify the risk of a major US response.

The truth is that despite lurid stories of ISIS operatives infiltrating over the Rio Grande leaving a trail of prayer rugs and jihadi literature in their wake, the threat of acts of major domestic terrorism by ISIS foreign fighters is remote. Unlike al Qaida, which was always primarily an elite transnational terrorist group looking to strike America, ISIS is predominantly a regionally based mass-movement insurgency rooted radicalized Sunni Arab theology and anti-Shia grievances. ISIS gains political traction for its brand of extreme religious violence outside of Iraq and Syria only where similar ethnic and sectarian demographics and anarchy prevail – like in the Sinai and Libya, as Der Spiegel reported last week.

The strategic threat posed by ISIS to the United States is fairly limited and mostly indirect, coming mostly from secondary or long term effects that are adverse to longstanding American interests:

a) Ideological – Every ISIS success helps inspire a hyper-radicalization of young, angry, Sunni Arab males into a generation of crypto-mahdist revolutionaries akin to the radical wave of terrorism and revolt inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 (ex. Bela Kuhn, Mao, Ho, the Bavarian Soviet, Comintern etc.). This potential fallout is the most serious threat to regional stability in the Mideast and is already happening.

b) Destabilization – The fragile and authoritarian Gulf monarchies and Saudi Arabia with a large generation of idle, well-off, underemployed youth are acutely vulnerable to subversion byISIS (which they ironically helped fund). Any serious effort by ISIS to militarily challenge these states is likely to be accompanied by vicious anti-Shia pogroms and atrocities, possibly provoking Iran to intervene. This risks whipping up a “Muslim Thirty Year’s War”  from Pakistan to the Mahgreb. While this likelihood is modest and its effects on US interests secondary, were Pakistani nukes to get loose or an Iranian-Saudi war to be triggered, it would become an urgent threat of the first order.

c) Terrorism -, Terrorism against regional American/western targets by ISIS s a certain eventuality, it has not happened yet because doing so is not a priority. ISIS leaders have demonstrated a remarkable strategic focus and discipline (more than we do, to be blunt) and have bigger fish to fry fighting local rivals right now. Terrorism against the continental United States by ISIS is not very probable (except by internet self-radicalized amateurs) and if it happened, while awful for the victims, most likely far less significant than 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing. I wouldn’t stay awake at night worrying about foreign ISIS fighters nuking Manhattan. […]

Read the rest here.

Narco-cartels as MBAs Doing 4GW

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

 

Yale organizational behaviorist Rodrigo Canales has an interesting talk on the Narco-insurgency in Mexico ( which he correctly sees as having been as lethal as Syria’s civil war). While this won’t be news to close students of Mexico’s cartel wars, Canales explains how Los Zeta, La Familia, Knights Templar and Sinaloa cartel violence is neither random nor strictly criminal on criminal  violence but is used as part of organizational strategies to create distinctive “franchise brands”, amplify political messaging,  reinforce effects of social service investment in the communities they control and maximize market efficiency of narcotics sales and other contraband. COIN, 4GW and irregular warfare folks will all see familiar elements in Canales management theory driven perspective.

A useful short tutorial considering the cartels are operating inside the United States and their hyper-violent tactics are eventually going to follow.

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.

Heavy Metal: When Irregulars Go Armored

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

If the symbol of the 20th century insurgent was the AK-47 and a red banner, his 21st century counterpart may someday be recognized by the suicide belt and the “homemade tank”. Irregular fighters have always used light arms, civilian passenger vehicles and armor captured (or donated by) from conventional armies, but the ability to produce serviceable fighting armored cars is a new wrinkle. They could not stand up to an American or Russian tank company, of course, but they are not meant to do so.

Most prevalent and evolved in Mexico’s narco-insurgency where cartels use these “monsters” converted from SUVs and various types of light and heavy trucks to battle one another and as “troop carriers” but these DIY armored vehicles have also appeared in the recent Libyan and ongoing Syrian civil wars. Where heavy anti-tank weapons, air power and real tanks are scarce, these narco-tanks are useful additions to irregular combat power and convey an intimidating image to lightly armed police and the public.

Dr. Robert Bunker and Byron Ramirez, with the support of Small Wars Journal, Borderland Beat.com and the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, have a new scholarly compilation on the subject of irregular use of DIY armor in Mexico:

Narco Armor : Improvised Armored Fighting Vehicles in Mexico

….The wave of violence that has left thousands dead began in early 2005, when former Mexican
president Vicente Fox sent government troops to Tamaulipas to fight the cartels. For the past
seven years the government has ordered its military to fight the cartels directly, which, in turn,
has led drug cartels to improvise and develop their own methods of warfare to combat both
government troops and other competing cartels.

The extreme rivalry among various Mexican drug cartels for regional control of the drug trade
market has yielded an arms race. The following collection of articles and images addresses a
segment of the military technology utilized by violent non-state actors during this period: “narco armor” or, more accurately, improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFV).

….Mexican cartel use of IAFVs and armored sport utility vehicles (ASUV) may yield some
important lessons for military counter-criminal insurgency efforts. Still, many unanswered
questions exist concerning the fielding of narco armor in Mexico. Reports of these vehicles
being fielded span roughly from mid-2010 to the beginning of 2012, with a spike in activity 5
surrounding them taking place around mid-2011. These vehicles had predominantly been utilized

in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in engagements between the Zetas and Gulf cartels and in a
few other locales (see Map Locations). While it has been said that the Mexican government has
seized well over one hundred of these vehicles, only about two dozen photographic examples
exist per our research (see Picture Gallery).

….Given the apparent cessation of the fielding of narco armor since early 2012, quite possibly these vehicles have reached an evolutionary dead end, with more emphasis once again placed by the cartels on fielding more stealth-masked armored vehicles, such as armored SUVs, that better blend in with civilian cars and trucks so as to eluded identification and targeting by Mexican federal forces. Still, given the ever changing conflict waging in Mexico among the cartels and against the Mexican government, future resumption of IAFV employment will always remain a potential. 

Read the rest here.

During the Russian civil war (1917-1922), armored trains complete with heavy machine guns and artillery were used by both Bolshevik and White armies across the vast expanse of the Eurasian steppe and the armored train subsequently made spotty appearances in civil wars in China and Spain before fading away. This less likely to happen with homemade armor which is smaller and infinitely more mobile and can be created in a sufficiently large garage with time, elbow grease and a supply of scrap metal.

New Article up at Pragati: Lethal Ideas & Insurgent Memories – Review of The Violent Image

Friday, October 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

I have a new book review up at Pragati this morning:

Lethal ideas and insurgent memory 

….One expert who does acknowledge a paradigmatic shift and posits a powerful explanatory model for the behavior of what he terms “the new revolutionaries” is Dr Neville Bolt of the War Studies Department of King’s College, London and author of The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries. Taking a constructivist view of irregular military conflict as the means by which insurgents weave an enduring political narrative of mythic power and shape historical memory, Bolt eschews some cherished strategic tenets of realists and Clausewitzians. The ecology of social media, powered by decentralised, instant communication platforms and the breakdown of formerly autarkic or regulated polities under the corrosive effects of capitalist market expansion, have been, in Bolt’s view, strategic game changers “creating room to maneuver” in a new “cognitive battlespace” for “complex insurgencies”.  Violent “Propaganda of the Deed”, once the nihilistic signature of 19th century Anarchist-terrorist groups like the People’s Will, has reemerged in the 21stcentury’s continuous media attention environment as a critical tool for insurgents to compress time and space through “…a dramatic crisis that must be provoked”.

As a book The Violent Image sits at the very verge of war and politics where ideas become weapons and serve as a catalyst for turning grievance into physical aggression and violence. Running two hundred and sixty-nine heavily footnoted pages and an extensive bibliography that demonstrates Bolt’s impressive depth of research. While Bolt at times slips into academic style, for the most part his prose is clear, forceful and therefore useful and accessible to the practitioner or policy maker. Particularly for the latter, are Bolt’s investigations into violent action by modern terrorists as a metaphor impacting time (thus, decision cycles) across a multiplicity of audiences.  This capacity for harvesting strategic effect from terrorist events was something lacking in the 19th and early 20thcentury followers of Bakunin and Lenin (in his dalliances with terrorism); or in Bolt’s view, the anarchists “failed to evoke a coherent understanding in the population” or a “sustained message”.

Read the rest here.

 


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