The New Counterinsurgency
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."