Veranstaltungshinweis: “Wehrhafte Schweiz” – ein einmaliges historisches Filmdokument zur Schweizer Armee

Der Armeepavillon an der Expo'64 (© Musées lausannois).

Der Armeepavillon an der Expo’64 (© Musées lausannois).

Am 12. und 13. September 2014 präsentiert Memoriav, der Verein zur Erhaltung des audiovisuellen Kulturguts der Schweiz, im Rahmen von “50 Jahre Expo’64″ einzigartige audiovisuelle Schätze dieser unvergesslichen Landesausstellung in einem 360-Grad-Panorama-Kino auf dem Bundesplatz in Bern. Gezeigt werden kontextualisierte Ausschnitte von “Rund um Rad und Schiene” (Thema: Schweizerische Bundesbahnen), “Wehrhafte Schweiz” (Thema: Schweizer Armee) sowie “La Suisse s’interroge” (Thema: selbstkritische Auseinandersetzung mit der Schweiz). Sie ergeben zusammen ein facettenreiches Bild einer Schweiz der 1960er Jahre: martialisch im Kalten Krieg, touristisch weltoffen in der Hochkonjunktur und zunehmend selbstkritisch in einem gesellschaftlichen Umbruch.

2014 jährt sich die Expo’64 zum 50sten Mal. Sie war aus gesellschaftlicher und kultureller Sicht für die Schweiz von grösster Bedeutung, indem sie ein Land zeigte, das sich am Scheideweg zwischen Tradition und Moderne, zwischen geistiger Landesverteidigung, kaltem Krieg und sozialem Wandel befand. Lange blieb unklar, ob und wie sich die Armee an der Landesausstellung von 1964 präsentieren sollte. Schliesslich wurde auf dem Gelände der Expo’64 als Armeepavillon ein mit 141 Betonstacheln gepanzerten Igel konstruiert, welcher die strategische Lage der Schweiz während des Zweiten Weltkriegs und die nationale Verteidigungsdoktrin symbolisieren sollte, welche auch während des Kalten Krieges bestand hatte. Im Auftrag der Schweizer Armee wurde die Public Relation Agentur Farner beauftragt, für die Landesaustelllung das Bild einer modernen Armee zu entwerfen. Im Gegensatz zum weit verbreiteten Bild eines sich verteidigenden Volkes, setzte die Agentur auf das Zusammenspiel von Soldat und Technik, bildgewaltig umgesetzt mit einem betont nüchternen Kommentar. Man wollte beeindrucken und nicht den Eindruck von Belehrung erzeugen. Im Film und in der Ausstellung im Armeepavillon wird alles gezeigt, was die Schweizer Armee damals vorzuweisen hatte: Hawker Hunter, de Havilland Vampire, de Havilland Venom, Centurion Panzer, Schützenpanzer M113, 35 mm Flab Kan 63 mit dem Feuerleitgerät 63 Superfledermaus, diverse Saurer M8 und 4MH, Flammenwerfer, Häuserkampf, Sprengungen usw.

3-Panel Beispielbild nach der Farbrekonstruktion.

3-Panel Beispielbild nach der Farbrekonstruktion.

“Wehrhafte Schweiz” wurde in einem Spezialformat produziert: In höchstmöglicher Bildqualität auf 70mm gedreht, ist die Kamera ständig in Bewegung auf Schlitten, Flugzeugen und Hängebrücken. Doch dafür fehlte das handwerkliche Können in der Schweiz. Mit dem niederländischen Regisseur John Fernhout, dem US-amerikanischen Kameramann Robert Gaffney – ehemaliger Kameraassistent bei Stanley Kubricks2001: A Space Odyssey” – und dem deutschen Kameraassistent Dieter Gäbler wurden die richtigen Personen zur Umsetzung des Projektes gefunden. “Wehrhafte Schweiz” verfügt über weite Strecken eine unerwartet zeitgemässe Ästhetik der 60er Jahre. Unter dem Namen “Fortress of Peace” sorgte der Film auch international für Furore und wurde unter der Kategorie “Best Live Action Short Film” für den Oscar nominiert. In der Schweiz überzeugt er die einen sehr, der Militärpublizist Gustav Däniker spricht von einem neuen Leitbild der Armee, andere empfinden die Darstellung als zu militärisch und vermissen die Betonung des Milizcharakters der Armee. “Wehrhafte Schweiz” ist aus heutiger Sicht ein einzigartiges Dokument der Positionsfindung der Schweizer Armee im Kalten Krieg und ein aussergewöhnliches Kapitel Schweizer Filmgeschichte mit einer breiten Wahrnehmung über die Schweiz hinaus.

“Wehrhafte Schweiz” wurde in den letzten Monaten vom Zentrum elektronische Medien (ZEM) des Eidgenössisches Departement für Verteidigung, Bevölkerungsschutz und Sport restauriert und digitalisiert und wird am 12. und 13. September 2014 auf dem Bundesplatz in Bern erstmals nach 50 Jahren wieder in seiner “Ursprungsversion” der Öffentlichkeit gezeigt.

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Memoriav zeigt am Freitag, 12. September 2014 10:00 bis 18:30 Uhr (im 30-Minuten-Takt; letzte Vorführung: 18:00 Uhr) und Samstag, 13. September 2014: 10:00 bis 22:00 Uhr (im 30-Minuten-Takt; letzte Vorführung 21:30 Uhr) diese Filme in einem 360-Grad-Panorama-Kino auf dem Bundesplatz in Bern. Der Eintritt ist frei.

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Posted in Armed Forces, History, Switzerland | Leave a comment

Europe’s Role in an East Asian War

by Felix F. Seidler. Felix is a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany and runs the site Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik“. This article was published there at first.

Major war in East Asia is a very unpleasant, but not unthinkable scenario. Of course, the US would be involved from day one in any military conflict in the East or South China Seas. However, Europe’s role would be less clear, due to its increasing strategic irrelevance. Most probably, except the UK, Europeans would deliver words only.

Claims in the South China Sea (Source: The Economist).

Claims in the South China Sea (Source: The Economist).

Europe’s reactions depend on America
While Asia’s naval arms race keeps going, tensions are rising further in the East and South China Seas. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any side will lunch a blitz-strike and, thereby, start a regional war. Although China is increasing its major combat capabilities, it is instead already using a salami-slicing tactic to secure its large claims. However, the worst of all threats are unintended incidents, caused for example by young nervous fighter pilots, leading to a circle of escalations without an exit in sight.

Hence, let us discuss the very unpleasant scenario that either there would be a major war between China and Japan or between China and South China Sea neighboring countries, such as Vietnam or the Philippines. Of course, the US would be involved in the conflict from day one. But what about Europe? The Old Continent would surely be affected, especially by the dramatic global economic impact an East Asian War would have. However, European countries’ reactions would very large depend on what the US is doing. The larger the US engagement, the louder Washington’s calls for a coalition of the willing and capable.

The UK would (maybe) go
The Royal Navy undertakes annual “Cougar Deployments” to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, the UK still has expeditionary capabilities to join US-led operations in East of Malacca. Disaster relief after Typhoon Haiyan by the destroyer HMS Daring and the helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious proved that British capability. While Daring is a sophisticated warship, the 34 year old Illustrious with her few helicopters and without fixed-wing aircraft would not be of much operational worth.

Moreover, since 2001, the Royal Navy always operates one SSN with Tomahawk cruise-missiles in the Indian Ocean, probably the most sophisticated high-intensity warfare platfrom the Royal Navy would have to offer for an East Asia deployment. In addition, the UK still has access to ports in Singapore and Brunei, although there is no guarantee that these countries, when not involved in the conflict, would open their ports for British ships underway to war. Hence, Darwin in Australia, which is likely to join forces with the US, could be an other option for replenishment.

Royal Navy SSN in the Suez Canal in 2001 (Photo: The Hindu).

Royal Navy SSN in the Suez Canal in 2001 (Photo: The Hindu).

Through the Polar Route (a route European airlines used while Soviet airspace was closed) and with aerial refueling or stops in Canada and Alaska, Britain could also deploy some of its Eurofighters to Japan. In consequence, Britain would be capable of doing, at least, something.

The question mark is, if Britain is willing to take action. Surely, UKIP’s Nigel Farage would not hesitate a minute to use the broad public reluctance to expeditionary endeavors for his’ own means. As in case of Syria, a lack of public support at home could prevent the UK from a military involvement. It would be hard for any UK Government to sell to the British voter to cut back public spending at home while signing checks for the Royal Navy heading towards East Asian waters.

France would not make a difference
Beside the US, France is the world’s only navy with a permanent presence through bases in all three oceans. Although, with one frigate, France’s Pacific presence of surface warships is relatively small. The one French Tahiti-based frigate deployed to an East Asian theater would not make a difference, but be a rather small show of force.

Like Britain, France permanently operates warships in the Indian Ocean, which it could also deploy to East Asia. Its nuclear-powered carrier Charles de Gaulle and SSN would also be able to tour beyond Singapore, however with a relatively long reaction time.

Paris’ main hurdle would be the same as London’s: The lack of public support. Le Pen would do exactly the same as UKIP and mobilize publicly against a French engagement and, thereby, against the government. Moreover, France has not the money necessary for any substantial and high-intensity engagement. In addition, a weak president like Hollande would fear the political risks. Given the operation ends in a disaster for the French, e.g. with the Charles de Gaulle sunk by the Chinese, Mr. Hollande would probably have to resign. Hence, do not expect an active role of France during an East Asian conflict.

Frigate Floréal, at anchor in Bora-Bora lagoon, 24th of Novembre 2002 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Frigate Floréal, at anchor in Bora-Bora lagoon, 24th of Novembre 2002 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

 
No role for NATO and EU
On paper, NATO, with its Standing Maritime Groups, seems to be capable of deploying relevant naval forces across the globe. In practice, however, any mission with a NATO logo needs approval of 28 member states. Due to NATO’s present pivot to Russia, many members would object any new NATO involvement outside the Euro-Atlantic Area. As the US prefers coalitions of the willing and capable anyway, there would be no role for NATO in an East Asian war.

In addition, there is also no role for the EU. Since 2011, the rejections each year to the EU for observing the East Asia Summit are showing Brussels’ enduring strategic irrelevance in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, neutral EU members, like Sweden and Austria, would never allow any active involvement. It is even questionable, if EU members could agree on a common political position or sanctions – something they have already failed to do often enough.

Dependent on the size and kind of US response, smaller European countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway may join forces with the US Navy and send single vessels through the Panama Canal into the Pacific or replace US warships on other theaters. This is not far from reality, because these countries did already sent warships into the Pacific for the RIMPAC exercise. However, their only motivation would be to use these deployments to make their voices better heard in Washington.

Sino-German Summit 2012 (Photo: Thomas Koehler).

Sino-German Summit 2012 (Photo: Thomas Koehler).

What would Germany do?
First of all, Germany is the enduring guarantee that, when confronted with major war in East Asia, NATO and EU will do nothing else than sending out press releases about their “deep concern”. Being happy that ISAF’s end terminates the era of large expeditionary deployments, Germany’s political class would never approve an active military role in East Asia – left aside that Germany would not be able to contribute much, anyway.

Germany would first and foremost defend its trade relationships with China, which is in its national interests. Thus, the much more interesting question is, if the German government would develop the will to take on the initiative for a diplomatic solution. Germany has very good relationships with the US, China, Japan and South Korea. Vietnam and other South East Asian countries have frequently expressed greater interest in deeper cooperation with Germany.

Hence, Germany has the political weight necessary to work for a diplomatic solution. The question is whether German politicians would be willing to work for that solution themselves. Most probably, Berlin’s press releases would call for the United Nations and the “International Community” (whoever that would be in such a scenario) to take action.

What Germany could do and what would get approval at home, is to implement measures of ending hostilities and re-establishing peace – maybe by an UN-mandated maritime monitoring mission or by the build-up of a new trust-creating security architecture.

Europe’s limits
The debate about a European role in an East Asian major war is largely hypothetical. Nevertheless, it teaches us three relevant lessons.

  1. We see how politically and militarily limited Europe already has become in the early stages of the 21st century. Given current trends continue, imagine how deep Europe’s abilities will have been sunk in twenty years.
  2. The main reasons for Europe’s limits are the lack of political will, public support and money. Europe’s march to irrelevance is not irreversible. However, it would need the political will for change and an economic recovery making new financial resources available.
  3. We are witnessing an increasing European geopolitical and strategic irrelevance beyond its wider neighborhood. In reality, Europe’s role in an East Asian war would be nothing else but words.
Posted in English, Felix F. Seidler, Sea Powers, Security Policy | Leave a comment

Sea Control 42 – Asian-Pacific Fighters in Iraq and Syria

It is well known that fighters, especially from US-America and Europe, are participating in the war in Syria and in the violence in Iraq and Yemen. Today, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder expressed is concern about fighters from Europe and the United States. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate around 7,000 of the 23,000 violent extremists operating in Syria are foreign fighters, mostly from Europe. (Timothy Gardner, “U.S. concerned foreign fighters in Syria are working with Yemenis“, Reuters, 13.07.2014). But the US and Europe are not alone with this problem: in Syria, there could be 60 to 200 fighters from Australia (“ICSR Insight: Up to 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria; steep rise among Western Europeans“, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 17.12.2013) and another 200 fighters from Indonesia (Phillip Coorey “Syria war graduates bigger threat than 2001 attacks, says Abbott“, The Australian Financial Review, 10.06.2014).

This episode of Sea Control turns its focus to foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria. Natalie Sambhi, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), interviews Andrew Zammit, a researcher at Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC), and Levi West, a lecturer in terrorism and National Security and course coordinator for Masters of Terrorism & Security Studies at Charles Sturt University. Both guests discuss the ways in which foreign fighters returning from the Middle East impact on Australian and regional security and on the global jihadist movement. Both Andrew and Levi also discuss the role of social media.

Listen to episode #42 immediately

 
Latest: Episode #42 – Archive: all episodes – Don’t miss any future episodes and subscribe on iTunes.

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CIMSECThe Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) is a non-profit, non-partisan think tank. It was formed in 2012 to bring together forward-thinkers from a variety of fields to examine the capabilities, threats, hotspots, and opportunities for security in the maritime domain. Check out the NextWar blog to join the discussion. CIMSEC encourages a diversity of views and is currently accepting membership applications here.

Posted in Australia, English, Sea Control, Security Policy, Terrorism | Leave a comment

South American Troops Take On The Violent Work of Peacekeeping

Chilean peacekeepers in Haiti. UN photo/

Chilean peacekeepers in Haiti. UN photo

by Kevin Knodell. Kevin Knodell is a freelance writer and photographer who contributes regularly at War is Boring. His work has also appeared in  RAGEMAG, Michael Yon’s Frontline Forum, The Tacoma News Tribune, and others. You can follow him on twitter at @KJKnodell

Last month, the U.S. State Department announced that it would be partnering with the Chilean government through its Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI) to fund peacekeeping operations. Chile is home to the Chilean Joint Peacekeeping Operations Center (CECOPAC) in Santiago, which trains Chilean troops and those from neighboring countries in Peacekeeping techniques.

Troops from Central and South American countries have in recent years been heavily active in peacekeeping operations, with Chile and Brazil among the most active participants. They’ve been active in regional operations like the ongoing peacekeeping mission in Haiti, as well as internationally from the Middle East to Africa. Particularly for Brazil, it’s an opportunity to assert itself on the global stage as a rising power.

But they’ve learned that peacekeeping is challenging work. Often, these missions have been mired in vague mandates, unforeseen challenges and controversy. They’ve also often been called to take on missions that fall outside of the traditional parameters of peacekeeping.

Brazilian and Jordanian peacekeepers patrol a slum in Haiti. U.N. Photo

Brazilian and Jordanian peacekeepers patrol a slum in Haiti. U.N. Photo

 
Gangs, Floods and Earthquakes in Haiti
In 2004, Haiti’s first democratically elected leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted by a coup. The country, already plagued by poverty and gang violence was plunged into further chaos. A small force of American, French, Canadian, and Chilean troops landed in the country to restore relative order. They would soon be replaced by a UN force, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission In Haiti, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH.

MINUSTAH would be primarily lead and manned by Brazilian troops, backed up by Argentina, Chile, Jordan, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, the Philippines, Spain, Sri Lanka and Uruguay. At its onset, it was beset by controversy. Aristride has heavily criticized the mission as being part of a conspiracy to suppress his supporters and stomp on the Haitian people’s aspirations. Aristride’s detractors claim that the democratically elected leader had developed despotic tendencies, and had won the 2003 election through fraudulent means. Aristride was previously overthrown in the 1990s, after which the U.S. and U.N. sent troops to help reinstate him as part of Operation Uphold Democracy.

MINUSTAH is the first U.N. peacekeeping operation authorized in the absence of any peace agreement to enforce. Rather, MINUSTAH was tasked more vaguely with combating heavily armed gangs and drug traffickers that had become prevalent in Haiti’s slums. Brazilian troops went into slums armed with more hardware than your average peacekeepers. They had full loads of assault rifles, shotguns, explosives and sidearms.

Brazilian troops take positions during an operation in a Haitian slum. U.N. photo

Brazilian troops take positions during an operation in a Haitian slum. U.N. photo

Some rights groups allege peacekeepers have allowed and even of participated in extra-judicial killings by the Haitian National Police. They’ve also been accused of targeting neighborhoods where support for Aristride is widespread, using gangs and drugs as a pretense for political suppression.

A particularly controversial raid took place in Cité Soleil on July 6, 2005 in which peacekeepers killed Dread Wilme. Depending on who you ask, Wilme was either a ruthless gangster or a committed community leader. Estimates of those killed vary wildly from as low as 5 to as high as 80 depending on the source.

By September 2005, MINUSTAH force commander Lt. Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira had resigned. “We are under extreme pressure from the international community to use violence,” he told a congressional commission in his home country, citing Canada, France, and the United States. His replacement, Gen. Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar was found dead at his hotel on January 7 2006 of apparent suicide. Wikileaks would later reveal that officials from the Dominican Republic suspected that the suicide was actually an assassination masterminded by anti-Aristride activist Guy Phillipe, who believed the Bacellar wasn’t being aggressive enough. Chilean Gen. Eduardo Aldunate, himself accused of complicity in assassinations while serving the Pinochet regime, acted as the interim commander before another Brazilian general was put in charge.

Brazilian peacekeepers evacuate flooding victims after after tropical storm Noel in 2007. U.N. photo

Brazilian peacekeepers evacuate flooding victims after after tropical storm Noel in 2007. U.N. photo

Gangs have been be just one of many adversaries MINUSTAH has come across. Man’s oldest foe, nature, has also proven formidable. Disaster relief and humanitarian assistance have often been a critical mission for peacekeepers. Heavy flooding and hurricanes kept peacekeepers busy during 2008 in particular, as troops and police evacuated people and distributed aid. But perhaps the greatest test was the January 2010 earthquake that rocked the country and killed more than 100,000 people. Several peacekeepers were killed in the earthquake along with MINUSTAH’s political head, seasoned Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi, when his office collapsed. The resulting chaos and the humanitarian crisis stretched U.N. troops thin. American troops were temporarily deployed to aid them in relief efforts. After the earthquake, MINUSTAH renewed its mandate, once again inviting mixed reactions as the move was simultaneously welcomed and protested both in Haiti and around the world. MINUSTAH continues to operate and conduct regular patrols. Despite controversy and leadership struggles, gang violence in the capital has decreased significantly. But the aggressive security operations have not been matched by development. Economic growth has been stagnant, and political progress a challenge.

Uruguayan peacekeepers patrol a Congolese town, December 2013. U.N. photo

Uruguayan peacekeepers patrol a Congolese village, December 2013. U.N. photo

 
Hunting Rebels in the Congo
Last spring, Brazilian Lt. Gen. Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz was appointed the head of The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). He previously served as force commander of MINUSTAH from January 2007-April 2009. South and Central American peacekeepers have already been heavily involved in U.N. operations in the Congo. Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay all contribute troops. They’ve been present for some of the most intense fighting peacekeepers in the country have seen, and at times, have been at the fore front of operations. Like MINUSTAH, some of these operations have been aggressive – and controversial.

In 2006, a group of 80 Guatemalan special forces troops launched an operation into eastern Garamba National Park near the border with Sudan in what was officially called a “reconnaissance patrol” afterword. In reality, the operation was a U.N. sanctioned raid to capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) deputy commander Vincent Otti.

Guatemalan commandos act as an escort for a visit by U.S. AFRICOM commander Gen. Carter. F Ham's in 2011. U.N. photo

Guatemalan commandos act as an escort for a visit by U.S. AFRICOM commander Gen. Carter. F Ham’s in 2011. U.N. photo

The raid went badly. LRA defenses were far more organized and alert than intelligence had suggested. A four hour firefight ensued, and the Guatemalans called in attack helicopters for air support. The LRA killed eight Guatemalan commandos, who in turn managed to kill 15 rebels. Otti lived to fight another day.

As details emerged, diplomats were split on the raid. Few bought the cover story about patrol. The large number of special forces troops made it obvious that it was an offensive operation. Some in the U.N. felt that an offensive operation was a dangerous escalation of a fragile situation, and a grossly inappropriate move for the ostensibly neutral world body. Others saw it as a bold and welcome move, arguing that while the LRA continue to operate, they will be nothing but a hinderance to the peace process and a menace to civilians.

Lt. Gen. Santos Cruz inspects Congolese troops as they prepare to attack a rebel stronghold, April 2014. U.N. photo

Lt. Gen. Santos Cruz inspects Congolese troops as they prepare to attack a rebel held town, April 2014. U.N. photo

“Yes, there will be lots of questions asked about what they (the Guatemalans) were doing. And yes, very few people knew about it,” a U.N. official told Reuters reporters. “But any mission like this needs to be secret for operational security.”

Under Santos Cruz’s leadership, once again under international pressure for results, MONUSOC has continued to be more aggressive. In September, U. N. troops backed the Congolese Army in a major operation against the Rwandan backed M23 rebel group. This aggressive streak has continued, as Cruz regularly travels to the frontline with both peacekeepers and Congolese troops.

As the face of peacekeeping changes, more and more money will be spent on training peacekeepers. They’ll have to learn new techniques, and new strategies. But if the experience of South American peacekeepers in the last decade has shown anything, it’s that peacekeeping is often like any other military operation: violent and unpredictable.

Posted in Armed Forces, DR Congo, English, Haiti, International, Kevin Knodell, Peacekeeping | Leave a comment

Jung & Naiv: diese Schweiz …

Im Rahmen seiner unterhaltsamen aber trotzdem lehrreichen Serie “Jung & Naiv” bespricht Tilo Jung mit Christof Moser, Politikerreporter für “Schweiz am Sonntag” und Redaktionsleiter von www.infosperber.ch ein Interview über die Schweiz. Dabei geht es um die grundlegenden Dinge der Schweiz: Seit wann ist die Schweiz eine Demokratie? Seit wann ist sie “neutral”? Warum ist die Schweiz nicht in der EU, in der NATO, aber dafür im Vatikan vertreten? Warum wechselst jedes Jahr der Bundespräsident? Was geht politisch in der Schweiz? Wie funktioniert das Regieren? Alle diese Fragen werden im aktuellen politischen Kontext im Hintergrund von kürzlich durchgeführten oder kommenden Volksabstimmungen, der Snowden-Affäre und deren Auswirkungen besprochen.

Posted in Politics in General | Leave a comment

Talking to Boko Haram

by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She is currently an editor of the blog “Conflict and Security“, and primarily works in the non-government sector. You can find her through Linkedin or follow her updates on Twitter.

Man claiming to be leader of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, in video screengrab, unknown location, Sept. 25, 2013.

Man claiming to be leader of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, in video screengrab, unknown location, Sept. 25, 2013.

Recently, a non-state armed group in Nigeria called Boko Haram has been brought to the forefront by Western media. Through a worldwide “hashtag campaign” on Twitter, attention has been drawn to the kidnappings of over 200 school girls in the Borno State. Public outrage and international condemnation has led to the United Nations applying sanctions, and adding the group to their proscribed list of “terrorist organisations”. But, could this be hindering chances of dialogue between the government of Nigeria and Boko Haram? So far, military offenses have been undertaken, but how long until it is realised that violence against violence is not an effective means to address grievances? Dialogue needs to be the action taken if the world really wants to “bring back our girls” and look deeply into the causes of the crisis.

Boko who?
The Boko Haram movement goes back to the early 2000s, propagated by spiritual leader and preacher, Mohammed Yusuf. In the early days, the group was referred to as the “Nigerian Taliban”, wanting to withdraw from the secular state of Nigeria, and form a society based on Islamic Sharia law. Initially, the movement sought to overthrow the government through a doctrine of withdrawal, and not through violence. However, radicalisation was spurred by clashes with government security forces, including pervasive police brutality. The followers of Boko Haram consist of university students, clerics and professionals, many of whom are unemployed.

The movement was eventually renamed to “Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad” (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), and it was domestic and foreign media which popularised the name Boko Haram, a phrase interpreted to mean “Western education is sinful”. In a statement by Boko Haram, they revealed their beliefs and intentions:

We will not allow the Nigerian Constitution to replace the laws that have been enshrined in the Holy Qur’an, we will not allow adulterated conventional education (Boko) to replace Islamic teachings. We will not respect the Nigerian government because it is illegal. We will continue to fight its military and the police because they are not protecting Islam. — Boko Haram statement stated in Human Rights Watch, “Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria“, October 2012.

Clashes which occurred in July 2009 were a significant turning point, and cemented Boko Haram’s choice to use violent tactics to achieve their aims. Targeted killings by Boko Haram, and extrajudicial killings of detainees of members by security forces, were a prelude to what would end up being a brutal massacre of more than 800 people in Borno, Bauchi, Yobe, and Kano states. Yusuf was killed in police custody, and Abubakar Shekau succeeded him. In the aftermath of crushing Boko Haram, security forces tore down mosques, and properties were demolished or seized from those suspected to be part of Boko Haram, as well as of relatives of any members – it was a strategy attempting to wipe out their physical presence in order for them to be forgotten.

A local journalist at the time reflected on the situation saying that the 2009 violence was seen to be bubbling in the weeks beforehand, noting a failure of security and intelligence forces to monitor and act early. Government inaction has seen the movement grow stronger and stronger.

The current situation
Since Abubakar Shekau took leadership of the group, Boko Haram is no longer monolithic – there are at least two organisations operating alongside each other: a larger organisation focused on discrediting the government, and a smaller one becoming more sophisticated, but also more lethal in their actions. Boko Haram’s objectives also expanded after Yusuf’s death to include prosecution of those who killed their leaders, release of members in police custody, compensation for the families of dead members, and rebuilding their mosques and schools. Since 2010, they have taken up violent methods to attempt to achieve these goals, including bombings, shoot-and-run attacks, arsons, robberies, and more recently in the media, abductions.

A police officer walks past shops destroyed in a suicide car bomb attack at the entrance to the Bompai police barracks near the police headquarters in the city of Kano. At least 185 people were killed during coordinated attacks by Boko Haram members on police facilities in the city on January 20, 2012.

A police officer walks past shops destroyed in a suicide car bomb attack at the entrance to the Bompai police barracks near the police headquarters in the city of Kano. At least 185 people were killed during coordinated attacks by Boko Haram members on police facilities in the city on January 20, 2012.

Protests, petitions and social media campaigns helped spread the awareness of the kidnapping of over 200 school girls by Boko Haram from the town of Chibok in April 2014. Widespread public pressure called for action – and the international community did indeed respond. The United States gave experts, resources, and defence personnel, and the United Kingdom sent an aircraft and government experts. Other states have also expressed their willingness to assist Nigeria. Most notably, however, is the United Nations’ blacklisting of Boko Haram and imposing sanctions on them as suspicions linger that they are linked to al-Qaeda. But it is not verified that Boko Haram is involved with al-Qaeda, all evidence has so far been unsubstantiated and remains anecdotal.

Nigeria has had previous interaction with Boko Haram, Borno state officials tried to reach out to the group in 2011 where a negotiated settlement was a possibility. Nevertheless, the situation has changed – having the UN listing the group as official terrorists, and with states such as the US who are leading the so called “War on Terror” aiding Nigeria’s search for the group and girls, the chances of talking to Boko Haram have suddenly reduced. Being branded as terrorists, Boko Haram may radicalise even further because it has cast them in a non-negotiable category, ignoring attempts to examine how the group has emerged and understanding their grievances.

Southern residents tend to have better access to healthcare, as reflected by the greater uptake of vaccines for polio, tuberculosis, tetanus and diphtheria. Some northern groups have in the past boycotted immunisation programmes, saying they are a Western plot to make Muslim women infertile. This led to a recurrence of polio, but the vaccinations have now resumed.

Southern residents tend to have better access to healthcare, as reflected by the greater uptake of vaccines for polio, tuberculosis, tetanus and diphtheria. Some northern groups have in the past boycotted immunisation programmes, saying they are a Western plot to make Muslim women infertile. This led to a recurrence of polio, but the vaccinations have now resumed.

A global issue?
Boko Haram has made out to be a global terrorist threat, but the tensions have boiled inside Nigeria. The group is concerned with the country’s internal dialogue within Islam, in northern Nigeria, and as a consequence of socio-economic and political imbalances. Many living in northern Nigeria have lost faith in their institutions and their leaders, as well as being deprived of basic infrastructure and reliable electricity and roads. The north is considered relatively backward in comparison to south of Nigeria – disproportionate educational development, wealth distribution, and corruption, are contributing factors to the desire for a rebirth of fundamentalist Islam in the region. The state security forces have also contributed to the tensions in the region as they have been accused of abuses which include the killing of civilians, the burning of homes, and summary executions.

Dialogue first
“We do not negotiate with terrorists” is the famous phrase uttered by states, but it’s important to distinguish between “dialogue” and “negotiation”. Negotiation comes in the form of a formal peace process, usually with the means to resolve a tension, and the parties both have to make compromises to achieve a resolution. Dialogue is different; it comes before negotiation, and does not have to lead into a formal process at all. This form of talking is beneficial to unmask the identity of an armed group, to understand grievances, and to reveal root causes of tensions.

At this point, it is important to consider that terrorist tactics used by a group should be seen as a form of political communication – an intentional and pre-determined strategy of political violence which is intended to cause fear and intimidate its audience. Through these methods, armed groups are grabbing the attention of those in power to respond – but this is where those in power can make a choice: violence or non-violence, arms or dialogue. So far, Nigeria has attempted to supress the movement by military and police force, but once this fails, they will eventually have to consider some form of political engagement. The more Boko Haram engages with state security forces, the stronger the intrusive nature of the state in the internal dialogue among fundamentalist Islamic groups is perceived, fuelling the cycle of violence further.

There is definite potential for the Nigerian government to engage in dialogue – Boko Haram, in academic terms, could be classified as “contingent terrorists” – a group which actively seeks to negotiate as part of their strategy. In the case of the recent kidnapping, they claim that nothing will happen to the girls as long as the government releases their group members from prison. Once there is something tangible to bargain for, it is easier to enter talks.

Nigeria’s reluctance to engage and possible pitfalls
When deciding to open dialogue with a group, there will always be potential risks. The Nigerian government may sense that engaging in talks will be perceived as legitimising the group and their actions. It may also risk side-lining other groups with more moderate views who have been using peaceful means to voice their concerns, and a group may splinter and divide because of this engagement.

Boko Haram has attacked many schools in northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram has attacked many schools in northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram, like other non-state armed groups usually comprise of loosely linked networks, and have splinter groups which make it difficult for the government to know who to interact with. Another hurdle the government will need to overcome is that dialogue will not be able to take place over Boko Haram’s aim to create a state built on Sharia law. The government would be breaching the Nigerian constitution if it makes any attempt of interfering in the internal changes within any religious group, as all groups are at liberty to direct their own affairs. Any attempt to change religious ideology can only be credibly left to Islamic spiritual leaders and clerics. This has already been a suggestion, to reach out to moderates and clerics who can engage with Islamists intellectually to deconstruct their radical views about Islam.

Dialogue, can however occur around concerns over excessive brutality, and provide talks on how to limit violence by both sides. The state can also address grievances over Boko Haram members currently in prisons – Nigeria has the responsibility to bring these members to trial and punish them accordingly, if there happens to be members kept in prisons without trial it can cause further injustice.

The Nigerian government also has to be genuinely willing to engage with Boko Haram. The government has previously been accused by the group for being deceptive, by opening calls for dialogue and arresting members instead. An intermediary between Boko Haram and the government also decided to quit his role because the government was insincere.

There are opportunities to create channels for dialogue which are informal and non-commital to promote understanding and find common ground. Dialogue is a significant mechanism for accountability and justice, especially for the victims of Boko Haram’s actions. Boko Haram has chosen to use terrorist tactics to achieve their aims, but can choose to use non-violent alternatives if they can see the strength and success in them. Through experience and observation of previous armed groups, it has prompted them to choose violence. If the government can make creative open channels for grievances, and methods to genuinely listen to groups such as Boko Haram, violence may be discarded as an option for groups to pursue their aims. Opening up opportunities for dialogue may also prevent other groups in the region from taking up arms in the future.

In the end, the international community may assist in the search for these girls, but ultimately, this is a local problem and Nigeria will have to resolve it. International pressure, however, may be a positive catalyst for Nigeria to begin to address the root causes which encompass the grievances of groups such as Boko Haram. Nevertheless, what should not be forgotten is that talking should not be a consideration, it should be the first action. Dialogue is simply a conversation and it can always stop. Listening and talking to a group does not mean their claims and methods are legitimate or are being endorsed, and that needs to be understood from the outset. There will always be risks involved when engaging, but these risks can be mitigated. It is difficult to see how the girls will be rescued through the use of force – engagement is necessary to bring them back safely, and to understand long standing tensions.

More information
Patrick Truffer, “The softening of Hamas – Moderation through political participation“, offiziere.ch, 23.01.2012.

Posted in English, Nigeria, Sandra Ivanov, Security Policy, Terrorism | 1 Comment

The Iraq-Vietnam Comparison is Easy to Make But False

Last Monday, we published “What the Fall of Saigon Teaches Us About the Latest ISIS Offensive” by Jeong Lee and Stephanie Chenault, who showed many similarities between recent events in Iraq and the fall of South Vietnam. To give the readers of offiziere.ch a second, different perspective, we selected a commentary by Joseph Trevithick, who believes this comparison is inaccurate. We hope that both articles will motivate our readers to think about just how similar the two situations might be based on these viewpoints – there is no “right” or “wrong”.

Joseph Trevithick is a freelance journalist and researcher. He is also a regular contributing writer at War is Boring and a Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org.

A soldier from the Commando Battalion of the Iraqi Army's 17th Brigade during a training exercise in 2010 (Photo: U.S. Army).

A soldier from the Commando Battalion of the Iraqi Army’s 17th Brigade during a training exercise in 2010 (Photo: U.S. Army).

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s dramatic triumph over Iraqi security forces last month is upsetting for the United States and worrisome for the country’s neighbors. Washington has been compelled to respond not only to this new crisis in southwest Asia, but also to domestic political attacks over the recent historical record. Now, comparisons to the American debacle in southeast Asia some four decades ago are being added to the mix.

The rapid disintegration of an American trained foreign military in the face of a determined opponent make a comparison to the collapse of South Vietnam quite appealing. Iraq’s weak political institutions only make it easier to link the two case studies. However, the two situations are fundamentally different when scrutinized in depth.

Firstly, Iraq and Vietnam simply occupy very different geopolitical spaces. The Vietnamese as a distinct ethnic group had a long and significant history prior to French colonization, marked by aggressive territorial expansion and consolidation. The “Vietnamese Empire” had both successfully absorbed the Kingdom of Champa and ejected the Angkor Kings from the Mekong Delta by the nineteenth century. Imperial Vietnam had established borders and treated its neighbors at least as equal – and often as inferior.

Conversely, Iraq has far less in the way of national identity or cohesive history, having been carved out of Ottoman territory by the British and the French following World War I. Saddam Hussein’s regime consolidated and held power largely by playing the country’s powerful Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish communities against each other. The country’s borders, full of hard lines and sharp angles, show little appreciation for any traditional boundaries.

Iraqi troops from the 6th Regional Commando Battalion are inserted by helicopter during a combined training exercise with American forces in 2011 (Photo: U.S. Army).

Iraqi troops from the 6th Regional Commando Battalion are inserted by helicopter during a combined training exercise with American forces in 2011 (Photo: U.S. Army).

This separates the basic goals of the belligerents in both cases. North and the South Vietnam both understood that they were locked in a battle for the fate of a single nation. Neither regime disputed the country’s existing history or was keen to cede any territorial claims. On the other hand, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is fighting a multi-front war to establish a new regional entity based on their own interpretation of the historical record. They offer an extremely specific religious ideology unhindered by borders rather than advocating any sort of broad-minded national program.

Iraq’s political situation is also significantly different from South Vietnam in 1973. South Vietnam’s head of state changed 10 times in 20 years. While weak, Iraq’s institutions look robust and stable compared to the Republic of Vietnam. Since 2003, Iraq has had only three prime ministers. In Vietnam, the transfers of power were also often marked by violence. The most notable case being the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

General Dương Văn Minh, who led the coup against Diem and ordered his execution, manged to become head of state four separate times. On the other hand, the Shi’ite dominated security forces are likely the only thing keeping Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power in Iraq. Maliki has also worked on appealing to his base just like Saddam Hussein did, as well as calling upon regional allies to help out.

Maliki’s appeal, no matter how limited it might be, is not something that should be dismissed out of hand either. Unlike South Vietnam, Iraq’s government offers a political program that is designed to appeal at least to the country’s Shi’ite majority. The program will likely persist even if Maliki is forced out. This is unlike South Vietnam’s political establishment, which was fractious and inept, prone to violence against itself, and offered a program that could appeal only to those in power.

Iraq’s military also appears to be regrouping in spite of serious concerns about its capabilities. Kurdish forces also appear to be holding their own against ISIS. By contrast, North Vietnam’s renewed push southward in December 1974 never let up. The North’s People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) was closely matched with the South’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in terms of personnel and equipment. Whatever North Vietnamese troops might have lacked in technical experience, they made up in discipline and determination. The PAVN also benefited greatly from various advanced weapons – notably long-range artillery and air defenses – to rout their ARVN opponents and keep them on the run.

Soldiers from the South Vietnamese Army sit on top of a captured North Vietnamese Army Type 59 tank during the 1972 Easter Offensive (Photo: U.S. Army).

Soldiers from the South Vietnamese Army sit on top of a captured North Vietnamese Army Type 59 tank during the 1972 Easter Offensive (Photo: U.S. Army).

ISIS has none of these advantages and cannot afford to have their advance burn out. The Sunni fighters are outnumbered approximately 35 to one and having no significant heavy weapons. The insurgents have repeatedly gloated about equipment captured from retreating Iraqi forces, but it remains unclear just how much of it they will actually be able to use. Iraq may well be able to use sectarian support and foreign military assistance to fight the movement to a stalemate even if they cannot defeat the movement outright.

This potential for a drawn out conflict is perhaps the most significant difference in the end. Iraq has already lasted longer than South Vietnam did after the withdrawal of American combat troops. Washington has also reengaged militarily in Iraq and looks set to expand this new support if need be, which it did not do in Vietnam in 1975. The Joint Forces Land Component Command – Iraq is a division-level task force led by a two-star Army general that could theoretically control over 10,000 US troops. Would pundits be more inclined to make alternative comparisons to the Pentagon’s role in beating back the 1972 Easter Offensive if Obama authorized American airstrikes?

Lastly, Maliki’s regime has just not yet collapsed and he has not fled the country like Nguyễn Văn ThiệuNguyễn Văn Thiệu. The crisis in Iraq has not reached its final outcome, whatever it might be. Comparing the current situation to what happened in South Vietnam might be a little presumptuous in general.

 

Posted in English, Iraq, Joseph Trevithick, Security Policy, Terrorism | 1 Comment

Cartoon of the month: CR(ISIS)

Hamed

As large parts of Iraq are taken over by ISIS, Nouri al-Maliki, who won the 30 April elections, faces dissent between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds in Parliament as well, making the future leadership in Iraq very uncertain.

• • •

The cartoon was drawn by the Syrian cartoonist Yaser Abo Hamed, who is living now in Australia. For additional cartoons by Marian Kamensky check out his page on Cartoon Movement, his Facebook page or his Google+ page.

Posted in Cartoon, English, Iraq, Terrorism | 1 Comment

Sea Control 41 – The View From China

In this very interesting episode, Matthew Hipple talks with Dean Cheng, a Senior Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center at the The Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Cheng is specialized in China’s military and foreign policy, in particular its relationship with the rest of Asia and with the United States. He has detailed knowledge of China’s military and space capabilities and has written extensively on China’s military doctrine, technological implications of its space program and “dual use” issues associated with the communist nation’s industrial and scientific infrastructure.

According to Cheng, China sees itself as a status quo power, but they define it very differently than the US does. The influence of the US in Asia spans about the last 250 years, when China has its weakest period of the last thousand years – also known as the “Century of humiliation“. On the other hand, China defines his status quo power over the last 4’500 years, during which China has been always the centre of Asia. Understandably, China seeks to gain back its influence in Asia and to expand its borders, including outer Mongolia and the territory seized by Russia, Taiwan, southern Tibet, the various islands of the South China Sea and probably more in the long term (see Geoff Wade, “China’s six wars in the next 50 years“, The Strategist, 26.11.2013). But this doesn’t mean that a war is imminent between China and the neighbouring countries. China has no imperialistic attitude – it tries to reach its goals in an indirect way by influencing and intimidating their neighbours and through their salami-slice strategy in the South China Sea.

China under the  Qing Dinasty (1644 – 1911) and as Republic of China until 1949.

China under the Qing Dinasty (1644 – 1911) and as Republic of China until 1949.

Dealing with China requires another view on International Relations. From the European and US-American perspective, International Relations often has something to do with “Balance of Power“, but in Asia it’s more about “Bandwagoning“. Accordingly, China’s neighbours are reacting differently, but not really hostile. For example the Philippines sued China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which leaved China unimpressed. There were also multiple ramming incidences between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels, but both countries are not interested to escalate these skirmishes.

The US is exploiting the disaffection of the Chinese neighbours by building an alliance structure to contain China. This is seen by China as a fundamental problem, which they like to get rid of it. Additional, the US conduct recognition operations along the Chinese coast, publish annually DOD’s report to Congress about China and sell arms to Taiwan. All these actions are antagonising China. Even China will not go to war about these disputes, it sees the US-American influence in Asia as the core of the problem. Should these disputes escalate to a question about the dominance over Asia in the 21th century, China could see itself forced to take up arms.

Should the situation escalate, China’s economic center of gravity lies at the coastlines, which they protect with an anti-access-aerial-deny strategy. Cheng lines out that the US, most likely, will not find the solution to an escalated situation by military means. Relating to submarine tactics of the US and their allies, he criticizes vehemently the Chinese participation at RIMPAC 2014.

During the podcast, Cheng speaks about the Chinese “status quo”, about the South China Sea, India, Pakistan, the use of crises as policy tools and about a lot more, which gives you a look behind the headlines.

Listen to episode #41 immediately

 
Latest: Episode #41 – Archive: all episodes – Don’t miss any future episodes and subscribe on iTunes.

More information

• • •

CIMSECThe Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) is a non-profit, non-partisan think tank. It was formed in 2012 to bring together forward-thinkers from a variety of fields to examine the capabilities, threats, hotspots, and opportunities for security in the maritime domain. Check out the NextWar blog to join the discussion. CIMSEC encourages a diversity of views and is currently accepting membership applications here.

Posted in China, English, Sea Control, Sea Powers, Security Policy | 1 Comment

What the Fall of Saigon Teaches Us About the Latest ISIS Offensive

by Jeong Lee and Stephanie Chenault. Jeong Lee is a freelance writer whose writings on U.S. defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications. Lee looks forward to start his Master of Arts program in International Security Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies this September. Stephanie Chenault is the Chief Operating Officer of Venio Inc. and a Strategy Consultant for the Department of Defense. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering from Texas A&M University and an Master of Science in Astrophysics from the Naval Postgraduate School. This article originally appeared on the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs’ online blog on July 3rd, 2014, and is posted by permission.

Evacuation of CIA station personnel and Vietnamese citizens from Saigon, April 29, 1975 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Evacuation of CIA station personnel and Vietnamese citizens from Saigon, April 29, 1975 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

The capture of Mosul and Tal Afar by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) throughout the month of June coupled with the terrorist group’s press towards Baghdad via Samarra and recent declaration an independent caliphate a week ago has led some foreign policy analysts to worry that Iraq may be on the verge of a sectarian civil war. Barbaric images from the areas captured during the ISIS campaign are near-ubiquitous online, and feed concerns that a similar fate awaits the Iraqi capital.

While the uniqueness of the ISIS challenge cannot be underestimated, and while no wars are exactly alike, historical parallels between what happened in South Vietnam in 1975 and the current situation in Iraq are striking. The targeting of Iraq’s capital city by an extremist jihadist group from the north just two-and-a-half years after the formal withdrawal of American combat troops recollects the successful North Vietnamese Army (NVA) offensive to capturethe South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon two years after U.S.-President Richard Nixon ordered the evacuation of the last U.S. combat troops from the country. Four critical parallels between the two cases may help inform the American and Iraqi response to ISIS as well as articulate the challenges that confront both countries as the crisis progresses.

First, in both 1975 Vietnam and today’s Iraq, the inheritance of foreign entanglements resulted from the departure of American troops. A year after the United States, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, North Vietnamese Communist leaders in Hanoi drew up a two-year campaign to capture South Vietnam. The NVA’s push to reunify the country began with the capture of the province of Phuoc Long. By the time Ban Me Thuot fell in March 1975, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was in disarray. Although U.S.-President Nixon had repeatedly promised South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu that the United States would “not tolerate violations of the Peace Agreement“, his resignation and succession by Gerald Ford ultimately meant that the United States was unable to “make good on Nixon’s promises to Saigon“. Similarly, the fact that ISIS has set its sights on Baghdad so soon after the formal withdrawal of American combat troops suggests that a hasty administrative handover from Washington left critical Iraqi institutions vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

ISIS fighters round up captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit.

ISIS fighters round up captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit.

Secondly, political unrest and weak leadership were also legacies of the United States’ military withdrawal from both South Vietnam and Iraq. In response to the NVA blitzkrieg, South Vietnamese President Thiệu adopted the so-called “enclave policy” of holding on to coastal urban centers in hopes that U.S. B-52 bombers would come to the rescue. A series of confusing orders from Thiệu — who feared a possible coup against him — coupled with mounting political instability within South Vietnam ultimately resulted in Saigon’s capitulation. As tensions increase with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish population over a lack of political representation, the country’s ruling Shiite sect, spearheaded by Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, may face a similar situation to that of the South Vietnamese four decades prior.

Avoiding further military entanglement is as much on President Obama’s mind in 2014 as it was on Nixon’s and Ford’s forty years ago. The dispatch of 300 U.S. Army Special Forces combat advisers to Iraq echo President Obama’s commencement speech given at the United States Military Academy last month, in which he stated that “[on issues that] do not pose a direct threat to the United States [...] we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action”. On this matter, Obama seems to be walking a fine political line between collaboration with the Iraqi government and direct military intervention. Indeed, it should be noted that the president dispatched the advisers with a cautiously worded directive “to assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward”. It will be critical for these advisers to balance multiple objectives on the ground, including setting up a joint operations center and supporting the Iraqi Army. And, while these are very noble pursuits, it will likely require a projection of Iraqi nationalism via American soft power to unify a people whose sectarian lines run deep.

Thirdly, as with South Vietnam in 1975, the Iraqi government faces more than just the threat of violent removal by ISIS. Even more important than their military campaigns, the NVA effectively employed so-called Armed Propaganda Teams who made use of storytelling and dramatic theater in rural areas to propagandize an idealized image of communist postwar rule. While ISIS does not yet field a fully conventional army able to physically overrun Baghdad, the terrorist group possesses a dangerous, modernized propaganda machine potentially capable of dismantling the city from the inside. Whereas the NVA used theater, ISIS is waging its propaganda war through Twitter and online videos.

South Vietnamese marines line beaches and swim out to ships, fleeing from the northern port city of Da Nang on March 29, 1975 before its fall to the Viet Cong and north Vietnamese. This picture was taken as some marines successfully fled, abandoning scores of weapons, vehicles and even a helicopter. In the foreground, men on LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) prepare to throw rope to marines coming up on inner tubes. Only a fraction of the city’s 100,000 defenders were evacuated before its fall.

South Vietnamese marines line beaches and swim out to ships, fleeing from the northern port city of Da Nang on March 29, 1975 before its fall to the Viet Cong and north Vietnamese. This picture was taken as some marines successfully fled, abandoning scores of weapons, vehicles and even a helicopter. In the foreground, men on LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) prepare to throw rope to marines coming up on inner tubes. Only a fraction of the city’s 100,000 defenders were evacuated before its fall.

Through a Western lens, ISIS’s psychological warfare is decidedly distorted—underpinned by exaggeration, inflated resources, and augmented by the violence of documented extrajudicial killings and summary executions. The extremist group employed these tactics to secure its territorial expansion among an already shell-shocked Iraqi population. Violence coupled with social media successfully thwarted potential resistance against ISIS fighters, which could have formed in Iraq’s Al-Anbar, Nineveh, Diyala, or Salah al-Din provinces.

The ISIS propaganda campaign has also received an external boost from several factions in the region hostile to Washington. The notable emergence last week of the decidedly anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army kept Sadr City under siege from 2003-2007, rekindled anti-interventionist fervor at the mere suggestion of American involvement. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s recent accusation that the Obama Administration is attempting to “exploit sectarian rivalries” to influence events in the Middle East may also suggest that the United States’ ability to exert leverage in the region has diminished. Given these circumstances, communication may be the only way for the Obama administration and its combat advisers to maximize their effect. In addition to their military endeavors, these advisers must assist in the running of a successful counter-propaganda mission as vocal opposition to the perceived reprise of U.S. military involvement intensifies.

This image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, which is consistent with AP reporting, shows a convoy of vehicles and fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in Iraq's Anbar Province.

This image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, which is consistent with AP reporting, shows a convoy of vehicles and fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

A fourth and final parallel concerns the nature of political extremism itself. Despite marked differences in their governing philosophies, communism and religious radicalism behave similarly when it comes to justifying and implementing retaliation against perceived foreign occupations and sectarian rivals. Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book, “The True Believer, instructively notes the ease with which even manifestly different forms of fanaticism can be whipped up among marginalized masses through similar means. As in the case of protracted communist struggles against foreign occupiers in South Vietnam, communication will likely be key to winning over marginalized Muslims whose mistrust of American influence may be their one commonality. Given that Iraq’s anti-American sentiment crosses sectarian lines, U.S. military advisers and the Obama administration must acknowledge that the al-Maliki government cannot appear heavily dependent on the United States.

Just before South Vietnam fell, President Thiệu blamed Americans for “r[unning] away and l[eaving] us to do the job that you could not do”. As the fall of South Vietnam demonstrates, early vulnerabilities—including the effects of foreign military intervention, real or perceived presidential or political weakness, the withdrawal of military support from one’s principal military ally, a successfully executed propaganda campaign, and the nature of political radicalism, conspire to create an environment ripe for exploitation by extremists. Almost four decades later, facing a similar crisis, the United States cannot expect its junior allies in Iraq to perform miracles in the hope of successfully creating a functioning democratic government. It can, however, assist in countering the effective propaganda war waged by ISIS by empowering marginalized religious and ethnic groups to create a “cross-sectarian” government. Ultimately, it is up to the Iraqi government to gradually achieve political legitimacy in the eyes of its own people in order to stall or blunt ISIS’s advance.

Posted in English, Iraq, Jeong Lee, Stephanie Chenault, Terrorism | 1 Comment