Let’s switch to Jeopardy mode for a bit:
ANSWER: “We Can’t Win”.
QUESTION: Choose from the following:
- “What did the left say about Vietnam?”
- “What did the left say about El Salvador?”
- “What did the left say about Afghanistan until the (real) Northern Alliance and the Special Forces rode into Kandahar?”
- “What does the medialeft (I conflate media and left on purpose, since in reality they’ve pretty much conflated themselves) assure us about Iraq at every opportunity?”
The answer, if you’re a discerning news consumer, is “all of the above, and then some”.
“Iraq is un-winnable”.
That is one of the left’s great current conceits. It’s only as true as the nation wants to make it, of course; all wars are winnable (or at least loseable by the other guy) – Finland beat the Soviets, at least in regulation time, in 1940 (sudden death overtime brought the Finns a limited defeat and the Soviets a very costly “victory”); British, on the other hand, conquered most of the globe with a laughably-small force; the Colonies beat the British with even less; Britain in turn held out alone against Hitler. Of course, listing these wars like that oversimplifies the issues; each of them, “impossible” as they were by conventional measures, happened for reason that make perfect sense in retrospect.
But the upshot is that there is no such thing as an “unwinnable war”. Of course, all wars can be lost.
The distinction is important, especially when you look at the history of counterinsurgencies.
I remember the NARN’s interview with Steven Vincent, the freelance journalist who made such a name for himself covering Iraq, alone and without a net (and was eventually murdered on his second tour in the country, by criminals in Basra). In our final interview with him – the last interview he gave before leaving for Iraq the second time – we talked about the differences between the approach in the American and British-controlled regions of Iraq. The American zone was, true to “Neocon” dogma, taking the all-or-nothing route; full civil democracy, the whole enchilada, immediately. The British, drawing on centuries of experience ruling huge swathes of the world and immense native populations with a tiny military and civil servant cadre, had a different approach. They made deals with unsavory people to observe, rat out and countervail other unsavory people. They co-opted one group of thugs to smack down another group of thugs. They used, even exploited, criminal disorder to their larger goal – keeping relative order in their sector. Until recently, it worked -very arguably (Vincent was murdered in Basra, along with many other people, after all). They also kept their troops out among the Iraqis of the region, intermingling, buying their supplies locally, walking around without helmets or body armor (unless events demanded them) – and until recently, when the Brits announced their intention to start withdrawing, Basra was relatively peaceful compared to the miasma of Baghdad and Anbar.
They’ve done this – winning “unwinnable” counterinsurgency wars – before. In India from the 1600s through WWII, in the pre-Revolutionary American west, and South Africa in 1900, in Borneo and Malaysia and Aden and Oman in the sixties and seventies, the Brits learned the blocking and tackling of winning insurgencies: isolate the insurgents from the locals by being among the locals, by winning civilian hearts and minds, by co-opting other elements of the local society against the insurgents (including cultivating “friendly”, if often conventionally-unsavory, warlords, in the hopes of taming them when the crisis wanes – as, indeed, they did), and, when and if needed, following the isolated insurgent into the wilderness and hunting him down and killing him, using the minimal British force possible (and relying heavily on the locals to do the dirty work; British history is crowded with colorful characters who went overseas and “went native” leading indigenous troops in the service of the King; the British special forces, the SAS and SBS, are directly descended from such characters).
As Vincent noted, that approach is foreign to modern Americans (and when I say “modern”, it’s because the distinction is important, as we’ll see in a bit); neocons demand “democracy now”; liberals pine for the moral clarity of World War II and, like Jimmy Carter, get queasy at the thought of associating with, even supporting, unsavory, often thuggish, frequently deeply ugly people to defeat people who are not, to the outside observer, a whole lot different.
And when I say the approach is “foreign to Americans”, I mean “Americans who don’t follow this nation’s history, especially”.
Lost in the palaver about the Iraq War – and the inevitable Vietnam comparisons that the left leans on to the exclusion of most rational thought when the thought of war, especially counterinsurgency war, comes up – is that a hundred years ago, the United States was the master of small wars against small, asymmetric groups of insurgents. In winning the American West against the Indians, and then in our first “imperial” wars – the Philippines in the early 1900s, Nicaragua in the ’20s and ”30s, and several others in between and beyond (up through El Salvador in the ’80s), the US won wars the way the British won the same kinds of wars all across their empire for hundreds of years, from India in the 1600s through Aden and Northern Ireland in the seventies (as related by everyone from Robert Kaplan and Max Boot to Robert Nagl:
- Keep our troops out among the natives – even in tiny numbers, the act of showing a presence among the civilians makes a huge difference in…
- …Cutting the guerillas off from the people. Make it impossible for the insurgents to get supplies, recruits and support (and, commensurately, to exert control through coercion and terror).
- Co-opt and exploit local institutions to help you with #2 first – and then build new institutions. This drives liberals (and, it must be fairly said, neoconservatives) crazy; surely, they reason, imposing democracy and human rights immediately must be a better thing – right? Like most ideals, it’s not always true, of course. It was a former Ranger – who’d spent a few years training for this exact kind of warfare – who introduced me to the saying “perfect is the enemy of good enough”. In many parts of the world, the only human right that matters right now is the right to not get blown up, beheaded, shot or gang-raped. Once those are taken care of, one can worry about the more finesseful rights of man.
- Build up the local institutions that work. Liberals – and some neoconservatives – grouse about this because it involves “picking and choosing warlords”.
It’s nothing new; we did it in the Philippines in 1900 to great effect; the desert Southwest wasn’t subdued by columns of blue-jacketed cavalry, but by small teams of Apache renegades led by tiny cadres of soldiers on long, unsupported pushes through the desert that made it impossible for the Mescaleros to carry on a regular life in the US. More recently, in El Salvador in the ’80s – a great, and successful, example of this kind of war which was also judged “un-winnable” by the mainstream left and media – there was a choice; between left-wing death squads, and right-wing death squads. The US (and the Special Forces that did the work) chose to support the right-wing death squads, on the assumption (correct, as it turned out) that they would eventually be easier to co-opt, fold into the regular military, and eventually teach the basics of human rights. The solution in El Salvador was messy, imperfect – and remains light-years better than it was during the days of unchecked insurgency, leaving the nation a functional, if imperfect, democracy. Another example – many times in Imperial Grunts Kaplan notes US Special Forces (“Green Berets”) in Afghanistan remarking that their mission is to make the locals – the Afghan Army, as well as the local warlords’ militias – look good. The goal, of course, is to build the stability that’s needed, not just for democracy to take hold (if indeed it can or will), but to deny Afghanistan to the terrorists as a safe haven again.
The good news? Once you get through the job of making the population safe from the insurgents, it can – indeed, say many of the subjects in Imperial Grunts, should – be done with many fewer troops than we currently have in Iraq.
So who screwed up?
And why are the Democrats wrong?
Oh, heck – I guess I’ll make this three parts.