How to win the real war

Convince the peoples of the Middle East that we are winners, not that we are lovable.

November 19, 2006 22:45
How to win the real war

Soldiers Iraq 88. (photo credit: )

As the Baker/Hamilton club considers America's options in the Middle East, its members would do well to browse two currently hot books on counterinsurgency, the better to understand the way our strategists are thinking. The first is Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (1964) by the late David Galula, a French commander who fought in Algeria. It has been reissued with a dandy introduction by an US Army lieutenant-colonel, John Nagl, the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Both are stimulating, thoughtful and serious. Galula and Nagl agree that insurgencies are revolutionary wars and that the outcome will be determined by control of, and support from the population. This does not mean, however, that counterinsurgents should concentrate on message and propaganda. Galula is in the Lyndon Johnson camp: if you've got them by the balls, the hearts and minds will generally follow. More on this in a minute. The best way to think about such wars is to imagine a "Go" game. Each side starts with limited assets, each has the support of a minority of the territory and the population. Each has some assets within the enemy's sphere of influence. The "game" ends when one side takes control of the majority of the population, and thus the territory. FOR MOST of the war, we will not have total mastery over most of the battlefield, regardless of our technological superiority. We will have to establish our domain step by step, area by area, population group by population group. This is what we nowadays call the "inkblot strategy," or the "clear and hold" strategy. We have done well at clearing, but all too often we have left the cleared areas, relying on Iraqis to hold them instead of constantly maintaining small operational groups in and around the cleared areas and initiating combat with terrorists who try to move back in. When we fail to do that the crucial "minority that favors the counterinsurgent" gets killed. Worse yet, as Galula stresses, failure of tactics leads straight to defeat, because at a certain point the war itself becomes the central issue. The population's attitude is dictated not by the intrinsic merits of the contending causes, but by their conviction about winners and losers. Whoever is judged the likely winner will gain popular support, and most likely win the war. IN OTHER words, it's pure Vince Lombardi: winning is the only thing. You need popular support, and you'll only get it if two conditions are met: You must have good personal relationships with lots of people, and the people must think you're the winner. If they do, they'll help you win by taking you into their families and tribes, providing you with information and helping you track down the insurgents. If they don't, they'll either avoid you or support the enemy. That will happen regardless of the ideological appeal of one side or the other because the battle for hearts and minds is determined at a much lower level. (Karen Hughes, please take note. You need to convince the peoples of the Middle East that we are winners, not that we are lovable, gentle, and tolerant). GALULA'S RULES - mostly approved by Nagl - are excellent for dealing with the situation he faced in Algeria, and it seems superficially to be a proper model for Iraq and Afghanistan. In both countries our soldiers are very successful when they operate as they should, or when the terrorists make the mistake of attacking in force. We could do better still if we had fewer soldiers sitting on megabases, in the military version of the Baghdad Green Zone, long the symbol of the isolation and consequent ignorance of American personnel. When Generals Kristol and Kagan - and their new allies on The New York Times editorial page - call for more troops in Iraq, they undoubtedly mean more troops operating against the terrorists, not more customers for the luxurious latte shops and air-conditioned yuppy gyms on the big bases. They are certainly right, but we may not need new troops, just better use of the ones already there. However, this war is not like the one Galula waged in at least two crucial respects: It is much bigger than a single country, and ideology is much more important in vital areas of the battlefield. The insurgents in Iraq do not just depend on the Iraqi people for support, as the Algerian revolutionaries did, because the Iraqis have enormous support in Syria and Iran. It is hard to imagine any realistic level of Coalition forces in Iraq that could protect the country from infiltration across the Iranian and Syrian borders. Paradoxically, the Syrian/ Iranian involvement in Iraq cuts both ways, for at the same time they are supporting the terror war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they face the very real possibility of insurgencies in their own countries. Indeed, the Iranians have had to contend with a non-violent insurgency for many years now. That fact changes things considerably. It means that while we are counterinsurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are potential insurgents in Syria and Iran. We should be fighting for popular support in at least four countries, where the people will be evaluating our likelihood of success across the entire battlefield, not just city by city or country by country. The peoples of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (as well as those on the margins, who are not yet swept up in the war, but may well be quite soon) are evaluating the battlefield very carefully, for they must be ready to jump on the winner's bandwagon. THEN THERE IS "the ideology." Galula insists that ideology is important mainly in the creation of the insurgency, but loses significance when the people have to decide about winners and losers. He even scoffs at the importance of the insurgents' ideology, and at one point says that most any complaint will do (and there are always complaints) and that the insurgents can even change their ideology (as the Chinese Communists did on several occasions) without compromising their chances for success. Not so in the war in the Middle East. The insurgents are mostly jihadis acting in the name of a religious imperative, and that imperative is central to who they are and why and how they kill. Even though there are secular Arab terrorists in Iraq, they are a tiny minority of the terror army. This has worked against us in Iraq, where it is dangerous to be branded "an infidel" or a "crusader," but it can work to our advantage elsewhere, because there is a mass disgust with Islam in Iran, and the Assad family dictatorship is widely viewed as Islamically marginal. If we supported democratic revolutions in Iran and Syria, we could expect considerable popular support, just based on ideological considerations. And if Coalition-supported anti-Iranian and anti-Syrian insurgencies won, our counterinsurgency in Iraq would likely do much better as a result. This war is unlike all previous counterinsurgencies because the contending forces are on different sides of the insurgent/counterinsurgent divide, in different areas of the broad battlefield. Let's hope the wise men now considering our options get it right. The writer is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on US foreign policy. His latest book is The War against the Terror Masters.

Related Content

June 20, 2018
What are the American and Israeli challenges in the Middle East now?