Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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Big Countries, Small Wars

LONDON – US President Barack Obama has vowed to avenge the murder of J. Christopher Stevens, America’s former ambassador to Libya. How he proposes to do this is unclear – historical precedent is of little use.

In 1864, the Emperor of Abyssinia took hostage the British consul, together with some missionaries, in the country's then-capital, Magdala. Three years later, with Emperor Tewodros still refusing to release them, the British dispatched an expeditionary force of 13,000 troops, 26,000 camp followers, and 44 elephants.

In his book The Blue Nile, Alan Moorehead described the expedition thus: “It proceeds first to last with the decorum and heavy inevitability of a Victorian state banquet, complete with ponderous speeches.” Yet it was a fearsome undertaking. After a three-month journey through the mountains, the British reached Magdala, released the hostages, and burned the capital to the ground. Emperor Tewodros committed suicide, the British withdrew, and their commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Napier, was made Baron Napier of Magdala.

Today's great powers have relied on similar methods, also heavy with rhetoric, against puny opponents, but with far less convincing results. The United States put 500,000 troops into Vietnam in the 1960’s, but withdrew before North Vietnam overran the South in 1975. The Russians began pulling their 100,000 troops from Afghanistan in 1987, after nine years of fighting had failed to subdue the country.

Now, 25 years and $500 billion later, roughly 100,000 NATO troops, mainly American, are about to leave Afghanistan, with the Taliban still controlling much of it. Meanwhile, the US has withdrawn 150,000 troops from Iraq, after nine years of frustration.

The evidence is clear: big countries can lose small wars. So, if massive use of force fails, how is a big country, believing that its interests or moral duty compel it to intervene in the affairs of a small one, to do so successfully?

Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant 1966 film The Battle of Algiers spelled out the dilemma for the occupying colonial power. The FLN (National Liberation Front) uprising against French rule in Algeria started in 1954 with assassinations of policemen. The French at first responded with orthodox measures – more police, curfews, martial law, etc. – but the insurgency spread amid growing atrocities by both sides.

In 1957, the French sent in paratroopers. Their commander in the film, Colonel Mathieu (based on General Jacques Massu), explained the logic of the situation from the French point of view. The way to crack the insurgency was not to antagonize the people with oppressive, but “useless” measures; it was to take out the FLN’s command structure. Eliminate that and the result would be a leaderless mass.

This required the use of torture to identify and locate the leaders, followed by their capture or assassination. Torture was illegal, but, as the Colonel explained, “If you want France to stay, you must accept the consequences.”

Colonel Mathieu is the unsung hero of current counter-insurgency orthodoxy, which requires a minimum military presence in the target country, mainly of intelligence agencies like the CIA and “special forces.” Through “rendition,” a captured suspect can be handed over to a friendly government to be tortured, and, on the basis of the information thus gathered, “kill lists” can be compiled.

The killing of Osama bin Laden last year required an actual hit squad to verify its success, but normally assassinations can be left to drones – unmanned aircraft, mainly used for surveillance, but which can be armed with computer-guided missiles. Not surprisingly, the US is the leading developer and user of drones, with a fleet of 7,500. An estimated 3,000 drone killings have taken place, mostly in Pakistan, but also in Yemen and Somalia.

The other half of the counter-insurgency strategy is to win the “hearts and minds” of populations that are susceptible to terrorist propaganda. The Americans did this in Vietnam by pouring in consumer goods and building up infrastructure. They are doing the same in Iraq and Afghanistan. The civilian side of “nation building,” it is reckoned, will be made easier by the absence of a heavy-handed foreign military presence.

Trying to win hearts and minds is certainly an improvement over bombing or shooting up the local population. But the new way of conducting “asymmetrical warfare” does raise uncomfortable ethical and legal issues. The United Nations Convention on Torture explicitly forbids “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment,” so their use must be denied. Also, assassination by drones inevitably leads to the killing of innocent civilians – the very crime that defines terrorism.

Even putting aside moral and legal questions – which one should never do – it is doubtful whether the strategy of torture and assassination can achieve its pacifying purpose. It repeats the mistake made in 1957 by Massu, who assumed that he faced a cohesive organization with a single command structure. Relative calm was restored to Algiers for a couple of years after his arrival, but then the insurgency broke out again with redoubled strength, and the French had to leave the country in 1962.

Today, the international community similarly misconceives the nature of the “war” that it is fighting. There is no single worldwide terrorist organization with a single head. Insofar as Al Qaeda still exists at all, it is a Hydra that sprouts new heads as fast as the old ones are cut off. Trying to win “hearts and minds” with Western goods simply corrupts, and thus discredits, the governments established by those intervening. It happened in Vietnam, and it is happening now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We are being driven slowly but ineluctably to the realization that the people whom we are fighting will, to a significant extent, inherit the shattered countries that we leave behind. They are fighting, after all, for their peoples’ right to (mis)manage their affairs in their own way. Blame the French Revolution for having bequeathed to us the idea that self-government is always better than good government.

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  1. CommentedPartha Sarkar

    “So, if massive use of force fails, how is a big country, believing that its interests or moral duty compel it to intervene in the affairs of a small one, to do so successfully?”

    This statement represents the fundamental misunderstanding that most learned foreign policy and international relations experts have. USA and NATO affiliated countries and their people think of primary collective identity in terms of “Nationalism” or belonging to a Nation. Whereas strangely enough, for a lot of different parts of the world, this same primary collective identity is not offered through belonging to a Geographical territory such as a Nation but more on belonging to a Religion or Ethnicity.

    Thus the same war even if fought Guerrilla style would have some factions of the populace considering it as an attack on an ethnicity or religion and would have repercussions outside of that country. However such an approach would have lesser collateral damage because the other alternative of conducting full scale war will leave the region in a state where it has to build a governance structure from scratch. Thus any political entity vying for power will pander to such public sentiment and use that as a device for power grab. “Winning the hearts approach” which is the second half of the Guerrilla strategy requires very clear understanding and long term foreign policy planning from the ruling governments. However most of these political entities have already shown their enormous inaptitude in such matters.

  2. CommentedStefan S

    The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost America more than $1.3 trillion so far. A trillion is 1000 billions, or a million millions.

    If America had concentrated on energy independence immediately after 9/11, she could have spent this money instead building more than 600,000 1.5 megawatt wind turbines (these cost about $2 million each). That would have averaged 12,000 wind turbines for each of her 50 states. A wind turbine produces enough electricity to supply about 1000 households. So America could have provided new electrical generation for about 12 million households, perhaps 1/6th of her population, without future fuel costs.

    Instead of ignoring her puny antagonists and accelerating ahead in the cultural competition by creating thousands of new jobs in a new enterprise sector, America declared war on these little people, succeeding only in making more of them her enemy while greatly wasting lives, national consciousness, and time.

    Is it any wonder her economy collapsed in 2008, resulting in a sudden loss of about $13 trillion in private wealth? Worse than a failure of arithmetic, this was due to a failure of imagination.

  3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    There is simply no solution for today's geopolitical problems with conventional means, let it be direct killing, drone killing, or by "winning the minds and hearts" as it is done today.
    In this polarized, fragmented world the globe is full of flash points where there is simply no reasonable solution that would satisfy all those involved, any solution would simply push aside, sweep under the carpet the simmering hate and discontent that would break out with 100% certainty later.
    We can look at the Middle East, the Far East, India and Pakistan, major parts of Africa, even Europe where the wounds and hard feelings of repeated wars and changing borders are still very much alive. And new antagonism, conflict is born each day.
    There is only one solution.
    People can only start accepting each other above the unsolvable present conflicts, arguments if these conflicts arguments become meaningless, irrelevant. This can only happen when we all understand that we live in such a global, interconnected and interdependent world where each element fully depends on the other for its survival, where each individual and nation is simply like a cell, organ in a single living body, or as a cogwheel in a machine that can only work if all the cogwheels function optimally.
    This is not a utopia, we already have ample amount of evidence from quantum physics to biology, from economics to sociology, from politics to psychology to confirm that today's human network and the natural environment around is simply an interconnected ecosystem, a living system that is fully interdependent and which needs all of its part, nothing is obsolete or coincidental.
    On the other hand the daily events of the global economic crisis and the near war situations at multiple locations show us that the present polarized, fragmented, self centered thinking takes us to the brink of self destruction.
    We are at crossroads and we have to make a decision.
    It is not about big countries, or small countries, big wars or small wars. It is about the survival of humanity as we know it.

      CommentedNorm Bennett

      Thank you Zsolt for your comment as it resonates in my own feelings.
      We humans always seem to go to extremes until we bounce off of one end and start to move towards the other end. In our world now it feels like we have moved completely to the hate end. I hope we now feel in our hearts that we must start to move towards the other end, towards Love.
      Science in recent years has found that bacteria and cancer cells have a communication network for the good of all the group. In cancer cells, they are not individual cells gone rampant and destroying everything around them but actual are a society. When medicine sends in the magic bullet of chemo therapy a few cancer cells recognize the threat and send a message to all cancer cells to go dormant. When the chemo has left the system another group of cells send a signal out to awaken thus mitigating the chemo's affect. Why would humans be any different? I truly hope that some of human society is sending out the signal to move from the state of hate before we destroy ourselves. If we can reach a feeling of how inter connected our society is and that we are dependent on each individual, group and nation for the good of all of us we will move to the other side away from hate.

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