Alex Evans

About Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, where he works on international development, foreign policy, and resource scarcity. He is currently working primarily on the post-2015 development agenda and future global climate policy, and also writing a book on psychology, myth and sustainability. He is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Full biog here.

ISIS and the moral level of warfare

With all the atrocities that ISIS has visited on the people living in the territories it’s overrun in recent months, the humanitarian basis for military intervention in Iraq and Syria looks clear cut. What’s much less clear is whether the West’s strategy of airstrikes has any prospect of achieving its aims – especially given the risk that it will end up being actively counterproductive.

Start with the West’s stated objectives, listed by President Obama on 7 September on Meet the Press as (i) blunting ISIS’s momentum, (ii) degrading its capabilities, (iii) shrinking the territory it controls, and (iv) ultimately defeating them. What are the prospects for airstrikes achieving these aims? Here’s counter-insurgency writer William Lind:

Physically, the president’s strategy relies on air power. The reasons air power alone will fail, as it always has, are many. The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids. They will lose any specialized military equipment, but they don’t depend on that.

For an air campaign to be effective, it must act in cooperation with competent ground forces. In Kurdistan, those exist. They do not exist elsewhere in Iraq, as the disintegration of the Iraqi army demonstrated. Shiite militias will fight, but are usually poorly trained and bring moral baggage, as noted below. There could be an effective ground force working with our air power in Syria, in the form of the Syrian Arny of President Bashar al Assad and its highly competent ally, Hezbollah, but President Obama has ruled that out for ideological reasons. The “moderate Syrian opposition” he wants to rely on consists of twelve men living outside Syria in luxury hotels. It is a chimera.

But while it’s hard to see how the West’s airstrikes strategy will achieve its stated aims, it’s much easier to see how it could work to ISIS’s own advantage. As Lind continues later in the same article (emphasis added),

By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them … As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds.

This concept of the moral level of warfare – first described by US military theorist John Boyd – is crucially important, and for hard-edged military reasons. As Lind put it in another piece back in 2003 (again, emphasis added):

To the traditional levels of war—tactical, operational, and strategic—Boyd added three new ones: physical, mental, and moral. It is useful to think of these as forming a nine-box grid, with tactical, operational, and strategic on one axis and physical, mental, and moral on the other.

Our armed forces focus on the single box defined by tactical and physical, where we are vastly superior. But non-state forces focus on the strategic and the moral, where they are often stronger, in part because they represent David confronting Goliath. In war, a higher level trumps a lower, so our repeated victories at the tactical, physical level are negated by our enemies’ successes on the strategic and moral levels, and we lose.

I’m a passionate supporter of the principle of humanitarian intervention. Back when I was a special adviser at the UK’s Department for International Development, I pushed as hard as I could for the UK to come out in support of formal UN recognition of the Responsibility to Protect.

But knowing why we should intervene in a conflict is not enough. We also need to know what we propose to do and how that will achieve the desired results. (It’s not as if there’s any shortage of examples of how badly things can go wrong when our intervention plan doesn’t extend much beyond “something must be done”.)

So when someone asks me “well, what would you do?”, I’d have to say: Nothing, militarily, at this stage. Not because I don’t see the humanitarian basis for intervention, but because I struggle to see military options that have a realistic chance of creating the effects we say we want to see – whereas I can easily see how they might make things very much worse, by winning physical battles but losing the moral level of the war.

By contrast, if airstrikes will just bolster ISIS’s legitimacy, its history and its recent actions give good reason to suppose that it’s perfectly capable of destroying its own legitimacy. Remember, after all, that ISIS is to a large extent the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – a group that counter-insurgency theorist David Kilcullen uses as a case study of a group that was ineffective at retaining control over its populations. As he writes in his book Out of the Mountains,

AQI is an excellent example of the brittleness that can result from too narrow a spectrum of capabilities. AQI established a terrifyingly effective ascendancy over the Sunni population, but because this dominance was based entirely on fear and coercion, it had no resilience. As soon as the [US] surge created a minimal assurance for people that they would survive the attempt to turn against AQI, and as soon as coalition forces in Anbar demonstrated that they could kill or capture members of AQI cells, the myth of AQI’s invincibility was shattered and the people turned on AQI in a flash and swept it away. And because the terrorist group had little to offer but fear and intimidation, it had no way to counteract or bounce back from its loss of control.

ISIS appears set to make similar mistakes this time around – look, for example, at reactions (like this) from even ultra-conservative Salafist imams to its threat to kill British hostage Alan Henning. But the West looks set to make a lot of the same mistakes as it did during the Iraq war, too.

I’d like to think that our actions on the ground were based on a clear theory of influence, above all recognition of the need to win legitimacy among Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria. But it’s hard to have much confidence in that given how little Western governments did about either repeated chemical warfare attacks by the Assad regime in Syria – a situation where airstrikes might actually have been able to achieve something – or the venality and vicious sectarianism of the Shiite regime in Baghdad.

Similarly, I’d like to think that smart minds in the Home Office are working on a sophisticated influencing strategy to engage with British kids who’ve seen YouTubes of horrific atrocities against their fellow Sunnis and want to do something about it. Again, though, it’s hard to be hopeful of that while David Cameron is strutting around characterising those kids as “psychopathic terrorists who are trying to kill us”.

Back in 2008, David Steven and I wrote an essay entitled Towards a theory of influence for 21st century foreign policy, in which we quoted Osama bin Laden’s mischievous assertion that “it seems as if we and the White House are on the same team shooting at the United States’ own goal”. Here’s hoping the West plays a smarter – and subtler – game this time around.

The political deal on post-2015 ‘means of implementation’

The post-2015 agenda is at a turning point, with the intense discussions of the last year about Goals and targets giving way to a new focus on how the world will achieve the high ambitions set out in the draft Sustainable Development Goals.

Over the next eighteen months, we’ll see a veritable blizzard of summitry, including a critical OECD meeting looking at the definition of aid this December, a major summit on financing for development in Addis Ababa next July, the key final decision moment on the shape of the new Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, a make-or-break climate summit and a WTO trade ministerial in December 2015, and high-potential summits of the G7/G8 in Germany, and the G20 in Turkey.

All of these moments have the potential to yield elements of a global political deal on ‘means of implementation’ for the post-2015 agenda. But what are the options for those elements – and which of them offer the highest potential in terms of development impact and political achievability?

These are the questions I address in a new paper, commissioned by the UN Foundation, and published today as a working draft ahead of next week’s UN General Assembly and climate summit, and in advance of a final version in October.

It includes both a 10 point ‘straw man’ package of measures on means of implementation that ranges from ODA, domestic resource mobilisation, and the role of the private sector through to trade, sustainability, and transparency; and a long-list of potential outcomes and asks – in each case with a brief discussion of the political and developmental pros and cons.

Beyond Aid: the future UK approach to development

Written evidence by Alex Evans and the Center for Global Development’s Owen Barder to the UK Parliament International Development Committee inquiry on the future of the Department for International Development and the ‘beyond aid’ agenda (September 2014).

Download Full Report

The future of DFID and the ‘beyond aid’ agenda

The UK Parliament’s Select Committee on International Development is running an interesting inquiry at the moment on the future of Britain’s Department for International Development, in particular in light of the ‘beyond aid’ agenda (terms of reference here). Owen Barder and I submitted a note to the inquiry last week, which you can download here.

We argue that if the world is serious about ‘getting to zero’ on poverty by 2030, then three key front lines for development will be fragile states (and parts of states), inclusive growth in middle income countries, and transboundary risks (especially those to do with unsustainable consumption patterns).

These three challenges have a lot in common. None of them was well covered in the MDGs; all will be crucial for eradicating the second half of poverty; all are about messy, long-term processes of structural change; none of them has an established playbook for how to address them; and while there are important roles for international spending in each case, none of them is primarily about aid.

Instead, we suggest, DFID will increasingly need to focus on beyond aid agendas both in country – where it will need to undertake significant changes to its existing skills profile – and across Whitehall, so as to influence UK policy on areas from arms sales, tax havens, drug prohibition policies, and anti-corruption, through to trade, subsidies, migration, financial regulation, and above all the global impact of British citizens’ consumption patterns.

We argue that in order for DFID to be able to influence this much broader range of policies, it is essential that it remain an independent Cabinet department, and not be re-merged back into the Foreign Office. (Doing that would just make a future Minister of State for Development within the Foreign Office comparable to the Administrator of USAID: running an aid programme, but excluded from most of the key decisions affecting development.)

But we also think that, since 2010, it is hard to make out much evidence of DFID playing this cross-Whitehall influencing role. Instead, it has focused mainly on securing and defending a substantial increase in the aid budget. This has potentially eroded the case for DFID to be a separate department – despite the fact that the Department’s voice is needed in Whitehall and internationally.

So, we conclude, policymakers and other influencers – in government, in Parliament, and in the wider policy community – should be pushing for DFID to play a bigger role in development policy. Conversely, the last thing they should be doing is caving in to the temptation to retreat to a less controversial space centred on aid administration.

The six fathers of ISIS

(As defined by Ziad Majed and abridged by Amir Ahmed Nasr in this excellent post):

ISIS is the offspring of more than one father, and the product of more than one longstanding and widespread sickness.
1. ISIS is first the child of despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region.
2. ISIS is second the progeny of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the way in which it was initially conducted and the catastrophic mismanagement that followed.
3. ISIS is third the son of Iranian aggressive regional policies that have worsened in recent years.
4. ISIS is fourth the child of some of the Salafist networks in the Gulf (in Saudi Arabia and other states).
5. ISIS is fifth the offspring of a profound crisis, deeply rooted in the thinking of some Islamist groups seeking to escape from their terrible failure to confront the challenges of the present toward a delusional model ostensibly taken from the seventh century, believing that they have found within its imaginary folds the answer to all contemporary or future questions.
6. ISIS is sixth the progeny of violence or of an environment that has been subjected to striking brutality.

Ahmad Nasr also adds the observation that:

With the exception of reason #2, all other factors are local and traceable to the region and its state of affairs – affairs that have yes, been influenced by the legacy of European colonialism, the dynamics of the  Cold War, but lately much more so by the behaviours of local authoritarian actors.

Ebola: where is everyone?

The messages emerging from people dealing with the Ebola outbreak on the ground in west Africa are becoming more hair-raising by the day. Here’s the World Health Organisation’s assistant DG:

[It] is a scale that I think has not ever been anticipated in terms of an Ebola outbreak.

And here’s MSF’s emergency coordinator on the ground:

The number of patients we are treating is unlike anything we’ve seen in previous outbreaks. This is not an Ebola outbreak, it is a humanitarian emergency and it needs a full-scale humanitarian response.

For a good overview of the situation, this Foreign Policy article pulls no punches, stating bluntly that “you are not nearly scared enough about Ebola”, and also making the key point that the humanitarian impact of the outbreak extends far beyond those actually exposed to the disease:

I myself have received emails from physicians in these countries, describing the complete collapse of all non-Ebola care, from unassisted deliveries to unattended auto accident injuries. People aren’t just dying of the virus, but from every imaginable medical issue a system of care usually faces.

So what of the “full scale humanitarian response” that MSF says is necessary? Well, the World Health Organisation has just published an Ebola road map (pdf) that sets out detailed cost estimates for what’s needed to strengthen the response and contain the outbreak.

Their headline cost estimate is that just under half a billion dollars is needed, of which nearly $400 million would be for countries currently experiencing “widespread and intense transmission”, with the rest for response measures in countries with initial cases or localised transmission and preparedness in neighbouring countries.

Compare that with what countries have actually pledged and you start to see why MSF are sounding so pissed off. The United States’ last funding announcement was for $5 million, bringing their total contribution since March to just under $20 million – less than 4% of what WHO say is needed. Britain, meanwhile, has contributed £5 million over the entire crisis. And as of last month, the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund had given UNICEF and WHO the princely sum of… $235,000. (Compare this with the World Bank, which has pledged $200 million. But then, the bank is run by a medical doctor who has experience of infectious disease. Go figure.)

And what of NGOs other than MSF? No appeal has been issued by the Disasters Emergency Committee; at the same time, individual agencies are also keeping strangely quiet about the outbreak. Which is odd, because this isn’t just about humanitarian assistance – it’s also, as Kel Currah observed to me in conversation, a powerful opportunity for them to make the argument about why massive investment is needed to scale up entire health systems.

To return to a theme I’ve often blogged about before (most recently here on Eden 2.0), Ebola is a classic case of a shock that has the potential to open up a lot of political space to make the argument for doing more to help developing countries – but it all depends on the right influencers being ready to move swiftly to make those arguments.