Aleppo. Mosul. Sana’a. Mogadishu. Gaza. These war-ravaged cities are but a few examples of a growing trend in global conflict, where more and more of the world’s most violent conflicts are being fought in densely populated urban areas, at a tremendously high cost to the civilians living there. Despite their aversion to urban warfare, American and NATO military strategists increasingly acknowledge that the future of war is in cities. Concurrently, humanitarian agencies such as International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are adjusting their response to relief operations in urban centers in real time. This rise in urban violence and the resurgence of warfare in cities comes from three key factors: the global trend toward urbanization, increasingly volatile domestic political conditions in developing countries, and changes in the character of armed conflict.
Recent developments herald a troubled year for the Afghans
During 2015 and 2016, the Taliban have been on an offensive and gained territory. Particularly they have made inroads into strategic areas where the Taliban can control the roads. At the same time, there is an active fight between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Taliban over 20% of the Afghan territory. How the final battle will fall out is unknown, but if the ANSF loses, the Taliban can end up controlling up to one-third of the country.
The past couple of years have seen an increase in violent incidents, an increase in militant actors and in both the number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and Afghan returnees from the EU, Pakistan and Iran. The increase of violence is related both to the force used by insurgents and the Afghan government. The increase in militant actors is due to the military operation, known as the Zarb-e-Azb, launched by the Pakistani army in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which has pushed over new militants to Afghan soil, but also due to the entrance of the Islamic State into Afghanistan.
Thanks to a sequence of fortunate accidents around 2005-2006, the world discovered the intellectual legacy of David Galula (1919-1967). Since then, two books and one monograph restituted the story of his life or vast segments of it. Although some went into a fascinating level of detail, none of these, in my view, are an easy read for a non-military audience. A minimal awareness in terms of war studies is needed to really capture what they had to say. Besides, the French-speaking readership is still far from hearing about Galula. These are the two reasons why I decided to tell the story of Galula’s life – in French.
Writing a book about David Galula amounts to recounting the story of a paradox (many of them actually). On the one hand, there is a consensus on him being the founding father of counterinsurgency, a groundbreaking theory in modern military affairs. Galula was a self-made man in various aspects; born into a relatively modest environment, he rose to positions where no one expected him to, in virtue of his faith and social background. He traveled the world and exerted the full scope of his talents in a diversified career ranging from diplomat, author and secret agent to infantry officer. Many influential people liked him and very few voiced any opposition or hostility at his respect. Yet, Galula’s legacy went silent after his premature death in 1967. During forty years, neglect and bad luck buried Galula’s unorthodox and stimulating contributions to the art of war. Neither book royalties nor a military pension were enough to keep his widow from having to look for a job to make a living and raise their only child. Galula is still mostly unheard of in his home country, France.
Looking at other terrorist groups that we have seen, what makes the command structure of ISIS different from Al-Qaeda or others?
I do not think that it is that different. I think that because in several iterations it is a variant of Al-Qaeda to begin with, it has a very similar structure as Al-Qaeda. It has the same sort of melding of theological justification with operational command, finance, outreach, media. I think the problem that we are finding with this decade as opposed to the previous one is that the learning curve of terrorist groups has shrunk, and in that sense, Baghdadi [of ISIS] has been able to put together an operational structure that perhaps has existed with other groups. So, as facile and unsophisticated as governance by ISIS over the territory it controls may be, it is still governing them even though it has had no preparation. These people are not trained bureaucrats, with the exception of some former Saddamists, but Baghdadi has learned from the mistakes of previous terrorist groups, which has made the group more formidable.
Despite limited human capacity and financial means, civilian institutions have nevertheless emerged this year in the zones conquered by the insurrection movement in northern Syria. Reconstructing an administrative system from the bottom-up has enabled the public service system to restart, and it constitutes the basis for an alternative to the Damascus regime. The management of eastern Aleppo by the armed opposition thus constitutes both a strategic and a political challenge.
The areas controlled by the insurgency in the country’s second most significant city are home to over a million inhabitants (though the exact figure is uncertain), and their management represents a test for the sustainability of the opposition in the long run. Despite daily bombings and limited external aid ($400 000 since its creation in March, to which can be added one-off aid donations which generally add up to a few tens of thousands of dollars), Aleppo’s new municipality has managed to re-establish vital public services. City agents pick up the trash; electricity and water are available several hours a day. Shops, schools, and hospitals have reopened. The police force is progressively re-forming throughout the city, though it still numbers only a few hundreds men. In the short term, the city’s access to food seems more or less secure, and a limited return of refugees from Turkey could even be observed this summer.