Small Wars Journal

A Discussion with Emma Sky

Tue, 05/08/2012 - 8:42pm

Global Politics' Bob Tollast posted an interview with former COIN advisor Emma Sky.  A short excerpt:

One of the main issues for us resulted from our conceptualization of non-legitimate extremists battling against legitimate government. This conceptualization led us to focus our main effort on building up the capacity of "government", particularly its security forces, and helping it to crush its opposition through force, rather than on brokering political consensus among the competing groups or helping build up the institutions or the processes to manage conflict and competition. What we are witnessing today in Iraq is in part the result of our building up the “security state” at the expense of the “democratic state”.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we created ‘elite bargains’ which excluded key constituents. The excluded groups refused to accept their marginalization, and turned against the Coalition as well as the new elites that we had put in power and who they did not regard as legitimate.


Categories: the Surge - Afghanistan - COIN - Iraq



The test would seem to be:

By going with the method B, is one better able to achieve one's objective (to transform these states and societies along western lines and, in this manner, cause them to become less troublesome and more useful instead)?

Or, by going with method B, is one actually conceding defeat re: this objective?

(Herein, I am suggesting that the compromises that are characteristic of a forum designed to "broker a political concensus" and "manage conflict and competition" between diametrically opposed groups -- [for example, between pro-westernization and anti-westernization groups, if this is in fact possible] -- these such compromises are likely to result in a state and society that is not sufficiently transformed as we desire.)


Fri, 05/11/2012 - 10:31am

Well Bill, if the future is point B then there might be some hope of a better future...

Our goal was/is to transform states and societies along western lines.

How is this best accomplished in conflicts such as those of Iraq and Afghanistan?

a. By (1) elevating the "legitimate" faction (those we believe will work best with us to achieve our goals) and (2) by attempting to crush the "illegitimate" groups (those we believe will oppose the westernization of their state and society)?

b. Or by attempting to broker a political concensus among the pro-westernization and anti-westernization groups and by building the institutions and processes needed to manage the conflict and competition between said groups?


Thu, 05/10/2012 - 7:39am

Robert, David and co, I did this interview. Thanks for the comments.
It seems that in terms of "elite bargains," this has been counterinsurgency norm as well as foreign policy norm for a long time now.
The difference is, in the past the "elite bargain" was a part of the strategy- look at how leaders of South Vietnam were favoured in the past: they had Catholic connections or strong anti Communist credentials, but little standing politically.

These days, elite bargains are purchases as damage limitation rather than strategy, as we saw with the Sahwa movement in Iraq. One could even argue that a lot of COIN tactics are purely for damage limitation: the best practice for when politicians drop the troops in the deep end (not a strategy, as Gentile argues.)

All across the Middle east and the Maghreb, we are dealing with regimes that have fallen or are falling. The old networks of patronage, coup proofing etc. are being reversed, or will be violently reversed soon enough, if we're not careful, even in Libya. Elite bargains? What chance do we have, muddling through the scores of tribes who were sidelined or empowered by the former regime, and separating them from mafia types. If we lend them our blessing, we are helping that process of patronage reversal.I fear this is a real danger in Libya, and as David points out, one hell of a headache in Egypt. But to do the opposite is to deny what many in these new ly free societies want: the desire for revenge.What right did we have to ask the Iraqis not to hang Ba'athists? How can we reconcile the rival Al Awakir, Qadhafa and Magariha tribes tribes in Libya? That capacity is very limited, even more so when we are not always sure of the ultimate intentions of an elite.

So, what is the DoS strategy? The Middle East Partnership initiative: university exchange programmes etc. Is this an attempt to move on from the Cold war mentality of the elite bargain, to circumvent elites altogether, whatever their credentials and to get the youth of the Middle East a new western orientated elite? If so, perhaps the money would be better spent on neutral aid and assistance to the regions youth eg. IT, Engineering etc. rather than teaching about Womens rights etc, which is important, but ultimately risks being thrown in the trash, as we see now with NGO's in Egypt...Give them the non lethal tools to help themselves and let them sort out the politics could be the best way forward...

Dennis M.

Wed, 05/09/2012 - 11:10am

Reiterating COL Jones's point, if an insurgency exists, doesn't that mean that there is at least some debate over the legitimacy of the government? After all, legitimacy is based on internal perception, no?


Wed, 05/09/2012 - 7:29am

Like Madhu singly out key phrases I note Emma's use of 'we created ‘elite bargains’ which excluded key constituents'.

One wonders how an involved nation / coalition can today ensure that it looks further than such an 'elite bargain' with all the advantages of simplicity, effect and mirror-imaging etc. I would contend that Western policy in the Yemen has failed to look beyond the two competing families, let alone in Egypt with a multiple new key constituencies.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 05/09/2012 - 7:20am

Legal legitimacy means little in these conflicts, except to the foreign politicians who grant such fiats in the first place.

The form of legitimacy that matters most is a simple recognition in the eyes and minds of the affected populace of the right of some person or body to govern them. It is that simple, and that difficult.

Often the "illegitimate" challenger is far more legitimate in ways that matter most, and the "legitimate" government is far more illegitimate in those same critical criteria.

We cannot create proper legitmacy, nor grant it. It must be earned.