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Understanding the Long War | The Nation

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Understanding the Long War

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Editor's Note: This is first of a two-part essay.

About the Author

Tom Hayden
Senator Tom Hayden, the Nation Institute's Carey McWilliams Fellow, has played an active role in American politics and...

The concept of the "Long War" is attributed to former CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid, speaking in 2004. Leading counterinsurgency theorist John Nagl, an Iraq combat veteran and now the head of the Center for a New American Security, writes that "there is a growing realization that the most likely conflicts of the next fifty years will be irregular warfare in an 'Arc of Instability' that encompasses much of the greater Middle East and parts of Africa and Central and South Asia." The Pentagon's official Quadrennial Defense Review (2005) commits the United States to a greater emphasis on fighting terrorism and insurgencies in this "arc of instability." The Center for American Progress repeats the formulation in arguing for a troop escalation and ten-year commitment in Afghanistan, saying that the "infrastructure of jihad" must be destroyed in "the center of an 'arc of instability' through South and Central Asia and the greater Middle East."

The implications of this doctrine are staggering. The very notion of a fifty-year war assumes the consent of the American people, who have yet to hear of the plan, for the next six national elections. The weight of a fifty-year burden will surprise and dismay many in the antiwar movement. Most Americans living today will die before the fifty-year war ends, if it does. Youngsters born and raised today will reach middle age. Unborn generations will bear the tax burden or fight and die in this "irregular warfare."

There is a chance, of course, that the Long War can be prevented. It may be unsustainable, a product of imperial hubris. Public opinion may tire of the quagmires and costs--but only if there is a commitment to a fifty-year peace movement.

In this perspective, Iraq is only an immediate front, with Afghanistan and Pakistan the expanding fronts, in a single larger war from the Middle East to South Asia. Instead of thinking of Iraq like Vietnam, a war that was definitively ended, it is better to think of Iraq as a setback, or better a stalemate, on a larger battlefield where victory or defeat are painfully hard to define over a timespan of five decades.

I propose to begin by examining the military doctrines that give rise to notions of the Long War. The peace movement often adopts the biblical commitment to "study war no more," but in this case it may prove useful to become students of military strategies and tactics. (Those wishing to become students of Long War theory should consult the bibliography at the end of this essay.)

1. The New Counterinsurgency Is a Return to the Indian Wars.

In a September 24, 2007 article in The Nation, "The New Counterinsurgency," I wrote that the Petraeus plan for Iraq was as old as our nation's long Indian wars. That thesis was confirmed in the writings of the neo-conservative Robert Kaplan, in his September 21, 2004, article in the Wall Street Journal, "Indian Country."

Kaplan is obsessed with the anarchy loosed on the world by post-colonial, tribal-based societies, and emphasizes the need for small wars carried on "off camera," so to speak. Kaplan approvingly quotes one US officer as opining that "you want to whack bad guys quietly and cover your tracks with humanitarian aid projects." The comparison Kaplan makes between today's Long War and our previous Indian wars is that the "enemies" were highly decentralized tribal nations who had to be defeated in one campaign after another. He realizes that conventional war against the Plains and western tribes was an unsustainable strategy and that the native people were overwhelmed by an inexhaustible supply of white settlers and superior technology like the railroad. Fighting the new Indian wars today, he advises, means "the smaller the American footprint and the less notice it draws from the international media, the more effective is the operation." In this sense, Iraq is a strategic setback for Kaplan, "a mess that no one wants to repeat."

2. Strategic Military Framework: The Fifty-Year Long War.

Like the Indian wars, winning the Long War will require taking advantage of the deep divisions that exist in tribal societies, along lines of religion, ethnicity, race and geography. The efforts of many Indian leaders to form effective confederations against US expansion never succeeded. On the other hand, US army strategies to pay tribes to deploy "scouts" who would inform on and fight other tribes were successful. The main strategy of the Long War is to attract one tribal or ethnic group to fight their rivals on behalf of the foreign occupier. Nagl accurately predicted that "winning the Iraqi people's willingness to turn in their terrorist neighbors will mark the tipping point in defeating the insurgency."

Counterinsurgency is portrayed to the public as a more civilized, even intellectual, form of war directed by Ivy League professionals, with a proper emphasis on human rights, political persuasion and protection of the innocents. Every civilian insulted by a door knocked down, it is said, is lost to the cause, thus creating a military motive to be respectful to local populations. The new Marine-Army counterinsurgency manual is filled with such suggestions.

But this "hearts and minds" approach downplays what Vice President Dick Cheney called the use of "the dark side." Before a local population will turn in its neighbors, to use Nagl's image, the occupying army must be seen as defeating those "neighbors," killing and wounding the alleged insurgents in significant numbers; weakening or destroying the infrastructure in their villages, and creating an exodus of refugees (in Vietnam, this was known as "forced urbanization," a term of the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington). In the meantime, the population considered "friendly" is tightly guarded in what used to be called strategic hamlets and, in Iraq, became known as "gated communities": behind concertina wire, blast walls and watch towers, and with everyone subject to eye scanners. The lines between enemy, friendly and neutral in this context are fluid, guaranteeing that many people will be targeted inaccurately as "irreconcilable" sympathizers with the insurgents. Profiling and rounding up people who "look the type" will lead to detention camps filled individuals lacking any usable evidence against them. As one Taliban operative told the New York Times, perhaps over-confidently:

I know of the Petraeus experiment out there. But we know our Afghans. They will take the money from Petraeus, but they will not be on his side. There are so many people working with the Afghans and the Americans who are on their payroll, but they inform us, sell us weapons. (May 5, 2009)

The truth is that conventional warfare by US troops against Muslim nations is politically impossible, for two reasons that suggest an inherent weakness. First, the local people become inflamed against the foreigners, creating better conditions for the insurgency. Second, the American people are skeptical of ground wars involving huge casualties, costs, and possibly the military draft. Counterinsurgency becomes the fallback military option of the unwelcome occupier. Counterinsurgency is low-visibility of necessity, depending on stealth, psychological and information warfare, both abroad and at home.

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