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Boko Haram: religious vs social war

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — follow up to Taliban: religiosity vs pragmatism ]
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Sen. Ita Solomon Enang, Chairman of Nigeria’s Senate Committee on Business and Rules, recently responded to a press question about Boko Haram, in an interview published under the curious title, Boko Haram war more religious than social — Engang:

Q: Previously you said Boko Haram attacks were not targeted at Christians but with the consistent attacks on worshippers in churches, have you not changed your mind and how do you think this problem can be dealt with?

A: Unfortunately, I held a position that it is not a religious war in the past. But my position on that is becoming shaky because when people now blatantly take guns to churches and aim at unarmed worshippers, kill them and go away; or they take a bomb to the church and detonate it there, I would say this is like a jihad and I think we should stop behaving like ostriches. I think that the sooner we accept it as a religious war, the better we will be able to handle it.

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I keep circling around this central point. Much of interest and concern in today’s world revolves around the manner in which politics and religion are separable, braided together, or inseparable…


image credit: Christian Mercat, under GNU license v 1.2 — see documentation.

What does it mean for a war to be a religious war, or — to avoid the complexities that defining war bring into the picture while substituting the equivalent complexities attendant on the word violence — for violence to be religious violence?

  • Do both sides have to fight a religious war for it to be religious?
  • Can individuals perform acts of religious violence within a war that is not itself religious?

In some ways the issue parallels the one raised by Zen today in a quote from Colin Gray:

It is not sensible to categorize wars according to the believed predominant combat style of one of the belligerents. Guerrilla-style warfare is potentially universal and, on the historical evidence, for excellent reasons has been a favored military method of the weaker combatant eternally. There are no such historical phenomena as guerrilla wars. Rather, there have been countless wars wherein guerrilla tactics have been employed, sometimes by both sides. To define a war according to a tactical style is about as foolish as definition according to weaponry. For example, it is not conducive of understanding to conceive of tank warfare when the subject of interest is warfare with tanks and so forth, typically, if not quite always, in the context of combined arms.

Zen’s response to Gray:

Gray is correct that many wars partake of a blend of tactical fighting styles or that most wars are better defined (or at least should be in terms of causation) by their political character. That said, a specific fighting style sometimes is a definitive descriptive characteristic of a war, particularly if a dominant tactical style explains one side’s consistent comparative advantage (ex. the Macedonian phalanx vs. the Persians) in battle and some of the resultant choices which were forced upon the adversary.

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We have a sort of Venn-diagram-in-words possibility: religiopolitical — but it’s really little more than a sop to the fact that religion and politics are at time closely woven. The religiosity of voiolence, and for that matter the violence of religiosity — these are things that wax and wane, shifting sands — they don’t always stay still long enough for us to box them in words, to reify them, to treat them as easily discernible and manipulable mental objects.

That said, to paraphrase Zen, “a specific religious style sometimes is a definitive descriptive characteristic of a war…”

Our understanding may be shifting and nuanced, but the briefs and executive summaries that decision-makers receive, the soundbites they articulate (can one articulate a soundbite?), and the headlines that preach their doctrines to the wide world — these use a given word or they don’t.

Let me turn that around: the briefs and executive summaries that decision-makers receive, the soundbites they articulate, and the headlines that preach their doctrines to the wide world inevitably either use a given word, or they don’t. And yet a realistic understanding of the given situation will be no less inevitably shifting and nuanced…

I feel very timid dipping a toe into Boyd in present company, but a fighter-pilot is a one-person observer, orienter, decider and actor, no? with a loop measured in fractions of seconds, not months? — whereas between intelligence gathering, strategic orientation, policy-making, and diplomatic or military action there are a multitude of communications channels — many of which function as shears that trim nuance down to the nub.

I suspect that questions like “is this a religious war?” and “is this guerrilla war?” carry (at a minimum) book-length subtleties with them, and wind up all too often with answers which are either yes or no, one or zero.

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It’s all a bit like asking, “what game is this war we’re playing?”

One senior US official in Iraq was quoted by Anthony Cordesman as saying:

the current situation is like playing three dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you.

Tom Barnett, in The Pentagon’s New Map:

It is not chess but something closer to soccer. The ball is always moving, and substitutions are constantly changing the composition of both your team and your enemy’s. But worse still, your political leadership’s definition of the “problem” you are trying to solve keeps changing, making your attempts to keep score almost meaningless. You want to know what today’s definition of the problem is? Try reading the op-ed pages; you will have plenty to choose from.

John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt:

Major transformations are thus coming in the nature of adversaries, in the type of threats they may pose and in how conflicts can be waged. Information-age threats are likely to be more diffuse, dispersed, multidimensional nonlinear and ambiguous than industrial-age threats. Metaphorically, then, future conflicts may resemble the Oriental game of Go more than the Western game of chess. The conflict spectrum will be remolded from end to end by these dynamics.

As I noted recently, Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, about the complexity of contemporary life in general:

Not one game is being played, but several, and, if the game metaphor may be stretched further, the problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to by a lob over the net

When it comes time to think, there are only so many metaphor-boxes to fit your nuances into. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

New Article: The Coming National Defense Crack-Up

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012


I have been asked to contribute foreign policy and defense pieces to IVN – The Independent Voter Network. The emphasis at IVN  is on well-supported brevity to inform a general audience of prospective voters for 2012 and not to entertain the legions of doctorate-seeking war nerdom with iterations of mutant 4GW, hybrid neo-Clausewitzian, counter-counter-insurgency theoretical castles in the sky :) Different readership there.

Here is my first article:

The Coming National Defense Crack-Up

….Despite a major speech on defense issues given at the Citadel in 2011, Governor Romney’s strengths as a candidate are not associated with national security, while President Obama’s staff prefer to emphasize to the administration’s many successes in counterterrorism operations instead of the accumulation of serious issues faced by the Department of Defense, the armed services and America’s returning veterans.

This lack of debate is problematic because the next president will require a mandate for his solutions to the Pentagon’s laundry list of problems if they are to have a hope of passing the Congress in tight budgetary times. Some of the national defense problems are structural while others constitute a legacy of ten years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and in remote lawless regions, but the political capital needed to fix them will be substantial:

  • Never has the Pentagon’s system for acquiring weapons and supplies been so dysfunctional or so ruinously expensive. Most of the major weapons systems of the past decade have been cancelled or halted in scandal at a cost of billions, including the Future Combat System, theF-22 Raptor , the next generation Destroyer, the Crusader, the Comanche helicopter, theExpeditionary Fighting Vehicle and the Littoral Combat Ship. The desk-bound military bureaucracy bitterly fought against the deployment of the life-saving MRAP while outfitting troops in uniforms that made it easier for the enemy to shoot them.
  • The Obama administration is attempting a “strategic pivot” toward Asia by focusing shrinking military resources in the Pacific, but the United States Navy will be extremely hard-pressed to carry out offshore balancing of a rising China with a reduced fleet of only 285 aging ships, the lowest number in a century. Nor do we have any regional allies with operational aircraft carriers – Japan has only a helicopter carrier, Britain is losing it’s last carrier in 2014, Australia and South Korea have no carriers and New Zealand barely has enough ships to constitute a functioning navy. Naval expansion would require a significant investment and several decades to complete…..

Read the rest here.

Taliban: religiosity vs pragmatism

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — a question of priorities ]
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photo credit: Omar Sobhani/Reuters
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The attack in Qargha was not about liberating one’s own people from an occupying power, but about imposing one’s religious morality on compatriots who do not share one’s enthusiasm. Or to put that another way: at times, war is the continuation of religiosity by other means.

Offered without further comment, from The attack in Kargha: Return of the Taleban Puritans? by Thomas Ruttig of Afghan Analysts Network:

For the first time in many months, the Taleban have attacked a target that is almost exclusively used by Afghan civilians, while statements by their leader Mulla Muhammad Omar and their code of conduct (the layha, see an AAN report about it here) suggested a desire to protect civilians as much as possible. In the past, when causing civilian casualties, Taleban spokesmen often argued that they had actually been attacking a military target (like a convoy, a checkpost or another military installation) and that they had not planned to harm civilians. This time, such an excuse would have sounded ridiculous. Instead, in a statement under the name of their spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed they called the hotel a ‘hub of obscenity and vulgarity frequented by the lusty foreign and local top-level military and officials to satisfy their impure lust especially on Thursday nights’ and where ‘anti-Islamic meeting are usually being held’ (sic).

Equally ridiculous was their claim that it was mainly foreigners who had been targeted at Kargha. In the statement already quoted they claimed that their fighters had killed and wounded ‘several dozens of the top-level foreign diplomats and military figures and high-ranking puppets’. But everyone in Kabul knows that many foreigners are not even allowed to go to most of the restaurants in the city centre, particularly ‘top-level diplomats’. Kargha, well outside the city, is off limits for all foreigners except those few who do not have strict security rules. Instead, Kargha, with its little restaurants (which Afghans tend to call ‘hotels’), ice cream parlours and even cottages furbished in Swedish style and a few pedalo boats to rent, is a typical weekend retreat for Kabulis from all walks of life, from the young and well-off to rather ordinary people who enjoy the only accessible lake in the vicinity of the capital. To target such an area is not only a clear deviation from recent stated Taleban policy, if not practice, it is also an outrage.

That the Taleban tried to justify their attack by claiming that it was a venue of ‘anti-Islamic’ behaviour also shows that the old puritan tendency in their movement is alive and kicking, to which all kind of temporal amusement are anathema, especially if men and women are attending without being strictly separated.

Gray on Strategic Theory and COIN

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

I linked to this only in passing previously:  here is eminent Clausewitzian scholar Colin S. Gray at NDU PRISM:

Concept Failure? COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory 

….Argument

If this debate about COIN is to be reset along more productive lines than those typically pursued in the often heated and bad-tempered exchanges of recent times, it is necessary to place some reliance on the conceptual tools that strategic theory provides. Unsurprisingly, in its several forms that theory yields what Clausewitz specified: it sorts out what needs sorting. There is much that should be debated about COIN, but the controversy is not helpful for national security if the structure and functioning of the subject matter, suitably defined, are not grasped and gripped with intellectual discipline. To that end, what follows is a nine-part argument intended to make more sense of the not-so-great COIN debate triggered by the unmistakable evidence of confusion, frustration, and either failure or unsatisfactorily fragile success in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is neither policy nor strategy advocacy, but generically it is advocacy of policy (and its politics) and strategy, properly employed.

Formal education in strategy is not an adequate substitute for experience or talent and aptitude, but it should help.COIN debate would benefit if the debaters took a refresher course in the basics of strategy. Many fallacies and inadequate arguments about COIN in Afghanistan, for instance, are avoidable if their proponents were willing to seek and were able to receive help from theory. Harold Winton offers useful guidance when he identifies five functions for competent theory: such theory “defines, categorizes, explains, connects, and anticipates.”10 About what does theory perform those functions? The answer, which for strategy is the equivalent of E = mc2, is ends, ways, means, and (with caveats) assumptions. If a strategist’s narrative performs well on this formula, he has indeed cracked the code that enables—though it cannot guarantee—strategic success. The strategist needs to understand his subject, which is not COIN or counterterrorism; it is strategy for his particular challenge in COIN or counterterrorism. It is hard to find compensation for a lack of case-specific local knowledge, but it is even harder, and can be impossible, to compensate for weakness in understanding of strategy.

There is a classical canon of authors worth reading for their contributions, both intended and not, to the general theory of strategy. This theorist has reshaped and assembled the theory in the form of dicta (formal statements that are not quite principles and definitely not laws).11 Rather than test readers’ patience with a recital of my dicta, here I capture much of their meanings and implications by offering a list of “strategists’ questions,” some of which, with some amendments, I have borrowed with gratitude from the late Philip Crowl, followed by my own redrafting of the now long-traditional “Principles of War” as a set of Principles of War that I believe more suitably serves the declared purpose. First, the following are the strategists’ questions:

  • What is it all about? What are the political stakes, and how much do they matter to us?
  • So what? What will be the strategic effect of the sundry characters of behavior that we choose to conduct?
  • Is the strategy selected tailored well enough to meet our political objectives?
  • What are the probable limits of our (military) power as a basket of complementary agencies to influence and endeavor to control the enemy’s will?
  • How could the enemy strive to thwart us?
  • What are our alternative courses of action/inaction? What are their prospective costs 
    and benefits?
  • How robust is our home front?
  • Does the strategy we prefer today draw prudently and honestly upon the strategic education that history can provide?
  • What have we overlooked? 

Ok, so far but take a look at this claim:

….It is not sensible to categorize wars according to the believed predominant combat style of one of the belligerents.Guerrilla-style warfare is potentially universal and, on the historical evidence, for excellent reasons has been a favored military method of the weaker combatant eternally. There are no such historical phenomena as guerrilla wars. Rather, therehave been countless wars wherein guerrilla tactics have been employed, sometimes by both sides. To define a war according to a tactical style is about as foolish as definition according to weaponry. For example, it is not conducive of understanding to conceive of tank warfare when the subject of interest is warfare with tanks and so forth, typically, if not quite always, in the context of combined arms. It is important conceptually not to allow the muscle to dominate the brain. 

So there is no qualitative difference between a nuclear war (WWIII) and a war in which some nuclear weapons were used (WWII)? What?

No. Gray is correct that many  wars partake of a blend of tactical fighting styles or that most wars are better defined (or at least should be in terms of causation) by their political character. That said, a specific fighting style sometimes is a definitive descriptive characteristic of a war, particularly if a dominant tactical style explains one side’s consistent comparative advantage (ex. the Macedonian phalanx vs. the Persians) in battle and some of the resultant choices which were forced upon the adversary.


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