Are Saudi atrocities in Yemen damaging America?

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Workers collected remains at a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders after an airstrike in Yemen on Tuesday. Credit Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters

Workers collected remains at a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders after an airstrike in Yemen on Tuesday. Credit Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters

In recent days Saudi Arabia has bombed a Doctors Without Borders Hospital, a school, and a potato chip factory. They have done so using “Made in the USA” bombs from planes we sold them. We are reportedly providing them with targeting and intelligence support, which heightens the perceptions of American complicity.

According to the New York Times, the US has sent over $110 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia since 2009 and the State Department just approved the potential sale of $1.15 billion more. The conflict in Yemen “has killed more than 6,500 people, displaced more than 2.5 million others and pushed one of the world’s poorest countries from deprivation to devastation. A recent United Nations report blamed the coalition for 60 percent of the deaths and injuries to children last year. Human rights groups and the United Nations have suggested that war crimes may have been committed.”

My recent report with Open Society Foundations discusses the strategic costs of civilian harm to American interests and our ability to win wars. We outline ways the U.S. government can fix these problems. The recommendations work for allies and partners, too.

President Obama recently issued an Executive Order to improve civilian protection during military operations. It is time to act on it.

Women’s Diverse Roles in Perpetrating and Countering Violent Extremism

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Joana Cook

By terrorism scholar Joana Cook 

Women play diverse roles in violent extremism.  Understanding this is essential for an effective strategy against groups like ISIL.

Groups such as ISIL have made women an important tool in advancing their cause. Those seeking to defeat groups like ISIL have, too. Sadly, meaningful efforts to involve women against terrorism tend to be poorly integrated and languish in the shadows of military activity.

Women are often viewed as victims of terrorism and limited to stereotyped roles. Success in countering violent extremism (CVE) will be more likely when women are empowered as key actors on terms they define for themselves.

ISIL have increasingly engaged women in a variety of ways, reaching out to urge women to travel abroad and join their organization and wider ‘state’. ISIL have enslaved others deemed to be ‘spoils of war’ such as Yezidi women. Increasingly, governments and other organizations are noting that the empowerment of women is a key tool to counter violent extremism (CVE), as well as noting the disproportionate ways that terrorism and extremism may impact women. The roles women play in relation to perpetrating and countering extremism is diverse and complex, and requires important consideration by all concerned actors.

al Khansaa brigade fighters

al Khansaa brigade fighters

One of the most important aspects for countering terrorism and violent extremism involve understanding the roles that women are playing in them. Women have been both violent and passive actors in extremist and terrorist organizations. In fact, women often have many of the same motivations to join these organizations as men.

Because women have not always been the most violent actors, they are often overlooked in considerations of terrorist organizations. The roles women play may come in the form of logistical support, financing, recruitment, and combat roles (amongst others). These may change over time as opportunities and resources for terrorist groups constrict or expand.

These roles have spanned ethno-nationalist terrorist organizations, such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Basque separatist movement in Spain, the PKK in Turkey or the IRA in Northern Ireland. Women tend to have higher membership in ethno-nationalist organizations. Miranda Alison notes, for example, that women made up around a third of the combat strength of the Tamil Tigers. Women have also been present in groups of various political, religious and ideological motivations throughout history. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find many groups that have not engaged women.

In groups like ISIL, women’s roles have largely been restricted to the domestic sphere and ‘culturally appropriate’ roles such as those of teachers or health care workers. Nonetheless, they have also taken on roles in all-female police units (the al-Khansaa Brigades) and there are some indications they may take on increasingly violent roles. An increasing number of women, noted to be around 18%, are now travelling to join the group. Their reasons include participating in the building of a state, travelling with/to a partner, fulfilling religious motivations, and satisfying a sense of adventure. With young girls who are travelling abroad, recruitment may reflect sexual grooming, where they are being lured abroad by men in the group.

While each category of women would have a different status in the group, both women who are seized as slaves, such as the Yezidi women, and women being urged abroad come marry fighters, also serve another purpose. Having women present helps keep fighters linked to the group. As Mia Bloom points out, having a wife, child and house makes it less likely that a fighter will leave a group. Having women available as slaves and wives also acts as an incentive for potential fighters to come join a group. Women play roles in recruiting other women, too, playing off of maternal or ‘big sister’ roles. Understanding these dynamic roles will help all actors effectively counter such organizations.

For governments, women have been increasingly identified as key to CVE initiatives. These are often viewed through their familial roles, such as that of mother or wife. Often noted is their ability to influence family members, see first hand the warning signs of rising extremism and acting as key supporters for de-radicalization processes. Women who have themselves been victims of terrorism, or have lost family members to extremist ideologies, can offer powerful counter-narratives aimed at preventing other individuals from engaging in violence.

An area that is not yet receiving enough attention is the important roles that female security practitioners, such as police, intelligence officers and border guards, for example, can play in CVE initiatives. With an increasing focus on community policing in CVE, women’s engagement should expand.

Women’s roles are dynamic and complex; their agency evolves in diverse ways. There is increasing evidence, for instance, that bottom-up and community-based solutions are among the most successful. These tend to be much more effective than a few spotlight roles at national levels – though these too can be useful for challenging widely perceived stereotypes. When women serve on their own turf as local police or officials or civil society actors, other women tend to get more engaged, too. This can create a virtuous cycle in communities toward discouraging enrolment in violent extremism, and also bring to the table more robust solutions which reflect the concerns and skill sets of the wider population. The combination of local and national roles could be very powerful.

Simply using women as a tool in CVE is not enough. Perfunctory roles risk creating a perception that women are advancing a cynical western or government agenda. This may create opposition toward women’s groups even among those sympathetic to CVE. Empowering women as key actors with voices and important perspectives in shaping CVE initiatives can limit this risk. Such engagement may reduce the tendency to subordinate everything to military targeting. This will likely enhance the effectiveness of CVE overall.

Joana Cook is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, Editor-in-Chief of Strife and a research affiliate with both the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) and Public Safety Canada (Kanishka). Her work focuses on women in violent extremism, countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism practices in the UK, Canada and Yemen. She has presented her research to senior security audiences in Canada, the UK and US.

#1 Job for the New Afghan Cabinet: Develop a Compelling National Vision and Strategy

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I hope they all get along

I hope they all get along

The Afghan government has nearly a full slate of ministers. On April 18 parliament approved the 16 ministerial candidates put forward by President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah.  Only the Ministry of Defense remains open.

Now it is time for the Afghan government to develop a compelling national vision and strategy for a peaceful and prosperous future. 

Whether the new government, formed after 6 months of internal wrangling, can succeed remains an open question.  Afghanistan’s economy remains on shaky ground. Efforts to battle corruption and dismantle kleptocracy have begun but major political reform is needed.  Time is critical. Donor flight after international troops depart at the end of 2016 could doom Afghanistan to another civil war.

The war between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban has been growing in intensity and lethality.  Reports of peace talks earlier this year remain unfounded.  Hopes for progress in Afghan-Pakistan relations after President Ghani’s November visit have begun to give way to cynicism and charges of appeasement.  Violence against women remains high; justice is often absent.

Islamic State reportedly claimed responsibility for a murderous bombing in Jalalabad that killed 33 civilians and wounded 125.  The extent of IS presence is uncertain, but Afghanistan and Iran have pledged cooperation against the group. A new major terrorist threat in Afghanistan would be devastating for Afghans and highly damaging to the government.  The Afghan Taliban now claims al Qaeda is no longer present in Afghanistan. IS might provide a common enemy to the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban.

Ghani and Abdullah can increase the likelihood of success by taking one simple but critically important step: direct the Cabinet to develop a credible and compelling national strategy. 

This strategy should integrate five key elements: 1) political reform and governance, 2) contain and reduce the Taliban threat, 3) a dignified and responsible peace process, 4) regional diplomacy, 5) greater economic self-reliance.

The Afghan government has never had a strategy to win the war.  This sad state of affairs is partly the fault of former President Karzai who could never bring himself to believe that his own people were fighting his government, and partly the fault of the Obama Administration who never insisted on a common strategy as a an entry-requirement for massively scaling-up and sustaining our assistance.

To the extent a common approach exists, it has mainly centered on the military.  The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), with the help of International Security Assistance Forces – Afghanistan (ISAF), has a military campaign plan.  In the absence of a national strategy to guide and direct it and other elements of national power toward a successful outcome, however, the ANSF are simply fighting and dying in the hope of winning.  This must change.

Armed with a national vision and strategy, the President and Chief Executive can use it as a basis for holding their officials accountable for results, and for extending international support.  President Ghani, when urging President Obama to reconsider his withdrawal timeline, rightly noted the need for the Afghan government to show credible progress.  This strategy can provide a very important part of that argument, and should be sufficient for U.S. and coalition partners to keep an open mind.

The potential strength of the National Unity Government can be realized if diversity and significant common purpose become mutually reinforcing.  Assessing the state of the war and developing a strategy to bring it to a favorable and durable conclusion may bring out the best in the Afghan Government — and give people a vision and game-plan they can rally behind.


Christopher D. Kolenda is the President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps Not-for-Profit organizations maximize their impact in conflict zones.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to the Department of Defense senior leadership and to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied combat leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.

CNN’s Isa Soares interviews Chris Kolenda about Afghanistan

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Christopher Kolenda discusses Afghanistan on CNN

Christopher Kolenda discusses Afghanistan on CNN

In this interview with CNN, Christopher Kolenda discusses Islamic State presence in Afghanistan; the plight of Afghan people over 36 years of war; and how kleptocratic corruption undermines the Afghan government, economy and future.  See the interview here.

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Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps NonProfits maximize their impact and leadership.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to the Department of Defense Senior Leadership and to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.  Follow me @KSLCEO

Defeating ISIS – It is time to frame Emergent Strategies

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“Everyone has a plan,” Mike Tyson explained, “‘till they get punched in the mouth.”  The boxer gives an able corollary to the truism that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

This is particularly true of a deliberate strategy – a detailed initial game-plan designed to achieve specified goals.

It is a best estimate for success.  Done well, it helps a combatant gain the initiative in the conflict, amplify adversary vulnerabilities, shape future events in a desired direction, and reveal critical information.

Because outcomes in war are unpredictable, however, emergent strategies are often needed to address unexpected risks and opportunities or to adjust to new realities.

The coalition war against ISIS is no different.  As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dempsey suggested in his testimony on 13 November, changes to the current deliberate strategy may be needed to “destroy” the group.

Framing scenarios for emergent strategies will identify critical risks that need to be mitigated and potential opportunities that should be exploited to keep the war on track.  Alternatively, they could become the basis for a more thorough re-vamp.

This example uses a quad chart denoting friendly and enemy effectiveness along the axes.

The deliberate strategy, depicted by the blue arrow, assumes steady progress.  Coalition pressure weakens ISIS until it collapses.  Local forces, grown over time, destroy the group. Responsible and accountable governments take control.

The war, however, may not unfold according to plan.

Potential Emergent Strategies_ISIS_14 NOVScenario 1. A precipitous ISIS collapse, perhaps caused by a successful strike against its leadership, requires an emergent strategy.  Catastrophic success may be unlikely, but the situation would leave a huge power vacuum.  Local forces we are carefully cultivating are not yet ready to fill the void.  The sitting governments remain too compromised to do so.  Local conflicts could emerge that become impossible to manage, resulting in even greater human suffering and loss of life.  Putting U.S. forces on the ground could further complicate the situation.

Scenario 2.  ISIS consolidates control as their advance culminates.  Here, coalition efforts contain ISIS but cannot destroy themAfter wiping out local opposition, ISIS has co-opted others while consolidating control in the Sunni areas.  Local sheikhs accept their rule as inevitableA de facto state emerges.  ISIL begins to seek recognition from Sunni Arab states, while taking action that advances the likelihood of such support.  Continued U.S. bombing, in this case, could push the population closer to ISIS while undermining coalition cohesion.

Scenario 3. Quadrant III outlines a scenario in which the war is going badly all around.  ISIL is showing signs of collapse, local forces are incapable of asserting control, sitting governments remain vehemently rejected, and the coalition begins to fracture over various issues.   If left unaddressed, a quadrant I scenario could emerge.  Alternatively, ISIL could be given a respite to shore-up itself and consolidate power.

Scenario 4.  Finally, the coalition may fracture while ISIS consolidates control and threatens to advance into other Sunni areas.  There is no need to explain why this is bad.

Once the scenarios are framed, the next step would be to determine the conditions necessary for each one to come about.  These would reveal risks that need mitigation or prevention and opportunities that could be exploited.

Scenarios can also generate priority intelligence requirements that help policy-makers and commanders identify the direction of the conflict and make key adjustments.  If movement into one of the scenarios becomes highly likely, despite efforts to the contrary, leaders may need to re-vamp the strategy or even re-examine goals.

Having no strategy is as foolish as falling in love with one.  It is time to adapt.

Christopher D. Kolenda is the Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London and the President & CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, LLC ( which helps NGO’s maximize their impact in conflict zones.  A highly decorated former commander of Paratroopers  and veteran of four tours in Afghanistan, he has been a key strategist and senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for three Secretaries of Defense and four ISAF Commanders.

What if IS are the Pawn instead of the Player?

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We are in charge here

We are in charge here

Successful deception directs the audience’s attention — allowing people to see what they want or expect to see, while something quite different occurs in full view.

Might the same be happening with the so-called Islamic State (IS)?

Does the U.S. have another case of collective group-think?

Myopia is dangerous.  It may close off important policy options and lock us into unnecessarily bad choices.

Policy-makers and strategists can limit such risk by developing at least one alternative theory of the case and directing the intelligence community to seek information that may confirm or deny its validity (and that of the base-case).  If one is rendered implausible, a better theory should be developed to take its place.

Such analysis may open policy and strategy options that might not have been obvious when considering the base case alone.

The best work on IS comes from Institute for the Study of War.  The base-case is that IS are the Player.  The senior leadership are in charge of the military and political efforts, and direct the activities of its forces on the ground and its representatives on social media.

These efforts have the intended purpose of establishing an ever-expanding Islamic Caliphate cum terrorist safe-haven, from which to organize attacks against the West.

The affected populations either support IS or have been cowed by their sickening brutality.  Neighboring states are loath to intervene.  The appalling beheading of American journalist, James Foley, has increased global antipathy for the group.

Reports that nearly 100 U.S. persons and hundreds of Europeans, all wielding home-country passports, have gone to Syria and Iraq to join IS illuminate the risk of attacks on the homeland.

No wonder U.S. and European officials are gravely concerned.

The base case makes the policy option clear: The U.S. must defeat IS and eliminate it as a threat.  Although air-strikes have begun, a strategy has been elusive.

Still, interesting questions arise.

How did IS emerge so rapidly from a splinter Syrian opposition group into a regional phenomenon, taking the Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria by storm?

Why have many Sunnis in Iraq and Syria seemingly accepted, even embraced, a group that even al Qaeda dismissed as too extreme?  Were these some of the same Iraqis that in 2007 turned against al Qaeda in Iraq? [Maliki’s mis-governance alienated Sunnis, but is living in a terror safe-haven under the lunatic rule of IS perceived better?]

Where’s the outrage from the Sunni Arab regimes?  They have decried IS, but have taken little action against them.

As the West have often found when trying to understand the Middle East, things may not always be as they seem.

An alternative may be to consider IS as a Pawn (or Knight).   In this theory, the Real Player – likely a group of Sunni political figures – is using IS to push aside Syrian and Iraqi forces and capture U.S. attention.  While the U.S. and others are focused on IS, the political figures aim to forge a new Sunni state along the Euphrates.

Once they have consolidated control, these figures will emerge as a political alternative after executing leading IS figures.  In exchange for ridding the world of IS, they will demand recognition of their de facto territory as an independent Sunni state.

After all, could that not be one of the few reasons the veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council might agree to new lines in the Middle East?

Without such support that Sunni state would be a pipe-dream.

To be sure, the idea of having a check against Iranian influence could be appealing to some Sunni Arab states.  A truncated Shi’a-controlled Iraq and rump-Syria would be of far less concern.

Under this scenario, the policy choices and potential strategies could be substantially different.

Should a new Sunni state be supported in exchange for eliminating IS?  Could this bring together a coalition necessary for a successful outcome? Tricky issues such as oil revenues and control of mixed sectarian areas, to include Baghdad, would need careful consideration.  So would Iran’s potential reactions.

Or, should we deny such aspirations?  If so, how then to gain the necessary internal and external support to eliminate IS?

Of course, the notion of using radical groups to achieve political aims is not unusual.  Neither is the tendency of actors to over-estimate their degree of control over them.

Analysis of available information, I must emphasize, suggests this alternative theory is less likely than the base case.  But asking different questions may reveal important insights otherwise missed.

We should use this or a better alternative as a check against group-think and to test our assumptions and perceived options.

Such rigorous testing may improve our understanding and lead to better policy choices.  Would that not be useful, considering some of our problems in the recent past?

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC