Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Impossible or Just Unachievable?

Riverbend, writing from Iraq, in vivid and painful detail (excerpted below) probably needs a healthy dose of Arthur Chrenkoff's feel-good stories. Someone should send her a bundle in order to disabuse her of the negativity instilled in her by the Bush-bashing liberal media.

Sarcasm aside, her experiences represent a microcosm of why attempting to spread democracy through the use of military force is such a bad idea. And it always was - even if Lawrence Kaplan only just realized it.

Speaking of Kaplans, Fred Kaplan recently wrote about the US Army's new field manual on counterinsurgency operations. According to Kaplan, there are two overarching messages to be found in these pages:

One is that Pentagon planning for the Iraq war's aftermath was at least as crass, inattentive to the lessons of history, and contrary to basic political and military principles as the war's harshest critics have charged.

The other is that as a nation we may simply be ill-suited to fight these kinds of wars.

These observations, and the discussion of the particulars, prompted Kaplan to pose a question:

A debate has been raging in some circles over whether the war's disasters were avoidable or inevitable. Would a smarter U.S. strategy have produced a more stable Iraq? Or were the long-suppressed sectarian feuds destined to gush forth like a geyser, no matter how we tried to control them, once Saddam was blown from his throne?

A better question provoked by this new Army Field Manual: Should we follow the authors' advice in the hope of waging a better counterinsurgency the next time around? Or should we give up these sorts of wars as futile and—do what instead?

Matt Yglesias offers a response to Kaplan's open-ended question:

I think that, basically, yes, we should give up these sorts of wars as futile. Kaplan observes near the top of his article that "as a nation we may simply be ill-suited to fight these kinds of wars." This is a common trope in the counterinsurgency literature. And it appears to be true. The deeper problem, though, is that so do all the other relevant nations. The history of liberal democracies waging successful counterinsurgency campaigns of the sort suggested by the Field Manual is very poor.

Matt's rather stark position provoked a partial rebuttal from Robert Farley. Farley argues that there are at least a few instances of success when certain conditions are favorable. Although I would take issue with a few of the historical examples Farley cites to make his case, he makes a good point that achieving a positive result may not be strictly impossible, and thus "giving up" on counterinsurgency wars would be foolish from a policy perspective.

We won't always have a choice whether to fight counterinsurgency campaigns, and certain instances may arise that require us to engage an enemy on such a footing. The better to be prepared if and when that eventuality arises in order to maximize our potential to succeed against the odds. The example of Afghanistan immediately comes to mind.

Ironically, the most recent QDR seemed to transform Matt's rhetorical position into practice in terms of spending priorities - with funding for asymmetrical warfare capacity crowded out in favor of high-priced conventional war items. Said one senior Pentagon official on the disparity of spending:

Iraq "is clearly a one-off," said a Pentagon official who is working on the top-to-bottom study, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review. "There is certainly no intention to do it again." [emphasis added]

I criticized that document for its similar short-sightedness and investment in the belief that we could decide our next battlefield. You don't always get to choose where the next war breaks out.

Then again, sometimes you do. As with Iraq - the quintessential war of choice. I think it's safe to assume that even if we don't take the absolutist position suggested by Yglesias (or reflected in the thinking behind the QDR), it is crucial that we fully appreciate the staggering difficulty involved in waging counterinsurgency wars. If not impossible for a liberal democracy to prevail in these environments, the intricate strategic nuances, high costs and commitment of resources make victory near unachievable in all but a few of the most hospitable contexts.

Counterinsurgency involves rebuilding a society, keeping the population safe, boosting the local government's legitimacy, training a national army, and fighting off insurgents who are trying to topple the government—all at the same time.

As the manual puts it, "The insurgent succeeds by sowing chaos and disorder anywhere; the government fails unless it maintains order everywhere."

From first page to last, the authors stress that these kinds of wars are "protracted by nature." They require "firm political will and extreme patience," "considerable expenditure of time and resources," and a very large deployment of troops ready to greet "hand shakes or hand grenades" without mistaking one for the other.

"Successful … operations require Soldiers and Marines at every echelon to possess the following," the authors write. (Emphasis added.) They then list a daunting set of traits: "A clear, nuanced, and empathetic appreciation of the essential nature of the conflict. … An understanding of the motivation, strengths, and weaknesses of the insurgent," as well as rudimentary knowledge of the local culture, behavioral norms, and leadership structures. In addition, there must be "adaptive, self-aware, and intelligent leaders."

Oh, is that all? Let that wish-list of unlikely outcomes be grist for the mill for Lawrence Kaplan, Peter Beinart and other would-be liberal hawks imbued with the fighting faith. While we may find ourselves forced into such disadvantageous battles at some point in the future - and we should prepare ourselves accordingly - voluntarily tying ourselves up into one of these gordian knots is worse than folly. Back to Riverbend, who provides us with a first person view of counterinsurgency's punishing lessons. For hearts and minds:

It promises to be a long summer. We're almost at the mid-way point, but it feels like the days are just crawling by. It's a combination of the heat, the flies, the hours upon hours of no electricity and the corpses which keep appearing everywhere.

The day before yesterday was catastrophic. The day began with news of the killings in Jihad Quarter. According to people who live there, black-clad militiamen drove in mid-morning and opened fire on people in the streets and even in houses. They began pulling people off the street and checking their ID cards to see if they had Sunni names or Shia names and then the Sunnis were driven away and killed. Some were executed right there in the area. The media is playing it down and claiming 37 dead but the people in the area say the number is nearer 60. [...]

People are staying in their homes in the area and no one dares enter it so the wakes for the people who were massacred haven't begun yet. I haven't seen his family yet and I'm not sure I have the courage or the energy to give condolences. I feel like I've given the traditional words of condolences a thousand times these last few months, "Baqiya ib hayatkum… Akhir il ahzan…" or "May this be the last of your sorrows." Except they are empty words because even as we say them, we know that in today's Iraq any sorrow- no matter how great- will not be the last.

...The news the world hears about Iraq and the situation in the country itself are wholly different. People are being driven out of their homes and areas by force and killed in the streets, and the Americans, Iranians and the Puppets talk of national conferences and progress.

It's like Baghdad is no longer one city, it's a dozen different smaller cities each infected with its own form of violence. It's gotten so that I dread sleeping because the morning always brings so much bad news. The television shows the images and the radio stations broadcast it. The newspapers show images of corpses and angry words jump out at you from their pages, "civil war… death… killing… bombing… rape…"

Rape. The latest of American atrocities. Though it's not really the latest- it's just the one that's being publicized the most. The poor girl Abeer was neither the first to be raped by American troops, nor will she be the last. The only reason this rape was brought to light and publicized is that her whole immediate family were killed along with her. Rape is a taboo subject in Iraq. Families don't report rapes here, they avenge them. We've been hearing whisperings about rapes in American-controlled prisons and during sieges of towns like Haditha and Samarra for the last three years. The naiveté of Americans who can't believe their 'heroes' are committing such atrocities is ridiculous. Who ever heard of an occupying army committing rape???...

In the news they're estimating her age to be around 24, but Iraqis from the area say she was only 14. Fourteen. Imagine your 14-year-old sister or your 14-year-old daughter. Imagine her being gang-raped by a group of psychopaths and then the girl was killed and her body burned to cover up the rape. Finally, her parents and her five-year-old sister were also killed. Hail the American heroes...Raise your heads high supporters of the 'liberation' - your troops have made you proud today.

It fills me with rage to hear about it and read about it. The pity I once had for foreign troops in Iraq is gone. It's been eradicated by the atrocities in Abu Ghraib, the deaths in Haditha and the latest news of rapes and killings. I look at them in their armored vehicles and to be honest- I can't bring myself to care whether they are 19 or 39. I can't bring myself to care if they make it back home alive. I can't bring myself to care anymore about the wife or parents or children they left behind. I can't bring myself to care because it's difficult to see beyond the horrors. I look at them and wonder just how many innocents they killed and how many more they'll kill before they go home. How many more young Iraqi girls will they rape?

Brought to you by the grown-ups.

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