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BOOK REVIEW: The COIN of the Islamic Realm by Furnish

Sunday, November 8th, 2020

[mark safranski / zen ]

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The Coin of the Islamic Realm by Tim Furnish

Facing off with China is all the fashion in military, foreign policy and strategy circles these days but the challenges of insurgency will always be with us. This includes the Islamic world as old conflicts from the war on terrorism continue to burn despite the attention span of the American public and policymakers moving on even though or troops often have not. Dr. Tim Furnish, in a new book, forcefully reminds us that many of America’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism problems in the greater Mideast are neither new nor particularly American in nature. Indeed, in The Coin of the Islamic Realm: Insurgencies & the Ottoman Empire, 1416-1916 we learn that America or its Saudi allies in Yemen tread down very well worn paths that Ottoman sultans, even invested as they were with the supreme religious authority of the Caliphate, navigated only with difficulty.

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Furnish, a specialist in the eschatological history of Islamic sects and Mahdist movements, history professor and former consultant to US Special Operations Command is well qualified to parse the tea leaves of historical Arab insurgencies and religious movements that resisted Ottoman imperial rule. Western analysts coming from perspectives of counterterrorism, military history, IR, colonial history typically underrate or ignore the religious dimensions driving irregular conflict and as Furnish demonstrates, while not always primary, (usually) Arab religious disputes with their Ottoman overlords tended to shape the military and political responses of both insurgent and counterinsurgent for nearly half a millennia, echoes of which we still see today in ISIS or the Houthi rebellion.

In The Coin of the Islamic Realm Furnish begins by briefly reviewing virtues and flaws of policy advice given in recent popular natsec pundit books on Islamic insurgency and terrorism as well as pondering the paucity of COIN studies on Turkish military campaigns in general but also specifically in English; a strange lacunae for western military analysts seeking to understand groups like AQ and ISIS given that the Ottoman state faced many similar rebellious or dissident movements in the same regions. Furnish argues that “Islam is key to understanding both the non-state challengers to Ottoman rule, and the Empire’s state responses” which will offer better template for “lessons learned” for American policy makers faced with Islamic or Islamist orientated terrorists and guerillas.

Furnish takes a look at a spectrum of discrete groups that struggled against the Ottoman empire – the Celalis, Kadizadelis, Druze, Zaydis, Sa’udi Wahhabis and Sudanese Mahdists and then draws distinctions between Ottoman counterinsurgency policies that produced, wins, losses and draws and the disastrous experiences of the earlier Almoravids against the Almohads in the medieval era Mahgreb. Furnish uses two lenses in his approach to analyzing the performance of the Imperial Ottoman state and their insurgent enemies: a constructivist, contextual view that incorporates the social, cultural and religious factors of the time and the traditional yardsticks of modern counterinsurgency strategy and tactics. How well did the Ottomans wage kinetic operations, win hearts and minds, engage in state-building and employ proxy forces?

As with modern counterinsurgency wars, the Ottoman record was mixed though on balance more successful than that of France in the 20th century or America in the 21st. The Ottomans being a polyglot, albeit, Muslim imperial state were regarded by most of their Arab and ethnic minority subjects as foreigners so therefore the religious authority of the Caliphate was a particularly sensitive point for the Sublime Porte. Furnish illustrates how the Ottomans could wage brutal military campaigns against heretical Fiver Zaydis or heterodox Druze, but didn’t particularly view either of these challenges as threats to the Sultan’s authority. Neither the Zaydi imams nor the Druze chieftains could mount an effective ideological challenge to the Sultan’s position as Caliph over a mostly Sunni Islamic world. More dangerous spiritually and seriously viewed were the Wahhabi and  Sudanese Mahdist theological attacks on the legitimacy of the Ottoman Caliphate. There were no deals for the Abd Allah bin Sa’ud, his first Sa’udi State and Wahhabist revolt was crushed by the Ottomans for his temerity and he was dragged in chains to Istanbul and publicly beheaded. As a Sufi influenced Hanafi aligned Caliphate, as Furnish describes, the Ottoman Imperial State would brook no religious challenges from either proto-Salafists or messianic Mahdists and their harsh and uncompromising interpretations of Islam.

While Furnish is in particular an expert in apocalyptic Mahdist movements (see his books , Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden and Ten Years Captivation With the Mahdi’s Camps) he does not neglect the aspects of Ottoman military campaigns against self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammed Ahmad. The fact is that the Sudanese Mahdist state did not arise simply on cult like religious proclamations but the tactical prowess of the Mahdi and his commanders who repeatedly outfought a series of Ottoman-Egyptian armies with Turkish, Egyptian and British commanders included the heroic but ill-fated Charles “Chinese” Gordon.  While it is true that the head of the Mahdi was eventually dug up and carried away in Lord Kitchener’s kerosene can, Furnish uses the experience of the Sudanese to explain how a Mahdist movement can make the leap from movement to military insurgency to Maddiya, or Mahdist state that ruled much of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan for 17 years.  That the Almohads, who were even more successful than the Sudanese in that they replaced the Almoravid regime entirely also began under a Berber Mahdi, Ibn Tumart , demonstrates the potential danger if Mahdist movements are permitted to gain popular traction.

The Ottoman campaigns in Yemen against the Zaydi highland tribes have an all too familiar ring to them, echoing both the cruel but fruitless Saudi experience today as well America’s frustrating experience in Afghanistan. Indeed it is not hard to describe Yemen as the Afghanistan of the Arabian peninsula in which the Ottomans endured centuries long on and off again quagmire. Every tool in the modern COIN toolkit was applied in Yemen by Ottoman Pashas – bribery, clear and hold, reprisals, cultivation of local factions, divide and conquer, foreign proxies – nothing could establish Yemen as a docile vilyet integrated into the empire. Yemen had to be abandoned entirely by the Ottomans for very long periods of time and the best that could usually be mustered was Zaydi Imams ruling most of the country, pledging a face saving allegiance to the Sultan while the nominal Ottoman governor was reduced to twiddling his thumbs in Sa’na. And sometimes not even that.

Furnish closes The Coin of the Islamic Realm with a summation of lessons learned from the Ottoman experience to deal with fundamentalist and apocalyptic insurgencies in the Islamic world: be willing to take the kinetic fight to the enemy, interdict outside support, deny the use of safe havens, capture or kill charismatic insurgent leaders (especially Mahdists) enlist respected Muslim religious leaders to condemn the theological distortions, errors and crimes of the terrorists or guerillas. Sound advice, but difficult to do when US policymakers want to fight limited wars with unlimited objectives in far away lands without expending political capital against enemies they seldom have the courage to describe honestly in public. Hopefully when facing the next ISIS or al Qaida they will take Furnish’s advice to heart.

The Coin of the Islamic Realm by Timothy Furnish fills an important gap in COIN literature and is particularly helpful for laymen to get a fast understanding of the theological fracture points within the Islamic world that crystallized into political upheaval and armed rebellion against central authority. I for example, learned much about Zaydi Fivers and the Ottoman Turk relationship with Sufi orders that were previously unknown to me as well as the historical nuances of Islam as practiced in the world’s last great multinational Muslim empire. What stood out from Furnish’s highly contextual take is how deeply rooted America’s policy challenges with irregular violence in the greater Middle-East are as well as how difficult it is for our politicians and generals to profit from lessons learned many times, often painfully, by others.

Strongly recommended.

New Book from SWJ! The Plutocratic Insurgency Reader

Friday, July 26th, 2019

[Mark Safranski / zen]

Plutocratic Insurgency Reader edited by Robert J. Bunker and Pamela Ligouri-Bunker

The newest book published by Small Wars Journal contains 376 pages of essays by 15 contributors, a foreword by Nils Gilman and conclusion by longtime criminal insurgency analyst John SullivanWhat is a “plutocratic insurgency” you ask?

According to Robert Bunker:

The plutocratic insurgency concept dates back to 2011 and has been influenced by earlier work done by John Robb (Onward to a Hollow State, 2008) and Nils Gilman (Deviant Globalization, 2010). As a theoretical construct, it was further inspired by the global street protests and demonstrations of the Occupy movement taking place during that period. Research on this topical area for its U.S. national security threat potentials has been conducted related to U.S. Department of Defense and Army programs, with a number of works produced or derivative of these efforts; Op-Ed: Not Your Grandfather’s Insurgency (2014), Global Criminal and Sovereign Free Economies and the Demise of the Western Democracies (2014), and Old and New Insurgency Forms (2016). Of these works, the “Foreword: The twin insurgency—facing plutocrats and criminals” written by Nils Gilman for the derivative 2014 edited book project—and reprinted online as The Twin Insurgency in The American Interest—is by far the best known and eloquent of these writings:

The defining feature of the plutocratic insurgency is its goal: to defund or de-provision public goods in order to defang a state that its adherents see as a threat to their prerogatives. (Note that, conceptually, plutocratic insurgencies differ from kleptocracies; the latter use the institutions of state to loot the population, whereas the former wish to neutralize those institutions in order to facilitate private-sector looting. In practice, these may overlap or co-mingle.) Practically speaking, plutocratic insurgency takes the form of efforts to lower taxes, which necessitates cutting spending on public goods; reducing regulations that restrict corporate action or protect workers; and defunding or privatizing public institutions such as schools, health care, infrastructure, and social space.

Review: Tolkien Maker of Middle-Earth

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

[mark safranski / “zen“]

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Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine

I have been a lifelong fan of The Lord of the Rings and of J.R.R. Tolkien generally, Tolkien being one of a small handful of writers who were formative influences in my youth and who remain favorites today. Therefore, I was quite pleased when Scott Shipman alerted me to the publication of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine. Other than Christopher Tolkien himself, there could not have be en a better author and editor of a retrospective look at Tolkien’s creation of Middle-Earth than McIlwaine, who is the longstanding Tolkien Archivist of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.  The book, which includes original essays by Tolkien scholars, including McIlwaine herself, is a companion catalog to the major exhibition of the extensive Tolkien collection held by Bodleian:

The Bodleian Library will publish Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth as a companion to the forthcoming exhibition of the same name on 1 June 2018.

The “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” exhibition will be held at the Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, from 1 June to 28 October 2018. It will feature an unprecedented array of Tolkien materials – manuscripts, paintings and maps – sourced from the Bodleian’s archive, Marquette University in Milwaukee (Wisconsin) and private collections.
According to The Bookseller, the companion book will be “the largest collection of material by J.R.R. Tolkien in a single volume”. It will also include “new” material, including draft manuscripts of The Hobbit, Middle-earth illustrations and paintings by Tolkien, and letters from admirers such as W.H. Auden, Joni Mitchell and Iris Murdoch.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth is both a serious addition to any Tolkienphile’s library as well as a 411 page coffee table book full of resplendent pictures of Tolkien’s handmade artwork, annotated maps, marginalia, correspondence with publishers and authors, calligraphic character sketches from the legendarium and photographs from J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, many published for the first time. The essays, by John Garth, Verlyn Flieger, Carl F. Hostetter, Tom Shippey, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull as well as McIlwaine are thoughtful and reflective investigations and commentary on par with what readers would find in Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. I particularly liked Shippey’s “Tolkien and that noble Northern spirit” and Garth’s ” Tolkien and the Inklings” but the entire catalog section contains informative and explanatory passages about the immense mythic legendarium that Tolkien created.

Friend of ZP, T. Greer has weighed in at The Scholar’s Stage with a superb post about the importance of J.R.R. Tolkien as a literary figure that is a must read for fans of Middle-Earth:

On The Tolkienic Hero

….Here I’ve sketched out an archetypal template. This is the template upon which the vast majority our era’s hero-tales are crafted. This is the story of Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, and Jack Ryan. It is Captain America and Spiderman. It is the central trope of science fiction, fantasy, international thrillers, super hero stories, and their “YA literature” counterparts. It is the myth that drives the imaginations of our times.

For all of this we have John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to thank. I am sympathetic to the argument that Tolkien is the seminal Anglophone author of the 20th century. Perhaps his literary craft is deft enough to deserves that title. Perhaps it is not. Either way I wager that in a few centuries time when our descendants’ literary memory has collapsed our age down to one author (as we have done with the ages of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton), Tolkien will be the man remembered. This is not just because Tolkien’s works have been fantastically popular, even decades after its first publication, and in cultural milieus quite divorced from its creation. Nor it is because in Tolkien we find the genesis of so many of our era’s most popular genres (fantasy, science fiction, role playing games, and so forth). Tolkien’s influence is both subtler and more fundamental than this. Tolkien redefined the way popular literature treats many of its most common themes. This post looks at only one of those themes, but I am comfortable with the contention that Tolkien’s work embodies an entire era’s way of understanding the world. It is hard to say if Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings actually created the central cultural currents of our age or if it is simply their most prominent and enduring incarnation. Either way, Tolkien’s work is here to stay.

Readers familiar with Lord of the Rings will immediately see the connections between my opening sketch and the tale of Tolkien’s ring-bearer. I am not going to devote an entire essay to this topic—a great deal has already been written about Tolkien’s conception of good and evil, power, corruption, innocence, and heroism, and I see no reason to repeat others’ feats here—but I will emphasize two points that deserve strong restatement.

The first point: An aversion to glory is not just the defining character trait of the novel’s central hero. The distinction between greatness and power as goods to be strived for versus greatness and power as burdens to be carried is the distinction that sets apart almost of all of the novel’s protagonists from their foils. It is the defining difference between Frodo and Smeagol, Faramir and Boromir, Aragorn and Denethor, and Gandalf and Saruman. The second trait saves Galadriel in exile; the first corrupts Sauron anew after his master’s defeat. If one is allowed to describe objects as foils, this same distinction sets Sauron’s rings, key to his strategy for corrupting Middle Earth, as a foil to the methods of the ‘wizards’ sent from Western lands to save Middle Earth….

Read the rest here.

Tolkien’s influence will be here to stay for many an age.

From the Bunker

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]
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Friend of ZP,  Dr. Robert Bunker had a few new publications lately with other Friend of ZP co-authors and I thought I would begin my return to semi-regular (or at least occasional) blogging by giving them a nod here. The first was run a few weeks ago at Small Wars Journal: 

Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 13: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) Command and Control (C2) Geographic Variations

by Robert Bunker and John Sullivan

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is a well-known and extremely violent street, and in Central America, prison gang with an estimated transnational membership of 50,000 to 70,000 individuals.[1] Essentially a transnational gang network, MS-13 maintains a relatively robust media presence due to its ongoing criminal activities within the United States, many of which have resulted in homicides and even torture killings, as the gang continues to expand into new communities in Texas and the East Coast of the United States. The gang is organized on a networked, i.e. biological (and/or software program) based model with open architecture ‘plug ins’ that utilize a cellular synapse/and open coding-like strategy that facilitates network linkages and alliances, i.e., interfaces with violent non-state actors (VNSAs). Such network interfaces and organizational schemes go by a number of terms including netwar (John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt) and open-source warfare (John Robb).[2] This note specifically looks at the C2 geographic variations of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) network in the United States, Mexico, and Central America (primarily El Salvador) and MS-13s interface with more powerful violent non-state actors (VNSAs) which result in localized hierarchical organizational expressions.

Read the rest here.

The second is a monograph at The Strategic Studies Institute:

Contemporary Chemical Weapons ... Cover Image

Contemporary Chemical Weapons Use in Syria and Iraq by the Assad Regime and the Islamic State 

This monograph focuses on an understudied, but yet a critically important and timely component of land warfare, related to the battlefield use of chemical weapons by contemporary threat forces. It will do so by focusing on two case studies related to chemical weapons use in Syria and Iraq by the Assad regime and the Islamic State. Initially, the monograph provides an overview of the chemical warfare capabilities of these two entities; discusses selected incidents of chemical weapons use each has perpetrated; provides analysis and lessons learned concerning these chemical weapons incidents, their programs, and the capabilities of the Assad regime and the Islamic State; and then presents U.S. Army policy and planning considerations on this topical areas of focus. Ultimately, such considerations must be considered vis-à-vis U.S. Army support of Joint Force implementation of National Command Authority guidance.

And finally, heading back to SWJ, a book – with Dave Dilegge, John Sullivan and Alma Keshavarz  :

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Blood and Concrete: 21st Century Conflict in Urban Centers and Megacities

Blood and Concrete: 21st Century Conflict in Urban Centers and Megacities provides a foundation for understanding urban operations and sustaining urban warfare research. This Small Wars Journal (SWJ) Anthology documents over a decade of writings on urban conflict. In addition to essays originally published at SWJ it adds new content including an introduction by the editors, a preface on “Blood and Concrete” by David Kilcullen, a foreword “Urban Warfare Studies” by John Spencer, a postscript “Cities in the Crossfire: The Rise of Urban Violence” by Margarita Konaev, and an afterword “Urban Operations: Meeting Challenges, Seizing Opportunities, Improving the Approach” by Russell W. Glenn. These essays frame the discussion found in the collection’s remaining 49 chapters. Blood and Concrete continues the legacy of Small Was Journal’s coverage of urban operations, conflict and combat.

Probably not this kind of megacity…..

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New Book: Strategy, Evolution and War

Sunday, May 6th, 2018

[mark safranski / “zen“]

Strategy, Evolution and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence by Kenneth Payne

This book by Kenneth Payne of King’s College  is newly released by Georgetown Press. I saw it mainly by chance while perusing my twitter feed and ordered a copy. At first glance, it looks very promising, albeit I have a bias toward cultural evolutionary frameworks. Perhaps it will get me more up to speed on the implications of Ai for emerging warfare.

Just thumbing through, Payne has a solid bibliography and some intriguing chapter and section headings. For example:

The Hoplite Revolution:Warriors, Weapons and Society
Passionate Statesmen and Rational Bands
The Ai Renaissance ad Deep Learning
Chimps are Rational Strategists, Contra Humans

Enough to whet the appetite. May discuss Strategy, Evolution and War further after I finish it.

What have you been reading in the realm of strategy or war lately?


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