Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Roll Rastafari Chariot Along - Part I: In Praise of Mass Graves

The reaction in conservative pundit circles to the apparent success of Ethiopia's initial incursion into Somalia was curious to say the least. The Cornerites, being the conservative id and all, are a good source for the typical fare:

Maybe we can learn something from the Ethiopians in Somalia? [Cliff May]

...I can't read the news today and keep from wondering whether we should airlift a few Ethiopian battalions into Baghdad. [John Miller]

Aside from the implausibility of the suggestion that Ethiopian units might be able to fight better than our own soldiers in Iraq, or that Ethiopian military advisors could provide guidance to CENTCOM in such matters (interesting version of support the troops?), I was scratching my head trying to ponder the premise underlying this follow up question posed by Cliff May:

Why are [the Ethiopian forces] achieving what American forces...in Iraq today apparently are not?
Yeah, if only American forces in Iraq could have streaked through the country during the initial invasion, dispersing their adversary's cadres ahead of their advance, en route to hastily toppling the previous ruling elements and seizing putative control of the country. Oh wait. That's exactly what we did in Iraq. Then, what lesson would that be exactly?

The rhetorical sleight of hand practiced by these pundits is designed to deliberately blur the line between the ease with which a superior military force can invade a nation and take out the ruling regime (routing the opposing armed forces as well), with the far more difficult task of actually occupying that country and battling an indigenous insurgency (a task made more difficult if undertaken pursuant to grandiose notions of liberal, democratic nation building). As Eric Margolis put it [ed note: fixed link and author]:

Somalia’s ragtag Islamist militias are helpless against Ethiopian tanks, artillery and attack aircraft. Ethiopia’s army could quickly occupy all of Somalia, but it would then be very hard-pressed to protect its long, vulnerable supply lines against attack by Somali guerilla forces.
So what gives?

The overly effusive praise for the effectiveness of the Ethiopian military's operations in Somalia (as contrasted with our own stymied efforts in Iraq) is largely attributable to the fact that many conservatives are opportunistically using the conflation of invasions and occupations to push one of the trendiest meme's du jour: that our military operations are not sufficiently brutal and indifferent to the loss of massive amounts of innocent civilian life. In a previous post, I described it this way:

...the story that our defeat in Iraq is the result of our excessive kindness - our shock and awe just wasn't awful enough. In our effort to liberate Iraqis from the tyranny and brutality of Saddam, we failed because our tactics did not sufficiently resemble...the tyrannical brutality of Saddam.
Actually, in the spirit of efficiency, most of the conservative commentariat discussing these topics are milking the Ethiopian/Somali conflict for a two-fer: also bashing the dreaded media's role in restraining our noble savage impulses. If only the media weren't around to shine a spotlight on abuses, we could, presumably, kill a lot more civilians which would (supposedly) help us to prevail in counterinsurgency operations. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross summarizes the argument nicely:

There may be lessons for the United States in Ethiopia’s success. Abdiweli Ali, an assistant professor at Niagara University who is in contact with transitional government military commanders on the ground, says that Ethiopia has less concern than the U.S. about civilian casualties. There is no reliable estimate of civilian deaths, but the number is believed to be in the hundreds. “We’re fighting wars with one hand tied behind our backs,” Professor Ali says. “In Iraq we’re trying to be nice, thinking we’ll give candy to people on the streets and they’ll love us. But people will understand later on if you just win now and provide them with security.”

A second lesson relates to the media. The Ethiopian government is generally less sensitive to media criticism than the U.S. government—and is likely to encounter far less criticism in the first place, since the press traditionally gives short shrift to coverage of Africa.
Unsurprisingly, Mark Steyn (self-appointed defender of Western civilization and the West's collective sense of morality) rushes in with his signature self-contradicting praise for the immoral (amoral?):

One difference between the Ethiopians in Somalia and the Americans in Iraq is that the former aren't fighting with one hand behind their back just in case some EU ally or humanitarian lobby group or fictitious Associated Press source leaks some "war crime" or other to the media. In fact, the Ethiopians have the advantage of more or less total lack of interest from the Western media. So they're just getting on with it. [...]

I don't know whether the Ethiopian intervention will work in the long run, but, if it does, the best hope for squashing the jihad might be to outsource the fight to Third World regimes less squeamish about waging it.
Aside from the morally dubious praise for disregarding the slaughter of innocent civilians, there is also little actual evidence to support the thesis that counterinsurgency operations in Iraq would be progressing nicely if only we turned the region into a free-fire zone. It didn't work in Vietnam, and it likely wouldn't do the trick in Anbar province either. With one caveat.

If we went near-genocidal (ala Saddam with his most brutal crackdowns - actions for which he was just hung to the celebratory shouts of the same people pining for a more Saddam-like military approach), it might work for a time (assuming the rest of the Sunni Muslim world wouldn't replenish the ranks at a quick enough clip).

But that would be an interesting way to fight terrorism, and bestow the exalted gifts of freedom and democracy on the benighted masses in the Muslim world. A meat-grinder of innocent civilians and combatants alike, that sucks in bodies from around the region to its rotating jaws, without regard for the complaints of the media or international organizations.

Iraq the model?

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