The New Counterinsurgency

The New Counterinsurgency

The Army’s updated Field Manual draws on an old, blood-steeped tradition.


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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 squads.

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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