September 09, 2017

The Ugly Rhymes of History? #Reviewing Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies

Thomas McDermott 

 August 28, 2017

Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies; National Styles and Strategic Cultures. Beatrice Heuser & Eitan Shamir, editors. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Insurgency is an old concept. If you were to travel back to Iraq between 2334 and 2279 BC, you would find a man called Sargan. Sargan ruled a vast empire spanning from Southern Iraq to Southern Turkey, enforced by overwhelming military power. His Akkadian hordes, armed with high-tech composite bows and sophisticated logistics, laid waste to all before them. Their strategy was a simple one; ‘mass slaughter, enslavement, the deportation of defeated enemies, and the total destruction of their cities.’ For years their technological edge and brutal strategy allowed the Akkadians to dominate. When they inevitably fell, however, they did not fall to a superior empire. They were victim to a new phenomenon: a tireless, guerrilla-style attack from the unsophisticated barbarian hordes all around them. In 2190 BC the city of Akkad, near modern Baghdad, finally fell.

Max Boot believes that the defeat of the Akkadians was the ‘birth of insurgency’.[1] If he is right, it was the start of an inauspicious history for a style of conflict that continues to thrive today. The places are even the same. Four thousand years after the fall of Akkad, not two hours drive away in the town of Fallujah, a combined force of 10,000 US Marines, British Highlanders, and Iraqi soldiers engaged in a brutal fight against a violent group of insurgents. Since then the counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign in Iraq has expanded into a clash that seems to pit the developed world against an extremist ideology. From ancient beginnings, insurgency now has a global face.

Some would say that the journey from Akkad to Fallujah proves that the ugly history of insurgency rhymes through the ages. But is this really true? Are there really continuities in a meaningful and instrumental sense? Perhaps more importantly, do the strictures born of society, geography and environment dictate who wins and loses? These are the questions that eighteen leading scholars have sought to answer in a new volume entitled Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies: National Styles and Strategic Cultures.


Faced with a swath of authors and cases, it is worth giving a brief overview of the book. Editors Beatrice Heuser and Eitan Shamir seek to order this complex topic through three parts. Part One examines the idea of national styles of COIN. Robert Egnell and David Ucko set the tone by carefully dissecting the so-called British tradition – examining how seventeen campaigns (carried out between 1945 and 2003) built the dangerous myth of an inherently successful British approach. The French in the Algerian Wars of 1830 – 1962, the Israeli strategy of ‘mowing the grass’ in Lebanon and Palestine, and the COIN traditions of the American military are then all challenged in the same fashion. Real eye-openers are then provided through investigations into non-Western COIN traditions. Stephen Blank, a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, breaks the myopia (as he sees it) of Western COIN analysis with a concise examination of Russian COIN strategy from Ivan III through to modern Chechnya. Yitzhak Sichor ends with a chapter entitled Crackdown; an examination of the Chinese style of COIN, typified by prevention through early brutal suppression. Part One seeks, capably, to challenge the stereotypes and preconceptions of even the most deeply-entrenched COIN practitioner.


Part Two flips to the other side of the COIN (so to speak), examining insurgent strategies and counter-counterinsurgency styles; if such a thing can exist. The alternate view is given for the Algerian insurgency, the Irish Republican Army, the Palestinian Resistance, and the Taliban. It is worth reminding ourselves how difficult a task this is. Insurgents are not known for their transparency, and the lack of a written historical tradition makes true cultural insights challenging. Given this, the mostly Western authors gathered by Heuser and Shamir are about as good as you might get. For example Jacques Fremeaux, who examines the Algerian ‘National Liberation Army’, is the Algerian-born Professor of Contemporary History at the Sorbonne.

The third and final part is the gem. Here the book seeks to bring together the strands, examining the reciprocal interaction between the ways of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Heuser and Shamir draw out the sense of a universal toolbox; a general instrumentarium (as they call it) of tools that seem to be common to COIN conflicts no matter who fights them and where. This list makes for depressing reading: brutal large-scale repression, indiscriminate killing, and terror mark the list. Burning villages and scorched earth tactics. Targeted assassinations. Mutilations and rape. Hostage taking and execution. Ethnic cleansing. Destruction of symbolic sites. All of these are found to be endemic traits reaching on both sides of insurgent conflicts. This is a world Sargan would have reveled in. It a hellish one in which to fight.


Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies is clearly written with a purpose in mind, despite the multiple authors and cases. Conceived at an Israeli conference in 2012 it sends a frustrated message to current policy-makers and strategists: that the brutal violence and intractability we are experiencing in modern insurgencies should not be a surprise. They merely represent the ugly echoes of history. Three significant patterns then stand out.

The first is that military tactics rarely prove to be decisive; it is the broader strategic environment that is critical. This is particularly the case for insurgencies. Those familiar with David Kilcullen’s book The Accidental Guerrilla may recall his viral insurgency theory; one of ‘infection, contagion, intervention and rejection.’[3] You get a real, empiric sense of this in Heuser and Shamir’s analysis. Insurgencies are born in fertile environments of repression where people believe violence is their only recourse. Angry individuals coalesce and multiply into groups, drawn together by culture, rage and ideologies. Leaders emerge. Armed groups learn, adapt and metastasize through training camps and shared doctrines and manuals. Powerful ideas like the Palestinian concept of Intifada (literally resistance) act as catalysts, but only if the ground is fertile. No matter the insurgent tactics chosen, the environment– culturally, geographically and regionally – must be right for an insurgent strategy to flourish. The same can be said for the COIN examples, albeit perhaps more predictably given the formal structuring of military doctrines, organisational and political / military interactions. Either way, tactical choices fade into insignificance compared to the influence of the strategic environment.


The second pattern is conceptual. As you read Heuser and Shamir the danger of conceiving COIN in terms of limited wars becomes ever clearer. Such an approach is not just superficial; it is in fact deeply philosophical. The US military entered Iraq and Afghanistan with their mindset shaped by the 2001 version of FM 100-5: Operations; a doctrine borne of the post-Vietnam era that labelled COIN as Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) and Low Intensity Conflict. The British in Iraq would similarly rely on the 1995 manual on Operations Other than War. The mindset that COIN was somehow lesser and thus perhaps easier than conventional conflict became a guiding philosophy, impacting from tactical action, through strategic decisions and all the way to societal views of risk and cost. The lesson seems to be that COIN must be viewed through a ‘spectrum of conflict’ lens, ranging from armed coercion to combined arms manoeuvre. Only in this way can a force, and a nation, understand the gravity of the challenge.

Anti-communist militamen display their victims in the Greek Civil War.

The final pattern is one of violence and tactics. If there is one theme that stands out from Heuser and Shamir it is the sheer brutality of both sides of the COIN. Their evidence suggests that, historically, the central contest for the population has been less about winning hearts and minds, but more about a race to violent coercion. Only two of the twelve tools described in their instrumentarium represent soft power. The remainder come from a vicious playbook of massacres, weaponised rape, forced resettlement, violent coercion, ethnic cleansing and assassination. These are the traditional tools of both insurgents and those who seek to counter them, and they have been used with great success on both sides.

In light of this historic success, it is worth noting how increasingly unacceptable such tools are to Western nations. In his superb book War in Human Civilisation, Azar Gat describes how liberal societies are developing a cultural aversion to the use of violence as a political tool.[5] Modern western policy-makers and strategists would likely balk at instrumentarium tactics like forced resettlement (as used by the British in Malaya), scorched earth (as in the French enfumades in Algeria in the late 1800s), hostage taking (used by the Greek Government in the Greek Civil War), and the control of the media and the use of ‘black’ propaganda (prolifically used by Russia in Chechnya). But what do liberal societies do when faced with authoritarian regimes and enemies who will use such methods? How do they correct the tactical imbalance? Here Heuser and Shamir, perhaps understandably, offer little in the way of solutions or solace.


The gap in the analysis is in the historical impact of coalitions on COIN. Heuser, Shamir et al do not delve deeply into the tension between coalitions, national styles, and COIN strategies. But there is tension there. The formation of coalitions and alliances is as old as war itself, and such arrangements have clear benefits in terms of shared costs and implied legitimacy. However they come with equally clear costs in terms of conflicting national interest, comparative ethics and divergent strategic outlooks. It is telling that the successful COIN campaigns outlined by Heuser and Shamir were predominantly won by nations acting independently. Napoleon famously said ‘if I must make war, I prefer to do it against a coalition.’[4] I suspect many insurgent groups would say the same.


Iraq and Afghanistan stand as living examples that COIN in coalition is hard. Yes, formal coalitions and alliances are as old as war. However since 9/11 it seems the West has taken scale to a new level. At the height of the international commitment in 2011 the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan consisted of forty eight nations; valuable in terms of legitimacy, but chaotic for command and control (particularly where countries with such amenable histories as Turkey and Armenia are sat side-by-side). Given the current challenges of coalition COIN, further analysis from Heuser and Shamir’s authors would have been welcome.


Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies should be on the reading list for anyone seeking broad historical context to the study of insurgencies. For me, the biases illuminated in Part One bit particularly hard. As a young tank commander in Basra in 2003 I still remember the confidence I felt as we traded body-armour for berets, clear that the genetically-ingrained ability of the British COIN traditionwould easily allow us to stabilise a tinderbox region. This confidence was deeply misplaced. The shock the British felt as the city caught fire, and as our institutional hubris began to be revealed, still aches.


Heuser, Shamir et al teach much, but the implicit challenges they present are more important. Their historical image of COIN is a brutal one, where even the softer approaches saw the broad application of violence, the deprivation of rights, and great commitment on behalf of nations. The West has discarded, in my view rightly, many of these tactics as unacceptable in the modern age. But if we are to block our ears to the historical rhymes of COIN, with which tune do we replace them?

An abandonment of the old tools has logically demanded the development of new ones, and I would argue that Western militaries have failed to do this. COIN campaigns have instead been fought with a reduced toolset that have done just enough to hold back the tide, but have failed to be decisive. The result has been the Long War; a global COIN campaign without bounds that has arguably done more to sustain conflict than it has to end it. I do not believe that insurgency needs to become the ‘new normal’, but this is a cycle that must be broken. If the West is to eschew the old ways, it must find a new rhyme and reason to its countering of insurgency. 

Tom McDermott is an Australian Army officer who also spent fifteen years serving in the British Army. He is the Director of the Cove, the Australian Army’s professional development network. He is currently conducting higher research at the Australian National University, focused on the UK’s strategic decision-making in Iraq and Afghanistan

The Case for AF-PAK Federally Administered Tribal Areas

Victor Morris 

 August 25, 2017


The Taliban is presently the center of gravity in Afghanistan. This is not due to the fact the group is the perceived adversary, but it is because the Taliban wields power. The insurgency in Afghanistan, predominantly composed of ethnic Pashtuns, is a physical agent performing actions that accumulate in strategic outcomes that do not favor the central government. Equally important, the insurgency is emboldened by intangible socio-cultural variables like Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, Salafi jihadism, and Pashtunwali. These intangible variables influence relevant actors and give the Taliban insurgency the capability to obtain their political objectives. After almost two decades of misidentifying and attacking centers of gravity (COGs), another insurgency strategyneeds to be considered or reconsidered for the limited defeat of the Taliban hybrid threat.

This article conducts an updated version of COG analysis, first on the Pashtun social system, and then on the Taliban sub-system, using revised definitions and nonlineardynamical systems analysis. These analyses together identify vulnerabilities, and provide recommendations to change the COG, which––I argue––repairs key vulnerabilities and stabilizes the interconnected socio-political systems of Afghanistan. Ultimately, the following analysis argues for a jointly federally administered region between Afghanistan and Pakistan that maximizes native resources, accommodates cultural norms while promoting economic development, and encourages peace through semi-autonomous governance along tribal lines.


Considering the Taliban as the primary COG in the war in Afghanistan utilizes the new COG definition that both clarifies and modernizes the COG concept, which is a crucial approach as operational environments and population dynamics change over time. The insurgency, also called “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” exists in the physical environment and has the capability to attain their objectives. As of May 2017, the Taliban controlled or contested 40 percent of Afghan districts and subsequently heavily influences international security policy. In order to elucidate the insurgency’s mechanisms of control and influence, this article employs the Eikmeier method of COG analysis that includes revised definitions, precision, and testability. It also draws from nonlinear science and warfare concepts, which include systems, chaos, and complexity theories.

Dale Eikmeier discusses operational art, operational design and center of gravity.

Additionally, critical factors are the framework for COG analysis and the integration of systems theory exhibited in Clausewitz’s Schwerpunkt concept. These factors include the fundamental capabilities (abilities to accomplish an objective), requirements (conditions, resources and means), and vulnerabilities of the COG. Once evaluated, these factors not only become targets for attack, but also for both direct and indirect engagement using lethal and nonlethal means. By exploiting critical vulnerabilities (requirements or subsets), actors can deny or enable a critical requirement necessary to perform a critical capability. Capabilities are directly linked to the COG’s objective.


The Taliban movement and subsequent insurgency exhibits complex behavior. There are an estimated 30,000 full time fighters. The human system and social ecosystemprimarily involves ethnic Pashtuns from Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan. At 42% of the total population, Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the Punjabi ethnic group accounts for 44.68% of the population followed by 15.42% Pashtun. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), currently referred to as “Khyber-Pakhtuhkhwa,” are a semi-autonomous––primarily Pashtun––region in northwestern Pakistan and along the southeast border of Afghanistan. The FATA has been strategically important since the political and diplomatic confrontations between Britain and Russia in the 19th century. The original Taliban or “students” trace their history to the FATA where they received hardline Islamic teachings there in madrassas. The roughly 27,000 square kilometer region is included in the Constitution of Pakistan and administered by the federal government through special regulations. In recent times, these areas have been designated as adversary sanctuaries and targeted by U.S drone strikes with mixed results.


The Pashtun social ecosystem is the most resilient in the region based on thousands of years of co-evolution with a changing environment. Pashtuns are also the largest tribal society in the modern world with 50 million members bound by tribal structures and networks. The system is resilient because it copes with disturbances that are also viewed as chronic stresses and shocks. This resilience developed from nearly four decades of internal civil war and external interventions in the 20th century. Examples of internal stresses are competition among the four Pashtun super tribal confederacies, one of which includes the Haqqani’s Zadran tribe, and conflict with other ethnic groups including Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks. Pashtun tribes have ancient rivalries, but these are mitigated or coped with through traditional assemblies called jirgas. System disturbances are viewed by Pashtuns as assaults on their land, culture, and way of life. They behave, and resolve system disturbances, in a manner consistent with tribal customs, resistance and aversion to unrepresentative government, and diversionary foreign interventions.

The Taliban are an interconnected Pashtun subsystem driven by Sunni fundamentalist ideology and resistance, as well as revolutionary warfare that enables self-repairing, self-maintaining, and coherence of their organization. New order and coherence enables evolution and sustainability. The Taliban are sustained by both state and non-state actors, but have the inherent capability to survive absent external support. A variety of factors have enabled their survival, but a key social variable is ethnicity and originates in Pashtun nationalism. This accounts for continued support, identity driven behavior, and a receptive audience. The Taliban are a hub in the largest tribal network in the world, from which they draw power and resources.


Since the 2001 invasion, Taliban critical factors have been targets for direct and indirect attack. Examples include key leaders, military commanders, illicit trafficking of black market goods (opium and fertilizer), safe havens, narratives, and state support. Despite this, in 2017, the Taliban system is still not only resilient, but thriving. Thriving, whether physical or psychological, reflects decreased reactivity to stressors, faster recovery or consistently higher levels of functioning. Recent territorial gains, high profile attacks, and Islamic fundamentalist recruitment are examples of its continued success. Next, the “population” are routinely assessed as the COG in counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and unconventional warfare operations. The population assessment does not fully account for Pashtun groups, who identify as “Taliban,” but do not support Salafi jihadism. Previous assessments have recommended co-opting various Afghan Taliban groups to increase security and governance in rural, predominantly Pashtun areas.

The insurgency is a large part of the population and has critical capabilities, requirements, and vulnerabilities. One of the assessed COG vulnerabilities is ineffective governance in areas with high concentrations of Pashtun ethnolinguistic groups. This is largely due to previous and ongoing wars in Afghanistan, resulting in high civilian casualties. The current central government, which has been assessed as a COG before, is not able to govern effectively. The Taliban shadow government, which consists of departments and directorates, is the only alternative in concentrated Pashtun areas based on ineffective foreign intervention and tenuous Afghan-led reconciliation efforts. The Taliban mainstream faction thrives on exploiting population grievances, human collateral damage, and foreign occupation as critical factors linked to messaging and objectives.


If you don’t like the COG, change it. Afghanistan as a federal system of government with autonomous areas is the premise of an article written by Major Bryan Carroll and Dr. David A. Anderson for Small Wars Journal in 2009. In Afghanistan, power resides with the tribes and is a principal case for autonomous regions with effective government penetration, whereby tribes facilitate security, infrastructure and economic capacities and are enabled by the federal government’s resources. An autonomous or semi-autonomous system of governance is required to maximize area resources while accommodating cultural norms and launching economic priorities. This system of government also employs Stathis Kalyvas’ “logic of violence”, which predicts when insurgents are in a sovereign area, insurgent violence decreases. In The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Kalyvas states the parity of control between the actors “is likely to produce no selective violence by the actors.” One of the associated factors of this approach is the degree in which Islamic law is exacted, which has implications for human rights and continued support the United States and others provide Afghanistan in the future.


The current case for semi-autonomous areas is realized through continued United Nations brokered peace talks, High Peace Council (HPC) involvement, constitutional reform, and integration with on-going FATA reformsand mergers in Pakistan. Afghanistan needs to adopt a similar regulation to establish and administer semi-autonomous areas, whilst cooperating diplomatically, informationally, and economically with Pakistan as well as the international community. International support involves Russia, China, Iran and India. It also includes non-military means and enabling of sustained government penetration. There are still enduring requirements for security force assistance and counter-terrorism missions that will enable government penetration, but another multinational troop surge or enduring occupation is likely not a reasonably successful strategy––as it would provoke resistance warfare and set back any prior peace proceedings.

Map of Afghanistan and Pakistan featuring Pashtun Areas with the Durand Line highlighted in red (London Review of Books).

The current FATA reforms in Pakistan are scheduled to conclude in 2022. If Afghanistan pursues a similar reformation model, negotiation and implementation will also take time to develop. They will require positive Pakistani involvement, non-obstruction by Afghan officials, and decreased Pakistani support to the insurgency. The proposed AFPAK FATA is not limited to Pashtun areas and is meant to incentivize a negotiated settlement and broker ceasefires, reconciliation, reconstruction, and repatriation processes. Because the “Durand Line” is a principle source of tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the proposed region would have to be co-governed: a joint FATA with equal laws. There will still be irreconcilable Sunni fundamentalist subsystems in the region driven by Islamic law and Salafi jihadism, but the system’s inputs, interactions, and stimuli must change. Corruption, militant, and violent extremist subsystems will either thrive, recover, survive with impairment or succumb. For example, the ceasefire between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) came after four years of peace talks in Cuba ending a 52-year old war. If history has taught us anything, Afghans have time on their side.


The present center of gravity in Afghanistan is the Taliban subsystem of the greater Pashtun social system enabled by Pakistani elites. The insurgency is effectively wielding power to meet their independence and removal of foreign occupation objectives. Re-analyzing the critical factors and engaging the critical vulnerability of ineffective governance forces nonlinear change. Decoupling interdependent systems causes changes in initial conditions and adjusts the system’s later state. Based on Afghanistan’s overall history and resilience, cascading failures through nonlinear escalation will most likely not move the system into a chaotic state. Results may be mono or multi-stable. Legitimate central government control of urban areas and de-centralized agreements with tribal areas worked during the King Zahir Shah era (1933-1973).

Ineffective governance by all relevant actors is mitigated by transforming Afghanistan into a federal system of government with semi-autonomous areas. This includes political accommodation, ethnic nationalism, financial incentive structures, and power sharing. Non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan also favor a decentralized and moderate form of government based on Afghan social structures. Pashtunwali and jirgas can establish and maintain democracy, and if given the chance, co-evolve with the operational environment and alleviate core population grievances. The tribes are the main emphasis and must become the primary friendly COG and wielder of political power, which draws resources from the federal government and multinational systems. This is not a silver bullet, but this analysis balances divergent interests and offers an alternative to the status quo for re-establishing stability in Afghanistan.

Victor R. Morris is a civilian contractor and former U.S. Army Officer who has served in Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government


杀手锏 and 跨越发展: Trump Cards and Leapfrogging

Elsa B. Kania 

 September 6, 2017


Since the 1990s, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has focused on the development of asymmetric capabilities that target U.S. vulnerabilities. At present, the PLA’s approach is starting to evolve toward a strategy centered upon technological and defense innovation. The PLA is pursuing innovations in “strategic frontier” (战略前沿) technologies with disruptive military applications, including directed energy, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies. The PLA intends to achieve “leapfrog development” (跨越发展), seeking to surpass the U.S. military within critical technological domains in which the U.S. does not possess, and may not be able to achieve, a decisive advantage.

A command and control technician assigned to a missile brigade of the air force under the PLA Central Theater Command operates counter-jamming system during a ground-aerial confrontation drill at a military training base in China's northern Fujian province on Oct. 10, 2016. ( Li Ming)

The PLA came late to the information technology revolution in military affairs and has since struggled to develop the capabilities necessary for modern, “informatized” (信息化) warfare. During the first Gulf War, the PLA initially recognized the full extent of its own backwardness relative to the U.S. military, which then revealed transformative U.S. advances in network-centric warfare.[1] Consequently, the PLA embarked upon an ambitious agenda of “informatization,” seeking to enhance its capacity to utilize information in warfare and advance its command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.[2]


As the PLA struggled to catch up with U.S. military, the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 served as an impetus for urgency in these efforts. Chinese leaders were skeptical that the bombing was in fact accidental, especially given their impression of the sophistication of U.S. military and intelligence capabilities.[3] In the aftermath of the incident, the Central Military Commission (CMC) reportedly convened an emergency meeting during which it decided to “accelerate the development of shashoujian (杀手锏) armaments.”[4] The term shashoujian, variously translated “trump card” or “assassin’s mace,” is generally used to refer to asymmetric capabilities that could target U.S. vulnerabilities. The term also alludes to a Chinese folktale in which such a weapon was used for unexpected incapacitation of a stronger enemy through a trick (招数).[5]Reportedly, CMC Chairman Jiang Zemin’s guidance at the time was “what the enemy is most fearful of, this is what we should be developing.”[6]

Consequently, the PLA launched the secretive “New-Type High-Technology Weapons Plan” or “995 Plan” (新型高科技武器计划, 995计划), which prioritized advanced asymmetric capabilities and ‘trump card’ weapons systems.[7] Although the specific projects associated with the 995 Plan have never been publically disclosed, the PLA has reportedly developed multiple new generations of weapons systems, including the “carrier-killer” DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, through this program.[8]

Command and control technicians assigned a missile brigade of the air force under the PLA Central Theater Command deal with flight information during a ground-aerial confrontation drill at a military training base in China's northern Fujian province on Oct. 10, 2016. ( Li Ming)

At that stage in its development, the PLA saw particular advantage in the pursuit of an asymmetric (非对称) approach that targeted perceived vulnerabilities in U.S. ways of warfare. Chinese advances in cruise and ballistic missiles have since enabled “counter-intervention” (反介入) capabilities, referred to as Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities by the U.S., which constrain U.S. forces from operating in proximity to China’s coastline. Concurrently, the PLA’s electronic and cyber warfare capabilities could target critical U.S. battle networks. Chinese non-kinetic and kinetic counter-space capabilities, ranging from directed-energy weapons to the HQ-19 space intercept system, have the capability to threaten satellites integral to U.S. operations.[9] To date, the PLA’s asymmetric approach seems to have achieved its intended objective, through the creation of capabilities that U.S. forces must fear, thus constraining the U.S. ability to operate in China’s “near seas” within the first island chain.

At present, the PLA recognizes a new strategic challenge — the military transformation and potential military revolution resulting from the emergence of disruptive new technologies. As the U.S. recently embarked upon the Third Offset strategy to advance defense innovation, the PLA has become concerned U.S. success in this emerging revolution in military affairs could once again place China in a position of disadvantage. The PLA is acutely aware of the criticality of adapting to and capitalizing upon current technological trends. It fears the emergence of another generational gap between its capabilities and that of the U.S. military, which is perceived as a powerful potential adversary and is the standard to which the PLA compares itself.[10]


Looking forward, the PLA will compete with the U.S. military to take advantage of the military applications of strategic frontier technologies with disruptive potential in future warfare. When the Leading Small Group for the 995 Plan was last known to be convened, in December 2014 during an All-Army Armament Conference (全军装备工作会议), Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of “innovation-driven development” (创新驱动发展).[11] Xi called for the PLA to “keep in step with the direction of the global military revolution, especially military scientific and technological development.” Furthermore, Xi has highlighted that the PLA must “vigorously advance military innovation,” taking advantage of this opportunity to “close the gap as rapidly as possible.”[12] Beyond a high-level rhetorical commitment to “strengthening the military through science and technology” (科技强军), the PLA has the opportunity to capitalize upon China’s advancing capabilities for indigenous innovation (自主创新) through a national strategy for military-civil fusion (军民融合) that can leverage synergies in dual-use technologies.[13]

The PLA thus seeks to overtake the U.S. military through “cutting corners” (弯道超车) to achieve a decisive advantage in future warfare, attempting to achieve “leapfrog development,” and rapid advances in disruptive technologies.[14] China is prioritizing research and development in emerging, disruptive technologies, striving to take the lead in domains in which the historic U.S. advantage in Second Offset and information technologies may not enable a decisive edge. Although a detailed review of Chinese defense innovation would be beyond the scope of this article, there are active efforts to advance the development of “new concept weapons” (新概念武器) across several critical domains. The PLA intends to take advantage of advances in such disruptive technologies as directed energy, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence (AI), and quantum technologies to enhance its future military capabilities. China is also likely to leverage nanotechnology and biotechnology for military purposes. Each of these emerging technologies also offer the potential to disrupt existing military and strategic balances.

Presumptive Chinese high-power microwave. (Popular Science)

The PLA is actively pursuing advances in directed energy weapons, including high-energy lasers, high-power microwaves, and railguns. There have been recent reports of advances in Chinese high-power microwave weapons, which could be used as a ship-borne anti-missile system or to reinforce China’s air defense systems.[15] The Chinese defense industry also appears to be progressing in its development of railguns to launch high-velocity projectiles and even electromagnetic aircraft launch systems that might be used on future Chinese aircraft carriers.[16] For the PLA, such directed energy and electromagnetic technologies could cause the advent of “light warfare” (光战争) that leverages the speed as well as economy and reusability of these weapons, in conjunction with autonomous systems, to dramatically increase operational tempo.[17]

Chinese graphic depicting DF-ZF flight path (Popular Mechanics)

Chinese advances in hypersonic technology already rival and could surpass the U.S. To date, China has conducted seven tests of its hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-ZF (designated the Wu-14 by U.S. defense officials) since January 2014, six of which have reportedly been successful.[18] Future hypersonic weapons, capable of achieving speeds greater than Mach 5, could have a dramatic impact on strategic-level deterrence and the existing military technological balance between offense and defense, including their capability to possibly overcome ballistic missile defense systems.[19] Finally, the DF-ZF could find potential use for both conventional and nuclear purposes, enhancing the future of China’s deterrence posture.


China’s rise in artificial intelligence has become a reality and could act as a force multiplier for the PLA’s future capabilities. Chinese leadership intends to pursue a first-mover advantage to become the premier global AI innovator by 2030, surpassing the U.S. in the process.[20] In this, the PLA seeks to advance and research, develop, and test a range of military applications of AI. For instance, the PLA plans to employ machine learning, including deep neural networks, to enable rapid processing of data and imagery in support of intelligence analysis, while Chinese advances in swarm intelligence could enable asymmetric assaults against high-value U.S. weapons platforms such as aircraft carriers.[21] Looking forward, the PLA anticipates a revolution in military affairs leading to future “intelligentized” (智能化) warfare, in which AI will be as integral as information technologies have been to “informatized” warfare.

A J-11 fighter jet attached to a missile brigade of the air force under the PLA Central Theater Command soars over a radar to implement electronic attack to the mock ground enemies during a ground-aerial confrontation drill in China's northern Fujian province on Oct. 10, 2016. ( Li Ming)

China intends to lead the coming “second quantum revolution,” betting heavily on the revolutionary potential of quantum technologies.[22] China’s expanding dual-use of quantum communications infrastructure will be employed in an attempt to ensure the security of military communications against foreign signals intelligence capabilities, perhaps even enabling secure underwater communications.[23] Chinese advances in quantum computing could enable future military applications, including enhancing China’s offensive cyber capabilities through the capacity to defeat most prevalent forms of encryption.[24] In addition, progress in quantum radar, quantum navigation, and quantum sensing could have uniquely disruptive applications—from quantum radar which might overcome stealth technology, to the quantum compass which might become a more accurate successor to inertial navigation beyond GPS-aided capabilities and would be highly useful for submarines.[25] Although there are remaining uncertainties regarding their technical trajectories and timeframes, quantum technologies might become a source of radical disruption in military affairs in the long term.

A Chinese Navy submarine takes part in an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy in Qingdao, Shandong province, April 23, 2009. (Reuters)

Looking forward, the PLA’s intensified focus on defense innovation reflects its intention to overcome existing U.S. advantages in more far-reaching and disruptive ways than its initial asymmetric strategy. Pursuant to its military strategic guideline of active defense (积极防御) — which involves “unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense” — the PLA will seek to ensure that conflict only occurs on its own terms.[26] When China was in a position of technological inferiority, its guiding maxim of “you fight your way and I fight my way” resulted in an asymmetric strategy that took advantage of U.S. vulnerabilities, but this same approach now tends towards a focus on disruptive innovation in domains in which China has the potential to compete with or even surpass the U.S.[27]

Could the PLA succeed in leapfrogging the U.S. in defense innovation? Possibility is not necessarily probability. More certainly the PLA will confront considerable obstacles in its attempts to actualize innovation, but its potential for success cannot be discounted. China’s future advances in these strategic emerging technologies could be enabled by critical structural and systemic advantages, including long-term national strategic planning; the availability of extensive funding and investment; and robust human capital resources, including aggressive recruitment of world-class talent. Ultimately, this emergent Chinese innovation-driven strategy could transform to trump the future military balance, and U.S. defense innovation initiatives must take this strategic challenge into account.

Elsa B. Kania is an independent analyst and consultant focused on the PLA’s strategic thinking on and advances in emerging technologies. She is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: A HQ-9 anti-aircraft missiles system attached to a missile brigade of the air force under the PLA Central Theater Command gets ready for launching surface-to-air missiles during a ground-aerial confrontation drill at a military training base in China's northern Fujian province on Oct. 10, 2016. ( Li Ming)


[1] See, for instance: Dean Cheng, “Chinese Lessons from the Gulf Wars” in Chinese Lessons Learned from Other People’s Wars, Strategic Studies Institute, November 2011,

[2] For an authoritative perspective on informatization, see this article by the director of the former Informatization Department: Wang Kebin [王克斌], “Resolutely Take the Path of Strengthening the Military by Informationization with Chinese Characteristics” [坚定不够走中国特色信息强军之路], China Military Science [中国军事科学], 2015. For an informative analysis of the PLA’s advances in informatization, see: Joe McReynolds and James Mulvenon, “The Role of Informatization in the People’s Liberation Army under Hu Jintao,” in Kamphausen, Lai, and Tanner, Assessing the People’s Liberation Army in the Hu Jintao Era, 2014, p. 207-256. For discussion of the PLA’s evolving approach to informatization in the context of current military reforms, see: Elsa Kania and John Costello, “China's Quest for Informatization Drives PLA Reforms,” The Diplomat, March 04, 2017,

[3] For a journalistic account of the incident and Chinese leaders’ reaction, see: Steven Lee Myers, “Chinese Embassy Bombing: A Wide Net of Blame,” New York Times, April 17, 2000,

[4] Zhang Wannian, Biography of Zhang Wannian [张万年传], p. 416-17. qtd. in: Tai Ming Cheung, Thomas Mahnken, Deborah Seligsohn, Kevin Pollpeter, Eric Anderson, and Fan Yang, “Planning for Innovation: Understanding China’s Plans for Technological, Energy, Industrial, and Defense Development,” US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, July 2016, p. 26-27.

[5] This usage of the term is described in its Baidu entry: “杀手锏,”

[6] Zhang Wannian, Biography of Zhang Wannian [张万年传], Liberation Army Press, 2011, 416, quoted in Tai Ming Cheung, Forging China's Military Might: A New Framework for Assessing Innovation, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

[7] Tai Ming Cheung, Thomas Mahnken, Deborah Seligsohn, Kevin Pollpeter, Eric Anderson, and Fan Yang, “Planning for Innovation: Understanding China’s Plans for Technological, Energy, Industrial, and Defense Development,” US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, July 2016, p. 25-27.

[8] Ibid. The original source, as discussed by Tai Ming Cheung et al. is no longer available online: “Talk by Yao Youzhi at the Shenzhen Culture Forum,” August 18, 2012,

[9] For a great analysis of this system, see Jeffrey Lewis, “CHINA’S HQ-19 HIT-TO-KILL INTERCEPTOR,” Arms Control Wonk, November 7, 2016, See also: Minnie Chan, “Why did China release rare videos of its successful anti-missile system tests?,” South China Morning Post, July 19, 2016,

[10] China Military Science Editorial Department [中国军事科学 编辑部], “A Summary of the Workshop on the Game between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol and the Intelligentization of Military Command and Decision-Making” [围棋人机大战与军事指挥决策智能化研讨会观点综述], China Military Science [中国军事科学], April 2, 2016.

[11] “Xi Jinping: Equipment Construction Must Adhere to the Basic Traction of Combat Requirements” [习近平:装备建设要坚持作战需求的根本牵引], Xinhua, December 4, 2014,

[12] “Xi Jinping: Accurately Grasp the New Trend in Global Military Developments and Keep Pace with the Times, Strongly Advancing Military Innovation” [习近平:准确把握世界军事发展新趋势 与时俱进大力推进军事创新], Xinhua, August 30, 2014,

[13] For a more detailed analysis of the dynamics of China’s military-civil fusion strategy, see: Greg Levesque and Mark Stokes, “Blurred Lines: Military-Civil Fusion and the “Going Out” of China’s Defense Industry,” Pointe Bello, December 2016,

[14] This phrase (弯道超车) implies literally (in the context of driving) overtaking someone around a bend, or metaphorically achieving rapid progress through cutting corners. For an authoritative commentary on military innovation and “leapfrog development” see: PLA Daily Commentator [解放军报评论员], “Step Up Leapfrog Development in Crux Domains” [加紧在关键领域实现跨越发展], PLA Daily, June 25, 2016, For an influential Chinese defense academic’s take on military innovation, see also: Xiao Tianliang [肖天亮], “Seize the Reform Initiative, Conform to the Tide of Military Transformation” [顺应军事变革潮流把握改革主动], PLA Daily, January 5, 2016,

[15] Elsa B. Kania, “The PLA’s Potential Breakthrough in High-Power Microwave Weapons,” The Diplomat, March 11, 2017,

[16] Jeffrey Lin and Peter Singer, “An Electromagnetic Arms Race Has Begun: China Is Making Railguns Too,” Eastern Arsenal, November 23, 2015,

[17] Hu Shengning [胡延宁], Li Bingyan [李炳彦], and Wang Shengliang [王圣良], Light Warfare: The New Trend in the Global Revolution in Military Affairs 光战争: 世界军事革命新趋势], PLA Press, 2015.

[18] Erika Solem and Karen Montague, “Chinese Hypersonic Weapons Development,” China Brief, April 21, 2016,

[19] For a more detailed account of Chinese advances in hypersonic technologies, eee: “Prepared Statement of Mark A. Stokes, Executive Director Project 2049 Institute, Before The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on Chinese Advanced Weapons Development,” February 23, 2017,

[20] China hopes to achieve a first-mover advantage in order to establish technological leadership in this critical technology. For a more detailed analysis and translation of China’s New Generation AI Development Plan, see: Graham Webster, Rogier Creemers, Paul Triolo, and Elsa Kania, “China’s Plan to ‘Lead’ in AI: Purpose, Prospects, and Problems,” New America, August 1, 2017,

[21] See the author’s prior and forthcoming publications on the topic for a more detailed analysis, including: Elsa B. Kania, “China’s Quest for an AI Revolution in Warfare,” Strategy Bridge, June 8, 2017, See also: Elsa Kania, “Swarms at War: Chinese Advances in Swarm Intelligence,” China Brief, July 6, 2017,

[22] Jonathan P. Dowling and Gerard J. Milburne, “Quantum Technology: the Second Quantum Revolution,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 361, no. 1809 (2003): 1655-1674. “China Leads the Second Quantum Revolution” [中国领跑“第二次量子革命”], Xinhua, August 16, 2016,

[23] “Ten Years Casting a Shield for Information Security” [十年铸就信息安全之“盾”], China Science and Technology [中国科学报], August 16, 2016, See also: Yuan Yi [袁艺], Quantum Cryptography: The “Magic Weapon” in Future Warfare [量子密码:未来战争“神器”], Guangming Daily [光明日报], May 28, 2014. Yuan Yi is a researcher at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science. Ling Ji et al., “Towards quantum communications in free-space seawater,” Volume 25, Issue 17,

[24] For a recent discussion of the military impact of quantum technologies, see “How Quantum Technologies Will Disrupt the Form of Future War” [量子技术将如何颠覆未来战争形态], China Youth Daily, August 31, 2017, The authors are professors at the PLA’s NDU.

[25] Elsa Kania and Stephen Armitage, “Disruption Under the Radar: Chinese Advances in Quantum Sensing,” China Brief, August 17, 2017,

[26] See the English translation of China’s 2015 National Defense White Paper for a description of the concept of active defense: “China’s Military Strategy,” State Council Information Office, May 26, 2015,

[27] The author would like to thank John Costello for raising this point and for his insights on these issues

Where the world goes to talk it over


The UN General Assembly, unelected, limited in its powers but with 193 theoretically equal members, is the world’s only representative body.

by Anne-Cécile Robert & Romuald Sciora 

The Nigerian delegation attend the UN General Assembly in October 1960

Al Fenn · LIFE Picture Collection · Getty

‘There are no small countries at the General Assembly,’ Dessima Williams told us in her office in the Glass House, the glass curtain-walled Secretariat building at United Nations headquarters in New York. Williams was formerly Grenada’s ambassador to the UN and is now a special adviser to the president of the 71st General Assembly (GA). She spoke carefully, as if to make sure that we would understand, and seeing our scepticism, added: ‘Simply because the UN charter says that all member states are sovereign and equal.’

The harsh reality of international relations suggests this statement should be treated with caution, but on 13 June 2016, a small yet significant incident disrupted the routine of the GA: the election of its president (for the statutory term of one year) did not go as expected. Delegates normally choose, by consensus, the candidate of the regional group whose turn it is to provide a president (see A global forum); this time, it was necessary to hold a formal vote. The Cypriot candidate, Andreas Mavroyiannis, favoured by the West, got 90 votes; a candidate from a microstate, Peter Thomson, the ambassador of Fiji to the UN, won with 94. An Asian diplomat said: ‘Mr Thomson’s election is a signal to the great powers. It’s intended to underline the injustices of climate change: Fiji is one of the countries most vulnerable to rising sea levels, so putting its representative at the head of the UN’s plenary organ is a political statement.’ The GA operates on the principle of one state, one vote.

The GA is easily overshadowed by the Security Council, where crises are resolved or get bogged down under the authority of five permanent members with a power of veto: the US, Russia, China, the UK and France. Yet the GA fulfils a vital role. According to Thérèse Gastaut, a former strategic communications director at the UN, ‘many of the debates are repetitive. But [they] also produce important new ideas that gradually gain support and make the UN a “sower of ideas”. The General Assembly is a vital forum that allows states to interact on all international issues’ (1), including disarmament, new technologies, the management of space vehicle debris, child protection and natural disaster risk reduction. The GA has improved international law in many areas and originated more than 300 treaties (2), including the Paris climate agreement of December 2015. Hundreds of meetings take place daily at its offices in New York and Geneva. A journalist described it as ‘a kind of melting pot where a global consensus is created.’

The GA contributes to political debate as a forum for the discussion of important ideas and the assertion of basic demands. Its declaration of 14 December 1960, adopted in accordance with the principle of self-determination of all peoples (UN charter article 1, paragraph 2), legitimised the independence of colonised countries. With decolonisation, which led to many new states joining the UN, especially African countries long under British, French or Portuguese administration, the GA became the only universal forum for all nations (193 member states and two observers: the Holy See and Palestine).

‘Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand’

In the 1960s and 70s, there were historic speeches at the GA: John F Kennedy’s 1961 proposal that the US and Soviet Union hold talks on nuclear tests; Chilean president Salvador Allende’s 1972 denunciation of the stranglehold of major industrial groups, supported by western governments, on the life of the South; and Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat’s first major peace offer to Israel, on 13 November 1974: ‘Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.’

Arafat’s address helped to promote his cause, and on 22 November that year the GA voted overwhelmingly to recognise Palestinians’ right to self-determination and sovereignty, and granted the PLO permanent observer status. On 29 November 2012, Palestine was granted the status of non-member observer state. With full membership ruled out by a probable US veto, this strengthens Palestine’s international position and allows it to appeal to the International Criminal Court or sign treaties. In September 2015, Russian president Vladimir Putin used the GA’s annual session to propose an international coalition against ISIS that would ‘unite a broad range of forces that are resolutely resisting those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind.’

Many of the debates are repetitive. But they produce important new ideas that gain gradual support and make the UN a ‘sower of ideas’Thérèse Gastaut

There is no global police force capable of enforcing GA resolutions, which often remain statements of principle with no practical consequences. But, as with decolonisation, they can be genuine political markers, transforming attitudes and the geopolitical balance of power. This is probably why the countries of the South were quick to use the GA to assert themselves. The Group of 77 and China, founded in 1964, speaks for 133 developing countries in economic and social debates. From 1968, UN declarations condemned the apartheid regime and pressured western countries trading with South Africa, and on a visit to New York in October 1994, Nelson Mandela said: ‘We stand here today to salute the United Nations Organisation and its member states, both singly and collectively, for joining forces with the masses of our people in a common struggle that has brought about our emancipation and pushed back the frontiers of racism.’ Some resolutions have drawn strong protests: one that described Zionism as a form of racism, adopted in 1975, was revoked in 1991.

From the 1960s, the Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc), which reports to the GA, pioneered the participation of civil society organisations in international discussions, which until then had been the preserve of diplomats mandated by governments. Ecosoc created the status of ‘non-governmental organisation’, giving them access to UN meetings and negotiations, and allowing them to express an opinion, write reports and designate representatives (who do not have decision-making powers); the term NGO has passed into common use. Ecosoc has accredited some 1,300 NGOs and established a system to facilitate interaction with civil society organisations (3).

Political influence

The GA provides a forum for NGOs to express their views. The World Ocean Summit, hosted by the GA in New York this June, is an example: for nearly a decade, NGOs have been taking part in discussions hosted by the GA before a revision of the Convention on the Law of the Sea (4). In GA president Thomson’s view, ‘the resolutions the General Assembly adopted are proof that it is in no way obsolete, and that it continues to exert political influence on the international scene.’ Peggy Kalas, coordinator of the High Seas Alliance, a partnership of NGOs, agrees: ‘We have worked hand in hand with governments, and the UN’s Oceans and Law of the Sea websitereflects our views and our proposals.’But though the GA provides a forum for civil society, the representativeness of the partners it chooses is questionable, since civil society is not governed by electoral legitimacy.

According to historian Paul Kennedy, the GA is the closest we have to a world parliament (5). The Security Council cannot claim to serve as a global forum, though it rules on crises that threaten world peace in accordance with the UN charter. The same is true of the Group of Twenty (G20), whose membership is arbitrary: it was formed relatively recently, and is still controlled by the great powers that created it. India and South Africa are now members, but only because they have been co-opted by rich countries. Dessima Williams said: ‘The GA manages national interests in an equitable way: there is no room for colonialism.We encounter no obstacles to our right to speak. Though some of the smaller countries don’t have the resources to go into issues in depth.’In 2005 the World Summit organised on Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s initiative confirmed the GA’s status as a principal organ of the UN and made it a real ‘parliament of man’ — a G193.

The General Assembly building in New York flanked by flags of the UN member states

Bruce Yuanyue Bi · Getty

Arnaud Guillois of the French foreign ministry’s UN department said: ‘Multilateralism doesn’t happen automatically. You need tools to build a dialogue and get the great powers to understand that it’s in their interest to discuss things. That is the fairly unique function of the General Assembly.’ The huge annual Climate Change Conference is a creation of the UN. In 2015 every member state, even the biggest polluters, felt obliged to sit at the negotiating table, even if the final resolution adopted in Paris was not entirely satisfactory. Thomson said: ‘Majorities are made up of little countries; you have to take account of them. We have made significant progress on climate change this year. And, contrary to what one might have feared, the US’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement has actually unitedthe international community even more strongly on the major issues.President Trump’s decision will have the opposite effect from the one he expected.’ At the Glass House, some delegates talk freely of their resentment of rich countries reluctant to accept their responsibilities towards the South.

The debates and decisions on development illustrate the strengths and limitations of the GA. In September 2000 the UN launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to guide the struggle against poverty. Early results appear significant: the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 1.9 billion to 840 million, though the world population has grown from six billion to 7.5 billion. Improvement in health, education, nutrition and access to essential services seems indisputable (6). However, the results vary considerably between continents and do not reflect the growing inequalities between and within countries. The MDGs were revised in 2015 to take account of climate factors, and better reflect realities on the ground. They have been replaced with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (no poverty, zero hunger, quality education, gender equality). As an illustration of the political importance of the SDGs, 70 countries negotiated their definitions, and eight million people responded to a survey. The 2030 Agenda, which maps the path to the SDGs, has the support of China, which sees it as a step towards the more balanced global partnership it considers necessary (7).

The ‘Washington consensus’

This falls far short of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) that the UN once set out to establish. In 1974 the GA adopted a bold declaration calling for a division of wealth at global level and a change of economic strategy, to be steered by the UN: the stabilisation of raw material prices, sovereignty over national resources, better terms of trade. The NIEO failed because of two oil crises, soaring debt in the South, and a lack of commitment by the great powers. Its abandonment is also a sign of change in the ideological balance of power that extends beyond the GA, a weakening of Third-Worldism and, perhaps, the lack of transparency around the participation of NGOs, which can be encouraged to co-operate by the offer of a seat at the negotiating table.

From the 1980s, neoliberal ideology began to prevail under the ‘Washington consensus’. As the economist Pierre Jacquemot wrote, ‘hopes of a great transformation[through the SDGs] were not founded on a clear analysis of the underlying reasons for the inequalities they aimed to eliminate: unequal trade, extreme financialisation, declining biodiversity’ (8).The SDGs have not escaped the technocratic tendencies of modern organisations, which have a fondness for impenetrable acronyms, finicky costing, and an approach to monitoring guided solely by the principles of accountancy. Like many decision-making bodies, the GA has become bureaucratic, according to Noam Chomsky, who told us he had observed the same tendency in the US Congress.

Among the blind spots of the global system are the international financial institutions: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund developed independently of the UN, after the Bretton Woods conference of July 1944. (The UN was established a few months later, in San Francisco.) Unlike specialised UN agencies and institutions, such as the World Health Organisation and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and UN programmes for development or the environment, these financial institutions are not bound bythe common rules of the UN system. They operate on a contribution basis, which gives the decision-making power to rich countries, and have always refused to be supervised by Ecosoc. The UN must negotiate with them at the spring conferences Ecosoc has organised since 1998, which make it possible to coordinate while respecting their separate roles.

Though they remain autonomous, the financial institutions are trying to improve relations with the UN (9). World Bank president Jim Yong Kim came to the GA in May to discuss the financing of the SDGs. France’s permanent representative at the UN, François Delattre, believes ‘proactive attitudes make up for the structural deficiencies.’ Thomson uses all his prerogatives as president to encourage member states to contribute funds. Ireland’s representative at the UN, David Donoghue, said: ‘We are grateful to the president for devoting so much energy to the SDGs and making them such a central focus of the UN’s work.’ As Thomson’s presidency lasts only one year, he needs to ensure continuity by maintaining a good working relationship with UN’s new secretary-general António Guterres, whose term is five years.

Thomson said: ‘Everyone should be aware that we are walking on a cliff-edge, because of the lack of sustainable development,’ and should contribute necessary funding. ‘It’s the member states who must pay. The General Assembly can only set a course and highlight the issues at stake. My role is to give my successor a few starting points so that they can continue the work.’ Since it cannot coerce, the GA’s role is to organise social pressure to encourage member states, which remain sovereign, to change their stance. ‘That is what’s at stake, for example, in discussions of the rights of sexual minorities,’ said Delattre. ‘We need to form an international consensus.’ Countries such as Saudi Arabia, condemned for human rights abuse, are required to submit reports to the UN Human Rights Council, giving ammunition to NGOs and activists who want to force their regimes to change. But there has been occasional absurdity, such as when Saudi Arabia got elected to the women’s rights commission this May.

The UN is mentioned in the media more often for its bureaucracy and the abuses committed by some peacekeepers (10) than because of its daily work. ‘The Security Council gets the attention, but you could say that the General Assembly is the hidden face of the UN, the heart of the reactor,’ said Delattre, adding that France supports the multilateral framework and the UN system. The GA is a sounding box for major issues.

Debating terrorism since 1972

Though the Security Council took charge of the fight against terror while the ruins of the World Trade Centre were still smoking, the GA held the first international debate on terrorism in 1972. In September 2006 it adopted a global strategy without a common definition of terrorism, because there was no consensus on the use of violence by Palestinians in territories occupied by Israel. The strategy recommends attention be paid to background factors of terrorism, including conflict, political exclusion and socioeconomic marginalisation. It provides a framework for national as well as regional antiterrorist initiatives, even if some oppressive legislation adopted by states goes against commitments made in New York. But the Palestinians, accused of terrorism by Israel, were able to use the GA to bring the violence they suffer to public attention.

Over the last few years, governments have entrusted more tasks to the office of the president, especially the organisation of high-level meetings and the nomination of facilitators during crises, such as the 2015 refugee crisis. Greek diplomat Ioannis Vrailas, a special adviser in the office of the president, believes this indicates a recognition of the GA’s work and its ability to coordinate different aspects of each case. Vrailas, formerly deputy head of the European Union’s delegation to the UN, told us that ‘development is a tool for preventing conflicts.’ The GA’s expertise allows it to coordinate specialised agencies and programmes in health, development and the environment.

In 2016 Guterres’s election as secretary-general gave him an unprecedented role. Delegates had traditionally approved the Security Council’s recommended candidate without a vote, but several demanded a more transparent election. The candidates were auditioned in public, while the president of the GA negotiated the wording of the final resolution with the Security Council. The strengthening of the role of the GA also indicated the weakening of the consensus among the great powers because of tension over the Syrian crisis. Richard Atwood of International Crisis Group said: ‘By circumventing or violating international law, the western interventions in Kosovo [1999] and Libya [2011] led to a loss of trust among the five permanent members regarding the rules on the use of force.’

On 9 December 2016 the GA, faced with a stalemate on the Security Council, adopted a resolution calling on states to respect international humanitarian law in Syria and especially to allow aid organisations access. This kind of intervention is very rare: in principle the Security Council is responsible for maintaining peace in specific situations (11).

The GA is the only representative body for the planet, yet it is not a world parliament: only elections could give it the legitimacy of a parliament in a democratic state and that is probably unrealistic. However, the GA is unique in its ability to reflect change in international relations (the surprise election of Thomson, the mobilisation of small states and China) and in its values, derived from the UN charter, harnessing the desire for power in the service of collective security. At a time when the redrawing of the geopolitical map is raising tensions, it is, despite imperfections, the only forum conducive to the establishment of a progressive international order.

LMD-New York University

In discussion

The Albertine Bookshop, in partnership with Le Monde diplomatique and New York University, invites you to join Anne-Cécile Robert, Le Monde diplomatique’s development director, and UN specialist Romuald Sciora for a discussion on the United Nations General Assembly. Their new essay on this theme, ‘Where the world goes to talk it over’, is published here, in Le Monde diplomatique’s English edition.

They will be joined by Tomas Anker Christensen, Dr Michael J Williams, Pamela Falk and France’s UN ambassador François Delattre.

Friday 6 October 2017 at 7.00pm, Albertine Bookshop, 972 5th Avenue, New York NY 10075

Reserve your free place.

Anne-Cécile Robert & Romuald Sciora

Anne-Cécile Robert is development director of Le Monde diplomatique; Romuald Sciora is a Franco-American journalist and made the documentary A la Maison de Verre — L’ONU et ses Secrétaires Généraux (In the Glass House the UN and its Secretaries-General).

Support LMD

LMD owes to its subscribers alone its independent journalism, free from any outside pressure, and its survival in a harsh environment for print.


(1) Extract from her course ‘Organisations internationales et gouvernance mondiale’ at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS) in Paris.

(2) See the Dag Hammarskjöld Library.

(3The Integrated Civil Society Organisations System and the Non-Governmental Liaison Service.

(4) See ‘Oceans 2015 Initiative’ supplement, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 2015.

(5) SeePaul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man: the Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations,Random House, New York, 2006.

(6) ‘The Millennium Development Goals Report’, United Nations, New York, 2015.

(7) Meeting organised by the president of the GA, 18 April 2017.

(8) Pierre Jacquemot, ‘Que faut-il attendre des Objectifs du développement durable?’ (What should we expect from the Sustainable Development Goals?), IRIS, Paris, 29 September 2015.

(9) International financial institutions are represented on the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination.

(10) See Sandra Szurek, ‘Going to war to keep the peace’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2017.

(11) The GA resorted to the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution (or Dean Acheson resolution, after the US secretary of state who inspired it during the Korean war).

Work of a diplomat

▶Work in an international and politically sensitive context;

▶Represent their respective countries and manage its interests;

▶Have the capacity to quickly learn and apply new information;

▶Function as a bridge-builder, a connector and a hub in the context of modern networking theory;

Responsibility to act as a service provider for others active in the field of international cooperation.

September 08, 2017

Exploiting the fault lines of Islamic terrorism

Exploiting the fault lines of Islamic terrorism

by LAWRENCE SELLIN, PHD September 8, 2017

The U.S. has largely viewed Islamic terrorism as a monolithic threat with varying degrees of extremism distributed among various geographic locations.

We have often not adequately appreciated the historical, ideological and geopolitical subtleties underlying Islamic terrorism and, consequently, missed opportunities to enhance our national security by effectively pitting one faction against another, if not by defeat, then by disruption.

For example, an extraordinary and mostly unnoticed diplomatic démarche occurred in Kabul on August 7, 2017, when the senior Saudi diplomat in Afghanistan, Charge d'affairs Mishari al-Harbi, accused Qatar of supporting Taliban "armed terrorists" even though Saudi Arabia itself had long been a financial backer of the Taliban and, together with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), officially recognized the group when it assumed control of Afghanistan in 1996.

At a high level, that event can be traced back to the centuries-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam upon which modern geopolitical interests are layered.

The basis of the Saudi action, however, was a continuation of the June 2017 diplomatic breakdown among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and isolation of Qatar, initially by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Eqypt, that included severing of diplomatic ties, border closing, an embargo and the expelling of Qatari diplomats and residents expelled from GCC countries. Qatar was accused of sponsoring terrorism and meddling in the affairs of other GCC countries, specifically through its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

Although Qatar is indeed a major supporter of radical Islam, the root cause of the conflict is Qatar's amicable relationship with Saudi Arabia's Shia nemesis, Iran, with whom Qatar shares a natural gas field in the Persian Gulf. Because Qatar's major export is gas not oil, it is less under the political domination of Saudi Arabia, often pursuing an independent foreign policy, which is not appreciated in Riyadh.

The Saudis' hostile rhetoric in Kabul was meant to discourage independent Saudi donors from supporting the Taliban and, by de-legitimization of the Taliban, undercut Qatar's effectiveness as a mediator between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

One factor contributing to the Saudi break with the Taliban is the increasing support the Taliban have accepted from Iran. In addition, the ambassador to Afghanistan of Saudi ally, the UAE, was wounded and five of its diplomats were killed in the January 2017 Kandahar bombing, which was allegedly planned at the Afghan Taliban-linked Mawlawi Ahmad Madrassa in Chaman, Pakistan.

Over the last decade, there has also been a shift in Saudi funding to Pakistan away from Deobandi groups like the Taliban to the more extreme Ahl-i-Hadith sect, the Pakistani equivalent of Wahhabism. 

Local sources in Pakistan have reported that Saudi Arabia is providing funding for Jihadi training camps in order to launch attacks on Iran from Balochistan.

All of the above accentuates the importance for U.S. policy makers to understand and exploit elements of the Sunni-Shia struggle, the divisions among Sunni extremist groups and the geopolitical vulnerabilities of the nations who sponsor terrorism.

The ideology that sustains radical Islamic terrorism is really an amalgamation of ideologies, whose inherent incompatibilities can be exploited to create conditions whereby the ideologues attack each other or, at a minimum, are kept continuously off balance.

That is what a winning strategy looks like, not troop levels and nation building.

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Colonel Sellin is the author of "Restoring the Republic: Arguments for a Second American Revolution ". He receives email at

Read more: Family Security Matters 
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution