The Small War, Part II

Let’s switch to Jeopardy mode for a bit:

ANSWER: “We Can’t Win”.

QUESTION: Choose from the following:

  1. “What did the left say about Vietnam?”
  2. “What did the left say about El Salvador?”
  3. “What did the left say about Afghanistan until the (real) Northern Alliance and the Special Forces rode into Kandahar?”
  4. “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:

  1. 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…
  2. …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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

63 thoughts on “The Small War, Part II

  1. Tomato, tomahto.

    Rick, I realize Mitch isn’t calling for Genocide but he is suggesting that the U.S. Military was fighting a war against an insurgency.

    What happened to the Native Americans was not a war and the people fighting for survival were not insurgents.

    Whatever. Call it whatever you want; it’s irrelevant for purposes of this topic. It was, however, by any rational definition, a long-term, low-intensity war. Little Big Horn wasn’t a sit-in gone awry.

    You can call it whatever you want for purposes of describing the clash of two societies; I might even agree with you. But it shared many, many characteristics of counterinsurgency war, and the tactics used to defeat the Natives – socially, demographically and occasionally militarily – were among those used 10 years later in the Philippines, among many other places.

    That is nothing more than a convenient way to justify and rationalize the actions and conduct military operations. This is exactly where the subject of morality becomes an issue. Allegedly, we are fighting insurgents in Iraq because they are a threat to the troops, to the locals and our national security. No doubt, Mitch would argue that we have the moral authority to conduct a war against them. If on the other hand we were to view the Iraqis who are fighting against an occupying force, then their actions – planting IED’s and shooting at us – are entirely justified.

    Wrong on almost too many counts to bother listing. There is nothing about the Indian Wars that has any connection – other than the history of counterinsurgency tactics – to Iraq, and I’m not claiming it. We DO have the moral authority to operate against the insurgents; the legal Iraqi government says so.

    Also, I would argue that the way this government dealt with Native Americans WAS policy. The fact that they didn’t state that the goal was genocide doesn’t change the fact that the actions effectively led to genocide.

    Like thousands of such situations before – and rather few since – one people conquered another people. Like the Saxons, the Xhosas, the Bantu, the Berbers, the Chungush, or the Hittites and Carthaginians and Etruscans, or the Romans before them, the Native Americans got overrun, pushed aside, conquered. Unlike the Normans, the Bantu, the Afrikaners, the Arabs, the Russians, Romans and the Vandals, the US has evidenced some collective remorse over this, and has tried – unsatisfactorily, I can fully suspect – to make some form of reparations. Sucks, yes, but ask the Saxons, Xhosa, Bantu, Berber, Chungush, Hittites, Carthaginians, Etruscans and Romans which is better.

    Was genocide a policy? It was a goal among some hard-liners; it was resisted by others. Nothing I’ve read about official policy called for complete extinction of the Native races, but there were those who sought it. It’s also fairly clear that the vast majority of Native Americans died of disease – and that, pseudo-academic theories and tales aside, most of that was the result of normal trade and interaction between Europeans and Natives.

    In addition, if using the military to remove tribes from their homes and marching them across the country to established, defined and foreign places called reservations, forbidding them from practicing their religion, forbidding them from hunting and forcing Christianity on their children isn’t policy, I don’t know what is.

    Of course it was.

    It was also established while most of my anscestors were living in the mountains of Norway. Go chase after Ulyssys S. Grant’s descendants.

  2. Jay:

    You do not like Sadr because he is tied to Iran, so is your plan is to side with Dawa and SIIC who are more tied to Iran? Everyone who looks at Iraq knows that, of the Shia trio (SIIC, Dawa, and Sadr), Sadr is the least tied to Iran. It just highlights the fundamental lack of strategic thought behind our invasion. If you remove Saddam, the Shia are almost certain to take power. The Iraqi Shia are much closer religiously, financially, and politically to the Iranians. Given the choice between relying on the U.S. or relying on the Iranians, no Shia would pick the U.S. Any post-Saddam Iraqi government was destined to be far closer to Iran than the U.S. If Saddam had died naturally, we would probably now be backing Sadr as a way to block the far more pro-Iranian SIIC and Dawa from taking power. But Sadr is a nationalist who fights the U.S. occupation, so instead we back a government more closely connected to Iran.

    By your standards, Sadr is as much a proxy army of the U.S. as Iran. His weapons and training mostly come through his infiltration of the U.S. created, funded, and armed security forces. Much of his street power comes from his control of U.S. sponsored reconstruction projects. He is a leading member of the government we funded and created. Absent our invasion he would be conspiring against Saddam.

    “Because the Syria and Iran are actively destabilizing Iraq, and they don’t have the strength to defend themselves.”
    Iraqi Sunnis have no desire to defend themselves against Syria. They want Syrian support in their fight against the Shia. The Sunnis will accept our guns and money, but that will not lessen their desire or need for outside Sunni help.

  3. “You do not like Sadr because he is tied to Iran, so is your plan is to side with Dawa and SIIC who are more tied to Iran? Everyone who looks at Iraq knows that, of the Shia trio (SIIC, Dawa, and Sadr), Sadr is the least tied to Iran.”

    Except for the part where that isn’t true.

    Sadr is being paid, armed, and supported directly by the Iranians. Again, Moqtada al-Sadr is a wholly-owned creature of the Iranians. That’s why he’s been in Iran several times this year — the Iranian government is shielding him.

    The leading party, Dawa, is not particularly in tune with Iran. Dawa supports the Najafi school, which doesn’t believe in theocracy.

    SCIRI (now SIIC), is somewhere in the middle. They are generally friendly with Iran, but they’re not getting their orders from Tehran like al-Sadr is.

    “If you remove Saddam, the Shia are almost certain to take power. The Iraqi Shia are much closer religiously, financially, and politically to the Iranians.”

    Except they have deep-seated religious differences, deep-seated ethnic differences, and don’t particularly like the Iranians.

    “Given the choice between relying on the U.S. or relying on the Iranians, no Shia would pick the U.S.”

    Which is a self-refuting statement, given that the current Shi’a-led government have been doing exactly what you seem to think they would never do. Al-Maliki and his government know damn well that the Iranians have no interest in a unitary Iraq. The residents of those two areas have been at each others throats since the dawn of civilization. The idea that they’re all of a sudden going to be best buddies when 20 years ago they were slaughtering each other en masse isn’t an informed argument.

    “By your standards, Sadr is as much a proxy army of the U.S. as Iran. His weapons and training mostly come through his infiltration of the U.S. created, funded, and armed security forces. Much of his street power comes from his control of U.S. sponsored reconstruction projects. He is a leading member of the government we funded and created. Absent our invasion he would be conspiring against Saddam.”

    Again, it’s the typical blame-America-first mentality rather than actually looking at the situation. The only thing that the US has done for al-Sadr is not blown him away when we had the chance. His Mahdi Army is being funded by the Iranians, not us. They’re being armed by the Iranians, not us. They’re being trained by IRGC agents in Iran, not us.

    Al-Sadr was a nobody before he ordered the assassination of Abdul Majid al-Khoei in Najaf. He’s a two-bit thug riding on the coattails of his father, and had Ba’athists remained in power, he’d never have lifted a finger to help. It wouldn’t even be surprising if he was the one who ratted out his own family to the Ba’athists to save his own skin.

    Al-Sadr is a thug who happened to get lucky. Had we killed him in 2004 when we should, he’d have been a non-entity in Iraqi politics. That was probably the biggest mistake we’ve made in this whole war.

    “Iraqi Sunnis have no desire to defend themselves against Syria. They want Syrian support in their fight against the Shia. The Sunnis will accept our guns and money, but that will not lessen their desire or need for outside Sunni help.”

    The Syrian border is one of the entrance points for al-Qaeda, and the Syrians are part of an axis with Iran. Iraqi Sunnis don’t trust the Syrians because the Syrians are led by an Alawite family. Syria is a majority-Sunni state run by a Shi’ite government tied with Iran.

    The argument that Iraqi Sunnis have no desire to defend themselves against Syria is completely wrong — the al-Assad family is Shi’a, they are tied to Iran, and they are also complicit with al-Qaeda.

    I suggest you do a little research into the politics and culture of the region before throwing random arguments out.

  4. Lets do some research:
    Sadr is funding by the U.S. because he has infiltrated the U.S. created security apparatus?
    “By his account and those of U.S. military and Iraqi sources, Mahdi militia members have infiltrated much of the country’s security apparatus, including the army, where they reportedly intimidate and bribe troops and commanders to look the other way as militants execute their brutal sectarian “cleansing” agenda.” That means your tax dollars are arming and training Sadr.
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-mahdiarmy16.1aug16,1,6657340.story?track=rss

    Sadr is less tied to Iran than SIIC?
    “SIIC has the overt backing of Washington and, ironically, having grown up in Iran for more than two decades before the 2003 war, has the closest ties to Iran. It’s the upper class of the Shiite party power structure.

    The Fadhila and Sadr parties share a larger local power base, and although they are believed to have some tie to Iran, are very pro-Iraqi nationalist.”
    http://www.alternet.org/waroniraq/60124/?page=2

    Have Dawa and SIIC decided to support the U.S. over Iran?
    “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasing ties with Iran have triggered a splintering of his government.”
    http://www.alternet.org/waroniraq/59702/

    “US President George W. Bush sternly warned Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki Thursday against cozying up to Iran, amid what Washington sees as unsettling signs of warming Baghdad-Tehran relations. . . .
    In a highly symbolic move, Maliki met the families of seven Iranian officials arrested in Iraq by US forces on accusations of being members of an elite Revolutionary Guards force on a mission to stir trouble.”
    news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070809/pl_afp/usiraniraqbush

    You keep jumping from the fact that there are conflicts and differences between Iranian and Iraqi Shia, to the conclusion that Iraqi Shia would prefer to work with the U.S. But those differences pale next to the differences between the U.S. and Iraqi Shia. First, we are not Muslims. Second, the U.S. has been on the side mostly of Sunnis in the Middle East and helped put the Sunnis in charge of Iraq under the Bath. Third, SIIC and Dawa were opposition groups based in Iran. Their are Iran’s version of the Contras. Fourth, because Iran has a large and reliable network of local allies in Iraq, they are able to channel resources to others and gain local allies. The militias and reconstruction projects they do never get infiltrated.

  5. You keep jumping from the fact that there are conflicts and differences between Iranian and Iraqi Shia, to the conclusion that Iraqi Shia would prefer to work with the U.S. But those differences pale next to the differences between the U.S. and Iraqi Shia.

    And you continue to state that as if it were the final word on the subject.

    Differences are obvious, and problematic.

    But what is in the interests of the Iraqi Shia, especially as they perceive those interests themselves? As people who survived two generations of intense repression at the hands of Sunni, it’s a vital question.

    The Iranians have set themselves up as the stronger player in their sphere of influence. It would seem to be incumbent on our military leadership to do something to break that.

    And I’d suspect they not only know that, but are working on it; of course, it’s just a suspicion.

  6. “The Iranians have set themselves up as the stronger player in their sphere of influence. It would seem to be incumbent on our military leadership to do something to break that.”

    If our goal was to block Iranian influence in Iran, we should have left Saddam in power. Barring that we should have replaced Saddam with a secular Sunni regime of ex-Baath and tribal leaders. Barring that we should have supported Sadr. Instead we put Iran’s closest Iraqi allies into power, then gave them money and weapons.

  7. Terry said,

    “If a group of Nazi’s and nazi sympathizers fought against US forces after VE day in Germany we would not try to portray them as legitimate resistance against occupation, yet you appear to be doing just that with Iraqi’s who blow up women and children, kidnap foreigners and saw their heads off.”

    Go back to what I wrote Terry. I said, “If on the other hand we were to view the Iraqis who are fighting against an occupying force, then their actions – planting IED’s and shooting at us – are entirely justified.

    I am not saying their actions ARE justified. I am saying that if you reframe the situation, you can justify just about anything. Mitch implied that the actions against the American Indians was legitimate. He did that by suggesting that it was a military operation against an insurgent population.

    To the best of my knowledge, an insurgent is someone who rises up against an established civil or political authority.

    In treaty after treaty, the United States granted sovereignty to Tribes but then violated the terms of the treaty by kicking them off their land. The United States was NOT the established authority so to legitimize the actions by claiming the U.S. was fighting a counter-insurgency is bullshit.

    The same is true of Iraq. There are factions fighting to become the established authority and we are stuck in the middle of it but it is NOT a war against insurgents.

  8. Another Day, Another American Tax Dollar For Sadr.

    U.S. troops are working with Sadr to attack the Sunnis in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood.
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-dora22aug22,0,6400965.story?coll=la-home-world

    “The area has been among Baghdad’s worst killing grounds since early 2006, as Iraq’s civil war began to escalate. Shiite militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, some of them operating under the cover of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi police and commando units, attacked Sunni men. . .
    Pressure is now building on the Sunni militants. Sadr’s militiamen are pushing into the neighborhoods west of Dora, and U.S. forces are closing off their supply line from the south, said Maj. Scott Green, the battalion’s executive officer.”

  9. Boy the morning paper is just full of bad news:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,,-6868193,00.html
    “Iaq’s prime minister lashed out Wednesday at U.S. criticism, saying no one has the right to impose timetables on his elected government and that his country “can find friends elsewhere.”
    . . .
    “Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria. We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere,” al-Maliki said. ”

    So forced to choose between the U.S. and local allies, Iraq choose local allies.

  10. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » Repeat A Big Lie

  11. Pingback: McCollum To Troops: “Tie Hands Behind Your Backs!” | Shot in the Dark

Leave a Reply