A Different Kind of War

December 25, 2016


What it was really like.

Mechanisation of the British regular army was complete by 1939, with the remaining horsed cavalry converting to armour and being combined with the Royal Tank Regiment in the Royal Armoured Corps, but 8 yeomanry regiments were sent with their own riding horses to Palestine and fought against the Vichy French in Syria in 1941 before converting to tanks. One major motive for abolishing horse draught was that civilian agriculture and transport had changed to a point where the army could not buy suitable horses in the numbers required. The ex-cavalry tank regiments were accused of “galloping at everything”, but it was also said that most generals (who had been junior infantry officers in WW1) were”3 mph thinkers, not 30mph thinkers”; and I found when I took up cross country riding that the view from a horse’s back was very similar to that I had had from a tank hatch and the speed and obstacle crossing much the same.. The US army had also been motorised and their cavalry division converted to infantry. In other armies, motorisation was restricted to armoured divisions during the whole of the period, with horse draft and foot marching elsewhere. Most also retained some horsed cavalry fighting mainly on foot; and the Russians used complete cavalry divisions to advantage in forested and swampy areas. Even in British armoured divisions, only the single motor battalion had its own ¾ ton trucks, the battalions of the division’s infantry brigade using externally provided 3-tonners. US armoured divisions were organised into 3 combat commands, each of a tank battalion, an infantry battalion in armoured ½ track Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) ps and an artillery battalion.
This became unofficially imitated by some British armoured divisions during the Normandy campaign, with the 3 tank regiments and the armoured recce regiment (actually in fast Cromwell medium tanks) each pairing with the motor battalion or 1 of the 3 lorried infantry battalions, with 1 company of the motor battalion in ½ track APC. German panzer divisions usually had only 1 of their panzer grenadier infantry battalions carried in ½ track APC,
the rest in unarmoured wheeled vehicles, Russian tank formations had no APC, but had “tank rider battalions” of infantry progressively re-armed with SMG who rode on top of the tanks. In late 1944 and 1945, this was copied in the west, with American and British paras riding on British Churchills.
Except for the ¾ man Bren/ Universal carriers (the only tracked vehicle that could do a stomach-crunching 90 degree pivot turn at 30mph) used by the carrier platoon of each British infantry battalion and its support company, the only full-track APC used before the introduction of the US M.75 in 1953 was the Canadian (and later) British Kangaroo, converted first from US M.7 SP and then from Canadian Ram tanks with turret removed. These were a Corps reserve asset allocated to infantry divisions for specific operations.

Even at the end of WW2, tanks were very different from modern vehicles. Only the mighty King Tiger was the same size as a current main battle tank (MBT) and it had a much smaller gun. The fastest tanks (such as Cromwell, Comet, Chafee and Panther) had about the same power/weight ratio, speed and acceleration as a modern MBT, moving tactically at about 12 mph and could d0 30mph on a road on the rare occasions this was safe and desirable.
There was no composite or reactive armour and what spaced armour existed was mainly useful only against infantry shaped-charge weapons. Steel armour was sometimes face-hardened, but the introduction of capped shot cancelled this out. The effect of sloping armour is often exaggerated by commentators. A 45 degree sloped plate weighs the same as vertical and horizontal plates protecting the same area. Slope offers real advantages only if 60 degrees or more. Shot rarely hits at 0 degrees and all but American ballistic tests assumed a strike at 30 degrees. Small differences in vehicle heading, terrain inclines, weapon barrel wear and external attachments or weak spots produced a chance factor. A knocked-out tank lost 1 1/2 crewmen on average; and about half the tanks that did not catch fire were repaired. I trained on Churchill AVRE with patches welded over holes… Petrol-fuelled tanks were no more likely to catch fire than diesels, but American use of hydraulics instead of electrics was less blameless. Shermans had a bad reputation, but their fires were usually due to excess ammunition being kept in the crew compartment.
There were no practical gun-stabilisers (that in the Sherman was useless) so shooting on the move or from short halt was useful only to spray with machine guns. There were no range finders or modern high velocity shot, greatly reducing practical maximum range. Only the British 6pdr (from June 1944) and 17pdr (from August 1944) had APDS and this was too unstable and inaccurate to be used at beyond 800 yards. Only Centurion 3 from 1950 had
modern stable APDS for its 20pdr. The hard core APCR shot used by some other nations was even more range limited.
Only the platoon commander was issued with binoculars for use head out; though other tank commanders often acquired them through unofficial means, German x10 Zeiss being highly prized. There were no night vision devices other than drivers’ visible light headlamp until 1950, when commander-controlled searchlights started to be fitted. Gunner’s sights were low magnification (about 1/5 of today’s) telescopes and other crew members when closed-down had only a single unity power periscope of vision block 9 or sometimes in later models a ring of them if the commander.
When not head-out, tank crew were largely blind and deaf, with a large dead zone close to the tank, headphones and engine noise. The only practical way for infantry to communicate with a tank commander was to climb on top and hammer on the hatch. Tank and infantry radios were never on the same net and external telephones and buzzers usually did not work.
Not all tanks had a modern turret crew of commander, gunner and loader/radioman. Having the commander also act as loader (as in Valentine, French tanks and early T.34 distracted him from his vital task of watching out. I have a vivid memory from 1952 of a WW2 veteran sergeant who equated paranoia with survival pointing out to me on our route across the tank training area all the innocent bits of cover where an ATG or bazooka team COULD be; and his satisfaction on spotting the faint cloud of blue exhaust smoke over the bushes where a 3DG M.10 seeking to ambush us was hiding.

An infantry platoon consisted of an HQ group headed by a junior officer and 3 sections (or American “squads”), usually divided into an MG group of 2 or 3 and a “rifle” group of 4 to 7.
Only the officer had access to a radio, which was carried and operated for him by a specialist who was rarely well-trained. The first light weight radio was the short-range and often eccentric“walky-talky” or 88 set Body armour other than a steel helmet was not worn. Thick serge uniforms were water absorbent, not resistant.
Weapons included a machine gun firing bursts of full-power rifle ammunition on a bipod mount, carried and fired by 1 man with another assisting him and carrying extra ammunition. It could be a magazine-fed LMG like the Bren, BAR, Nambu or DP; or a belt-fed GPMG such as the MG.34 or MG.42 firing faster and with a larger ammunition supply.
Most men were armed with a rifle firing single shots of full-power ammunition held in a small 8-10 round magazine. These were usually bolt-operated, but a few such as the M1 Garand were self-loading. This offered no substantial advantages until larger 20 round magazines were introduced after the end of this period.
Some men instead carried an SMG firing bursts of lower- power pistol ammunition. The German MP.43/44 introduced in 1943 used a shorter range intermediate power cartridge and could fire controlled bursts impractical with full-power ammunition, so was the first Assault Rifle (AR) of the class forming today’s standard infantry personal weapons. The US M.1/2 carbine introduced in 1944 also used an intermediate power cartridge and some variants could fire bursts. It was replaced after ammunition wastage problems in Korea by the older M.1 rifle firing full-power ammunition.
All sights were iron peep or vee sights, no optical sights being available for any weapon except telescopic sighted sniper rifles used by specialists.
Only officers were issued with binoculars. There was no night vision equipment.
All rifles carried bayonets, often now shorter, the most important function of which was signalling the intention to close.
Hand grenades were very important in close combat and in Korea some Chinese had nothing else. German stick grenades could be thrown further but were less powerful. Rifle grenades had fallen out of favour, but were to be reintroduced later.
Sniper were feared and detested, regarded by other infantry as assassins rather than soldiers; and a prisoner with a black ring around his eye left by the eyepiece of a telescopic sight was very lucky to survive unless an officer was present.
They were especially dangerous to head-out tank commanders. Most of the German “snipers” encountered in Normandy were not specialists but single ordinary riflemen with standard rifles, but being missed by one of these was just as alarming.

Conventional Anti-Tank Guns on wheeled mounts (ATG) were not sited to shoot at maximum visible range like a modern Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM), but from concealment at a range at which a miss was unlikely and into the tank’s thinner flank armour.
The 75mm and larger guns introduced from late 1942 were more difficult to dig-in or conceal, so tended to be kept for specialist anti-tank units. Infantry platoon Anti-Tank Rifles (ATR) were discredited in most armies after 1940, but the Russians kept their 14.5mm ATR until the end and used them to shoot at the optics of heavy tanks, the sides of lighter tanks and at observation aircraft. The British Boyes ATR ‘s reputation suffered from
its name and the unfortunate fact that when the Germans swept into France in 1940 most units only had practise ammunition instead of hard core. The weapon type has recently resurfaced in the form of Anti-Material Rifles (AMR) such as the Barrett.
ATR were replaced by anti-tank hand grenades and contact charges such as the British sticky bomb and Gammon bomb, German hand-placed Teller mines and Japanese satchel and pole charges; and then by shaped-charge projectors such as the weak US 2.36” bazooka from 1942 and 57mm Recoilless Rifle (RR) from 1945, the more powerful (but heavy and under-appreciated) British PIAT from 1943, the very short range German Panzerfaust and longer range Panzerschreck from 1943, the Russian RPG.2 from 1949 and the US 3.5” bazooka from 1950.
These made every hedgerow dangerous, were hated by tankers; and men who fired them were rarely allowed to surrender if caught.

Battalion-level medium mortars (of 3” to 82mm calibre) had much the same lethality as those of today (except for those of the Americans, who persisted in using steel bombs instead of cast iron with far better fragmentation) but much shorter range. Their bombs used only sensitive contact fuses which made them ineffective against solid top cover or armour but produced very dangerous overhead tree bursts in woods. They usually
operated and fired in sections of 2, but sometimes as a whole platoon. A platoon of 4 or 6 mortars was commanded by an officer who could control them together, but a pair could be controlled from the fire position or by a single Mortar Fire Controller (MFC) team commanded by an NCO and positioned near the HQ being supported. Heavier mortars (such as British and US 4.2”, German 120mm and Russian 107mm mountain, 120mm infantry or 160mm artillery mortars) provided at higher level lacked modern rifled barrels and were not only shorter ranged but less accurate than today’s. German mortar men were very good, but Russian thought of as poor, even by Russian infantry.



Field artillery guns and howitzers (typically French 75mm, Russian 76mm, British 25pdr and German and US 105mm) were much smaller calibre and shorter ranged than today’s 155mm pieces. They mainly used contact fused shells which could damage field works but had little effect on armoured vehicles. These were not detonated by overhead branches, but the radar proximity (or VT for “variable time”) fuses producing airbursts very effective against men in the open now standard today were sometimes used by the US from 1944.
Field artillery was supplemented by medium artillery (typically British 5.5”, Russian 122mm, German 150mm and US 155mm howitzers) of similar calibre to today’s field guns, able to affect enemy armoured units, but usually of shorter maximum range and in much smaller numbers. There were no guided artillery shells. In most armies, the commander of each battery acted as a Forward Artillery Observer (FAO), usually positioned near the HQ being supported, but with considerable autonomy. He could call through artillery
communications on other batteries to reinforce the fires of his own, and this was particularly well practised in the British army from 1943. It was also possible in theory for any member of a supported unit in communication to request and direct artillery fire through his own higher headquarters and we were taught the procedures, but it was much less common and effective than Hollywood would have you suppose.

There was no formal equivalent to today’s Forward Air Control (FAC) teams in any army. Air support from ground attack aircraft had to be requested through a higher command level and was confined to requesting an attack on a designated place in clear weather in daylight. Pilots could not be coached on to an individual target by a ground observer. The weapons used were aircraft guns, large unguided bombs dropped from a shallow or steep dive and from 1944 salvos of unguided rockets, accurate only when fired from dangerously close range.
Another form of support from 1944 available to US and British was prearranged preparatory daylight bombing by sometimes very large formations of medium or heavy bombers. This was very effective at stunning and causing heavy casualties to a formal defence, but even if accurate could slow your attack by cratering ground and blocking streets of built-up areas with wreckage and rubble, often until surviving defenders had recovered from the shock and dug-out their vehicles and guns. This could be reduced by using medium bombers and instant fuses. Often the combing was not accurate and fell upon attackers in their forming up areas. This led to caution in planning the “no-bomb” line, increasing delay in closing with the enemy.
There were no attack helicopters (or until 1950, any helicopters) [It seems that the Germans were using helicopters for various purposes – editor].

Transport aircraft such as the Ju52 and Dakota had much smaller loads than today’s Hercules, barely an infantry section or 2, rather than 18 tons. Vehicles and guns had to be delivered by gliders that could carry up to 3 tons for the Horsa or 8 tons for the few giant Hamilcar. Helicopters were used after 1950, but only for casualty evacuation or carrying Very Important generals.

Phil Barker

Future Army Policy: A Personal Perspective

May 31, 2016

I have been thinking about the future direction of policy with regard to the Armed Forces and in particular the Army. I am not going touch more than lightly upon the Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce as I feel these fall too greatly outside my own areas of knowledge.

My starting point is a comparison of broad numbers. The Regular Army numbers 156,940  with 75,110 reserve personnel for a total of 232,050 at present. This number however conceals the very weak cutting edge of the Army.

In military parlance, the military strength of the Army, also known as “bayonet strength”, is carried in the fighting units. These would be primarily the infantry and armoured regiments, of which the Army has 18 infantry and 14 armoured regiments. Each “regiment” in the British Army is in fact a battalion, so I will be using “battalion” in place of regiment for simplicity.

Sounds reasonable? Well, partially. Normally a wartime division is organised around three brigades, each made up of three to four battalions. This would on the basis of thirty two combat battalions mean two divisions of nine or twelve battalions with a brigade or two to spare.

Sounds reasonable still? In the Cold War, Britain could field four divisions, three of which were armoured (meaning the division had a heavy allocation of main battle tanks) and one infantry division. So on a peacetime establishment, we can still field about half the same field force, though this assumes the whole Army is mobilised.

This is where the first weakness become apparent. The Army has just four tank battalions and a total Challenger 2 strength of 227 vehicles. Not all all of these would be concentrated in the armoured battalions. There are others based with the training battalion of the Armoured Corps. Oh yes, and there are NO replacements for Challenger 2. Each tank destroyed in action is lost permanently.

So, the Army could field two brigades with two armoured battalions each, making one partially armoured division. But doesn’t the Army have 14 armoured battalions?

Yes. But one is actually the training battalion at Bovington. The rest are a mixture of armoured cavalry and light recon battalions. Only the armoured cavalry actually have armoured fighting vehicles, the rest are equipped with Land Rovers, Jackals and the like are not intended for heavy combat.

So, the combat strength of the Army is infantry heavy. This is not such a problem if we only expect to conduct peace-keeping or counter-insurgency combat operations. However, we have seen a resurgence of Russian military aggression since 2014 together with threats to NATO allies in the Baltic states and the Russian Army, though not without its own problems remains a much more tank heavy force (2,562 with 12,000+ in reserve).

While the Russian Army is still largely a conscript force and retains much of the same cultural problems which plagued the Soviet Army (officer-dependent leadership as NCOs are largely non-professional) lowering the combat value of much of the Russian Army units, Russia has deep reserves to draw upon and as noted above much greater armoured strength of numbers.

Open war with Russia remains unlikely, however the danger of open war has been rapidly increasing with Russian aggression. We cannot afford to discount the possibility of a Russian invasion of the Baltic nations or even Poland. This would bring our NATO commitment into play. I’ll discuss possible scenarios later but suffice it here to say that a scenario which sees either Russian occupation of NATO territory or which requires heavy garrisons to deter Russian attacks, would stretch the Army to its limits.

With a battalion constituting 550-750 men, anyone familiar with military history of war between two technologically equivalent foes knows that combat strength rapidly leeches during intensive military operations. Assuming 18 x 750 men, the infantry strength of the Army is 13,500.

Now, engage in a thought experiment. Russia has invaded and occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Polish Army is mobilised and being reinforced by NATO battle-groups from the other member-states.

Do not imagine that NATO could negotiate an end to the war. The purpose of NATO is to deter aggression and the Russian Army would have to be expelled by force. A NATO counter-offensive would have to attack from a line Olsztyn – Cizycko – Suwalki north-eastwards to retake Riga, seal the eastern border as well as securing Narva to retake Tallinn. This would constitute an offensive-drive of 500 km, against at least equal Russian numbers.

Assume the operation is successful but incurs repeated heavy combat for British Army units. The British infantry force (assuming total mobilisation) could take 50-75% casualties from all causes by the time the Baltic states are retaken. This would mean infantry casualties in the order of 6,750 to 10,125 men. The latter figure would mean that the entire Army’s infantry strength, the core of the fighting capability of the entire Army would have been mauled. Entire battalions could be reduced from 6-700 men to less than 100.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. Intensive combat operations in WW2, Korea and Vietnam all saw casualties in this order.

But remember the Russian preponderance in tank numbers? Let us first count the number of first-rate MBTs in NATO armies.

The British Army has 227 Challenger 2s. The German Army has a current MBT strength of 250 with plans to add another 100 or so Leopard 2 MBTs. The Dutch Army really doesn’t have any MBTs (having borrowed 18 from the German Army). The Belgian Army has none. The Danish Army has 57 Leopard 2. The French Army has 200 Le Clerc MBTs with another 200 in storage.The Italian Army has 200 Ariete MBTs. The Polish Army has 250 Leopard 2s with another 750 T-72 variants, which will not be counted here. We can also add the US Army’s 1,200 M1 Abrams (there are about 6-7,000 older models in storage), so assuming the US Army deploys the bulk of its armoured brigades to Europe, the NATO total field force would be 2,484 MBTs, assuming no stored tanks are mobilised.

But again, we have to make allowances. Not all the European MBT force would be deployed to Poland. Tanks would have to be brought up to operational readiness, which would be a major headache for the German Army, given its low current state of readiness and which may be an issue for all member-states with the possible exception of the USA.

Also, tanks will have to be left behind both to furnish a pool of replacements and to train replacement crews. So, assuming 10% of the European tank force is left out of battle, the NATO army group is left with 2,200+ first-rate MBTs, though it should be noted that approximately 100 of the Polish Leopard 2 fleet are the old A4 model.

We may also have to allow for deployments to other sectors of NATO territory. Removing another 10% leaves a field force of about 2,000 first-rate MBTs. Still good, given that much of the Russian tank force is older Soviet model MBTs, though again these would not be the poor quality rubbish fobbed off on the Iraqis. The late 1980s models of Soviet tanks were much better armed and armoured than NATO expected when the Cold War ended and the Russians have been quietly upgrading their tank fleet.

Remember that there are no Challenger 2 replacements. The British Army would have to either reopen production, if possible or seek foreign-built replacements. I do not know how many tanks Krass-Maffei, the German manufacturer of the Leopard 2 is capable of building per year, but my estimate based upon Leopard 2 deliveries in the 1980s is about 100 per year in peacetime conditions.

The scenario also assumes that either the Russian objective is occupation and a dug-in line of defence along the Polish border. It does not assume a continued Russian offensive into Poland proper. It also assumes that Russian intentions could be detected sufficiently in advance to mobilise and prepare NATO forces, not to defend the Baltic states but to reinforce Poland.

Air superiority is a questionable assumption, given NATO dependence upon the USAF. At best, I believe we would have limited air superiority and may have to conduct a counter-offensive under conditions of air-parity, which would place a great burden upon air-defence systems and units, while accepting the risk not just to combat units on march routes but the vital supply convoys of trucks rolling after the armoured spearheads.

Another question is that of ammunition supply. The British tank fleet has a finite supply of Challenger 2 main-gun rounds as the British factory which manufactured this ammunition has long been closed. Once the ammunition supply has been fired off, it’s gone.

The above assumptions may apply to a degree or in different ways to the Russians. We don’t know the state of Russian logistics, so both sides could be hampered by the absence of wartime economies.

The point is that the British Army with two divisions, one of which is armoured, would be able to give NATO a full-strength effort only once. After that, either the British government would have to consider peace-terms or full-mobilisation of the economy and the manpower-pool which would cause great disruption to the country.

The same is true of all NATO countries, except, perhaps the USA.

Given the Russian ability now to deploy in a matter of less than six weeks forces up to 100,000 men on a state-border, we have to give real thought to turning the Army from a neglected child to a real combat force capable of sustaining an initial period of hard-fighting of up to six months before reserve or new formations can be mobilised, trained and deployed.

The first priority is aim to double the combat strength of the Army. Infantry are relatively easy to train. The same is true of the logistical arm but the armoured force must be expanded from four battalions to sixteen, enough to give two armoured divisions a full-weight of 232 MBTs each in four battalions. All no more than one quarter of the combat battalions can be reserve units, given these will take time to train to efficiency and to recall once war is imminent.

The new armoured divisions will need to be supplemented by infantry-divisions. If war is to take place in the East, there will be a premium upon infantry in heavily forested areas as well as to hold lines of communication. Armoured units should not be tied up in this role.

If there are two regular armoured divisions with two reserve divisions, then there should be the same number of regular infantry divisions but with four reserve infantry divisions. This entails expanding the tank fleet from 204 in four battalions to 928 in sixteen battalions with another 100 for training and another 100 or so for replacement.

The infantry arm would expand from a theoretical 13,500 in 18 battalions to 24 armoured infantry battalions (two per armoured brigade) and a further 54 infantry battalions (three per infantry brigade). This would be an armoured infantry force of 18,000 and an infantry force of 40,500. The infantry arm would total 58,500 men, 22,500 in the regular Army, 36,000 in the Army Reserves.

This calls for a massively expanded budget, just for the Army. The defence budget would have to also accommodate similar expansions and re-equipments in the Navy and Airforce. It would also call for a reform of the MoD, which is long overdue, to return control to the Forces themselves and not the Civil Service.

It would also call, I believe, for the development of a pool of trained manpower in the population. This means we will have to reintroduce a form of national service to reduce the budget and manpower burden on the regular Army. I propose that of the four regular divisions, one armoured and one infantry division be largely manned by national servicemen, leaving two divisions available for immediate overseas deployment.

The Reserve Divisions would manned by those who have completed their national service. Assuming 30,000 young (mostly) young men pass through national service with the Army per year, if these are placed in the Reserves as a part of a national service legislative arrangement for approximately four years after completing a three year national service arrangement, the Army would be amply provided with manpower both active and reserve and in the prime of physical fitness.

If the national service element provides enough young men with a taste for army life, then the Regular Army can be sustained at two full divisions plus the core of the two divisions manned by national servicemen.

Industrial policy will have to subordinated to equipping the Army for war-preparation. This means that we need national defence industries to produce MBTs, AFVs of all types, weapons from rifles to artillery to guided munitions. Above all we need to ensure that we have enough munitions to sustain two divisions in an overseas deployment and a sufficient stock to equip and sustain two more. The Reserve divisions can be supplied out of stepped up war-time production.

NATO states will have to coordinate industrial and procurement policies. Years ago, I wrote about the mess of NATO organisation and defence procurement cooperation. NATO needs radical harmonisation of equipment. I fear for any NATO force in the field given the bewildering variety of spare parts needed for vehicles, the different radio systems and even the different field rations.

Addendum: the Royal Airforce uses the Brimstone air-to-surface missile. Each one costs an average of £135,000 (£100,000 – £175,000 depending if development costs etc are included), which means that a Leopard 2 MBT costing £4,000,000 would be the same as 29 Brimstone missiles. I think a tank is a complementary investment.

This will seem appalling to modern, educated minds but in statecraft, we must face appalling possibilities. The worst of these is war. The only remedy is preparation.

Si vis pacem, para bellum

Intervention and Syria

August 27, 2013

There have been calls for Western military intervention against the Ba’athist regime in Syria since it began its murderous repression of the protest movement. These calls have escalated in the last week since the regime (again) used chemical weapons on its own population. Yet, I have to register my deep concerns that intervention is a most unwise course of action to counsel.

My first concern is with the outlines of any military intervention. We have yet to hear, from the advocates of intervention, what would be the desired political objective of the campaign. Is it to be removal of the chemical weapons arsenal held by the regime, the removal of the regime or an Iraq-style solution whereby the entire regime is uprooted and a colonial administration establishes a new regime by force?

The first objective is actually difficult to achieve with a air campaign. Targets would need to be assessed, the regime might simply go into full scale attack on rebel-held areas or, worse, result in al-Qaeda et al gaining control of these weapons. This would likely be politically successful but would not bring down the regime. Arab regimes boast that survival is a form of victory.

The second objective could potentially be achieved, although our erstwhile allies might attack us while doing so and would certainly run into other issues.

The third objective would require a massive military and economic mobilisation on the part of the Western powers. If the mistakes of Iraq are to be avoided, massive combat forces would need to be committed to take control of the cities, the borders and the road networks to ensure security, close down the militias and destroy the resistance and terrorist networks. I do not believe for one minute that there is the political will for this level of commitment and certainly not for the length of time that this would require.

The other issues are critical to evaluating any such decision and need to be raised.

Whom are we supporting? Even if we merely attack the regime, we are objectively supporting the Syrian rebels, yet these are not pro-Western forces. Dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the best troops of the rebels are in fact al Qaeda Islamists. These have already been enforcing strict sharia law and have been conducting ethnic cleansing against the Kurds who have remained neutral. If the regime is toppled, do we then intervene to prevent unrestrained communal warfare? Do we remember what happened in 2006-2007 in Iraq? That took place with our forces trying to stop it (eventually successfully). We cannot engage in warfare and expect a reasonably secular, multicultural regime to magically appear in Syria given what we know is happening and what we know of the actors.

Russia and China, especially the former, have been actively backing the Assad regime. Iran has been doing likewise, but we’re not really scared of Iran. Russia is the real support for Assad. Furthermore, Russia has banked heavily on sustaining the regime. If the West moves for war, will the Russians up the ante? Will we see Russian troops intervene? Russian aircraft operating over Syria? Or Russian SAM crews appear around Latikia and Damascus? Are we willing to risk open war with Russia? What about China? Prestige is at stake here and we are operating in the realm of empires.

Finally, we have a major obstacle in Syria to an Iraq-style solution. There is no political grouping which is either acceptable to Western interests or strong enough in Syria to provide a stable regime.

We need to be engaged in a rational, hard-headed discussion of strategy, options and outcomes. We should not be engaged in an emotive discourse dominated by pictures of dead children. That is not conducive to good statesmanship.

The empirical case for defensible borders (JPost)

September 5, 2011

The empirical case for defensible borders
09/05/2011 20:49

Israel will have to maintain a perimeter presence along the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Against the backdrop of a possible Palestinian bid for independence at the United Nations this September and thus far unsuccessful deliberations within the Quartet regarding terms of reference for restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the issue of defensible borders merits renewed attention.

Former foreign minister Yigal Allon was one of the clearest and most authoritative exponents of the case for Israel’s need for defensible borders. In an October 1976 article in Foreign Affairs, Allon noted that whereas Israel’s rivals seek to “isolate, strangle and erase Israel from the world’s map,” Israel’s strategic aims have been focused on its “imperative to survive.”

Thus, even if peace agreements are reached, border and security arrangements must ensure Israel’s ability to defend itself in the event that such agreements are breached. As the recent upheavals in the Middle East have clearly demonstrated, this guiding principle has not lost its salience.

Allon contended with a number of claims raised to counter Israel’s argument for defensible borders. Then, as now, technological advances such as missile technology were pointed to as obviating the need for strategic depth and topographical assets. Then, as now, international guarantees were pointed to as constituting a satisfactory substitute for physical control of defensible ground.

Then, as now, such arguments did not coincide with anecdotal experience, drawn, as noted by Allon, from historical cases such as the German air ‘blitz’ against Great Britain, or the American air-strikes against North Vietnam, which demonstrated the limitations of air-launched attacks and continuing importance of having “boots on the ground.”

Then, as now, such arguments failed to account for the resounding failure of international guarantees to ensure Israel’s security, as evidenced, for example, in UNEF’s withdrawal from Sinai in May 1967.

Yet even beyond cases such as these, today we have the benefit of quantitative research which has shed a great deal of light on numerous international relations phenomena.

Two research findings are of particular relevance in this regard: the strong correlation between extant territorial claims and violent international conflict and the positive association between conflict durability and insurgents’ access to an international boundary.

The first indicates Israel has considerable grounds to expect security threats to persist, even subsequent to an agreement, as long as substantial Palestinian territorial claims to pre-1967 Israel persist. Thus, the fundamental source of potential conflict – the willingness – will in all likelihood continue.

The second underscores the fact that access to an international border would provide Palestinian militants with the opportunity to continue – and expand – violent activities against Israel. As many scholars and observers of international relations have long understood, a conjunction of willingness and opportunity is an almost certain formula for violent international conflict.

Thus, forcing Israel into indefensible borders, such as those of June 4, 1967, is unlikely to lead to a stable regional order.

On the contrary, insofar as comparative, empirical research can serve as a guide, relinquishing an Israeli presence along some of the borders of a Palestinian state will severely diminish the chances of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will probably exacerbate it. A cursory glance at developments in Gaza since Israel relinquished control of the Gaza-Sinai border in 2005 provides a rather stark confirmation of this basic observation.

Territorial claims and conflict Over the past several decades, a very large, empirical literature has emerged which demonstrates the key role of territorial claims as a source of international conflict. Numerous studies, employing different research designs, varied spatial and temporal domains and independently conceived theoretical frameworks, have produced robust findings pointing in essentially the same direction, permitting a very decisive conclusion: territorial revisionism leads to violent international conflict.

The particular value of this body of research is that the above conclusion has retained its validity, notwithstanding the numerous controls that have been imposed in different studies over the years.

Irrespective of whether or not rivals sign treaties or commence their relations violently or peacefully, notwithstanding the variance in rivals’ cultural and historical background, or configuration of relative power, regardless of the rivals’ institutional structure (democratic or not) and level of economic development and taking into account the numerous other caveats that have been explored in the literature, the basic finding remains intact.

While different factors have been shown to exert a mitigating effect on conflict, none appears capable of entirely vitiating the basic association between territorial revisionism and war.

While it may appear trivial in some sense, the finding actually bears non-trivial policy implications. What it says, in effect, is that in instances where territorial claims cannot realistically be resolved, either through a negotiated or non-negotiated redistribution of land, violent conflict is likely to persist. This remains true, in particular, whether or not a formal treaty is signed between rivals. Indeed, empirical work on treaties has largely shown that while they are not mere “scraps of paper,” in the words of one of the prominent scholars in this field, they don’t generally appear to be capable of resolving disputed issues. At best, they may be able to manage them, primarily by affecting the incentives and degree of uncertainty facing potential rivals.

The ramifications in the Israeli- Palestinian context should be clear, with regard to what can be realistically expected from a political settlement, at least at the present time. There can be no doubt that political forces such as Hamas and numerous fundamentalist affiliates would continue to harbor territorial claims regarding the pre-1967 territory of Israel, even were a peace treaty to be signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The problem is further underscored by the positions of the Palestinian Authority.

Its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, its objections to formulas such as “two states for two peoples” and its continuing commitment to the idea of having descendants of Palestinian refugees settle in Israel with the explicit goal of gaining demographic, and eventually political, control within it, reflect an ongoing nurturing of ultimately territorial demands for pre-1967 Israel. The extent to which Palestinian schools and popular culture venerate the idea of a “right of return,” and the consistency with which Palestinian leaders affirm support of it, reflect a firm commitment within a broad Palestinian constituency to these ethnically-based territorial claims.

Might the Palestinian Authority disclaim these positions in the context of future negotiations? Perhaps, though it has revealed no indication of willingness to do so in eighteen years of talks. Recent revelations of internal, classified documents pertaining to Palestinian negotiating positions during the past decade, including on the question of refugees, have been extremely edifying in this regard, illustrating the very tangible, concrete nature of the Palestinian Authority’s ambitions with regard to the refugee question.

Commissioning classified demographic studies that explored alternative scenarios for the influx of hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of Palestinians into Israel over a number of years, while contemplating the open-ended negotiation of additional migrations, presumably into perpetuity, these documents reveal a calculated, remarkably matter-of-fact vision for using the refugee issue as a means of acquiring demographic (and ultimately political) control of Israel.

Yet, even if the Palestinian leadership were to renounce their call for “return,” would such a renunciation resonate with popular sentiments among Palestinians, sentiments that have been meticulously cultivated over decades? It seems unlikely.

Would it reflect the views of millions of Palestinians kept in “refugee” status in neighboring states since 1948? It seems rather whimsical to suppose that it might.

A sober analysis cannot but lead to the conclusion that very significant followings within Palestinian public opinion will continue to harbor territorial claims with respect to pre-1967 Israel, even subsequent to a possible Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

The empirical literature on territorial claims – particularly those with an ethnic component – presents us, in turn, with the unfortunate conclusion that such claims can be expected to continue fueling violent conflict.

Such conclusions are sometimes erroneously taken to imply a sense of determinism or inevitability as to the likely trajectory of the conflict. This is not, however, the case. Territorial claims to pre- 1967 Israel and tolerance for violence can be expected to persist in Palestinian society at least partly because they have been, and continue to be, deliberately cultivated by Palestinian elites, as has been extensively documented by organizations that monitor Palestinian society and media.

Just as such motifs have been promoted over the years, so too can others, including those which may ultimately assist in fostering a culture of tolerance, territorial compromise and rejection of violence.

The continuing salience of borders as a component of security As argued above, there is little reason to doubt that significant Palestinian territorial revisionism will persist, with its attendant potential for violence, whatever political arrangement emerges between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. A question may nevertheless be posed as to whether the location and topographical features of Israel’s borders will play a significant role in determining its security in such a context.

Here too, as in the case of territorial claims, the theoretical and empirical literature is able to shed some light. It has long been argued by globalization theorists that geographical boundaries have been losing significance in the international arena. This trend is typically noted to be related to processes of transnational economic integration, alongside tremendous advances in communication and transportation technologies.

The value of territory as a military asset has also been argued to be diminishing, inter alia, due to advances in missile and intelligence-gathering technologies. The significant decline in large-scale inter-state war in recent decades appears to corroborate this view.

Yet, as noted by some scholars, borders do not generally seem to be losing in importance so much as changing their role.

As Peter Andreas phrased it in his 2003 article in International Security: “In many cases, more intensive border law enforcement is accompanying the demilitarization and economic liberalization of borders.”

The struggle against ‘clandestine transnational actors’ (CTAs), whether they come in the guise of organized crime or terrorist organizations, is becoming a growing concern for states concerned with safeguarding their borders against the infiltration of narcotics, weapons or illegal migrants. The post-9/11 focus on homeland security is symptomatic of this general trend.

It is, therefore, not surprising that in recent empirical work on the subject of geography and rebel capability, covering civil conflict duration across the globe for much of the post-WWII period, it has been shown that “conflicts where rebels have access to an international border are twice as durable as other conflicts” (Halvard Buhaug, Scott Gates and Päivi Lujala [August 2009] “Geography, Rebel Capability, and the Duration of Civil Conflict.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 53(4): 544-569).

The reasons are clear: such access serves as a life-line for the supply of weapons, funds, personnel, training, and, if need be, a safe haven, all of which can significantly enhance the relative capabilities of the insurgents and thus underpin protracted conflict.

COUPLED WITH the inherent instability of the Middle East, vividly underscored in recent months, a realistic appraisal of Israel’s geopolitical situation behooves caution. In such circumstances, the importance of maintaining defensible borders is all the more plain, notwithstanding the general global trend towards a reduction in large-scale interstate war. Once again, empirical research is instructive in this regard: where territorial revisionism persists, so too does war.

Some have argued that international guarantees and UN peacekeeping troops can serve as a substitute for direct border control by a concerned state. While findings have been reported revealing such measures to be capable of mitigating conflict, it has yet to be shown that they can decisively end it, where significant territorial claims persist.

Tellingly, “identity” conflicts – those involving religious and ethnic aspects – prove significantly less susceptible to the irenic effects which treaties and international involvement may otherwise display. Also, multi-national troop deployments prove especially ineffective against groups determined to funnel illicit goods across a poorly secured boundary.

This general observation gains very clear, specific expression in the Israeli-Arab arena.

Hezbollah, with unhindered access to the Lebanese-Syrian border, has for years enjoyed a massive influx of missiles and other weaponry, supplied by Iran and Syria.

Notwithstanding the efforts of an enhanced UNIFIL since 2006, Hezbollah has succeeded in increasing its arsenal to over 40,000 rockets, distributed throughout some 270 south Lebanese villages. The threat thereby posed to Israel, demonstrated as recently as 2006, when over 4,000 rockets were fired on densely populated areas in Israel, can scarcely be questioned.

Hamas has similarly benefited from the fact that Israel no longer controls the border between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, transferring many thousands of rockets, mortars and other weaponry through tunnels burrowed under the border.

Whereas the IDF presence on the Philadelphi Route in the 1967-2005 period could not prevent all weapons-smuggling efforts, the sheer magnitude of the weapons-smuggling operations since 2005, in terms of both quantity and quality of the armaments, belies any notion that control of the boundary has no military significance. The more than 9000 rockets and mortars that have struck Israeli territory since 2000 similarly illustrate the very tangible security threat thereby presented.

Moreover, the pattern of rocket and mortar fire serves to illustrate the key role of border control. As documented in a March 2011 study by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center, in the five years subsequent to the Israeli withdrawal, the number of rockets and mortars that struck Israel increased by more than 150% to 6,535 compared with the 2,535 in the five year period prior to the withdrawal.

Tellingly, whereas rockets, which are relatively sophisticated and effective, made up only 26% of fired projectiles in the earlier period, they accounted for 73% in the later period, reflecting the enhanced smuggling capacity of Hamas following the Israeli withdrawal.

THUS, TO prevent the emergence of a heavily armed, hostile Palestinian state dominating Israel’s 15 kilometer wide heartland – precisely as has transpired pursuant to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and relinquishing of control over Gaza’s southern boundary – Israel will have to maintain a perimeter presence along the borders of a Palestinian state. This implies a continuing Israeli presence on the eastern boundary, that is, along the Jordan Valley.

The viability of a Palestinian state Contrary to certain claims, maintaining an Israeli presence along the Jordan Valley is entirely compatible with the establishment of a contiguous, viable Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria.

According to Palestinian statistics, based on a 2007 census, approximately 10,000 Palestinians reside in those parts of the Jordan Valley that were not already passed over to Palestinian civilian control under the Oslo Accords. This amounts to less than a half of a percent of the Palestinian population of Judea and Samaria, as documented by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Moreover, the area lies exclusively to the east of the main Palestinian population centers, such that its omission would not interfere with the contiguity of a Palestinian state. Thus, excluding the Jordan Valley from the territory of a Palestinian state would have negligible demographic implications. By contrast, as argued above, the security implications would be weighty indeed, and probably critical with respect to the durability of a two-state arrangement.

The stated Palestinian position is clearly incompatible with such a territorial division. Palestinian claims to the Jordan Valley form part of their claims to Judea and Samaria in its entirety, claims which compete with those of Israel to the same territory. Reflecting an appreciation for these conflicting claims, the terms of reference of the peace process, as expressed in the Oslo Accords as well as relevant United Nations resolutions, from Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) through to Security Council Resolution 1850 (2008), have consistently required that the borders, along with other disputed issues, be agreed upon between the parties. A priori rejection of the possibility that Israel will retain a presence in the Jordan Valley in a final status settlement is flatly inconsistent with the principle of mutual agreement and negotiations, which has underpinned every peace breakthrough thus far achieved between Israel and its neighbors.

Thus, Palestinian opposition to a territorial division that would leave an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley should not be confused with a claim as to its inherent infeasibility. Not only is such a division consistent with the implementation of a two-state solution, there are strong grounds, based on an analysis of the security reality which can be expected to emerge, suggesting the necessity of such a solution.

THIS ANALYSIS does not imply that a stable, two-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict cannot be achieved. It simply underscores what such a solution would have to look like if it were to be genuinely stable. Contrary to views which regard the 1967 boundary as a sine-quanon for such a solution, empirical research suggests that a relinquishment by Israel of perimeter control of Judea and Samaria would be highly destabilizing.

Such findings belie the idea that the mere presence of a signed agreement, or peacekeeping deployment, would obviate the need for Israel to retain tangible strategic assets as a component of its national security. Whereas this is a conclusion many observers of the conflict have intuitively understood for some time, today we have the benefit of quantitative empirical findings which serve to corroborate it.

The writer serves as policy adviser to the minister of foreign affairs and lectures on game theory and territorial conflict at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.

A neoconservative perspective: Humanitarian Interventionism

August 22, 2011

After reading fellow blogger, Jacksonian and Blairite, Julie’s piece focusing on the (near) end of the civil war in Libya, I feel that there are gaps or flaws in the argument which should be examined.

The first is to note that the parallels between Iraq and Libya are less resonant than a parallel between the fall of the Taliban regime and the (near) defeat of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. The methods used by Western intervening forces have been similar in so far as the use of special forces and air power to suppress the military capacity of loyalist forces. However, it is worth observing the relative size of the operation, which even with tepid US military support has strained the capacities of European militaries operating on constrained peace time budgets.

The second point focuses on the claim that the Arab Spring owes its origins to the Iraq War. This is a claim that I feel lacks merit and is instead sourced in a continued defensiveness around the overthrow of Saddam. There are a number of problems facing this explanation.

The history of this claim cannot be justified. While it is true that Libya disarmed in the sense of abandoning its NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) weapons programme, this was a move prompted by fear of further US aggression against hostile regimes where the presence of NBC weapons or programmes had become a cassus belli. The Libyan government move cannot be linked to democratisation in Iraq because the active elements in the dialogue are focused on regime survival and a diplomatic shift in alliances and priorities.

The Arab Spring is recognised as beginning in Tunisia, paradoxically one of the more liberal of the Arab autocracies. What marks each transition from autocracy to something else is the unwillingness of the armies of each nation to use lethal force on a mass scale to suppress unrest, protest or open revolt. There cannot be a clear link drawn between this assemblage of events and the course of events in 2003-2008 in Iraq. On the one hand, popular unrest rooted very much in a combination of political resentment and economic stagnation resulted in a wave of protests, a counter-wave of repression by police and security forces, an escalation of protests as repression proves ineffective and finally a combination of political manoeuvrings by factions in government and a refusal of the armed forces to massacre protesters to keep the regime’s grip on power.

This is the pattern which applies to Tunisia and Egypt. However it does not apply to Libya or Syria. In the former, the existing weaknesses in the regime simply resulted in a civil war anticipated by the regime. There it was the intervention of NATO air-power which prevented the regime’s swift military reaction from succeeding in re-imposing control. In the latter, the armed forces are much more centrally controlled and the course of events has been very different, not least because of the stubbornness of the popular unrest.

We should acknowledge that the realities on the ground in Libya in terms of tribal structures,  the strength of the central government and its own radical history cannot tie the causes and outcomes of the civil war to Iraq. The Gaddafi tribe has been the dominant political group but its power has rested on a combination of tribal alliances, repression and radical Arab nationalist and Islamic rhetoric to unify the polity. This is an excellent example of the Huntingdon thesis on Arab polities in which the cultural identity is U-shaped: a strong tribal and clan identity, a weak to non-existent national identity and a strong identity as Arab or Muslim. The Gaddafi regime held Libya together by a sharing out of political honours and wealth between tribes, while ensuring his own was pre-eminent and swiftly repressing political discontent or dissent. All the while, the rhetoric of nationhood was using the language of Arab Nationalism. Here we have an excellent example of the contradictions which make up most Arab polities: a political language which is pan-national but is used to bind a nationality to a leader or ruling faction.

Another factor not be ignored is the presence of non-Arab peoples. In Iraq, the Kurds are the strongest non-Arab population and consequently the politics of Iraq has always had to take into account a political presence which is separatist in sentiment and which does not respond to pan-Arabist rhetoric or sentiment. Libya is an admixture of Arab/Arab-Berber peoples and black African tribes. Tunisia is much more homogeneous and consequently a more stable polity – paradoxically, Tunisia was the state least expected to suffer popular unrest in recent years. Each different polity has different internal strains. A excellent example is Lebanon and I would urge readers to seek out Barry Rubin’s book on Lebanon for a better précis than I can provide.

In essence, as foreign policy analysts, we cannot impose a simple causal model over the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. The unifying factor is a popular discontent but the expression of that discontent has differed from place to place. Neoconservatives urged intervention in Libya because it was possible to do so and crucially the coalition opposing the regime was not noticeably influenced by Islamist parties. Compare this to Egypt where neoconservatives were much more sceptical about the prospect of an Egyptian Spring because we noted that the Egyptian polity was dominated by Islamist politics and was hostile to Western civilisation.

Yet, when we examine Syria, the cultural situation is ripe for intervention. The Islamists have little influence, hence the fluctuating interest of (Islamist) Turkey and its occasional threats to intervene. The Syrian government is founded around the Alawites but appeals to Arab Nationalism in its Baathist form as a unifying factor. Together with a higher degree of urbanisation and a higher degree of civilisation, the Syrian polity is both more and less fragile than Gaddafi’s Libya.

The reasons for this are not hard to find with a little analysis. The first is that the Syrian security services and armed forces are much more politically radicalised and more tightly controlled in a manner which fits a Soviet style regime. Desertion is thought to be a problem with ex-regime soldiers organising some armed resistance but not enough to slow down the regime’s repressive measures. The depth of opposition to the regime is stronger in certain respects than in Libya where the opposition was on the verge of collapse when international intervention halted the regime’s armed columns on the outskirts of Benghazi. By contrast, the massive popular unrest has not ceased, despite as Julie points out an estimated 2,200 killed by the regime.

It is also worth noting that the regime has a prior history of using massacre as a political tool to put down rebellion or subjugate manifestations of political discontent. The knowledge and experience of this past in the present Syrian regime and forces is an enabling tool to further violence. The alliance with Iran and Hezbollah must be noted as a separate factor as Hezbollah and Iranian agents have been used and have instructed Syrian regime forces in methods of suppressing popular unrest, while Iran has been funding the Syrian regime to keep it afloat until it is able to crush the opposition movement. Additionally, the role of Russia in supporting the regime must be taken into consideration. Finally, any attempt to intervene in Syria with a view to replacing the regime will have to tackle the problem of Lebanon, which would require another decade long campaign with heavy costs in treasure and blood.

These factors make intervention both more risky and less likely to occur in Syria. Add to this the observation that the European powers are generally too weak to mount even a limited intervention without US military support and that all these nations are experiencing economic and political troubles at home. Defence cutbacks have occurred in Britain, which remains fighting a counter-insurgency campaign in Helmand and Kandahar, while France has found power projection to be near impossible, especially considering the decrepit state of the Charles de Gaulle. The US military are in a political process of withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and has borne the weight of an active foreign and military policy since 2001, while the military are now planning for what are likely to be deep cuts in military expenditure.

This condition points to a deep flaw in the assumptions which underlay humanitarian interventionism and separate this tradition from the neoconservative one. This flaw is the core concept of necessary intervention, which presupposes that the conditions for intervention on behalf of oppressed populations (especially where conditions of genocide or near-genocide are concerned) either will always be present or must be created. These conditions are: political will, popular support, a benign or supportive international environment and economic and military strength.

Political will is not always present. Where a party is in government, whether as a single party or as a coalition which has a pacifistic or isolationist stance, there is little chance of moving a government to military and economic mobilisation. If this government is one of the great powers, this is a problem for humanitarian interventionists which cannot be resolved. This is even more so if this government is the United States. At present, I cannot foresee any European state possessing the will to intervene in Syria for reasons of national interest, political focus, economic distress and above all the present focus on the future of the European Single Currency and consequently the European Union.

As for the USA, that great nation is at present relatively leaderless and having to tackle economic and fiscal difficulties which preclude it from intervening. Libya was seen as internationally isolated and any campaign was though to be relatively cheap compared to a full scale military intervention. These conditions do not exist in Syria. Finally, there is a widespread delusion in Western diplomatic and political circles that the Assad regime is a key component of any peace agreement with Israel, which in turn is supposed to be the key to a pacified Middle East. These delusions are decades old. I highly recommend Barry Rubin’s book, The Truth About Syria for a comprehensive overview on Baathist Syria.

Popular support is lacking for a war (which is the essential outcome of intervention) to rescue the Syrian polity from its regime. In the USA there is a no popular appetite for a war when the economy is foundering with all the social stress this brings in its wake. Despite well documented links to terrorism from Hezbollah to al Qaida terrorism in Iraq against Iraqis and US forces, there is lacking a popular conception of Syria as an vital enemy of the USA. In part this is the legacy of Hafez al-Assad who was careful to avoid overt provocation or regional ambitions in contrast to the more flamboyant but reckless Saddam Hussein.

In Europe again, the mood is inwards looking and not concerned with foreign policy. The pacifistic tradition is stronger and broader in Europe than in the USA and military intervention is much more strongly opposed, especially in the intelligentsia, media and politics. With the economies foundering and deep monetary dysfunction within the EU, there is no likelihood of populations being supportive of intervention. Britain on the surface is an exception to this but with British politics focused on debt reduction and social disorder and the legacy of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a lack of support for an intervention outside of a narrow section of the political elite and intelligentsia.

The international environment is anything but benign towards the prospect of intervention in Syria. Those who are well briefed on foreign affairs would understand that Russia views the Assad regime as a regional ally and was not inclined towards intervention in Libya. Here is worth pointing out that the NATO coalition which conducted the Libyan air war had basically disregarded the international brief for which it was assembled, namely to protect civilian life – not to conduct an air war on behalf of the National Transitional Council. Morally, this was the right decision but it will strike a blow against notions of international law, which humanitarian interventionists at least purport to uphold. It should be made clear at this stage that this writer regards international law as a series of fictions with no real hold over the actions of a state. But for many in the Western world, international law has become a series of secular sacraments.

Certainly, China will veto any aggressive UN action towards Syria (and its master, Iran) for simple reasons of great power politics. This is an essential flaw in the universalism of humanitarian interventionism that it presents a narrowly Western narrative on human rights etc as one which other nations with different political and cultural interests and expressions should adopt. Likewise, Russia which shares none of the assumptions underlaying humanitarian interventionist thinking is not going to be receptive to their arguments.

Furthermore, the Arab League is not a reliable body for gathering the will for an international intervention. There are two quick explanations for this; the first is that expressions of united Arab political sentiment reflect internal, not external politics. The second is that since the fall of Mubarak and what is perceived as the betrayal of an ally by the West, the Arab faction around Saudi Arabia has become much cooler to the West. Here we must note the intervention by the Saudis in Bahrain in defence of a collective Sunni Arab interest and in defence of the principle of autocracy. The Arab League will not support an intervention against Syria because it sets a precedent for intervention against a fellow regime in the circumstances of an internal rebellion.

Paradoxically, the best candidate for military intervention is Israel. Israeli neoconservatives and like-thinkers have noted the absence of anti-semitism in the Syrian opposition. Yet Israel cannot intervene, partly because it is Israel but critically from two other factors. The first is Egypt, which has the largest and best armed military in the Arab world. As the Egyptian polity is becoming ever more hysterically anti-semitic and anti-Israeli (the two go hand in hand), Israel is in a quandry about its need for a Sinai policy.

Caroline Glick has argued that the IDF needs at least one or two extra divisions in the south and needs to prepare for desert warfare (the first occasion in 30 years) but this is a perspective which is unlikely to prevail until Egypt threatens Israel or attacks. The second is a point critical to modern Israeli identity. Israel does not launch wars of aggression and a war launched against Syria would fit the same mould as the Iraq War in terms of intent. Nevermind that Israel and Syria are already at war, Israel would be heavily criticised and has an unfriendly US government. The consequences could be unpleasant at best until the government changes in Washington, while any attack on Syria would require a regional war with Lebanon which remains controlled by Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

This would be the largest war in the Middle East since 1973 and as emphasised earlier there is now a considerable danger of Egyptian military intervention in such a contest. But for me the decisive factor remains the cultural identity of Israel and the institutional identity of the IDF. Israel does not launch aggressive wars, not does it intervene in its neighbours affairs except to prop up an ally (such as Jordan in 1970). It would be a very dangerous step for Israel to take and it has too many problems to track at present. An intervention into Syria would be like poking one’s finger into a hornets nest for Israel.

I have covered economic strength (or weaknesses) but I feel the point must be held together with that of military strength. Since 1945, Europe has become increasingly militarily impotent. One of the consequences of the EU and welfare-state policies has been the introversion of European state politics. This is also a consequence of the retreat from empire with the absence of elite or popular contact with parts of the world resulting in an absence of interest. Military impotence means that the capacity for intervention is limited or lacking altogether.

Take a serious study of the European military capability and the student will swiftly discern a very high percentage of equipment being US in origin and more vital logistic support being US in origin as well.

This points to a truth regarding the pretence of European military strength: it is and has been since 1945 underwritten by US military and economic muscle. We are entering a period of indiscernible length of US weakness and withdrawal. Yet, humanitarian interventionism is impossible on the scale and frequency for which its advocates would wish without a US military capability larger than currently exists. To have their kind of active foreign and military policy means that they must face down spending choices (and not easy or small ones), yet the liberal disposition which impels many of them to their stance would likely clash with these choices and present a dilemma between social conservatism and foreign policy militarism or welfare-statism and a limited to inactive foreign policy.

Iraq may yet prove to be the triumph for which Jacksonians, neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists still hope (and the signs remain favourable) but this dramatic change was achieved almost entirely by US arms and treasure. Indeed, the US had planned for the possibility that the plan would have to go ahead without significant international support or contingents. It is the great empire of the United States which has underwritten dreams of intervention. If European humanitarian interventionists wish to see a more interventionist policy, then they must look to Europe for the future strength to do so and this requires an attack on pacifism, internationalism and welfarism.

There is a further development which must be faced if those who dream of a polity with the strength to intervene abroad, whether to end genocide or remove oppressive regimes. They must become imperialists.

Imperare is the Latin “to command”. We also have the word imperitas, but imperialism is not necessarily occupation and subjugation as mythologically derived from the 19th Century. It is a relationship existing between great and small powers. In order to have an interventionist policy, European states must work towards becoming imperial powers with economic and military strength to impel maleficent regimes to change or be removed by force. There will have to be either conscription or large conventional standing forces equipped with the most modern weapons, together with a strong naval presence.

This could only happen realistically in Britain and France, unless a defensive and offensive alliance were agreed between militaries which can fight together. These two nations have a tradition to draw upon, whereas Germany does not and indeed still has the shadow of its own imperialistic history affecting any such debate. German geopolitical thinking though has always tended towards domination of central Europe, rather than extra-European vistas.

Finally as a part of this brief digression into the logics of necessary imperialism, European states wishing such a policy would have to disregard a core assumption present since 1919: the concept that international law is binding upon a state in the same way that civil law is binding upon the individual. This means a return to part of the Westphalian settlement of state sovereignty, which rejected the notion of extra-territorial sovereignty.

Today, the West obeys or pretends to obey the notion that the UN is the sovereign of the nation state, yet it it lacks the strength or identity to act out such a role. I have argued before that this is due to the imposition of an ideological impulsion on the UN which it was never designed to bear, namely, international sovereignty. The UN was designed as a means by which the great powers could avoid being put in a situation which would lead to another industrial war, chiefly by an international forum which preserved a useful fiction of legitimacy for state actions but which since has merely resulted in constrained wars and the promotion of terrorism by antagonistic states.

The neoconservative perspective would have no problem, indeed has no problems with disregarding legal fictions which have become harmful to the nation state and the ability of great powers to act as government sees fit. Yet I foresee terrible problems for humanitarian interventionists in that some wish to preserve and enforce international law to protect values (democracy and human rights) which are not shared beyond a pretence at the international institutions which possess theoretical sovereignty over the nation state. Samantha Power is a chief proponent of the doctrine of responsibility to protect, yet she and her fellow liberal thinkers are attempting to act out a Gordian Knot in ignoring a dilemma of implications in this doctrine.

The dilemma lies in the divergent outcomes of a state adopting such a doctrine. It first must cede its own military agency to a disparate body of non-governmental organisations, international bureaucracies and media campaigns, while developing the tools but not the benefits of an imperial power. In making this an international obligation, r2p, as it is referred, places an unbearable strain upon the international institutions which are incapable of enforcing such an obligation and places a disproportionate burden upon the United States in particular to act as the sword of the international church of liberal human rights activists.

Such an agenda is fraught with danger for the West and does not take into account the autocratic powers in the world.

At its best, humanitarian interventionism is a noble cause. But it cannot become a replacement for national policy and interests because as an ideology it would require an open-ended commitment in the form of a disinterested imperialism. When this happens, humanitarian interventionism becomes a shadow of itself, reducing people and states to cyphers of moral ethics.

Operation Amnesia

April 8, 2011

Matt Cavanagh has written an interesting piece for the Spectator which I have reproduced here in a single page format. The original seven page links will be listed below.









Matt Cavanagh
9 April 2011

Britain’s failings in Afghanistan have as much to do with short memories as shortages of troops

When Liam Fox visited Afghanistan in January, he was, like the defence secretaries before him, keen to tell the story of a country moving towards peace and stability. So he stopped by the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, seen as one of the most orderly and peaceful in the country. At least, that is how it was seen until last Friday, when a mob stormed a United Nations compound and murdered seven unarmed staff — apparently to avenge a Koran-burning in Florida.

A year after America’s troop surge in Afghanistan, there are dispiritingly few signs of progress. President Karzai recently named seven areas where security would be handed over to Afghan control, and until now Mazar-i-Sharif was an obvious candidate for the list. More surprising was the choice of Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, where the vast majority of British troops have been fighting for the past five years. In Helmand, the insurgency remains strong and the Afghan state has always been weak. But the transition process is as much about symbolism as substance. It is designed to satisfy the desperate search for a credible ‘metric of progress’ even as violence remains stubbornly high. Measures of territory occupied and enemy ‘body count’ are rightly rejected as counterproductive, and more detailed assessments of the Afghan state, of its army, police, or local governors, are far from reassuring.

When Karzai published the list, the BBC took the bait and spoke of progress in Lashkar Gar. To illustrate this it showed an open-air concert, attended by thousands of Afghans. Such an event would have been ‘unthinkable’, it said, in previous years. In fact,

What this really symbolises is how short western memories are. Everyone who works on Afghanistan learns the saying that ‘the West have the watches, but the Afghans have the time’. Few, however, bother to read up on the past, and most are focused simply on the short period for which they are seconded to the job. Short-termism has cursed every aspect of the campaign. Journalists produce reports devoid of historical context, and are too eager to believe their briefings. Ministers, advisers and civil servants doubt that they will be around long enough to see any success, but fear that they may preside over disaster, and so adopt a risk-averse approach until they can pass the whole mess to their successors.

The military react in the opposite way, determined to make an impact in the short time they are there. This may seem more admirable, but its effects are equally perverse — especially when combined with a narrow way of thinking about how to make an impact. Large-scale, conventional military engagements predictably recur in the second half of each brigade’s six-month tour. Afghans watch the British clear and re-clear territory, but to each new batch of soldiers, it looks and feels like success.

During the Vietnam war, Col John Paul Vann put it brilliantly. ‘We don’t have 12 years’ experience in Vietnam,’ he said. ‘We have one year’s experience, 12 times.’ This could be adapted for the British military today. We don’t have five years’ experience in Helmand, we have six months’ experience ten times. Successive brigades have relearned the painful lessons of their predecessors, or overcompensated for their perceived failings. Debriefings of battalion and company commanders, and attempts to harness their valuable experience, have been perfunctory.
a similar event took place in May 2008 — and then, too, it was seized on as evidence of progress.

Four years ago, when I was working for the then defence secretary, Des Browne, we pressed senior military officers to look for ways of mitigating this short-termism: longer tours, or a staggered rotation of units, or greater continuity in the command structure. The army, then led by General Dannatt, flatly rejected the first two options. They dismissed longer tours on the basis of the strain on soldiers and their families, and rejected staggered rotation due to the importance of ‘a brigade training and deploying as a brigade’.

We were sympathetic to the former argument, both on human grounds and because we knew that the American military, in which tours routinely lasted 15 months, struggled to retain experienced personnel. We were less sympathetic to the argument for training and deploying as a brigade, which appeared rather dogmatic. I suspected it encouraged precisely the kind of large-scale set-piece engagements I was sceptical about. It also put our creaking helicopter and transport fleet through the added strain of mass troop rotations, and required us to keep scarce equipment in Britain so an entire brigade could train with it.

But as happens so often in politics, we civilian advisers and strategists shied away from overruling the military. We worked with the less dogmatic generals to identify a small number of senior posts (and junior posts in specific areas like intelligence) where tours of duty could be lengthened. We were assured that other initiatives would improve continuity, but these too were relatively minor and seemingly given a low priority. The issue of command structure got lost in wider debates about troop numbers and the looming arrival of American forces in Helmand.

At this time, I was more optimistic about the Americans’ ability to learn and adapt. Besides their longer tours, they had shown themselves more reflective and open to constructive criticism, particularly under the leadership of Generals Petraeus and McChrystal. But the transformation those leaders wrought, though impressive, now looks like a one-off ‘reset’ of their counter-insurgency approach rather than the start of a process of continuous learning.

Around the turn of the year there were many positive reports about what US forces were achieving in Sangin, but I fear they are repeating the dynamic of some of the more aggressive British units who went before them. The cycle runs as follows. A new team take over an area, and at first believe their greater ability, or resources, or aggression, will enable them to win easily — to succeed where the other guys failed. Pretty soon they learn that whatever else, it won’t be easy, but they still believe they will prevail. This was the point in the cycle when British journalists like Paul Wood were faithfully relaying the Americans’ line (in The Spectator as well as on the BBC) that they had ‘retaken the momentum’, ‘put the insurgency on the back foot’, and ‘expanded the security bubble’ because they were less squeamish about casualties. Sangin was the deadliest place for British forces in Afghanistan, with a hundred killed in four years, but when the Americans took over, the casualty rate doubled. In their view, they were succeeding because they were prepared to ‘take the fight to the Taleban’ in a way the British couldn’t or wouldn’t.

At best, it was six months too early for this kind of talk, given the seasonal nature of the fighting in southern Afghanistan. And there are already signs that the Americans in Sangin are moving to the next stage — where they start to wonder whether they have truly retaken the momentum, or simply increased their footprint and activity to no obvious strategic effect. They start to realise that their more aggressive approach is not only difficult and dangerous, but counterproductive, as civilian casualties and damage to property alienate the local population.

At this point they usually get relieved by another unit, who begin the cycle again; or, as will be familiar to those who have seen the documentary film Restrepo, their superiors decide that the area isn’t a strategic priority after all. In the case of Sangin, General McChrystal decided back in summer 2009 that it was not a strategic priority — but that it was not peripheral enough to justify withdrawal. It was this cold and rational strategic assessment, as much as the limits on British troop numbers, that explained the bloody and bitter stalemate in Sangin during 2009 and early 2010.

This is not to deny the importance of the limits on British troop numbers, the subject of such heated debate during 2009. As someone who had a share in responsibility for those limits, I was acutely aware of the dilemmas they forced on commanders. But I was also aware of the potential for troop increases to exacerbate the military’s dominance of what was meant to be a joint civilian-military campaign, and to feed the tendency of new commanders to try to do too much. For three years the top brass had argued that additional troops would enable us to ‘thicken’ our forces, increasing their effectiveness, reducing casualties, and enabling proper stabilisation work to begin. But when we sent reinforcements, it had the opposite result: an expanded footprint, increased activity, and increased casualties, to no obvious strategic effect. I fear this is precisely what is happening in Sangin now.

The military’s obsession with troop numbers and the media’s failure to challenge it have obscured the wider lessons of the Afghan campaign. Before the American surge, lack of troops was blamed for everything. Since the surge, the new response to any setback or criticism is that ‘the right resources have only just been put in place’. But like it or not, the campaign is already measured in years in the minds of those who matter: the Afghan people and the public back home.

Even if a window of opportunity arises at the strategic level, as it did in Iraq, the military will need to learn and adapt far faster if they are to prevail against an enemy which is adaptable, nimble and utterly unscrupulous, in an environment which is linguistically, socially and culturally alien. This will be difficult. In admiring the courage and character of our armed forces, it is easy to forget that the military is also a large bureaucracy. Unique in many ways, not least in putting their lives on the line, but a bureaucracy nonetheless. By their nature, bureaucracies are blind to their failings and slow to rectify them — even when staring at the possibility of defeat.

When failure becomes not just a possibility but a reality, it ought to provide the impetus for change. In war it is vital to learn from mistakes. The American military did this ruthlessly after the Kasserine Pass in the second world war, and they did it again under Petraeus in Iraq. But it won’t happen if politicians are blamed instead, as in America over Korea and in Britain over Iraq.

The media, the Conservatives and the military have already prepared the way for a similar narrative on Afghanistan: blaming the previous government, mainly for not providing enough resources. If only we’d had more troops and better equipment, the argument will run, we would have defeated the Taleban, and got out on our own terms. It suits a great many people to go along with this, but in the long run it will only prevent us from learning the real lessons of the past five years.

The more fundamental point is that more troops would not have ensured British success in Helmand. Not even the American surge — more than ten times what we could have mustered — can ensure success by itself. More troops will not help our militaries master the complex tribal dynamics, nor judge whether they are making friends faster than they are alienating people. More troops will not change the attitude of the Afghan and Pakistani authorities, nor create a political process that addresses Afghan grievances.

Because of these wider political problems, Britain’s lack of success in Afghanistan in strategic terms cannot be blamed on the military. But at the operational level, most of the responsibility is theirs. They took the tactical decisions in summer 2006 — admittedly under great pressure — to disperse our forces across the ‘platoon houses’ in northern Helmand. They chose, in the years that followed, to continue to prosecute the campaign in an expansive and aggressive manner, despite the constraints on resources and the lack of evidence that this approach had a lasting positive effect. And while they lost no opportunity to plan and lobby for more troops, they were slow to fill the gaps in our intelligence, or to respond to the Taleban’s shift in tactics towards improvised explosive devices.

Libya and the outcome of military intervention

April 4, 2011

Ex-Gitmo detainee training Libyan rebels in Derna

The situation increasingly appears to be one in which the Western allies (for want of a better term) have misjudged the situation.

Looking at the situation through British interests;

  1. Gaddafi has to be defeated. We’ve publicly broken with him and cannot resurrect an understanding.
  2. The Libyan opposition is multi-polar in that it is made up of the army (for the most part), the rebel tribes and a small but potentially influential core of Islamists.
  3. The multi-polar nature of the opposition means that unless Western military intervention is dramatically stepped up, Gaddafi will win
  4. Without a consistent political objective to the war, if Gaddafi loses, the West might well discover itself to have a weak, unstable state with parts of the country acting as breeding grounds for Islamist terrorism.
  5. This possibility means that the ideal solution would be a much wider intervention in the form of a ground invasion and occupation and an imposed diplomatic settlement splitting Libya and Cyrenaica.

This may mean the need for a UN Mandate administration by one or more of the European powers and given the history of European involvement, I would argue that France is best placed for this role.

We need to face up to the reality of our situation in the world. That we will need to be imperialists once more.