Winning Small Wars

Mitch Berg has a must-read post on learning the right lessons from the war in Iraq, specifically why Iraq is not an “unwinnable” conflict. He notes:

I remember the NARN’s interview with Steven Vincent, the freelance journalist who made such a name for himself covering Iraq, alone and without a net (and was eventually murdered on his second tour in the country, by criminals in Basra). In our final interview with him – the last interview he gave before leaving for Iraq the second time – we talked about the differences between the approach in the American and British-controlled regions of Iraq. The American zone was, true to “Neocon” dogma, taking the all-or-nothing route; full civil democracy, the whole enchilada, immediately. The British, drawing on centuries of experience ruling huge swathes of the world and immense native populations with a tiny military and civil servant cadre, had a different approach. They made deals with unsavory people to observe, rat out and countervail other unsavory people. They co-opted one group of thugs to smack down another group of thugs. They used, even exploited, criminal disorder to their larger goal – keeping relative order in their sector. Until recently, it worked -very arguably (Vincent was murdered in Basra, along with many other people, after all). They also kept their troops out among the Iraqis of the region, intermingling, buying their supplies locally, walking around without helmets or body armor (unless events demanded them) – and until recently, when the Brits announced their intention to start withdrawing, Basra was relatively peaceful compared to the miasma of Baghdad and Anbar.

They’ve done this – winning “unwinnable” counterinsurgency wars – before. In India from the 1600s through WWII, in the pre-Revolutionary American west, and South Africa in 1900, in Borneo and Malaysia and Aden and Oman in the sixties and seventies, the Brits learned the blocking and tackling of winning insurgencies: isolate the insurgents from the locals by being among the locals, by winning civilian hearts and minds, by co-opting other elements of the local society against the insurgents (including cultivating “friendly”, if often conventionally-unsavory, warlords, in the hopes of taming them when the crisis wanes – as, indeed, they did), and, when and if needed, following the isolated insurgent into the wilderness and hunting him down and killing him, using the minimal British force possible (and relying heavily on the locals to do the dirty work; British history is crowded with colorful characters who went overseas and “went native” leading indigenous troops in the service of the King; the British special forces, the SAS and SBS, are directly descended from such characters).

Berg is right, and our recent successes in Iraq have come precisely because we’re applying a new model to the conflict. Again, for all the talk about how there’s been no “change in course” in Iraq, the reality has been quite different: we’ve significantly changed course in Iraq under Gen. Petraeus, and that change in course has produced measurable, demonstrable results. We’re applying the tactics that worked in Tel Afar under the 101st Airborne to the Baghdad area, and that’s producing an area that’s not only free of terrorists — but is likely to stay free of terrorists.

In al-Anbar, we’re working with groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades against al-Qaeda. Now the 1920 Revolution Brigades is a terrorist organization. No doubt some of the people we’re working with now were shooting and killing American soldiers as early as a few months ago. Yet as Mitch points out, that’s what we need to be doing. An erstwhile ally is better than a group like al-Qaeda, and the reality is that many of these groups are fighting for the same thing we are: an Iraq free of al-Qaeda and Shi’ite death squads.

The simple fact is that the stakes in Iraq are too high not to learn the painful lessons we’re learning now. Every future conflict in which this country will be engaged in the next century will look much like Iraq. Learning how to fight these wars is as important now as learning how to stop a Soviet tank push down the Fulda Gap was 50 years ago. We can either learn these lessons in iraq, or we can learn them later — and the next conflict might be one that was less about our choice and more about being drawn into something that had already become an abject nightmare.

The problem with the anti-war arguments is that most people who are on the anti-war side don’t know anything about military history. It’s rarely taught, and even educated people don’t have a clue about how a military fights and wins wars. Yet in order for someone to have an educated stand in Iraq, one has to study similar conflicts in the past and understand what works and what does not. To simply declare Iraq “unwinnable” is to give up not just on Iraq, but on being able to fight in the 21st Century. If such wars are “unwinnable,” then the 21st Century will eclipse the 20th as the bloodiest century in human history. As Satayana wrote, those who fail to learn history are damned to repeat it. Those who keep learning the wrong lessons are simply damned.

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