Should a human rights center at the nation’s most prestigious university be collaborating with the top US general in Iraq in designing the counter-insurgency doctrine behind the current military surge?
Led by Gen. David Petraeus, the so-called surge–an escalation of over 25,000 American troops–is resulting in hundreds of killings, mass roundups, door-to-door break-ins, and military offensives in Baghdad, Al-Anbar and Diyala provinces, on the side of a deeply-sectarian Baghdad regime which, according to the White House benchmarks report, still compiles official lists of Sunni Arabs targeted for detention or death. The counter-insurgency campaign is explained as a military way to create “space” for Iraqis to reach a political solution without violent interference.
The new doctrine was jointly developed with academics at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard. The Carr Center’s Sarah Sewell, a former Pentagon official, co-sponsored with Petraeus the official “doctrine revision workshop” that produced the new Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual [US Army Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5, 2007]. The workshop was held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on Feb. 23-24, 2006, and can be accessed here.
This is not an academic text but, in the Marine Corps’ title, a “warfighting doctrine,” complete with hundreds of recommendations ranging from how to “clear, hold and build,” how to use secret agents in calling in air strikes, even advice on public speaking (“avoid pacing, writing on the blackboard, teetering on the lectern, drinking beverages, or doing any other distracting activity while the interpreter is translating.”)
The new counter-insurgency approach purports to be more civilized and humane than conventional kinetic war. It seeks to save the population (“winning hearts and minds”) from the insurgents. It attempts to minimize civilian casualties and avoid torture of detainees. It promotes social programs. These no doubt were the attractions of the collaboration for Harvard’s “humanitarian hawks.” The introduction to the manual is thoughtful and balanced, even raising questions whether the effort can work at all. Sewall tastefully avoids any references to the brutal though targeted suppression necessary for the mission to succeed, but states in Ivy League language why she stands in coalition with the Marines:
“Humanitarians often avoid wading into the conduct of war for fear of becoming complicit in its purpose. The field manual requires engagement precisely from those who fear that its words will lack meaning…”
She goes on make an ambiguous comment about the dirty war supported by US Special Forces in El Salvador, now known as the “El Salvador option”:
“Military annals today tally that effort as a success, but others cannot get past the shame of America’s indirect role in fostering death squads.”
The only sense in which the fostering of those Salvadoran death squads was “indirect” is that US forces went to great extremes to hide their role as advisers and trainers, the very role be carried out today by US advisers embedded in Baghdad’s Interior Ministry, which is dominated by sectarian Shi’a Badr Brigade personnel.
The manual is explicitly based on the traditions of the British in Malaysia and Kenya, the French in Algeria, and the American forces in the “strategic hamlet” and Phoenix operations. Called “gated communities” in Iraq, these population control areas are surrounded by concertina wire and watchtowers as Iraqis are identified, fingerprinted, and eye-scanned in a system of total surveillance and coercion. Outside the concertina wire, Iraqis who the Americans officially call the Kit Carson Scouts are armed for divide-and-conquer missions against other Iraqis in a plan devised by Harvard-trained academic Stephen Biddle, now a Baghdad adviser to Gen. Petraeus. Biddle’s concept, described in Foreign Affairs, is to manipulate both Shi’as and Sunnis into depending on the US occupation for self-protection. Sewall of the Carr Center writes more generally that the US “strategic challenge is stabilization”, meaning the rescue of multiple failed states like Iraq from their own internal insurgencies. The Carr Center hosts a series called “The Long War“, in which generals like John Abizaid hold forth on the threat of “Shi’a revolutionary thought” and the looming World War Three.
It’s not that counter-insurgency Harvard-style has been effective, as proven by the continued suicide bombings, sniper activity and increasing casualties among US forces since the “surge” began. It is an academic formulation to buttress and justify a permanent engagement in counter-terrorism wars.
But counter-insurgency, being based on deception, shadow warfare and propaganda, runs counter to the historic freedom of university life. Why then should Harvard collaborate? Is it now a violation of academic freedom to demand there be protocols limiting professors providing support and legitimacy for inherently secretive, classified and deliberately deceptive programs designed ultimately to kill people?
Perhaps it is the attraction of some intellectuals to the Devil’s Game (the phrase originated with Robert Dreyfuss These are not the “effete intellectuals” so often scorned by the right. These are intellectuals who presumably can “get past the shame” of those death squads, and this time do it right. They believe that the exposure of the generals to a civilian academic atmosphere may humanize the process of war-making, not worrying that the actual danger may be the militarizing of the university.
The Carr Center does not officially favor the war in Iraq, though one of its former directors, Michael Ignatieff, is famed for endorsing the US as a “21st century imperium”, an “empire lite”, and publicly calling for “acceptable degrees of coercive interrogation.” On the other hand, there is the formidable Samantha Power, an Irish-born humanitarian who strongly supported the US-NATO Balkans war and campaigned for Gen. Wesley Clark in 2004. Power is a close adviser to Sen. Barack Obama, who supports a withdrawal of US combat troops by next year with exceptions for “advisers” and special units to battle al-Qaeda. Power, who worked last year in Obama’s Washington, DC office, writes that even the proposed combat troop withdrawal can be reversed if Iraq’s condition continues to worsen. Intentionally or not, the cautious, complicated Obama proposal as described by Power leaves open the likelihood of thousands of American troops remaining in counter-insurgency roles for years ahead.
If that is the limit of legitimate debate at Harvard, the Pentagon occupation of the academic mind may last much longer than its occupation of Iraq, and may require an intellectual insurgency in response.