Sunday, May 15, 2005

Containing the insurgency

"The essence of any insurgency, and its most decisive battle space, is the psychological. [It's] armed theater: you have protagonists on the stage but they're sending messages to wider audiences. Insurgency is about perceptions, beliefs, expectations, legitimacy, and will. Insurgency is not won by killing insurgents, not won by seizing territory; it's won by altering the psychological factors that are most relevant."
Steven Metz
"Relearning Counterinsurgency"
from a AEI panel discussion (1/10/2005)
[slightly edited by Mark Danner]

Working hard has prevented me from blogging much recently, but, on the other hand, I've been able to catch up on some reading on the commute between my home in Manhattan and the performance space in Brooklyn. For instance, here's an excerpt from an article by Gordon S. Wood in the April 28th issue of The New York Review of Books:

Picture the following situation. The greatest power in the world is confronted with an insurgency thousands of miles away, which it expects to put down quickly and easily. It sends a large army to deal with the insurgents, but counts on many loyal supporters to flock to its standard. Recruiting soldiers, however, is difficult, and since the great power cannot enlist enough of its own troops to deal with the situation, it has to hire thousands of mercenaries. It occupies the remote land, sends increasing numbers of soldiers, spends enormous amounts of money, and suffers more and more casualties, all of which arouses a good deal of criticism at home. The hawkish cabinet minister in charge of the war remains confident and vainly tries to micromanage the war an ocean away. But finally the great power is unable to put an end to the insurgency. It carries on for many long years until its political will is sapped, and it is forced to abandon the distant country it invaded.

This could be the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, or it could be what might happen with America's intervention in Iraq. But it is neither of these. Instead, it is the story of Great Britain's attempt in the 1770s and 1780s to put down the rebellion of its colonists in North America. Of course, there are enormous differences between Britain's experience with suppressing rebellion in its empire in the eighteenth century and America's recent experiences abroad. Nevertheless, the parallels between the British experience in North America over two centuries ago with recent American interventions abroad, especially in Vietnam, are eerie.

In its efforts to suppress the rebellion in North America, Britain, like the United States in Vietnam or in Iraq, could not realistically envisage a simple military victory. Even if it won a military victory, that could be only the first step in the restoration of peaceful relations and stability. Britain's ultimate goal had to be political, which is why the British shed, in Edmund Burke's phrase, "iron tears" in their efforts to hold on to their colonies with bullets. Since Britain had to win the allegiance of the colonists in order to bring them back into the empire, the commanders in chief, General William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard, Lord Howe, believed they could not wage a simple war of conquest and terror. They could not bombard the ports and ravage the countryside as Marlborough had ravaged Bavaria earlier in the century. Believing they had to fight a peculiarly delicate kind of war, the Howe brothers saw themselves at the outset as conciliators as much as conquerors. This probably blunted their ability to suppress the rebellion at the outset when the opportunity was greatest. At any rate their hard-line superior in London eventually accused them of a "sentimental manner of making war."

While the British objective was thus blurred, the rebels' objective, like that of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong or the Iraqi insurgents today, was clear-cut—defeat the British army and undermine the British will to continue the struggle. With the contest being a test of wills, the American rebels had the advantage: they had much more to lose than did the British. For them, as for the Vietcong, defeat would mean the end of their hopes of being a nation or, as in the case of the Iraqi insurgents, it will mean the end of their cause, anarchic and destructive as that cause may be.

But for Britain, like the United States in Vietnam or in Iraq, the situation was different. Britain did not have the same fear of defeat as the colonists had. Losing the struggle would not mean the end of the British nation, or the occupation of the realm; nor would it decisively affect the ordinary lives of Englishmen. "Oh! My dear sir," the notorious English gossip Horace Walpole remarked sarcastically to a friend in Italy in 1777, "do you think a capital as enormous as London has its nerves affected by what happens across the Atlantic?" Since defeat could not produce the same kind of fear in London as defeat did for the Americans, the British willingness to continue the fight inevitably turned out to be weaker than that of the insurgents.


All the obvious parallels between Great Britain's eighteenth-century war in North America and the United States' recent experiences in Vietnam and Iraq may suggest that the history of Britain's quagmire has something to teach us today, but that would probably be wrong. History has no lessons for the future except one: that nothing ever works out as the participants quite intended or expected. In other words, if history teaches anything, it teaches humility.

Later on, in another article in the same issue, this one by Mark Danner, an Iraqi on Election Day, eighty-year-old former minister of agriculutural reform Dr. Ahmed Dujaily, gives his take on the people currently running his country:

[A]re [the Americans] good or bad?

"Good or bad?" A puzzled pause. "Not good or bad. They are the Americans."

No, no, what I wanted to ask...

He knew, of course, what we wanted to ask. He smiled and tried to be helpful. "Listen, we thank Americans for destroying the regime of Saddam but they did many things that were not required of the country. They made many, many mistakes here. I know what the Americans want." He smiled; he was matter-of-fact. "They want military bases. They want to dominate the new regime. They want the oil."

"Saddam was a criminal, a lot of people were killed. Now these others" —he gestured in the vague direction of the most recent explosion; he meant the insurgents—"they are bombing one place, another place. This doesn't help, this does nothing for the country." Then, a bit of history—from the 1920s but clearly relevant to him today: "When the British kicked out the Turks, the Shia, you know, fought the British also. But the Sunnis stuck with the British, and the British took those who stuck with them and formed a government."

Now, clearly, it was the Sunnis who were fighting, and the Shiites who were "sticking with" the occupying power, this time the Americans. "But the elections should be carried forward, whether the Americans like the results or not," he said. "This is determined by the people. We want an independent country." As for the Americans, "when they came people were happy but they made many, many mistakes in the occupation. After all these mistakes, now they will not leave. They will have their military headquarters established in Iraq and when they leave I do not know. The bases, the oil... And of course"—he gestured at the voters, grinned, and, with a philosophical roll of his eyes, said—"they are using Iraq for propaganda for their own elections: 'Democracy and the Republicans.'"

It seems as if Dr. Dujaily has a good handle on the situation, as do at least some of the Americans in Iraq. This is from a "top American intelligence officer":

We could stop [car bombings and other suicide attacks] entirely if we were willing to do what was necessary. We could stop car bombers if we stopped all driving. But that would be inconsistent with another, overriding imperative—letting Iraqis live a reasonably normal life. That would prevent the return to normalcy that we need to have. Politically at least, we can't take those steps. Which means that in the end these things are not a military problem, they are a political problem. We could stop them but to do it, we would have to shut the place down.

It was, of course, the refusal of the Bush administration to acknowledge and properly prepare for the political problems connected with overthrowing Saddam, which lead us to where we are now.

Postscript: It's interesting to see, in the Danner article, the difference between my perception that the American commercial news media is under-reporting the Iraq story (perhaps because of a conservative bias, perhaps due to its deference to power and authority) and the perceptions of an Air Force operations officer in Iraq:

A voice from the Muthana Air Base a few hours before floated into my mind. It belonged to Captain Aaron Kalloch, an operations officer, who at the end of a long interview, with both of us growing tired, had spoken about a suicide car bomb attack the week before, a high-profile attempt on the headquarters and, presumably, on the life of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. "Boom! Remember that, the other day, that IED [improvised explosive device] attack in Kindi Traffic Circle." He leaned forward and nearly shouted, as he gave his mocking version of the television broadcaster: "Boom!! Headlines on CNN: Chaos in Baghdad! Prime minister nearly assassinated! Boom!"

He leaned back in his chair. "Well, was it? Was it 'chaos in Baghdad'? I mean, let's take a look at that attack for a moment. What happened? The guy didn't get close to Allawi's headquarters. Allawi wasn't even there. The guy slightly wounded two people. And the guy killed...himself! I mean, he killed himself! That was it! And that was the lead story of the day on CNN. I ask you, should it have been?" He paused and glared at me, then answered his own question. "Nothing happened! Allawi was perfectly safe. The guy killed himself.... Nothing happened— except that they scored an IO victory, and that stuff really pisses me off!" IO was military for "information operation"—an event intended to turn the vital political war at the heart of any insurgency in one's favor.

"The simple fact is that how things are perceived here is almost as important as how things actually are. And here IO is everything. Insurgency is relatively easy for the enemy because he's got his own personal international IO platform...." He paused, waited.

And what is that?

"The US media!" he said. He paused again. "The fact is, whoever wins the IO battle here, wins. And this thing tomorrow, this is the event. If Iraqis come out to the polls, if people vote... I mean, there will be violence but the question is how effective that violence will be. If the AIF"—anti-Iraqi forces —"come after this—and they will, they have to—and people do vote, then that is it. They are done, it's over. They may last one or two more years but they've lost. And they know it. And that's the IO. Whoever wins the IO battle here, wins."

This view seems dangerously close to the old Vietnam-era canard that the media lost that war for us. I have no doubt that Captain Kalloch comes by his views honestly, or even that thay accurately represent the opinion of many serving in Iraq, but, on the other hand, the Captain isn't here in the States to see just how deficient the media's coverage of the war has become, and how controlled by the Administration it tends to be.

Danner pegs it:

During the more than two years since the Iraq war began Americans have seen on their television screens its four major turning points: the fall of Baghdad, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the "transfer of authority" to the interim Allawi government, and now the Iraq elections. Each has been highly successful as an example of the management of images—the toppling of Saddam's statue, the intrusive examination of the unkempt former dictator's mouth and beard, the handing of documents of sovereignty from coalition leader L. Paul Bremer to Iraqi leader Iyad Allawi, the voters happily waving their purple fingers— and each image has powerfully affirmed the broader story of what American leaders promised citizens the Iraq war would be. They promised a war of liberation to unseat a brutal dictator, rid him of his weapons of mass destruction, and free his imprisoned people, who would respond with gratitude and friendship, allowing American troops to return very quickly home.

With the exception of the failure to find WMDs, the images have fit so cleanly into the original narrative of the war that they could almost have been designed at the time the war was being planned. And because these images fit so closely with the story of what Americans were told the war would be, they have welcomed each of them with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, after the images faded, the events on the ground that followed refused to fit that original narrative.

Ed Fitzgerald | 5/15/2005 11:13:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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