COIN, resilience, and a new approach to conflict: Interview with Victoria Fontan

By Joana Cook, Managing Editor, Strife:

Professor Victoria Fontan

Victoria Fontan is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the UN University for Peace in Costa Rica and author of “Decolonizing Peace” (2012) and “Voices from Post-Saddam Iraq” (2008). She is now undertaking her third PhD in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.


Joana Cook: Thank you for speaking with us today. You have had an expansive and extensive career and I wanted to talk about your focus on Iraq. Can you elaborate more on the reason that Iraq has become the focus for you and about your roles and experiences in Iraq?

Victoria Fontan: Iraq came to me by accident because I was finishing my research on Lebanon and I had just defended by PhD thesis and the Iraq War happened. I thought I would find in Iraq the same type of Shiite, as my first doctorate was on Hezbollah and I thought that in Iraq there would be exactly, or similarly organised political/spiritual networks, and that these would revive Shiite-based socialism in the area, and I arrived and I found everything but that. I stumbled onto Fallujah, because at the time I was there as a researcher for a journalist at The Independent, and while there, saw a U.S. raid on the city. That’s when I realised that was going to be my focus, and I’ve never stopped going to Fallujah.

What was interesting that day, is that there was an American soldier who had died the night before, and his colleagues were actually raiding the streets to find the culprits. Going house to house in Fallujah, they arrested a woman who was a schoolteacher because she had a Kalashnikov and she didn’t want them to come into her house, and I could see the theatre of war right in front of me. As the raids finished at the end of that street, an old man, a shop keeper, gave a bottle of water to the soldiers and said ‘you must be so thirsty after all of this’, as if we had just snapped out of this scene and now everybody was friends again. I thought ‘wow,this is a fascinating topic’ and I focused on the perception of humiliation in the escalation of violence, between soldiers and Iraqi’s, because everybody is a loser in war and I think that soldiers need to understand why they are facing these situations.

Can you elaborate more on this theme of humiliation, which was quite prominent in your earlier work as well and link it with your current research focusing more on counterinsurgency (COIN) and civilians?

The perception of humiliation on both sides actually leads to a complete falling out in communication.  It is a tactic used against the opponent. COIN comes in because, in 2003-2004, I thought that the only way to prevent humiliation, or the perception of humiliation, would be to win hearts and minds. At the time I had found the Mateus and Petraeus earlier reports from US Army Field Manual, 3-24 and I was fascinated. I thought this is it; this is the answer, and I really thought it was going to save lives. I carried on and was in Baghdad during the ethnic cleansing during 2005-2006, those two summers. I saw that it was a lot more complex than [humiliation, violence and tactics], but I couldn’t put my finger on [what] it [was]. At the same time I went into the UN and realised that, because I was evaluating the electoral cycle (for the first three elections), I realised that we actually created the situation of sectarianism, through our democratisation process, and so COIN and liberal peace together created this mess. ….From a COIN perspective, [I was] really disappointed, because I believed in it. When the Americans established the human terrain system in Afghanistan, and had anthropologists on the ground to actually [communicate better with] the population, I thought that was brilliant.

Tell us more about this new kind of connection between COIN and resilience you are currently researching. What do you see as the new material or angle that can be brought to the field from this perspective?

 I think the innovative angle is how organic thinking gives us a fuller picture. It’s almost as if regular COIN looks at the tip of the iceberg, and the rest really tries to look at things more holistically. Holistically doesn’t mean looking at everything, every interconnection like some of the works that have been done at the moment in COIN, but trying to look at us and our initiatives and societies and situations as systems, systems of resilience, and resilient cycles. If we look at it that way it gives us not only a fuller picture, but an understanding of when to intervene and when not to intervene…. If you intervene, let’s say when you are in a conservation phase, there’s no space for innovation, no space for new connections. So obviously you’re going to fail miserably, and in retrospect this is one of the main mistakes that occurred in Iraq as well.

We haven’t seen levels of violence in Iraq like we currently are since 2008, and perhaps using this approach that you’re now exploring, can you comment more specifically on some of the dynamics we currently see in Iraq and more broadly how we see that affecting Sunni-Shiite tensions?

It’s unprecedented this Sunni-Shiite conflict, in French we call it guerre fratricide, it’s basically brothers killing each other. I think that the situation never really changed, it’s just our outlook, because really since 2008 it looks worse to us because maybe the numbers of bodies are piling up. But if you’re looking at the repression in the prisons, if you’re looking at the state’s structural violence, it’s actually always been there and I think that the government has been feeding this escalation to such a level that we only see the tip of the iceberg, but really the entire society has been divided, since probably the establishment of those personal ID cards which reflected a person’s religion, by stating the person’s family lineage and neighbourhood.

This has had tremendous consequences for the establishment of The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) because they started in 2007, al-Qaeda is actually absorbed by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI )and then [as] the years [have gone] by, whatever we tried to do in COIN has failed.  It’s as if we’ve given the wrong antibiotic and now we’ve created a resistant bug. I think that the strength of ISIS is it goes across states, it is transnational; it is also going back to a paradigm that exists outside the state. Before al Qaeda would say ‘We just want to take over the government and become a Caliphate and that’s it’, but it’s not an aphorism, it’s completely unprecedented.

You did mention the transnational nature of it, and specifically we’ve seen ISIS coming up a lot more in Syria. Can you briefly comment on your perceptions of the situation in Syria right now and perhaps how these dynamics will continue to evolve?

I remember last summer Syria was more a recreation ground for ISIS in Iraq, and the people from ISIS I met were saying that they were going to spend two weeks in Syria and it was going to be bonding time between them as a group, to go and actually fight for real somewhere else. So I think that to a large extent this is how it started.  The operations in Iraq are different; you plant bombs, you’re not really in it, actually not really giving your person to the fight, to the struggle. Of course this created tensions on the ground because they were so motivated, that they actually succeeded and advanced rapidly, they took over so many towns, and then Jabhat al-nusra was like, ‘Wait a second, al Qaeda, this is our fight, you have to [leave]’. That’s when they said ‘no, no, we are here for the greater Syria and the entire region.’

I think that the funders such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are very clever…. I think it’s going to depend on the [regional] funders more than anything else and who they’re ready to back up; this will be at the core of it. Especially groups like Islamic Front who were former Jabhat al-nusra who became more and more structured…. every funder is trying to create its own brand of al-Qaeda, but ISIS somehow comes out right now as the most ideologically sound, and religiously sound as well. They make mistakes, for instance they beheaded the wrong [target], about a month and a half ago, and then they apologised on the internet …. That’s very smart. By doing that the population sees that they might have a future with them. Right now though it’s also a propaganda war, we don’t know how they are going to fare until we actually understand how the local population reacts to them.

Thank you very much for all of your insights. As a final point on resilience, would you like to leave our readers with a final thought to ponder on?

The most important aspect  [of resilience] is to understand that whenever an obstacle comes our way, we have to make it become part of our landscape and not consistently try to destroy it.  We have to find a use for it within our landscape, which comes from this competitive symbiosis that author Rafe Sagarin talks about. Once we think outside the box and look at the larger picture what we will see…. if the different actors that seek to exist outside the state understand they are much better off together than against each other it creates the potential for a completely different kind of future. I think that this is the key for understanding resilience, how we can work together, and we have to work together from an organic perspective.


You can find more information on Victoria Fontan’s research on her website:

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