Negotiating Counterinsurgency: The Politics of Strategic Adaptation

(Book Manuscript in progress; article published in Security Studies, 2020)

My current research examines the politics of counterinsurgent adaptation, asking why counterinsurgents tend to adopt and retain strategies they recognize to be ineffective rather than selecting new ones. I focus on the impact of political interests and processes of strategic planning, demonstrating that strategy is produced by a process of recommendation, persuasion, and negotiation between advisors and policymakers. Ultimately, policymakers select the strategy that best conforms to their political preferences from among the recommendations of competing military and diplomatic advisors.

This research examines two levels: first, the ways in which domestic political pressures create constraints on strategy, but perhaps more importantly, second, the ways in which geostrategic objectives and constraints perceived by policymakers force counterinsurgency strategy to conform to overarching foreign policy goals. Strategic change becomes likely when new geostrategic challenges render existing strategies liabilities for emerging foreign policy objectives, or when leaders adopt radically different foreign policy goals.

The article examines the impact of the onset and end of World War II on British responses to the Arab and Jewish Rebellions in the Palestine Mandate.

The book manuscript will extend the analysis to the case of British counterinsurgency in Malaya and Cyprus and American counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Malaya demonstrates how new leadership leads to a shift in preferences for processes and outcomes, enabling major changes in counterinsurgency campaigns. The case of Cyprus demonstrates how emerging geostrategic pressures can force a counterinsurgent to abandon a successful strategy. The Vietnam War reveals a shifting relationship between (perceptions of) geostrategic pressures on one hand and domestic political constraints on the other.

Coordination or Control? The Politics of Civil-Military Relations during Counterinsurgency

The importance of strong civil-military cooperation has become a tenet of faith among scholars and practitioners or counterinsurgency, but, historically, effective cooperation has been a major challenge for counterinsurgents. While we tend to picture counterinsurgents as a single, unified actor with a single goal, the reality is that counterinsurgents are composed of multiple actors with distinct responsibilities and concerns. Due to the complexity of counterinsurgency campaigns, it is often the case that the actions preferred by one agent to achieve their objectives may constitute liabilities for another actor (for example, effective military operations may impede political or diplomatic processes). Coordination is hindered by often antagonistic preferences, undermining cooperation. This challenge often must be solved through the creation of command and control institutions which subordinates one set of interests to another.

The challenge of civil-military cooperation is highlighted through a survey of tensions in historical campaigns in the British Empire, both successful and failed, including South Africa, Ireland, Palestine, Malaya, Cyprus, and Oman. I show that successful campaigns overcome these challenges by integrating chains of command (often under military direction) while failed campaigns did not. This produces potentially uncomfortable policy recommendations for democratic societies who believe in the strict separation of civil and military chains of command.

Deterring Defection or Compelling Collaboration? The Multiple Logics of Violence against Non-Combatants

This project presents a theoretically-driven typology of the multiple logics behind non-combatant targeting during wartime. Specifically, I show that the use of collective targeting and collective punishments can be used in a number of distinct strategies, drawing on Thomas Schelling’s typology of violence and coercion, focusing on the distinction between strategies designed to deter defection, compel collaboration, and brute-force “drain the sea.”

I use the example of changing British strategies during the Palestinian Rebellion to highlight the differences in each logic and the conditions which are likely to render them more or less effective.

Saudi Arabia and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process

Saudi Arabia has been a leading Arab player in the Arab-Israeli peace process since the 1980s and the creation of the Fahd Plan. More recently, following 9/11, Crown Prince (and later King) Abdullah created the Arab Peace Initiative. Saudi leaders see the Arab-Israeli conflict as a source of three of distinct threats to the state’s security and the regime’s hold on power.  First is the emergence of domestic (especially Islamist) challenges to Saudi Policy, which is seen to be strongly pro-US and pro-Israel, undermining its Arab and Islamic legitimacy. Second is the ways in which support for the Palestinians and aggression towards Israel encourages a process of outbidding by regional rivals, at various times Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, which encourages conflict and undermines regional stability. Third is the ways in which Saudi Arabia’s negative image in the West, especially following 9/11, might undermine US support for Saudi security. Saudi rulers saw active leadership in the Arab-Israeli peace process as a way to simultaneously address all three challenges, rendering it an instance of “omnibalancing,” or the use of foreign policy to simultaneously address internal and external security threats.

Future Research

Plans for upcoming projects

Military Ineffectiveness in the Middle East

My next major research project will address the ongoing debate over the sources of military ineffectiveness among Middle East, especially Arab, armies. Recent research has adopted the conservative, culturalist trope arguing that deficiencies in Arab culture undermine their ability to train, coordinate, and fight. This research has ignored the recent structuralist turn demonstrating how regimes facing internal threats tend to create armies ill-adapted for conventional combat, while also adopting inconsistent theoretical foundations and orientalist conceptions of Arab inferiority.

I aim to extend the structural argument to explain variation in battlefield performance in the Middle East by examining the ways in which different internal security and coup-proofing strategies impact military preparedness and battlefield performance. The project will examine the performance of Arab armies, including Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq in successive wars against Israel (’48, ’67, and ’73) to compare different armies against a single adversary as well as changes in each army over time to show that the cultural argument fails to explain variation in battlefield performance. I will then extend the analysis to analyze variation in battlefield performance in recent conflicts in the Middle East including wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Past research

contesting identities cover

My first book, Contesting Identities in South Sinai, examines the impact of Egyptian development policies in South Sinai on the culture and identity of the Bedouin tribes that inhabit the area, arguing that increasing state penetration has led to the emergence of a Bedouin “ethnic” identity mobilized to resist state policies that favor migrants and multinationals over local inhabitants, and that increasing stateness is failing to encourage national integration and the internationalization of national identities and ideologies.

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