...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

August 05, 2006

Violence Begets Violence, The Macro View

Wikipedia has a list of ongoing wars:

Basque Terrorism in Spain; Colombian Civil War; Islamic Insurgency in the Philippines; Somalian Civil War; Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka; Shining Path Insurgency in Peru; Papua New Guinea Civil War in Indonesia; Turkish-Kurdish conflict; LRA rebellion in Uganda; Casamance Conflict in Senegal; Somali Civil War; Myanmar Civil War; India-Pakistan Kashmir conflict; Georgian Civil War; Algerian Civil War; Ethnic conflict in Nagaland, India; Zapatista Rebellion in Mexico; Nepalese Civil War; Second Congo War; Ituri Conflict; Second Chechen War; al-Aqsa Intifada in Israel and the Palestinian Territories; Laotian-Hmong Civil War; Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan; Côte d'Ivoire Civil War; South Thailand insurgency; Iraqi Insurgency; Balochistan conflict in Pakistan; Waziristan War between Pakistan and al Qaeda; Darfur conflict; Chadian-Sudanese conflict; Western Sahara Independence Intifada; and the Israel-Lebanon crisis.

I made some changes to Wikipedia's list, which was overinclusive. Obviously, the wars that are most relevant to us are the Iraqi Insurgency, the Taliban Insurgency, the so-called Waziristan War, and the Israel-Lebanon crisis. But the main thing one gets from looking at the 33 conflicts listed is that the majority of them involve nation states fighting against irregular armies or guerrillas.

In armed conflict between nations and guerillas, the advantages of a nation state are easy to name. They are usually better equipped and better trained. They have professional leadership. They can form alliances with other nation states to obtain resources such as weapons and intelligence, if not actual military assistance. Their status as a recognized state confers a measure of legitimacy to their actions that guerillas do not have, at least initially.

The weakness of guerrilla forces are similarly obvious. In comparison to national armed forces, guerrillas are usually outnumbered. Their access to advanced weaponry is limited or non-existent. They usually lack formal training and professional leadership. They must operate in secret, which hampers their ability to communicate among themselves and their allies, and to obtain and store weapons and supplies.

However, guerrilla forces have distinct advantages over national armed forces. They usually do not wear uniforms, and when not in actual combat can remain in close proximity to their opponent, safely disguised as civilians. Guerrillas are by definition committed to their goal, and thus have the luxury of time. They do not have to answer to indifferent political forces back home, which can be a great advantage in a war of attrition. As Mao once said: The enemy advances, we retreat. The enemy camps, we harass. The enemy tires, we attack. The enemy retreats, we pursue.

And now, the latest Israeli-Lebanon conflict has thrown the weakness of nation states vis-a-vis guerrilla forces into sharp relief. Hezbollah's strategy has been to exploit the political weakness of Israel and its ally the United States. That weakness has been an unwillingness to suffer the opprobrium of world opinion, and that weakness has to date proved decisive.

The war in Lebanon is not over, but it looks like a cease fire is inevitable. If it comes to pass, no one should have any doubts about the permanency of the cease fire. It will not be permanent. How can it be when one side remains committed to the complete destruction of its opponent and the other side is committed to its own survival?

I have always said that there are two sure-fire solutions to the decades long Middle East Conflict. The first would be for all the various Palestinian groups to lay down their arms and adopt non-violent protest as their philosophy. That's a subject for another entire post, but I truly believe that a Gandhi style rebellion in the Palestinian territories would result in a fully independent Palestinian state within probably five years, maybe less. It will never happen because the Palestinian terrorist leadership doesn't really care about independence; they only care about killing Jews.

The second sure-fire solution recognizes the fact that the Palestinian leadership wants the conflict to continue because that enables them to keep killing Jews, which is their reason for existence. The second solution is to allow both sides to fight each other until one side wins. That means no cease fire, no brokered agreement, no cessation of hostilities, no UN peacekeeping force. Fight until one side surrenders.

We all know that if Israel were allowed to engage in Clausewitzian total war against its enemies, Israel would win. The Palestinian terrorists know this too. That's why Hezbollah and Hamas try to walk a fine line. They goad Israel into attacking, then cry foul when Israel responds. A cease fire is imposed and the terrorists bide their time until the next intifada. The enemy advances, we retreat. The enemy camps, we harass. The enemy tires, we attack. The enemy retreats, we pursue.

The trouble with the total war solution is its ugliness. Since World War II, the civilized world has not had the stomach for civilian casualties on a large scale. Every civilian death is now "regrettable," which is a new phenomenon in the history of the world.

Civilians have always died in war. Before the modern era, civilians were targeted directly. The ancients knew that pillaging was part of war. Victors from Genghis Khan to Napoleon put whole villages to the sword, simply for the crime of having been on the other side of a line on a map.

Did people protest these atrocities? Sure. Its not that people didn't think this type of warfare was unfair to the innocent. They did, but people had different expectations than we do nowadays. If Napoleon burned your town and his troops raped your wife and killed your kids, you didn't complain to Napoleon. You complained to your king, and then he went over there and kicked Napoleon's ass.

It was all about tribalism in the old days. You belonged to a tribe, and the other guy belonged to his tribe. If the other guy did something bad to your tribe, you expected and demanded that your tribe would retaliate by doing something bad to his tribe. That was understood as justice.*

In more recent times, our rationale for killing civilians moderated a bit, even if the number of dead civilians seemed to go up. During World War II, while the Japanese, Germans and Russians were committing acts of barbarism against civilians on the ground, we held ourselves to a different standard. We killed civilians too, but we did it from afar. And we killed a lot of them. Almost a million German civilians died from strategic bombing, and a similar number of Japanese with them. That was total war, and along with all those corpses it produced a clear victor, and a lasting peace.

I started out by remarking how many of the conflicts going on in the world are between guerilla movements and nation states. I'm trying to understand why, in an age when B-2 bombers from Missouri can attack an unseen enemy 7000 miles away in Afghanistan, yet we're not able to defeat a bunch of punks armed with homemade bombs in Baghdad. One fine morning in 1967, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the entire combined air forces of three sovereign nations. Yet here we are in 2006, about to watch a band of criminals shooting glorified bottle rockets claim victory over the vaunted IDF.

I'm sure there's lots of guys working in thinktanks and war colleges whose job it is to figure these things out, but so far I haven't seen nor heard of any effective way to fight guerrillas other than by total unrestricted warfare — which we won't do. How do you counter the weighty advantage they've claimed for themselves by co-opting the machinery of world public opinion? How do you beat an enemy that has perfected the use of civilian deaths both offensively and defensively, if your one achilles heel is the fear of civilian deaths?

America has fought against guerrilla forces in the past. We did it successfully during the Plains Indians Wars and the Philippine Insurrection. We were unsuccessful during Vietnam, although the ugliness of our methods was similar in all three wars. And that's the point. We can't fight and win against a guerrilla enemy unless we do so in a brutal manner. And even then, the outcome is not certain.

To win, the enemy needs to know that violence begets violence. They need to know that if they mess with our tribe, we will mess with theirs and we won't be deterred if things get ugly and innocent civilians die. But the reality is something completely different, because in fact we are deterred by civilian casualties. In fact, we are fighting two wars and a nominal war on terror with the express handicap that we will do everything to avoid harming civilians as much as possible.

That's the situation, and that's why we're still in Iraq. The administration's policy is not to become more brutal, which could win victory but would turn the world against us. (Even more than they already have, that is.) Instead the administration's ultimate goal is to prepare an Iraqi security force to fight the guerrilla war. In truth, our plan is to pass the buck to the Iraqis. It's the only solution, if one recognizes the fact that the world is not in a place where it will accept brutality by a nation state in a small-scale war like Iraq.

I suppose that is understandable. I'm not arguing here for total war, indiscriminate killing of civilians, collective punishment, or the adoption of brutality in Iraq. I'm merely trying to point out the reality of our dilemma. We can't do what needs to be done, so we won't do it. The enemy knows this and is smart enough to recognize it as our greatest weakness. They will keep fighting us, and using our weakness against us. We advance, they retreat. We camp, they harass. We tire, they attack. We retreat, they pursue. Follow this line of thought to its logical conclusion and you'll realize something even scarier.

We may end up with total war, whether we like it or not.

* Nowadays the "world" has a different, some would say more enlightened, definition of justice. Today's justice revolves around preventing the innocent from getting killed. That's fine and dandy, except we don't apply that ideal evenly across the board. There's plenty of dead innocent people around the world who might have argued that our new definition of "justice" didn't do them a whole lot of good.

Posted by annika, Aug. 5, 2006 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: annikapunditry


If a Democrat had been President, the Iraqi war would have been over in 2004. The MSM, the academic world and the entertainment industry would have supported the war no matter what. That meant that the terrorists would have received no encouragement from the US to continue their slaughter. The terrorists would have given up within a year.

Posted by: Jake on Aug. 5, 2006

Excellent post, Annika.

In the end, I don't know what is going to happen in Iraq. I hope the administration's Iraqi-fication policies work. If we're lucky, we won't have to partition the country into 3 new ethnic/sectarian nations. Strategy Page surmises that the "civil war" won't last very long at this rate if the Sunni Arabs are the only problem.


The Sunni Arab headhackers used to be the ones that wanted us to get out of Iraq the most, but now they want us to stick around to protect them from their formerly oppressed victims in the majority.

If the ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arabs and a Kurdistan mini-apartheid against Arabs will bring stability to that country, we shouldn't stop it.

Posted by: reagan80 on Aug. 5, 2006

There is one way, just short of scorched earth to fight insurgent/guerilla forces. But it takes time and money. You build up your own insurgent force as secretly as possible and send them out to spy and infiltrate the enemy. At the same time you try to make it as uncomfortable as possible for the local population to harbor the insurgents.
Obviously that approach works best when the terrorists are of the same ethnicity as the nation state. It would be more difficult for Israel for instance to do the same although it might be worth a try.

Posted by: kyle8 on Aug. 6, 2006

I think Peru was successful by using counter insurgent militias against the communist Shining Path guerrillas. Of course that wouldn't work in Iraq, since militias are part of the problem.

Posted by: annika on Aug. 6, 2006

Unfortunately, our lack of troops combined with wishful thinking made short shrift of our nonexistent counterinsurgency strategy in the latter part of 2003.

First, there are ways to win counterinsurgencies and it's done all the time. The key is to make life very difficult for the insurgents and life comparatively better for those loyal the governmet. This comes from things like fortified hamlets, generous aid to turncoats, saturation patrolling, educating the populace on benefits of working with government, collective punishment and mass dispersal of areas that support terrorists, public executions of captured terrorists, domination of cities with heavy troop presence, a census with draconian punishments for unregistered inhabitants of country, etc. This has worked in Algeria, Malaya, Latin America, etc. We have done almost none of these things, intead buttoning up in bases, occasional presence patrols (combined with mutual fear and misunderstanding with populace), half-assed training of indigenous forces, complete nonconsequence to most regions that support terrorists, hair-brained hearts and minds gestures, and, most important, a lack of understanding that security is the first among equals in things that the replacement regime provided by us needs to provide for commerce and other goals to be achieved.

But we never governed Iraq and we never stood up a functioning government. Instead we handed off a nonfunctioning governme to the Iraqis. Instead of providing security as the keystone of any hearts and minds strategy, we thought giving this nonfunctioning government a democratic imprimatur would make the Iraqis rally to it. This did not work; instead our actions have discredited democracy, by combining the defects of the current Iraqi regime with the Iraqi and Arab appraisal of democracy genreally. In their minds, "democracy" is reasonably equated with the chaos now in Iraq.

Finally, even if we defeated the first crew of insurgents on the battlefield, we never set the conditions in which the replacement Iraqi regime could rally support from the whole country. And why? Because Iraq was not much of a country to begin with, but instaed and armed camp with lots of constituencies who are mutually hostile. There never was an idea or concept of "Iraq" and the new regime's goals that would unify the country. People don't fight for "democracy." Democracy is a procedure of how one picks his rulers. What the Iraqi government actually is supposed to do has always been up in the air from day one. We of course want it to do our bidding, but this is kind of hard to reconcile with democrayc when most of the people follow an illiberal religion and have other sources of alienation from the US, e.g., anti-colonialist viewpoint, history, sympathy with Palestinians etc.

So we've screwed this up tactically (not enough linguists, weak investment in Iraqi forces, all too frequent "collateral damage" that flows from lack of linguists and intel), strategically (aiming for democracy, "light footprint strategy), and politically (no coherent concept of Iraqi agnenda, aiming for democracy at all, handing off nonfunctioning government).

More and more it's obvious we must withdraw before our army is destroyed, hopefully after some brutal retaliation on areas of the country that have aimed themselves at our forces, e.g., Sadr City, Fallujah, Ramadi.

Posted by: Roach on Aug. 6, 2006

Interesting post, and interesting comments.

We are not fighting with the primary intention of creating stability in the Mideast. Instead, we are actually roiling the area - intentionally.

Our primary purpose is to inject Western ideas into the Mideast - like a virus. We hope the democratic virus will defeat jihadi ideology.

Now, God forbid the democratic Iraqi government should either fall, or become irrelevant - like the Lebanese government. However, even if one of these unpleasant results occurs, the democratic virus has already been injected into the Mideast more deeply than ever before - and that is the strategy we believe will make America safer in the long run. OIF has achieved it's primary goal. Therefore, OIF is a strategic success. The only question is how big a success it will be.

Posted by: gcotharn on Aug. 6, 2006

It had multiple goals, and it's only achieved one, ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein. The "instability" of our presence in Iraq was not supposed to be in the form of an awful civil war that daily shows our impotence vis a vis both the insurgency and brutal elements in the Shiite government. The instability was supposed to come from the Ptoemkin Village that Iraq was to become, a model regime of law, order, democracy, and social peace. It is none of those things; so, instead of showing American client regimes can be well governed, liberal, and rewarded, we created a client regime taht is poorly governed, illberal, hard to control in a way that furthers our interests, and, because of the undeniable hell that Iraq is today, a daily argument against democacy to the rest of the Middle East. The fact that so many Iraqi refugees, chiefly professionals, are headed to Jordan and Syria is quite telling as for what kind of government they think is best, even with the narrow goal of simply being able to work, turn on the lights, and not worry about waking up to a death squad coming to kill one's entire family.

It is profoundly dishonest and mistaken to call this a strategic success. We've emboldened Jihadis, emboldened Iran, provided a de facto argument every day of why democracy is NOT a good road for the middle east.

This whole stupid and ideologically motivated quest for democacy is wrong on so many levels. First, it misapprehends the genius of our own system as "democracy" rather than our well balanced constitution. Two, it forgets to ask what kind of policies these democracies will pursue. Three, it ignores the benefits of stability from regimes such as King Abdullah's or Hosni Mubarak's. Four, it is too ambitious, the neoconservative equivalent of the liberal war on crime, going after "root causes" that likely won't change for a 1,000 years rather than just finding the bad guys and killing them.

These Trotskyites are endangering our country, our military, and empowering our enemies.

Posted by: Roach on Aug. 7, 2006

Ptoemkin Village refers to a plywood/cardboard/Hollywood set type of fake village.

I agree with "multiple goals". You lose me when you fail to include the injection of democracy/western ideas as one of those goals. This indicates a zealous mindset on your part, and an unwillingness to fairly characterize the situation. Pres. Bush has clearly stated, over and over, that we intend to inject democratic ideas into Iraq. The Iraqis themselves must make the ideas real.

We did not write and impose a constitution upon Iraq. We will all be dead before it is known if that was the best course of action.

You say the Iraq insurgency exposes our impotence. I say, where we are impotent, let it be known. I say that is a good thing: let the light shine in. It's time to get some things defined and declared - for their benefit, and for our own. Let the players show their cards.

Old joke: Dr. tells man he is impotent. Man buys a new hat. Man says: "If I'm gonna be impotent, I'm gonna look impotent!"

It might or might not be fair to say Baghdad is an undeniable hell. I reject(deny?!:) that characterization vis a vis the entire nation.

I reject this opinion: Iraq is a daily argument against democracy.

I don't believe this is happening in numbers which are significant: so many Iraqi refugees, chiefly professionals, are headed to Jordan and Syria, and I reject your stated conclusion: is quite telling as for what kind of government they think is best.

You write: We've emboldened Jihadis, emboldened Iran. This would be a problem, if our main goal was status quo stability. It was not. Status quo stability is what was going to get us killed. If Jihadis are emboldened, great. Makes em easier to kill. If Iran is emboldened, great. Wakes the world up, and makes the Iran problem easier to resolve.

ideologically motivated quest for democacy is wrong on so many levels
As opposed to, what? Ideologically motivated quest for tyranny, oppression, and backwardness?

misapprehends the genius of our own system as "democracy" rather than our well balanced constitution
"Democracy" is shorthand. No one says "democracy" and means "oppressive, inadequate constitution." The whole argument of "if you inject democracy, they will elect terrorists President" is strawman, strawman, strawman. "Democracy" is shorthand for "injecting democratic, civilized, humane ideas into a backwards, 6th century, stagnant hovel of humanity." You want that written out every time?

it ignores the benefits of stability from regimes such as King Abdullah's or Hosni Mubarak's
Bullshit. We can inject ideas, roil the region, and still appreciate a proper amount of stability. No one is denying the existence of complexity.

going after "root causes" that likely won't change for a 1,000 years rather than just finding the bad guys and killing them.
It is your masturbatory dream that we can just find the bad guys and kill them. Just finding the bad guys and killing them entails taking out untold scads of civilians. This is why our strategy is to convert the populace to our side, then have the converted populace take out the bad guys. If you reject, out of hand, the possibility of this strategy working, then you are advocating that we undertake a bloodbath. Things may, God forbid, get to the bloodbath stage. But first, we are trying the conversion strategy.

These Trotskyites are endangering our country, our military, and empowering our enemies.
Looking at this sentence, I can see I have wasted my time in replying to you. Shit. I guess I'll post this anyway. But it's a close call.

Posted by: gcotharn on Aug. 7, 2006