Iraq, again

Barack Obama announced on September 10th the new US counter-terrorism strategy against the Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL), the Sunni radical group that has gained territorial strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

As Talking Points Memo put it, he is the fourth consecutive American president to deliver a prime time speech to the nation about Iraq. All of them, to announce military actions.

The strategy to degrade and “ultimately, defeat” ISIS involves a few critical elements. First, a dramatic expansion of the bombing campaign in northern Iraq to the rest of the country and Syria. Second, the provision of support, training and weapons to local allies (mainly the Iraqi Army, Kurdish troops and selected Syrian rebels). Third, the creation of an international coalition against ISIS to provide legitimacy to the effort. And all this, while avoiding direct US military engagement (no boots on the ground) and alliances with Iran and Syria.

The current US Administration has undergone a rapid evolution in strategic thinking about ISIS, driven by their territorial gains including control of Fallujah and Mosul, and the establishment of a Caliphate on June 29. Violence against civilians and the beheading of American journalists (massively propagated through social media) may have added urgency.

This video by Vox explains ISIS “in Obama’s own words: from a joke to war in 9 months.”

 

This is the territory controlled by –or with substantial presence of- the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by September 10th, according to the Institute for the Study of War:

The discourse might have been carefully calibrated but contradictions emerge as a result.

Spencer Ackerman, of The Guardian, has done an amazing work in his annotated version of the speech. Juan Cole, of the University of Michigan and author of the blog Informed Comment, attributes discourse variation to internal politics: “He went back and forth between trying to reassure the left wing of the Democratic Party that he had not suddenly been possessed by the ghost of Dick Cheney and assuring the skittish American people that he was going to make mincemeat of the terrorist American beheaders.”

But there is more involved than the rhetoric. The references to Yemen and Somalia as successful examples of the kind of campaign coming out are legitimate causes of concern. The use of drones to carry on targeted killings of group leaders “has not defeated Al Qaeda but strengthened it”, says Rosa Meneses in El Mundo.

Absent again is a comprehensive political strategy. Phyllis Bennis suggested this week six steps short of war to address the problem posed by IS. The pre-condition is attention to the political and social factors that enabled the rise of this movement, particularly the fate of the Iraqi Sunnis after the 2003 invasion and the subsequent political turmoil and sectarian violence.

Mariano Aguirre, director of NOREF, stated in El País that a pact among Iraqi actors for decentralization and protection of minorities, negotiated with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US, is as important as difficult to achieve.

This points to another deep problem: the allies. John Kerry has already visited Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in his effort to build support for a coordinated campaign.

Saudi Arabia has allowed the training of Syrian rebel forces opposed to ISIS in its territory. But apart from the democracy and human rights record, this country has had a prominent role in funding jihadist groups for years, if not decades. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks that “While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”

Last March, a resolution of the European Parliament called this country to improve control over funding of radical militant groups abroad (including Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among others) and reclaimed a halt to any financial, military and political support of extremist groups in Syria.

This is hard language for a strategic ally.

Of course, we could also mention Egypt, or Bahrain.

Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent of The Independent and author of The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, points to a non-existent American institutional or national semantic memory when it comes to this region. Remember Lebanon 1983? Remember Gaddafi? “All these forces of evil being vanquished over and over again, and then – bingo – there’s another force of evil to vanquish.” Or, in his words, confronting the greatest crisis in the Middle East since the last greatest crisis in the Middle East.

Will we ever see a US President announcing a truly different strategy?

This is the whole video in case you missed it.

Book Review – The UN and Changing World Politics

“International media headlines regularly cover issues such as international negotiations on climate change; conflict and stabilization missions in Mali, DRC Congo, Afghanistan and Lebanon; nuclear negotiations with Iran or the collective failure to protect Syrian civilians. What all of these events have in common is the complex and sometimes overlooked matrix of actors and relationships evolving behind the scenes to set policies, and the processes through which those policies and responses eventually become norms.”

I have just published a book review of The United Nations and Changing World Politics, Seventh Edition, by Thomas G. Weiss, David P. Forsythe, Roger A. Coate and Kelly-Kate Pease. In this volume, the authors bring to the analysis their scholarly depth and practical experience to explain what the UN is – and what it is not – and how it operates. They also elucidate the systems of incentives and disincentives that facilitate (or hamper) processes and advances, and describe the relations with external actors ranging from states to NGOs and international organizations. It is in this realm of competition and cooperation among actors that world politics is shaped, created and re-created, and the UN is literally and symbolically placed at the centre of these endeavours.

The Book Review has been published by the Global Policy Journal. If you wish to read it complete, check here. And of course, if you are interested in world politics, do not miss the reviewed book.

Exporting security? Questioning Colombian Military Engagement in West Africa

With skills and expertise in fighting insurgencies and drug trafficking networks, Colombia’s armed forces are increasingly being sought for engagement in similar security challenges in West Africa. But increasing Colombian engagement gives rise to a number of important questions – not least of which is the goal and expected outcomes of replicating militarised approaches to the war on drugs that have already failed in Latin America.

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These approaches are being increasingly questioned in Latin America and continue to lose support even among high Government representatives and Presidents. Replicating them without further evaluation and careful reflection about what has worked – and what has not – is not a promising approach. Instead, approaches to drugs and organised crime in West Africa must be based on lessons learned, to avoid the repetition of past ineffective policies and their harmful effects.

These are excerpts of my first post in the blog Sustainable Security, a project of the Oxford Research Group. Both, highly recomendable for all those interested in the long-term drivers of global insecurity, and in an approach that prioritises the resolution of the interconnected underlying drivers of insecurity and conflict and the emphasis on preventative rather than reactive strategies.

If interested, you can access the whole article here.

 

The US and Colombia: building an exportable model of security

I have just published an article in Open Security about the past, present and future of the Colombian Armed Forces and their potential role and influence in a future peace and post conflict setting. After a decade of build-up they are the first Army in Latin America and enjoy high degrees of autonomy.

Through the laboratory of Plan Colombia, the US has developed its ‘stabilization’ model for counter insurgency operations. To some extent it has replicated in Colombia its own model of armed forces, counter insurgency and counter narcotics. Now the Colombia forces provide training and specialized services throughout Latin America and worldwide.

With a peace agreement with the FARC on the horizon, what is the future for Colombia’s overinflated military?

Continue reading here.

This article is part of an excellent series, Conflict in Context: Colombia, where you will find analyses in Spanish and English about the array of war and peace challenges faced by Colombia.

 

Book Review – The Metamorphosis of War, for Global Policy

I have just published a book review in Global Policy.

The book is The Metamorphosis of War, edited by Avery Plaw, and addresses the transformation of war and the changing practices, purposes and languages of warfare, as well as selected current responses to armed conflict and their impact.

The volume aims to illuminate how war has transformed; what are the stakes, mechanisms and consequences of contemporary war; and what resources do we have to break cycles of violence. It does so by mobilizing the knowledge of scholars from a range of disciplines and military practitioners. Deeply rooted in history and philosophy, but addressing some of the most pressing contemporary issues, I strongly recommend it.

If you are interested in the review, have a look here.