'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Sunday, 8 February 2015

UK Defence Position in Iraq: The “Unearthly Ballet of Bloodless Categories”

In 2009, then-US Marine Corps Major and Middle East foreign area officer Ben Connable published a characteristically elegant article in the august journal Military Review in March entitled “All our Eggs in a Broken Basket” regarding the US Army decision to augment sociocultural understanding of brigade combat teams in Iraq and Afghanistan with civilian social scientists, rather than develop an organic expertise within the service components.

I was reminded of that title when reading the House of Commons’ Defence Committee’s critique of UK intelligence on the ground in Iraq. Following on from my previous post here regarding the imprecise, amorphous language of the Army 2020, the dangerously abstract terms in which the UK Defence establishment now couches its analysis renders any understanding of a particular stance, or indeed comprehension of a single direction, impossible.  

I was reminded of Connable’s title because to me the UK Defence reports now try to position no eggs in any baskets at all.

When the philosopher Sir Karl Popper produced his theory of falsification to demarcate the line between science and pseudoscience, he showed that rigorous definition was the key to scientific understanding, that it had to be precise enough, and consequentially testable, such that it could be proved false. In that way, to some degree, science is afforded a direction, built upon a level of concrete rigour.

Consider in opposition to that the UK Defence position in Iraq as outlined by the House of Common’s Defence Committee’s critique on 5 February 2015.

Just as in the problems I outlined in the post below, the same elements recur:

The Committee was shocked by the inability or unwillingness of any of the Service Chiefs to provide a clear, and articulate statement of the UK’s objectives or strategic plan in Iraq. There was a lack of clarity over who owns a policy—and indeed whether such a policy exists.

This again is soldier sorcery: the magic of describing thin and indistinct threats in order to place no eggs in any baskets at all. Perhaps the most telling problem, not for Iraq, but for the general efficacy of UK Defence strategies, was here, also in the summary:

The report recommends that the UK invests heavily in staff to develop a better understanding of the situation on the ground

This, by chance, is a very interesting recommendation, because we might inevitably ask that from a UK force size in-country of 4000 in 2008 in the ongoing Operation Telic (reduced by 1600 from the previous year after the completion of Operation Sinbad in Basra), we find it necessary to suggest in 2015 the heavy investment in human capability.

So what happened? The US example, as the primary foreign agent in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 is instructive. In order to ensure a handover, the surge of forces placed men and materiel on the ground between 2007 and 2009. During that time, remarkable social science research was undertaken on the ground by organic and non-organic elements within, or attached to, the deployed service components.

At least two teams on the ground conducted semi-structured interviews with the Sons of Iraq, the bureaucratic embodiment of the Anbar Awakening, in order to ascertain how the handover of payment from US forces to al-Maliki’s predominantly Shia government should work for them. The results indicated that there was likely to be some significant discrepancy between the reality of the work provisioned for them under Maliki and their expectations having suppressed the AQI surge in the territory.

At that point then in 2009 it would be reasonable to assume that our knowledge of the country was reaching its apogee. But military interest in foreign theatres is ephemeral. With the departure of materiel and manpower, the ability to securely visit all areas of the country ceased. And as Iraq dropped from the foreign affairs radar, the motivation to do in-depth social science research was reduced. Hence both means and motivation effectively ceased.

The British experience in Iraq was more wounding, and hence the motivation to continue research in the theatre was less attractive. In effect, the war could be written off and unlearned. Only, the Maliki government effectively disenfranchised the Sunni minority to the extent that Sunni insurgents were apparently openly greeted when they entered Mosul in June 2014. They came not as oppressors, but as liberators from a corrupt and vicious regime.

From that point forward, the US and Britain have been playing catch up. The spectrum of horrors employed by the Sunni insurgents, all familiarly violent motifs in the annals of war fighting, was rendered visceral, globally-available, and immediate by the use of social media to proliferate and control the message.

Unlike the British experience in Iraq, which effectively unlearned the conflict, for the insurgents in that life or death battle, they necessarily evolved sophisticated platforms to control narratives and finance their operations. This evolution has been borne from harsh assessments of past campaigns and the centre of gravity for insurgent operations (see for example, al-Suri’s Global Islamic Resistance Call for the requirement to control a successful media campaign, and a book from which many elements seem to have been adopted by ISIL).

According to one report, ISIL now controls an area in Iraq and Syria in which there are 15 million civilians, making their own amorphous, indistinct and fragile territorial gain, in terms of population larger than that of Ecuador.

Socio-cultural knowledge is a pre-requisite to successful UK Defence operations. It is relatively inexpensive and requires few personnel. Done well, it can highlight problematic contours such as with the disbanding of the Sons of Iraq, or the leader networks in areas, or inequality, or trajectories of disenfranchisement. Without this capability, we end up with amorphous and meaningless assessments of our positions in countries and when this ephemeral requirement to act returns we are left without understanding of the appropriate manner in which to do so.   

The UK Defence establishment may bemoan recent and anticipated spending cuts, but without a better understanding of the threats faced, and a much more coherent propagation of that message, no political entity will have the motivation to reverse this trajectory of change.

ISIL, or DAESH (al-Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham) to use the on-the-ground name for the Sunni insurgent group (as the UK House of Commons Defence Select Committee did), took UK and US Intelligence by surprise precisely because of that lost human capital on the ground. That is not to say that ground in the race cannot be regained. 

Like any new product, ISIL in control of its new territories is a hostage to the cycle of hype:

As we pass the group’s peak of inflated expectations and civilians experience the deep disillusionment of political control by a religious authority, the opportunity for Iraqi government to regain strong narrative and enfranchised societal gains in order to steal away popular approval of the group from its amorphous territorial gain on the ground must begin. As a brand, it is necessary to take away the group’s appeal.

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