Lessons on the Battlefield Need to Be Learned at a Higher Level

General David Petraeus, the former military commander of US forces in Iraq and author of the military’s most recent counterinsurgency manual, learned the lessons of the successful British counterinsurgency experience in Malaya in the 1950s. He was able to reduce the violence in Iraq by instituting a policy of US military restraint in that country.

Initially, the British military in Malaya and the US military in Iraq used aggressive combat techniques to kill as many insurgents as possible. But in both cases, new military commanders – British Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Templer and Petraeus – realized that excessive violence on the part of an occupying power merely drives the occupied country’s population into the hands of the insurgents. In counterinsurgency, rebels critically need the support of the population to supply them with food, supplies, and cover. In short, Templer and Petraeus realized that the key to success in wars against guerrillas was winning the hearts and minds of the people rather than killing insurgents.

If the principle that less (violence) is more (effective) holds on the counterinsurgency battlefield, why have US politicians of both parties and the national military leadership ignored this important principle when battling insurgencies and terrorism in a wider arena?

After the 9/11 attacks, instead of attempting to capture Osama bin Laden using intelligence and law enforcement resources, or kill him in the shadows using Special Forces troops, the Bush administration elected to invade Afghanistan and conduct a nation-building exercise that was far more expansive than just neutralizing al-Qaeda, which is now centered in Pakistan. As the Malay communists and Iraqi rebels – and really all insurgent and terrorists groups throughout history – have hoped for, al-Qaeda dreamt of a military overreaction by its more powerful adversary to help it score more recruits, money, and propaganda points. Because US intervention in Muslim lands was bin Laden’s original beef, and non-Muslim occupation of Islamic territory has stoked the fires of Islamist radicals for centuries, it seemed obvious that pursuing bin Laden after 9/11 would call for a light footprint in the Muslim world. Instead, not only did the Bush administration invade and occupy one Muslim nation, Afghanistan, but it gave bin Laden a bonus by making it a doubleheader – invading and occupying Iraq and initially using aggressive techniques.

The Islamist radical world then went wild and the number of worldwide terrorist incidents spiked. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001, the Taliban only became resurgent in 2005 – after the US augmented its occupation force. And now the US occupation has not only destabilized that nation, but also the more dangerous Pakistan – a nation with nuclear weapons. Also in Pakistan, in 2001, President Bush named Lashkar-e-Taiba – a group that had never focused its attacks on the US but recently attacked Mumbai, India – as a US-designated terrorist organization and asked then-Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf to break up the group. The group promptly reduced its attacks on India and transferred men to help the Taliban fight the US in Afghanistan.

Yet even after these fiascos, the story of bull-headed US failure to recognize the connection between more US force and undesirable violent blowback continues. In a recent speech at the US military academy at West Point, President George W. Bush defended his "offense is the best defense" strategy for fighting the "war on terror" and encouraged his successor to continue it.

Moreover, Somalia is about to be overrun by a radical Islamist threat that US actions essentially created. The Islamists in Somalia had little standing – the country’s population is generally made up of moderate Muslims – until the US started supporting violent, corrupt, and reviled warlords. As the Islamists grew in strength and took over Somalia in 2006, the United States then persuaded Ethiopia to invade the country. Once again, an Islamist movement has been radicalized and strengthened by the invasion of Muslim soil by a perceived non-Muslim nation and also by the feckless, weak, and intransigent transitional government that the US and occupying power have been supporting. Ethiopia will soon withdraw its troops, and the Islamists, this time on steroids, likely will soon take over. In this instance, much like the case of massive US aid to the militant Islamist resistance in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s, the United States, by its needless overseas meddling, has not only strengthened its enemies, it has created them in the first place.

But it gets better (actually worse). The US is likely to ignore all the lessons it should have learned and wade even deeper into the Somali quagmire. As luck would have it for the US government’s aggressive approach to terrorism, the deteriorating situation in Somalia has bred a new potential excuse for the US to get more greatly involved in yet a third quagmire. Pirates, acting on greed rather than Islamist theology, are increasingly preying on ships off the Somali coast. In continuing its failed "offense is the best defense" strategy, the Bush administration is circulating a draft United Nations resolution that speaks of authorizing "all necessary measures ashore in Somalia" to prevent piracy. Of course, like the US counter-drug mission in Colombia, which masks US support for the host government’s war against communist guerrillas, going after seaborne Somali pirates on land can be a cover for using US forces, including air power, to shore up a Somali government that would surely collapse after the Ethiopians leave.

Over the years, with the Bush administration being only the latest installment, the US government has continued to have a tin ear toward the counterproductive effect on US security of using frequent and excessive military force. One can only hope that Barack Obama will glean the lessons that Generals Templer and Petraeus leaned on the battlefield and adopt a policy of military restraint.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.