Friday, June 19, 2015

Counterinsurgency and stabs in the back

Two years ago, a good friend and former colleague of mine, Douglas Porch, published an extraordinary book, Counterinsurgency.  Porch is a prolific historian and, frankly, one of the few in my generation whom I regard, at the very least, as a peer.  He has written numerous books on French colonial warfare and other military topics, and Counterinsurgency is not only his personal magnum opus, but one of the most important books to have appeared in years.  The point of it was to situate the U.S. experience in Iraq, in particular, within the whole history of French, British and American counterinsurgency since the nineteenth century.  I intend to devote at least one long post to the book in the next month or two to really do it justice, but I do not have time just now to prepare it. Instead, I am going to address one aspect of his argument--one that was perfectly exemplified in an article by a Marine officer, Owen West, in an op-ed in the New York Times predicting that President Obama's strategy in Iraq was going to fail, and blaming the last two Presidents for what has happened there since 2011.

In Counterinsurgency Porch showed how recurrent myths have dominated the discussion of colonial and neo-colonial war from the French in Algeria in the mid-19th century through the British in South Africa, the Middle East, and Malaya, and the Americans in Vietnam and Iraq.  He particularly addressed the myth of what might be called "good" counterinsurgency, which is supposed to consist of working closely with the local population, earning their trust by providing good governance, and isolating the guerrillas.  I shall return to a Vietnam-era example of this myth in just a moment.  He argued on the other hand that these kinds of supposedly "small wars" are inevitably brutal, involve the displacement of large percentages of the population, exploit local ethnic rivalries, and succeed or fail not because of the skill of certain key practitioners or the use of particular tactics, but because of broader strategic factors.  The French, for instance, failed in Algeria because their tactics were invariably brutal, alienating essentially the entire native population except for those directly in their pay, and because neither world opinion nor French public opinion would accept an endless war along those lines.  In Vietnam, he showed, the U.S. carried out some successful counterinsurgency experiments, but they could not make up for the endemic political weakness of the South Vietnamese government, the extraordinary organization of the Viet Cong, and the support available to the VC from North Vietnam, and to North Vietnam from the USSR and China.  But critically, Porch also showed a continuing tradition of stab in the back legends surrounding virtually every lost colonial war.  Thus David Gallula, a French veteran of the Algerian conflict, wrote a book in the mid-1960s arguing that the French Army's tactics in Algeria had won the war, but that the de Gaulle government had simply abandoned it for political reasons.  General Stanley McCrystal was relieved in Afghanistan largely because he was already beginning to sing a similar tune even before the war was over.  West's op-ed is, sadly, in exactly the same tradition.

West argues, to begin with, that the small training groups which the Obama Administration is now sending to Iraq will not be sufficient to strengthen the Iraqi army. He is right.  But he also argues vehemently that he and other advisers turned things around between Fallujah and Ramadi (now both securely in the hands of ISIS) in 2007-8 by insisting on daily combat patrols by the Iraqis, and by pairing Iraqi units with American ones.  That may be true, to quote a famous, anonymous North Vietnamese officer in 1975--but it is also irrelevant.  The American effort was doomed because there was no long-term political basis for creating the kind of Iraq we had in mind--a pluralistic democracy allied with the United States.

West is certainly intelligent, and at times he seems to understand this.  He knows that the Shi'ite-dominated, Iran-allied government that we helped to create hopelessly alienated the Sunnis after we left in 2011.  He also admits that it was originally George W. Bush who agreed to that deadline, but rather than simply acknowledge that the Iraqi government did not want a large, permanent American presence, he blames Barack Obama for not doing enough to get the decision reversed.  But what West can't do is to admit that the whole enterprise--which was not his fault, or primarily the fault of any military officers--was hopeless from the beginning, because we could not break the Sunni domination of Saddam and the Ba'ath party without setting up a Shi'ite-led Iranian ally in its place. Outside of Kurdistan, there were no other alternatives.  West really wraps himself around the axle in his piece when he admits this, in effect, by saying that we have to aid the Sunni areas directly, by-passing the Baghdad government, while re-entering the ground war ourselves.  Clearly he feels an emotional commitment to the people of those areas among whom he and his troops risked and sometimes gave their lives.  But the Iraqi government exists, and it would never agree to this.  We would be committing ourselves to an endless presence surrounded by hostile forces.  In any case, thanks to the Maliki government, ISIS seems to enjoy a solid base of support in those areas.

"West," I thought, when I saw the op-ed.  Another proud member of the COINdinista brigade, as Porch calls it (using the acronymn COIN for counterinsurgency), was Bing West, a Marine from the Vietnam era, who wrote The Village, a fascinating account of his service in a Marine Combined Action Platoon in a South Vietnamese hamlet.  He too suggested that he and his fellow Marines were pursuing the proper strategy and that it could have won the war. Sure enough, a quick search revealed that Owen West is Bing West's son, and that they have a joint web page dedicated to the glories of counterinsurgency.   Dynasties are in fashion in the United States today, and this is another one.  Nearly every generation produces a new war in remote lands.  Most of them fail, and all those, in turn, give rise to books by bitter military officers, who sadly cannot accept that all their dedication, skill and sacrifice could not overcome the lack of any political basis for what the United States wanted to achieve.


Assurance-First-Assurance said...

Your column is a regular part of my education. Thank you for another clear, lucid post. I am almost 69 and for the first time feel like I am learning the reality of history.

Gloucon X said...

Maybe people like West should form volunteer brigades in support of the Iraqi gov., and try to correct the uncorrectable mistake of the horrible president they so blindly supported. It would be an ignoble right-wing echo of the Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish civil war. They could get their billionaire pals like the Kochs and Sheldon Adelson to fund it. And people like Jeb Bush, McCain and Lindsey Graham can send their own relatives off to die in a futile war with no definable goal.

Unknown said...

Lost, for the most part in the discussion of what was or was not done to avoid the disaster that the unnecessary and futile war in Iraq created, is the failure of the US to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government. To have left US forces in Iraq absent such agreement would have subjected individual servicemen and units to arbitrary and capricious findings of Iraqi Sharia courts, an unacceptable risk to the US government. One might argue that the US administration did not do enough to negotiate (read force) an agreement on the Iraqi government, but even watered down proposals met with enough resistance by the Iraqi religious leaders and citizens that they failed. There is no clear indication that any amount of pressure by the US to implement a Status of Forces Agreement would have met with approval by Iraq in what Iraqis saw as a violation of their national sovereignty. The choices boiled down to stay and lose US sovereignty of US military forces, or leave Iraq. The choice made, to protect US forces, was clear because it was equally clear that Iraq did not want what it saw as an occupying force in its country. This, in essence, was the "good" cause, if not the "real" one as to why the decision was made to withdraw US forces in total from Iraq. It is unclear under what rules the newly reintroduced US forces into Iraq must operate, but surely the operational edict that US forces will not engage in direct combat, thus exposing them to Iraqi court findings for their actions, hinges upon the lack of a negotiated and approved Status of Forces Agreement. This weighs heavily against embedding US military members with Iraqi units in direct combat operations. Then, of course, there is the idea that Iraq was never a nation, so defined as "groupings of humans who shared a common history, language, set of values and religion — in short, a common culture into which they were born." This was the "real" reason to withdraw US forces from a protracted and eventually unwinable war, and exposes the folly of Gulf War II.