Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

A Middle Eastern Perspective on Partner Capacity Building

Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

A Middle Eastern Perspective on Partner Capacity Building

Article excerpt

The extent of the threat to NATO's southern flank, which is rooted in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region's instability1 and exacerbated by the polymorphous, multi-theatre offensive of the Islamic State (IS) in the region and beyond, is widely acknowledged. Yet the primary expression of this threat seems poorly characterised by both Western and MENA states. As will be argued herein, the threat is taking the form of jihadi insurgency, which may be defined as a violent political process involving the population, a conflict rooted in the uprising of a community aimed at altering "the government and sometimes the very structure of society,"2 but for a variety of reasons, ranging from political taboo to cultural biases, the insurgent nature of jihadism tends to be ignored. Rather, the conflict is seen through fragmented lenses that fail to capture the essence of the phenomenon holistically.

Failure to recognise the true nature of the challenge at hand entails significant implications for cooperation between NATO and partner countries bordering its southern flank. As Townshend put it: "If the nature of the challenging 'force' is misunderstood, then the counter-application of force is likely to be wrong."3

A Compartmentalised Perception of the Threat

From a military point of view, many lenses have been applied to insurgency without properly naming it. It has been labelled "military operations other than war," "small wars," "guerrilla warfare," and "asymmetric conflicts." On the civilian side, insurgencies are routinely labelled as "terrorism" or vaguely as "violent extremism."

These, to be sure, are not completely removed from the reality of insurgency. The common characteristic of these categories is their reductionism which mainly manifests itself through a denial of the political dimension of the phenomenon and the spotlight placed on its kinetic aspects. As noted by Mackinlay, "government officials did not want to see it as a form of insurgency, it was politically more acceptable to categorise it as something which had no support or realistic objective."4 But movements such as the Islamic State or entities affiliated with or inspired by Al-Qaeda, such as Ansar al-Shari'a in Libya and Tunisia, "which in addition to committing acts of terrorism also had a political strategy to subvert the population to such an extent that it attracted a reciprocating political response from the government, amounted to something more than terrorism." Thus, "by successfully involving a substantial element of the population they raised the game from terrorism to insurgency."5 The insurgency concept indeed addresses the essence of the phenomenon, its socio-political dimension and the centrality of the population, whilst also capturing the diversity of tactics and doctrinal options insurgents may rely upon, from the provision of services and alternative forms of governance to proselytism, assassinations, terrorism, guerrilla tactics, even gradual progression towards more conventional forms of warfare.

COIN: A Western Taboo

Beyond the political correctness that traditionally leads decision-makers to label insurgents as mere terrorists, reluctance to call insurgency by its name is notably related, in Western countries, to never-ending cycles of often unsuccessful military engagements against non-state players overseas. After the failed recent U.S.-led interventions in Iraq (2003-2011) and Afghanistan in particular, criticism of counterinsurgency flourished.6 The spectacular emergence of the Islamic State, despite the Surge, which is regarded as the archetypal contemporary COIN deployment, gave even more traction to anti-COIN arguments.

One may be tempted to quickly discard these criticisms as manifestations of the refusal to tolerate combat casualties, characteristic of the "Postheroic Era" described by Luttwak.7 Indeed, the Postheroic shift in Western tactics he predicted seems so characteristic of post-Surge operations: "a partial solution has been found in the advent of routine precision in aerial bombardment both by remotely launched cruise missiles and by manned aircraft, themselves armed with guided weapons. …

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