Although we already know what President Obama is going to be selling this Tuesday – a radical escalation of the Afghan war involving 30,000 or more troops – we don’t yet know what his sales pitch will be like. Can the peerless rhetorician apply his skills to the task of mobilizing a war-weary nation around yet another military conflict in the Middle East?
I have no doubt Obama is up to the task in a way his predecessor never was or could be. The language of "liberation" employed by George W. Bush’s speechwriters was too hard-edged and ideological for Americans to appreciate. This could be because those speeches were mostly written by neoconservatives, whose appeals on behalf of a U.S.-led "global democratic revolution" sounded as if they were addressed to a Russian audience, circa 1917, rather than to Americans of any era.
The Bush speechwriters had basically two tropes when it came to foreign policy: fear and hubris. Obama’s wordsmiths no doubt have a broader range of arguments and may prove more skillful at selling them to their restive base: e.g., the "you break it you own it" theory of altruistic imperialism, which contends that the evil Bush administration’s sins must be expiated in the task of nation-building because we owe that much to the Afghan people. This is the position, as I understand it, taken by Code Pink, the pro-Obama "antiwar" group that was dead set against the occupation of Iraq but is currently having second thoughts about opposing what is now Obama’s war in Afghanistan.
Expect a good portion of the "progressive" Left to take up this battle cry. Mixed in with feminist rhetoric – Laura Bush was very good at that sort of thing – this is a variation on the "humanitarian" interventionist angle, with a strong dash of political correctness thrown in for good measure. We must "save" Afghan women from the tyranny of their own culture. Intertwined with this theme of moral and cultural uplift is the new military doctrine [.pdf] recently adopted by the American high command, otherwise known as COIN.
In a world where the American empire faces increasing challenges, including but not limited to the worldwide Islamist insurgency mounted by al-Qaeda, the emphasis is off of fighting a conventional war. The U.S., as the world’s sole remaining superpower, faces no serious rivals for world hegemony, or so the conventional wisdom goes. The new focus is on fighting local insurgencies, i.e., putting down rebellions on the far frontiers of the Empire.
Adopting the Maoist dictum that securing victory in a "people’s war" is 80 percent political and only 20 percent military, the new COIN doctrine is the War Party’s instruction manual for victory in the "long war," and its origins are instructive. This doctrine was first promulgated by the French army officer David Galula, who based his military theories on his own experience in trying to crush the Algerian independence movement. While the brutality of French tactics in that war belie Galula’s own Mao-like insistence on the primacy of politics over military action, his 1964 guide to counter-revolutionary strategy and tactics, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, is a veritable owner’s manual for colonial powers who find themselves besieged by ungrateful natives.
Galula divides insurgencies into two categories, "hot" and "cold." The latter is defined as any anti-colonialist movement whose activities are "on the whole legal and nonviolent." This presents the occupying power with a special problem, to which Galula provides some possible solutions:
1. "Act directly" on the insurgent leaders, i.e., jail the opposition and otherwise "limit" their activities. In the case of the French in Algeria, this often involved summary execution. The replication of the French example, however, is not always possible or advisable. As one summary of Galula’s thesis put it, outright repression should only be attempted "when the insurgent’s cause is not popular, the counterinsurgent has the legal authority to act, and significant publicity of such action can be prevented."
2. Act indirectly on the conditions that feed the insurgency. If it is possible to co-opt the insurgency by adopting some or all of its goals, then by all means the occupiers should do so. But this assumes an honest assessment of the insurgents’ objectives and motivation, which may be lacking in the current case.
According to the official narrative, poverty, ignorance, and isolation from modernity are the reasons for the stubborn refusal of the Afghan people to support their American and NATO liberators. The solution, by this administration’s lights, is to construct what has never really existed in Afghanistan: a unified, modern nation-state. Building "infrastructure," it seems, is the liberal-progressive answer to humanity’s problems worldwide, and in Afghanistan, too, where roads, hospitals, schools, networks of mass communication, and the very fabric of modernity itself must be built from the ground up.
The sheer arrogance of American policymakers and military theoreticians blocks them from recognizing the simple reality of the insurgents’ motivation, which is nothing more nor less than aversion to the conditions of military occupation. Short of withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, there is no way to satisfy the central demand of the Afghan insurgents – who resist the American-NATO occupation not because they are ignorant savages who hate us for our freedoms, but because they seek their own version of freedom – which, understandably, does not involve kowtowing to an American viceroy.
The nation-building program advanced by advocates of COIN – one leading enthusiast exulted that COIN has the potential to "change entire societies" – is derived from Galula’s third option: building a "political machine" to rival the insurgency for the affections of the people. In the case of Afghanistan, however, this "machine" is oiled by drug money and lorded over by the Karzai brothers, whose names are veritable bywords for corruption in the region.
The fourth method of combating an insurgency is infiltration, but there is little hope of accomplishing that. Indeed, the great problem in building up a government in Afghanistan is that the Taliban and their sympathizers are likely to take it over from within.
The central premise of the Galula doctrine is protecting the population from the violence of the insurgents and winning them over in the process. Toward this end, he set down eight steps to the crushing of an insurgency.
The first two – send in troops in sufficient numbers to annihilate or drive out the main body of insurgents, and reinforce these with enough to keep the enemy from returning – are what’s behind Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s call for 40,000 more troops. The stage is then set for implementing the next two steps in the Galula handbook, which involves sending these soldiers into the villages and hamlets of Afghanistan to live side-by-side with the people, thus presumably gaining their confidence – or, maybe, setting up isolated garrisons of U.S. troops to be picked off one-by-one. The goal of these garrisons, according to the grand master of COIN theory, is to "establish contact with the population and control its movements in order to cut off its links with the guerrillas" (emphasis added). In short, we must copy Israeli tactics in the occupied territories, or lockdown in a federal penitentiary. Once we have the population locked down tight enough, we must:
"Destroy the local insurgent political organizations, set up, by means of elections, new provisional local authorities, and test these authorities by assigning them various concrete tasks. Replace the softs and the incompetents, give full support of the active leaders. Organize self-defense units. Group and educate the leaders in a national political movement."
Victory occurs when we "win over or suppress the last insurgent remnants."
In Algeria, a theater in which the war tactics recommended by Galula were carried out – in certain instances, by him personally – the French record was of brutality unmitigated by either decency or common sense. In order to cut the links between the insurgents and the populace, a large-scale resettlement program was carried out, leading to the massive disruption of Algerian society (and ultimately backfiring on the colonialists). Are we prepared to do this in Afghanistan?
Galula’s prescription for waging a successful counterinsurgency campaign was meant as practical advice for a decaying empire on how to shore up its crumbling defenses. France had just given up one of the last of its colonial outposts, in Indochina, making way for the Americans, and was stubbornly determined to hold on to Algeria, which was formally considered a department of France proper.
The massive repression practiced by the French and their colonists, the Pieds-Noirs, including periodic massacres of Muslim villages, was only partially successful, and the Algerians eventually won their independence. The military narrative, however, has it that the French won a military victory and could have retained their renegade province if only Paris had the requisite political will.
An American version of the same narrative informs a certain view of the Vietnam War, where – or so the legend goes – once again defeatist politicians got in the way of a military leadership that was on the verge of defeating the enemy. Obama is deathly afraid of being characterized in this way by Republicans – and pro-war Democrats – and this underlies much of the rhetoric about Afghanistan being a "war of necessity," i.e., a political necessity.
The truth, however, is that the Vietnam War was always a losing proposition, as was the Algerian conflict. Absent massive repression, the peoples of those nations would never have consented to "pacification" by the West, and it is useless to pretend otherwise. At the core of COIN theory is a valuable insight, first put forward by Étienne de La Boétie, in his classic The Politics of Obedience: the rulers of a country must, to some significant degree, win the voluntary consent of the ruled.
However, it should be clear that winning "hearts and minds" is incompatible with invading and occupying a foreign country, no matter how ostensibly benevolent one’s motives may be. Assuming our unwillingness to utilize more extreme methods of "pacification," such as those engaged in by Monsieur Galula and his confreres in Algeria, the advantages enjoyed by rebels in asymmetrical warfare – especially when it is waged on their home turf – may be impossible to overcome. In which case, the Afghan war is an exercise in futility.