[R-G] The New Counterinsurgency

Anthony Fenton fentona at shaw.ca
Thu Sep 6 18:53:24 MDT 2007

posted September 6, 2007 (September 24, 2007 issue)
The New Counterinsurgency
Tom Hayden

American officers call them the Kit Carson Scouts: Sunni military  
units prowling the desert to hunt down Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and  
other extremist jihadi groups. The original Kit Carson fought  
ruthlessly to repress the Navajo on their reservations by employing  
rival tribes like the Ute in one of the American military's first  
counterinsurgency campaigns. Even today, America's favorite weapons-- 
the Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, Black Hawks and Tomahawks-- testify  
to the military's most formative memories.

Now counterinsurgency is back in favor, the cure for Iraq as  
implemented by Gen. David Petraeus and an assortment of Ivy League  
advisers. By enlisting Sunni Iraqi insurgents to turn their guns  
against jihadis, Petraeus is claiming tactical progress in the  
"surge." The Bush Administration is using that claim in its campaign  
to continue the surge for another six months, and the war itself for  
a few years longer. There may also be a high-stakes internal coup  
against Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, which could be coupled  
with US appeals to allow more time for political progress. August was  
spent on feverish promotion of the Petraeus plan, with several dozen  
members of Congress wined, dined and personally briefed in Baghdad's  
Green Zone. Pundits Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, who  
promoted the 2003 invasion, wrote a widely circulated New York Times  
op-ed piece titled "A War We Just Might Win" after a recent trip to  
Baghdad. Fox News then featured O'Hanlon in an up-beat hourlong  
special about Petraeus and counterinsurgency. Secretary of State  
Condoleezza Rice gave O'Hanlon an appreciative audience as well. (The  
PR campaign is having some effect: In late August 29 percent of  
Americans believed the surge was "making the situation better in  
Iraq," up ten points from July. And $15 million is now being spent on  
Republican television spots to shore up support for the war.)

While Fox is doing the flacking, the Petraeus plan draws intellectual  
legitimacy from Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, whose  
director, Sarah Sewall, proudly embraces an "unprecedented  
collaboration [as] a human rights center partnered with the armed  
forces." Sewall, a former Pentagon official, co-sponsored a "doctrine  
revision workshop" at Fort Leavenworth that prepared the Army and  
Marines' new counterinsurgency warfighting Field Manual. The manual  
is the most widely read of several new and reissued works on  
counterinsurgency, or COIN, with 2 million downloads in its first two  
months on the Internet. The other influential works are John Nagl's  
Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat  
Soup With a Knife (2002) and David Galula's book on Algeria,  
Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (1964). Not only are  
both books endorsed by Sewall in her introduction to the Field Manual  
but the Field Manual and the 2006 reprinting of Galula's book both  
contain introductions by Nagl, a Rhodes scholar from West Point and a  
former commander in Iraq who predicts counterinsurgency warfare for  
the next fifty years in an "arc of instability" in the Middle East,  
Africa, and Central and South Asia.

The attraction of intellectuals to COIN certainly isn't new. The  
maxim about eating soup with a knife, a reference to the messiness  
and difficulty of counterinsurgency campaigns, was coined almost a  
century ago by Lawrence of Arabia, who encouraged Arab nationalism  
against the Ottoman Empire (on behalf of the British, who after the  
Ottoman defeat refused the Arabs the independence they'd been  
promised); John F. Kennedy, with the "best and the brightest,"  
promoted the Green Berets in 1961 in response to the Cuban  
Revolution. A Special Forces expert in Iraq is quoted by Nagl as  
saying that "counterinsurgency is not just thinking man's warfare--it  
is the graduate level of warfare." Nearly half the Field Manual reads  
more like Max Weber than Karl von Clausewitz.

Much of the difficulty with COIN derives from its ends: Usually it  
seeks to coerce populations into accepting a repressive regime or  
foreign occupation--and sometimes both. Translated to modern Iraq,  
eating soup with a knife means persuading a majority of nationalist  
and Islamist Iraqis to accept the US occupation or, in Nagl's words,  
"winning the Iraqi people's willingness to turn in their terrorist  
neighbors." The goal of COIN is to replace Arab nationalism with a  
subdued, fragmented culture of subservient informants split along  
tribal and sectarian lines, like the mercenary Ute manhunters against  
the Navajo.

Separating the insurgents from the population is indeed eating soup  
with a knife. In practice, that means breaking down doors in the  
middle of the night, creating barricaded and tightly controlled  
enclaves where residents live behind concertina wire and blast walls  
and beneath watchtowers, surveilled constantly by US and Iraqi troops  
who control ingress and egress with eye scanners and fingerprinted ID  
cards. Residents stay home at night and are pressured to report  
anyone who is missing. Mass displacements, roundups and detentions of  
Iraqi civilians have all nearly doubled since the surge began in  
February. The Pentagon's euphemism for this coercive program is  
"gated communities," a new name for a very old tradition.

In the days of Kit Carson, native people were herded into  
reservations while US troops destroyed the insurgents and their  
natural resources. In Malaya in the 1950s the British destroyed the  
Chinese communities at the base of the insurgency while herding  
civilians into "new villages" behind barbed wire. In South Vietnam  
the enclosures were called "strategic hamlets," and the assassination  
campaign to root out Vietcong guerrillas was called the Phoenix  
Program. To empty the countryside of potential Vietcong sympathizers,  
Harvard's Samuel Huntington advocated "forced urbanization."

Yet Sewall of Harvard's Carr Center suggests that intellectuals have  
a moral duty to collaborate with the military in devising  
counterinsurgency doctrines. "Humanitarians often avoid wading into  
the conduct of war for fear of becoming complicit in its purpose,"  
she writes in an introduction to the Field Manual. In a direct  
response to critics who argue that the manual's passages endorsing  
human rights standards are just window dressing, she adds, "The Field  
Manual requires engagement precisely from those who fear that its  
words lack meaning."

One would think that past experiences with death squads indirectly  
supported by the United States, as in El Salvador in the 1980s, or  
the recent exposure of abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan's  
Bagram facility and Guantánamo, would justify such worries about  
complicity. But Sewall defends Harvard's collaboration through a pro- 
military revisionist argument. She says, "Military annals today tally  
that effort [the war in El Salvador] as a success, but others cannot  
get past the shame of America's indirect role in fostering death  
squads." Can she mean that the Pentagon's self-serving narrative of  
the Central American wars is correct, and that critics of a conflict  
in which 75,000 Salvadorans died--the equivalent of more than 4  
million Americans--most of them at the hands of US-trained and - 
equipped security forces, including death squads, simply need to "get  
past" being squeamish about the methods? Instead of churning out self- 
deluding platitudes about civilizing the military, Harvard would do  
well to worry more about how collaboration with the Pentagon impairs  
the critical independent role of intellectuals.

The most fitting metaphor for Iraq today might be that of Dr.  
Frankenstein's monster. The effect of the "gated communities" and Kit  
Carson Scouts--indeed, the effect of much of the US occupation since  
2003--has been to grind native populations into a state of anarchic  
fragmentation, with the vacuum filled by multiple sectarian militias.  
Consider the following evidence:

§ A bombshell Pentagon report in September recommends "scrapping"  
the sectarian Iraqi police force and starting over.

§ According to a July Los Angeles Times analysis, the current  
Interior Ministry, heavily funded and advised by Americans, is run by  
loyalists of the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and is  
responsible for secret prisons and torture. An average of one to two  
employees are killed each week, with Sunnis now "almost entirely  
purged from the ministry."

§ The prestigious Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group noted last year  
that the Iraqi police "routinely engage in sectarian violence,  
including the unnecessary detention, torture and targeted execution  
of Sunni Arab civilians."

§ The White House's own July benchmarks report noted "evidence of  
sectarian bias in the appointment of senior military and police  
commanders" as well as "target lists emanating from the Office of the  
Commander in Chief that bypassed operational commanders and directed  
lower-level intelligence officers to make arrests, primarily of Sunnis."

§ According to the New York Times, as of the end of 2005, in  
Baghdad there were eight to ten secret prisons operated by militia  
units that reported directly to the Interior Minister.

§ BBC television reporter Deborah Davies showed footage of torture  
and ethnic cleansing against Sunni civilians in late 2006, reporting  
that "it's all happening under the eyes of US commanders who seem  
unwilling or unable to intervene."

§ The United Nations has accused the Iraqi government of failing to  
address allegations of torture inflicted on the several thousand new  
detainees rounded up during the current Baghdad security plan.

§ According to the US Government Accountability Office, since 2004  
190,000 US-made AK-47s have gone missing, with many thought to be in  
the hands of various Iraqi militias.

The United States has spent $19 billion on the Iraqi security forces  
since 2003. The results are blatantly illegal under the government's  
Leahy Amendment (1997), which forbids military assistance to known  
human rights abusers. Why hasn't that amendment been a greater focus  
of Congressional attention? A key Senate consultant suggested in an  
interview with The Nation that there is widespread Congressional  
avoidance of the Frankenstein problem. In any other conflict, a  
regime like Iraq's would be termed a police state. In America, such  
talk makes people cringe. The dominant paradigm is that the "new  
Iraq" is a fledgling democracy that needs our nourishing protection  
before it "stands up." Although political talk-shows frequently  
discuss Iraq's problems, rarely do they focus in depth on the death  
squads and militias embedded in the US-funded security forces.

Perhaps this is more than a case of avoiding an ugly, unwanted  
phenomenon that is difficult to shut down. One explanation is hard to  
discount, however unnerving it might be. Soon after the 9/11 terror  
attacks, Vice President Cheney spoke of working "the dark side,"  
doing apparently unspeakable things "quietly, without any  
discussion." Neoconservative military analyst Robert Kaplan has  
argued that counterinsurgency should be conducted "off camera, so to  
speak." The divide-and-conquer strategy was articulated by President  
Bush himself, who declared in his 2001 address on confronting  
terrorism that the United States would "turn them one against another."

Bernard Lewis, perhaps the dominant neoconservative voice advocating  
the Iraq War, proposed dismembering Arab nationalism back in the  
early 1990s, writing that "if the central power is sufficiently  
weakened, there is no real civic society...the state then  
disintegrates--as happened in Lebanon--into a chaos of squabbling,  
feuding, fighting sects, tribes, religions and parties." In 2005 a  
longtime Israeli foreign ministry official wrote in a Los Angeles  
Times op-ed, titled "Israel Could Live With a Fractured, Failed  
Iraq," that "an Iraq split into three semi-autonomous mini-states, or  
an Iraq in civil war, means that the kind of threat posed by [Saddam]  
Hussein...is unlikely to rise again."

The specter of forced partition is directly accelerating with the US  
troop surge, and sectarian civil war is already at hand. What is  
lacking is recognition that the United States is the driver of both;  
the surge has doubled the number of Iraqi refugees, and the civil war  
features American funding, weapons and advisers on all sides. "We sit  
back and watch because that can only benefit us," said one top  
commander of insurgent groups battling each other in 2006.

More evidence for this exploitation of sectarian chaos comes from  
Stephen Biddle, a Harvard PhD now at the Council on Foreign Relations  
and an on-the-ground adviser to General Petraeus in Baghdad. The  
Biddle plan, as described in a 2006 Foreign Affairs essay, called for  
playing both sides of the sectarian divide, something like the  
colonial defense of occupation as the only way to keep the barbarians  
in balance. After the United States had put the Shiites (and Kurds)  
in power, Biddle advised manipulating their behavior by "a US threat  
to cease backing the Shiites coupled with a program to arm the Sunnis  
overtly or, in a semi-clandestine way...substantially reduce the  
Shiites' military prospects" against the Sunni insurgents.

Alternatively, Biddle proposed that the United States might unleash  
greater Shiite military power by providing tanks, armored personnel  
carriers, fixed-wing attack aircraft and the like to increase the  
Shiite capacity to "commit mass violence against the Sunnis  
dramatically." The reason? To provide an "important incentive for the  
Sunnis to compromise" on their longstanding demand for an American  
troop withdrawal.

This is dangerous territory, playing the "devil's game," in the apt  
phrase of author Robert Dreyfuss. One danger is that it can be played  
both ways. Iraqi militias are not only using the Americans to go  
after their rivals but seem to have turned their weapons on the  
occupiers. Just where and how did those 190,000 AK-47s disappear?  
After routing their local rivals, who might the Kit Carson Scouts  
turn against next?

It is dangerous for American democracy to rely on policies based on  
stealth and deception. American Special Operations Forces carry out  
secret attacks in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City or  
against Al Qaeda suspects "in the shadows of the troop increase,"  
according to the New York Times. No one--not the media, Congress or  
the public--can be fully aware of what happens in such shadows.  
Biddle worries about a major obstacle: "Recent polls of American  
public opinion are not encouraging." Rather than bow to democratic  
public opinion, those like Biddle, Petraeus and Bush are rushing  
forward with exaggerations, fabrications and manipulations to defuse  
antiwar public opinion as the 2008 elections approach. The subtext is  
clear: The war itself must be masked and the media fed a false  
narrative once again.

One reality that will be hard to avoid is the exhaustion of the  
American Army. Military commanders have made it clear that present  
troop levels will become unsustainable after April 2008. If this is  
so, the pressure for low-visibility counterinsurgency will only  
increase, with some brigades of American combat troops coming home  
during the presidential season and increased numbers of Americans  
advising and training Iraqi security forces as well as engaging in  
secret operations. The problem is that the media and leading  
presidential candidates have already internalized the paradigm shift  
from a combat mission to a training one. The Senate antiwar proposal  
with the greatest support, for example, allows explicit exemptions  
for trainers and operations against Al Qaeda. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq  
Study Group recommended 10,000-20,000 advisers, up from the current  
3,000-4,000. The Center for New American Security, a hawkish  
Democratic-leaning think tank, advocates an increase to 20,000  
advisers. The center, which includes former officials from Raytheon  
and Lockheed Martin as well as former Secretary of State Madeleine  
Albright and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on its  
board, is especially worried about the home front:

The transition from President Bush is getting more and more  
problematic as the American people continue to lose confidence in the  
Iraq War and step up their pressure on candidates from both parties.  
If no bipartisan consensus is reached before the Democratic and  
Republican primaries, the next President will likely be elected  
principally on a "Get Out of Iraq" platform. The political space to  
do otherwise is shrinking by the day.

Only one think tank of well-connected insiders, the Center for  
American Progress, has evolved from supporting US advisers to  
advocating their phaseout along with nearly all US troops by the end  
of 2008. CAP is led by Bill Clinton's former Chief of Staff John  
Podesta--who also sits on the board of his more hawkish rivals at the  
Center for New American Security. But the differences between these  
insider advocates could not be more stark: Leave the American troops  
engaged in the midst of a sectarian civil war, or bring them home in  
twelve months. The most interesting CAP proposal is for Congress to  
enforce the Leahy Amendment. Shortly after CAP issued its report  
advocating total withdrawal, the leaders of Congress's Out of Iraq  
Caucus (Representatives Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey)  
introduced HR 3134, which prohibits funding, training and  
transferring arms to the Iraqi security forces, and any militias or  
local forces, unless specifically authorized by Congress. Hearings on  
this legislation might uncover the bloody realities involved in the  
counterinsurgency campaign. If so, members of Congress who have been  
reluctant so far to end funding for the troops may be less willing to  
ratify taxes that abet secret prisons and Interior Ministry death  

For those who can still get past the shame of death squads, as  
Harvard's Sewall seems to urge, and who still believe a better world  
lies ahead for Iraq under US tutelage, Congress could ask the Navaho  
and Ute to testify. These believers might then learn that the hidden  
shame behind the counterinsurgency in Iraq is the same one that has  
compromised America's identity for centuries.

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