A turning point for Nigeria’s insurgency?

The last two weeks have seen a storm of insurgent activity in Nigeria: Shell’s onshore output has been halved to around 140,000 barrels a day, Chevron has lost about the same again (taking the aggregate output lost to over to a fifth of Nigeria’s total) – and for the first time Lagos has been attacked.  According to Africasia.com,

Fighters from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) attacked the facility, the first strike in Nigeria’s economic nerve centre since the oil insurgency was launched in 2006. Rescuers said five people were burnt beyond recognition in the blast.

“The militants went into open shooting with the naval officers guarding the facility but they were overpowered. They used dynamite to destroy the manifold,” said Geofrey Boukoru, a member of the emergency rescue team.

The militants arrived in four speed boats, exchanging fire sporadically with the navy for about three hours before hurling dynamite into the facility, said a senior official from the Pipelines and Products Marketing Company, an affiliate of the state-run petroleum corporation.

The Lagos attack took place just before the federal government’s planned amnesty release of Henry Okah, the head of MEND – a release that, in the event, still went ahead despite the attack.  MEND has since said in a statement that it “considers this release as a step towards genuine peace and prosperity if Nigeria is open to frank talks and deals sincerely with the root issues once and for all” – although as Abubakar Momoh of Lagos State University observes to AlJazeera, “What the government has done in the case of Okah is like treating the symptom and not curing the disease … there are issues that drove the militants to the trenches. Until those issues are resolved in a fair and just manner, there will never be peace in the Niger Delta.”

As David noted back in November last year, counter-insurgency expert John Robb has called Henry Okah “one of the most important people alive today, a brilliant innovator in warfare”. Here’s Robb’s account of how Okah did it. (more…)

Pakistan, Kilcullen, Evans – a reply to David Miliband

British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband has responded to Alex’s post questioning the wisdom of drone attacks in Pakistan. Citing David Kilcullen, Alex’s argument was that drones killed too many civilians, contradicting basic counterinsurgency doctrine, which is, above all, to secure and serve the population.

Miliband (cautiously) agrees:

The threat to US and Pakistani (and UK) interests is real, the danger and damage of civilian casualties serious, and the range of options limited.

US technology is vitally important, but Pakistan is fighting its own struggle against violent extremism. The drone attacks have undoubtedly hurt the core of AQ, but I see the dangers. The first best solution is obviously to build up Pakistan’s capacity, but first best solutions are not always immediately available.

Miliband’s is right, I think, but there are, unfortunately, much deeper and darker questions to address. As I argued in August last year, Pakistan’s “struggle against violent extremism” has been mounted very much at the America’s behest – and its urgings have been wrong-headed at best, disastrous at worst.

Last summer, the Pakistani Prime Minister was given “an earful” by the White House and told to sort the border regions out. All well and good, except that the United States was pushing the Pakistan military towards a conventional encounter with the militants, something that it’s own manual on counter-insurgency advises strongly against.

The pattern was similaar in 2004, when General Musharraf was persuaded to attack the tribal areas. That led to fury among tribesman, forcing them into the arms of the Taliban. It also led to humiliation for the army, with one poor Colonel taking shelter in a mosque and then emerging to beg for mercy with the Koran on his head. Tribesmen stripped him of his uniform and sent him on his way.

Now, in 2009, we have a massive attack on the Swat valley, which has killed some militants – sure – but has led to the forceful displacement of 2.5 million people, “an exodus that is beyond biblical,” according to the Independent. In the long run, will this campaign contribute to Pakistan’s security? Time will tell, but I suspect not.

I am not, in way, pleading for tolerance for extremism. But I am demanding that we – the Americans in particular – start to stand account for the counterproductive nature of their Pakistan policy since 9/11.

Throughout its time in office, the Bush administration seemed intent on showing it could push a functioning state to the brink of failure. Pakistan’s complicity in arming and supporting the Taliban was ignored by the Bush administration. Instead, it pursued its short term goals in the war on terror with little care for the long term impact on a nuclear armed state with a young, fast-growing, and deeply frustrated population.

In his time in office, Bush hosed billions on the Pakistan army, but dedicated only around 1% of total aid to non-military purposes. America’s political strategy has been non-existent. Its influencing strategy even weaker. It really beggars belief that so much money could be spent only to achieve the reverse of the desired result.

Now, the Obama administration wants to engage in nation building, but it continues to focus efforts on the country’s most unstable zones, rather than supporting a comprehensive, nationwide response from the government. It is also arriving with its cheque book open, only to find that neither it nor the Pakistan government has much idea as to how or where the money should be spent.

Above all, it’s unclear whether – unlike in Iraq at the beginning of the surge, where there was a doctrinal revolution – the protagonists have truly accepted just how badly they have got things wrong. The US counterinsurgency manual describes insurgencies as ‘learning competitions’. If so, I fear that the best that we – the West – and the various arms of the Pakistan state can hope is some kind of consolation prize for taking part. (more…)

William Lind simmers 299 editorials into 3 bullet points

William Lind is (along with Martin van Creveld) the godfather of fourth generation warfare theory, so it’s worth sitting up straight when he publishes his 300th On War column and decides to distil the lessons of the previous 299 columns down into three points.  Here they are, together with his conclusion:

  1. So long as America pursues an offensive grand strategy, Fourth Generation war will ensure her defeat. The reason is Martin van Creveld’s concept of the power of weakness and its intimate relationship with legitimacy. In a Fourth Generation world, legitimacy is the coin of the realm. At root, Fourth Generation war is a contest for legitimacy between the state and a wide variety of non-state primary loyalties. American power lacks legitimacy because, on the physical level, it is so overwhelming. That is the power of weakness: anyone who stands up to the American military becomes a hero. In turn, any state the American military supports loses its legitimacy. The more places America intervenes militarily, the more states lose their legitimacy, to the advantage of Fourth Generation, non-state entities. In effect, we have a reverse Midas touch. Only a defensive grand strategy, where we mind our own business and leave other states to mind theirs, can break us out of this downward spiral.
  2. Second Generation militaries cannot win Fourth Generation wars. Second Generation armed forces, such as those of the United States, fight by putting firepower on targets. This wins at the physical level, but as it does so it brings defeat at the moral level, which is decisive in 4GW. The best current example is Pakistan, where the combination of Predator strikes and arm-twisting of the Pakistani government has undermined the legitimacy of the Pakistani state. That state now stands on the verge of disintegration, which would give al Qaeda and other Islamic 4GW forces the greatest victory they could imagine. The image on Osama’s cave wall should be a Predator, with the title, “Our best weapon.”
  3. There is no chance America will adopt a defensive grand strategy or reform its military to move from the Second to the Third Generation – a necessary though not sufficient step in confronting 4GW – so long as the current Washington Establishment remains in power. That Establishment is drunk on hubris, cut off from the world beyond court politics and thoroughly corrupted by Pentagon “business as usual,” which knows how to buy whatever political support it needs. Like all establishments, it sees any real change as a threat, to be avoided. So long as it reigns, nothing will change.

What are the implications of these three observations? Militarily, they portend continued failure and defeat. We will fail to get out of Iraq before the next phase of that war begins, or, worse, an Israeli attack on Iran costs us the army we have in Iraq. We will be defeated in Afghanistan, because we will refuse to scale our strategic objectives to what is possible and we will continue to alienate the population with our firepower-intensive way of war.

We will push Pakistan over the brink into disintegration, which will be a strategic catastrophe of the first order. We will ignore the disintegration of the state in Mexico, while importing Mexico’s disorder through our ineffective border controls. We will not even be able to stop Somali pirates. What does it say about us when the whole nation rejoices because the U.S. Navy, the most powerful navy on earth, defeated four Somali teenagers?

It does not end with this. These foreign policy failures and military defeats – or even more embarrassing “victories” – become just two of a larger series of crises, including the economic crisis (depression followed by runaway inflation), foreign exchange crisis (collapse of the dollar), political crisis (no one in the Establishment knows what to do, but the Establishment offers the voters no alternative to itself), energy crisis, etc. Together, these discrete crises snowball into a systemic crisis, which is what happens when the outside world demands greater change than the political system permits. At that point, the political system collapses and is replaced by something else. In the old days, it meant a change of dynasty. What might it mean today? My guess is a radical devolution, at the conclusion of which life is once again local.

That would be, on the whole, a happy outcome. But I fear this will be a trip where the journey is not half the fun.

The accidental guerrilla

David Kilcullen on the central concept of his eponymous book:

Interviewer: When did the concept of the “accidental guerrilla syndrome” really start to click?

Kilcullen: It was field observation over ten years or so, but the name came to me one afternoon near the Khyber Pass… My local escort commander pointed out to me that he and his guys were the real foreigners on the Frontier, whereas the al-Qaeda guys had been embedded there for a generation. He said no outsider could tell the locals apart from the terrorists except by accident. And when outsiders intervene to deal with the global terrorists hiding out in areas like the FATA, it turns out people get upset, and the local community coalesces around rejecting outside interference, and closes ranks to support the terrorists….

This has happened in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Thailand, Indonesia, Europe – basically everywhere I’ve worked since 9/11, I have observed some variation on this pattern. I call the local fighters “accidental guerrillas,” because they end up fighting on behalf of extremists, not because they hate the west but because we just turned up in their valley with a Brigade, looking for AQ. And I calculate 90 to 95 percent of the people we’ve been fighting since 9/11 are accidentals, not radicals.”

Via Kotare.