Our New Problem From Hell

Samantha Power, of “A Problem from Hell:” America and the Age of Genocide fame, an insightful book studying America’s indifference to various genocides throughout the 20th Century, had a great book review in last Sunday’s The New York Times.

While I started reading her review just because I respected her and wanted to read her thoughts on current events, I had no idea that she would be reviewing, among three other books, the new U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual(free online at: FM 3-24 .pdf), which I’m currently and slowly reading.

She makes some very good points I’d like to share and comment on:

While our allies still share intelligence with us in order to combat domestic terrorism, our disavowal of international law has made it harder for our friends to contribute military and even financial resources to shore up failing states like Afghanistan, which is portrayed by the opposition in countries like Canada and the Netherlands as one of Bush’s wars. Many of our friends believe that too close an association with American objectives will make them electorally vulnerable and their cities potential targets.

It’s true. I believe Afghanistan was a just, overdue routing of the Taliban. Remember the horror of the world when they destroyed the mountainside Buddhas? Or just the hostile institution of extreme Islamic law? But now, with Iraq still ablaze, NATO and many other countries are even less willing to commit sufficient forces to stabilize Afghanistan. And not because their forces are serving in Iraq, but because, as Power just noted, it’s merely another Bush war to them.

Moreover, by branding the cause a war and calling the enemy terror, the administration has lumped like with unlike foes and elevated hostile elements from the ranks of the criminal (stigmatized in all societies) to the ranks of soldiers of war (a status that carries connotations of sacrifice and courage). Although anybody taking aim at the American superpower would have seemed an underdog, the White House’s approach enhanced the terrorists’ cachet, accentuating the image of self-sacrificing Davids taking up slingshots against a rich, flaccid, hypocritical Goliath. In rejecting the war-on-terror frame recently, Hilary Benn, the British secretary of state for international development, argued: “What these groups want is to force their individual and narrow values on others, without dialogue, without debate, through violence. And by letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength.”

This is a key point as well. This isn’t a “holy war,” or jihad, as they claim. These guys are terrorists — criminals — not soldiers. Even if you want to view them as soldiers, under international law, they are criminals — deliberately targeting civilians, schools, hospitals, churches and mosques, among other protected items are war crimes.

That’s not to say we should only use the criminal justice system to deal with them — it may, at times, be necessary to use military force to destroy training camps and other terrorist infrastructure, groups and leaders.

The leading architect of the manual was David Petraeus, then a lieutenant general, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took responsibility for governing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, immediately thereafter. He is now the overall American commander in Iraq. Petraeus emphasized economic and political development and is said to have asked his soldiers, “What have you done for the people of Iraq today?” He worked with another military man who also saw that his job would have to be more than strictly military — Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who commanded the First Marine Division during the initial invasion and then in 2004 returned to help stabilize Anbar Province. His division motto was “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy — First Do No Harm.” In February 2006, while the new counterinsurgency doctrine was still being drafted, and while international criticism of American military excesses mounted, Petraeus invited journalists, human rights lawyers, academics and practitioners of counterinsurgency to Fort Levenworth [sic] to vet a draft, initiating what participants characterized as one of the most open and productive exchanges of ideas they had ever witnessed. [Emphasis mine.]

This is why I have faith in Gen. Petraeus as he is now leading the new strategy in Iraq. This is why I say give him some time. It may be too late — especially considering the rapidly declining ability for our military to take the strain — but we have to give him a chance.

The fundamental premise of the manual is that the key to successful counterinsurgency is protecting civilians. The manual notes: “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.” It suggests that force size be calculated in relation not to the enemy, but to inhabitants (a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents). It emphasizes the necessity of coordination with beefed-up civilian agencies, which are needed to take on reconstruction and development tasks.

The most counterintuitive, as well as the most politically difficult, premise of the manual is that the American military must assume greater risk in order to gather much-needed intelligence and, in the end, achieve greater safety. The emphasis of the 1990s on force protection is overturned by the assertion of several breathtaking paradoxes: “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.” “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.” “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.” Sarah Sewall, a former Pentagon official who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (and a close colleague of mine), has contributed an introduction that should be required reading for anybody who wants to understand the huge demands effective counterinsurgency will place on the military and the voting public. “Those who fail to see the manual as radical probably don’t understand it,” she writes, “or at least what it’s up against.”

Since most people aren’t going to read the manual, I wanted to post the above to give you an idea of some of the lessons the military has learned (and is now applying) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

My final quote and then you need to read the rest of the review yourselves.

But Sewall explains that even if the military can overcome the substantial challenges of executing such a counterintuitive doctrine — and here the near-daily reports of large-scale civilian loss of life as a result of United States counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are a reminder of the yawning gap between theory and practice — it will not succeed if it does not get the civilian leadership and support it needs. The military does not have the expertise to perform the range of economic and political tasks associated with nation-building, but in Iraq and Afghanistan, as civilian reconstruction teams went unstaffed, it was forced to pinch-hit. Sewall rightly calls for the “risks and costs of counterinsurgency” to be spread across the American government, but notes this is not an overnight job.“More people play in Army bands than serve in the U.S. foreign service,” she writes.

The manual shows that the demands of counterinsurgency are greater than those the American public has yet been asked to bear. Sewall is skeptical that the public — now feeling burned by Iraq — will muster the will, even in Afghanistan, to “supply greater concentrations of forces, accept higher casualties, fund serious nation-building and stay many long years to conduct counterinsurgency by the book.” [Emphasis mine.]

I don’t think I really need to say anything about the part I emphasized except to note that she’s right.

The above is why I’m concerned about the Democratic shift on giving Gen. Petraeus a chance. He’s the best guy we’ve had over there. We obviously can’t pull out; leaving thousands of newly minted, well-trained insurgents and would-be terrorists. Iraq wasn’t the central front in the war on terrorism (or against al-Qaeda) before we went in, but it is now. (And trust me, I hate repeating a Bush talking point.)

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