Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How to Lose a Counter-Insurgency: Part I

PART I: Kill Civilians

The Senate Armed Services Committee is apparently very concerned about our rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Before they confirm General David Petraeus to the Afghanistan command, they want to make sure that he will loosen up those rules of engagement to allow more airstrikes and more artillery strikes. He has made soothing voices to the effect that he will be sure not to hold back the heavy firepower too strictly.

As soon as you're worried that your counterinsurgency troops aren't using heavy enough firepower, the counterinsurgency strategy is all but dead. I could easily write a thousand tedious words explaining why, but I would like to offer this image instead.

The Senators' concerns seem to have been specifically prompted by the Rolling Stone article that brought down General Stanley McChrystal. In addition to featuring a number of shockingly undisciplined and insubordinate remarks by McChrystal and his aides, that article includes a number of complaints of the strictness of McChrystal's rules of engagement from frustrated rank and file soldiers who'd prefer to "get [their] gun on." While I've criticized McChrystal's strategy and believe (based mostly on the results in Marja) that it's failing, the problem isn't that McChrystal is too squeamish about accidentally blowing away civilians. "Too careful about killing civilians" can really never be the problem with executing a counterinsurgency. But a reflexive desire to do more shooting, whether that reflex is expressed by grumbling soldiers on the front lines or anxious lawmakers in the capital, is a sign that the counterinsurgency strategy hasn't been fully accepted or understood. The goal of a counterinsurgency is to protect the civilian population and build up political support on the ground. Killing Afghan civilians achieves all of the key counterinsurgency goals, but it achieves them for the Taliban.

Our British cousins have generously provided us with a clinic on how to lose a counterinsurgency. In fact, they demonstrated those lessons for us in person, at great sacrifice, over two hundred years ago. Consider that knowledge base part of the United States' national starter kit. Since we seem to have lost touch with those lessons, I'd like to celebrate the Glorious Fourth (in part) with a short series of posts reviewing a few of the military tutorials left by Generals Gage, Howe, Clinton, Burgoyne, and Cornwallis, with generous underwriting by George III.

Am I really comparing George Washington to the Taliban on Fourth of July weekend? The political, philosophical, and moral answer is to that question is No, No, and Hell No. I take proud, patriotic delight in the Revolution's success, and I want to see the Taliban utterly destroyed. But the military history answer to that question is: Sadly, Yes. I wish to God that the situations didn't look so much alike. But in each case you have a highly trained, superbly equipped and deeply professional force of soldiers facing an ideologically-driven local opponent, largely composed of irregulars, across a large land area full of rugged terrain. The analogy isn't perfect; no analogies are. But in some ways, we have it harder than Gage, Howe et al. had it. Washington's army was much more conventional than the enemies we're fighting, and thus easier to defeat by conventional means, and the cultural gap between the British occupiers and British-American rebels was almost nothing. Howe and Washington had thousands of times more in common than we have with our Afghan allies, let alone with our enemies.

It's tempting of course, to view the situations as different because the Continental army fought for noble principles that we admire, and the Taliban fight for a fanatical ideology that we despise. But if we're thinking about how to win a war, we can't yield to that temptation. On the ground, the difference between soldiers fighting from deep commitment to a good idea and soldiers fighting from deep commitment to a bad idea is nothing at all. It doesn't matter that the Taliban only think that they're right. What matters is that they do think they're right, and they act on that. The British didn't think the American rebels were right; most didn't even think that the rebels were acting from sincere principle. And that mindset was part of the British problem.

Let's consider the illustration of the Boston Massacre again, and try to see it from the British point of view. Most Americans learn about this in grade school as a piece of outrageous, unmotivated bloodthirst, which is certainly how it looked to people in Boston. But the British soldiers viewed themselves as protecting themselves from a dangerous mob, and their position was reasonable enough to get the soldiers acquitted. They were in fact, surrounded by an angry crowd, and it was impossible to know how serious a danger that crowd posed. If Crispus Attucks looked aggressive to them, it's because Crispus Attucks actually did look aggressive, and he was angry as hell. There had been daily brawls between soldiers and Boston crowds for the previous three days, and it looked like only a matter of time before a British soldier was badly injured or killed. The soldiers had marched into the crowd on March 5 to rescue a private who was surrounded and under attack by a whole gang of infuriated locals; their mindset going in was about protecting the corps. And eventually their commander, Capt. Thomas Preston decided to err on the side of protecting his troops. He wasn't going to wait for one of his men to get hurt or killed before he decided that the mob was really dangerous. When in doubt, bring your own men home alive. The rest is history.

Captain Preston's logic is exactly what the Senate has been urging on General Petraeus. The soldiers who chafe at McChrystal's strict rules of fire would prefer to serve under a Thomas Preston themselves. And truth be told, there are lots of junior officers in Afghanistan and Iraq right now, charged with leading their own troops through confused and dangerous streets, following the Preston handbook. In their position, charged with their responsibilities, I would probably do the same. Threats are hard to identify until too late, some attacks come from people who seem like civilians, and the American officers want to protect their own men. The duty to their own troops is much too basic, too fundamental, to deny. Better to make a reasonable mistake that kills a civilian than any mistake that kills one of your own, the logic goes. I don't know how I would tell a captain or lieutenant leading a patrol anything different.

The problem is that those mistakes don't seem reasonable to the home team. When civilians from your own city or town or village get killed by soldiers, you don't say, "Well, it was an easy mistake to make, and those soldiers are under a lot of pressure." Nobody sees the heavily-armed foreigners as the ones whose safety is in jeopardy. And nobody ever forgets or forgives.

Of course, from the other side of the Atlantic, what matters is bringing your own troops home safely. Half a dozen civilians killed in Boston didn't make much impression in London, but having a British soldier killed would be a huge problem. It's natural to count your own losses first, and to forgive mistakes made in the name of protecting the boys on the front line. It's hard to feel deeply about a few regrettable accidental deaths on the other side of the world. But a few civilian deaths in your neighborhood is just flat-out murder, a bloody massacre, and there's no dealing with the people who ordered it. Captain Preston and his men got acquitted in Boston, but even their lawyer didn't have any sympathy for them. His letters always refer to their actions as simply "the massacre," and he became one of the loudest, most radical voices for independence. His name was John Adams.

One last lesson from the bloody events of March 5, 1770: it was only March 5, 1770. It was three years before the Boston Tea Party, five before Lexington and Concord, six before Washington forced the British out of Boston. But the Massacre was firmly on New Englanders' mind the whole time. Washington just had to say "March 5" to get his troops fired up. They never got over it. They never moved on. And that's the sobering lesson for us, seven years into Iraq and almost nine into Afghanistan: what happens early matters. Events from early in an occupation can change the direction course of events in powerful ways, and those events can't be reversed easily. The strategy that you should have used in 2002 isn't necessarily available in 2010. There's no do-over button. Things happen, they have consequences, and you have to deal with them.

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