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The More Force You Use, the Less Effective You Are


Recently, the New York Times broke a story suggesting that the U.S. Army and the Marines were about to turn the conceptual tide of war in Iraq. The two services, reported correspondent Michael R. Gordon, “were finishing work on a new counterinsurgency doctrine” that would, according to retired Lt. Gen. Jack Keane, “change [the military's] entire culture as it transitions to irregular warfare.”

 

Such strategic eureka moments have been fairly common since the Bush administration invaded Iraq in March 2003, and this one — news coverage of it died away in less than a week — will probably drop into the dustbin of history along with other times when the tactical or strategic tide of war was supposed to change. These would include the November 2004 assault on the city of Falluja, various elections, the “standing up” of the Iraqi army, and the trench that, it was briefly reported, the Iraqis were planning to dig around their vast capital, Baghdad.

 

But this plan had one ingenious section, derived from an article by four military experts published in the quasi-official Military Review and entitled “The Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency.” The nine paradoxes the experts lay out are eye-catching, to say the least, and so make vivid reading; but they are more than so many titillating puzzles of counterinsurgency warfare. Each of them contains an implied criticism of American strategy in Iraq. Seen in this light, they become an instructive lesson from insiders in why the American presence in that country has been such a disaster, and why this (or any other) new counterinsurgency strategy has little chance of ameliorating it.

 

Paradox 1: The More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You Are

 

The military experts offer this explanation: “[The] counterinsurgent gains ultimate success by protecting the populace, not himself.” It may seem like a bland comment, but don’t be fooled. It conceals a devastating criticism of the cardinal principle of the American military in Iraq: that above all else they must minimize the risk to American troops by setting rules of engagement that essentially boil down to “shoot first, make excuses later.” Applications of this principle are found in the by-now familiar policies of annihilating any car that passes the restraint line at checkpoints (because it might be a car bomber); shooting at pedestrians who get in the path of any American convoy (because they might be trying to stop the vehicles to activate an ambush); and calling in artillery or air power against any house that might be an insurgent hiding place (because the insurgents might otherwise escape and/or snipe at an American patrol).

 

This “shoot first” policy has guaranteed that large numbers of civilians (including a remarkable number of children) have been killed, maimed, or left homeless. For most of us, killing this many innocent people would be reason enough to abandon a policy, but from a military point of view it is not in itself sufficient. These tactics only become anathema when you can no longer ignore the way they have made it ever more difficult for the occupying army to “maintain contact” with the local population in order “to obtain the intelligence to drive operations and to reinforce the connections with the people who establish legitimacy.”

 

Paradox 2: The More Force You Use, the Less Effective You Are

 

Times’ reporter Gordon summarizes the logic here nicely: “Substantial force increases the risk of collateral damage and mistakes, and increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda.” Considering the levels of devastation achieved in the Sunni city of Falluja (where 70% of structures were estimated to be damaged and close to 50% destroyed in the U.S. assault of November 2004) and in other Sunni cities (where whole neighborhoods have been devastated), or even in Shiite Najaf (where entire neighborhoods and major parts of its old city were destroyed in 2004), the word “substantial” has to be considered a euphemism. And the use of the word “propaganda” betrays the bias of the military authors, since many people would consider such levels of devastation a legitimate reason for joining groups that aim to expel the occupiers.

 

Here again, the striking logic of the American military is at work. These levels of destruction are not, in themselves, considered a problem — at least not until someone realizes that they are facilitating recruitment by the opposition.

 

Paradox 3: The More Successful Counterinsurgency Is, the Less Force That Can Be Used and the More Risk That Must Be Accepted

 

Though not presented this way, this paradox is actually a direct criticism of the American military strategy in the months after the fall of the Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. In those early days, active resistance to the occupation was modest indeed, an average of only six violent engagements each day (compared to 90 three years later.) But American military policy in the country was still based on overwhelming force. American commanders sought to deter a larger insurgency by ferociously repressing any signs of resistance. This strategy included house-to-house searches witnessed by embedded reporter Nir Rosen and described in his vivid book, In the Belly of the Green Bird. These missions, repeated hundreds of times each day across Iraq, included home invasions of suspected insurgents, brutal treatment of their families and often their property, and the indefinite detention of men found in just about any house searched, even when U.S. troops knew that their intelligence was unreliable. Relatively peaceful demonstrations were forcibly suppressed, most agonizingly when, in late April 2003, American troops killed 13 demonstrators in Falluja who were demanding that the U.S. military vacate a school commandeered as a local headquarters. This incident became a cause célèbre around which Fallujans organized themselves into a central role in the insurgency that soon was born.

 

The new counterinsurgency strategy acknowledges that the very idea of overwhelming demonstrations of force producing respectful obedience has backfired, producing instead an explosion of rebellion. And now that a significant majority of Iraqis are determined to expel the Americans, promises of more humane treatment next time will not get the genie of the insurgency back in the bottle.

 

Paradox 4: Sometimes Doing Nothing Is the Best Reaction

 

This paradox is, in fact, a criticism of another cardinal principle of the occupation: the application of overwhelming force in order to teach insurgents (and prospective insurgents) that opposition of any sort will not be tolerated and, in any case, is hopeless. A typical illustration of this principle in practice was a January 2006 U.S. military report that went in part: “An unmanned U.S. drone detected three men digging a hole in a road in the area. Insurgents regularly bury bombs along roads in the area to target U.S. or Iraqi convoys. The three men were tracked to a building, which U.S. forces then hit with precision-guided munitions.” As it turned out, the attack killed 12 members of a family living in that house, severely damaged six neighboring houses, and consolidated local opposition to the American presence.

 

This example (multiplied many times over) makes it clear why, in so many instances over these last years, doing nothing might have been better: fewer enemies in the “hood.” But the developers of the new military strategy have a more cold-blooded view of the issue, preferring to characterize the principle in this way: “If a careful analysis of the effects of a response reveals that more negatives than positives might result, soldiers should consider an alternative.” That is, while this incident might well be an example of a time when “doing nothing is the best reaction,” the multiple civilian deaths that resulted could, under at least some circumstances, be outweighed by the “positives.” Take, for a counter example, the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia, in an air strike that also caused multiple civilian deaths.

 

Paradox 5: The Best Weapons for Counterinsurgency Do Not Shoot

 

The Times’ Gordon offers the following translation of this paradox: “Often dollars and ballots have more impact than bombs and bullets.” Given the $18 billion U.S. reconstruction budget for Iraq and the three well-attended elections since January 2005, it might seem that, in this one area, Bush administration efforts actually anticipated the new counterinsurgency doctrine.

 

But in their original article the military strategists were actually far more precise in describing what they meant by this — and that precision makes it clear how far from effective American “reconstruction” was. Money and elections, they claim, are not enough: “Lasting victory will come from a vibrant economy, political participation and restored hope.” As it happened, the American officials responsible for Iraq policy were only willing to deliver that vibrant economy, along with political participation and restored hope, under quite precise and narrow conditions that suited the larger fantasies of the Bush administration. Iraq’s new government was to be an American ally, hostile to that axis-of-evil regional power Iran, and it was to embrace the “opening” of the Iraqi economy to American multinationals. Given Iraqi realities and this hopeless list of priorities (or inside-the-Beltway day-dreams), it is not surprising that the country’s economy has sunk ever deeper into depression, that elected officials have neither the power nor the inclination to deliver on their campaign promises, and that the principle hopes of the majority of Iraqis are focused on the departure of American troops because of, as one pollster concluded, “the American failure to do basically anything for Iraqis.”

 

Paradox 6: The Host Nation Doing Something Tolerably Is Sometimes Better Than Our Doing It Well

 

Here is a paradoxical principle that the occupation has sought to apply fully. The presidential slogan, “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” has been an expression of Bush administration determination to transfer the front-line struggle against the insurgents — the patrols, the convoys, the home invasions, any house-to-house fighting — to Iraqi units, even if their job performance proved even less than “tolerable” compared to the rigorous execution of American troops.

 

It is this effort that has also proved the administration’s most consistent and glaring failure. In a country where 80% of the people want the Americans to leave, it is very difficult to find soldiers willing to fight against the insurgents who are seeking to expel them. This was evident when the first group of American-trained soldiers and police deserted the field of battle during the fights for Falluja, Najaf, Mosul, and Tal Afar back in 2004. This led eventually to the current American strategy of using Shia soldiers against Sunni insurgents, and utilizing Kurds against both Shia and Sunni rebels. (Sunnis, by and large, have refused to fight with the Americans.) This policy, in turn, has contributed substantially to the still-escalating sectarian violence within Iraq.

 

Even today, after the infusion of enormous amounts of money and years of effort, a substantial proportion of newly recruited soldiers desert or mutiny when faced with the prospect of fighting against anti-American insurgents. According to Solomon Moore and Louise Roug of the Los Angeles Times, in Anbar province, the scene of the heaviest fighting, “half the Iraqi soldiers are on leave at any given time, and many don’t return to duty. In May, desertion rates in some Iraqi units reached 40%.” In September, fully three-quarters of the 4,000 Iraqi troops ordered to Baghdad to help in the American operation to reclaim the capital and suppress internecine violence there, refused deployment. American officials told the LA Times that such refusals were based on an unwillingness to fight outside their home regions and a reluctance to “be thrust into uncomfortable sectarian confrontations.”

 

As the failed attempts to “stand up” Iraqi forces suggest, the goal of getting Iraqis to fight “tolerably” well depends upon giving them a reason to fight that they actually support. As long as Iraqis are asked to fight on the side of occupation troops whose presence they despise, we cannot expect the quality of their performance to be “tolerable” from the Bush Administration point of view.

 

Paradox 7: If a Tactic Works This Week, It Will Not Work Next Week; If It Works in This Province, It Will Not Work in the Next

 

The clearest expression of this principle lies in the history of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the anti-occupation weapon of choice among Iraqi resistance fighters. Throughout the war, the occupation military has conducted hundreds of armed patrols each week designed to capture suspected insurgents through house-to-house searches. The insurgency, in turn, has focused on deterring and derailing these patrols, using sniper attacks, rocket propelled grenades, and IEDs. At first, sniper attacks were the favored weapon of the insurgents, but the typical American response — artillery and air attacks — proved effective enough to set them looking for other ways to respond. IEDs then gained in popularity, since they could be detonated from a relatively safe distance. When the Americans developed devices to detect the electronic detonators, the insurgents developed a variety of non-electronic trigger devices. When the Americans upgraded their armor to resist the typical IED, the insurgents developed “shaped” charges that could pierce American armor.

 

And so it goes in all aspects of the war. Each move by one side triggers a response by the other. The military experts developing the new strategy can point to this dilemma, but they cannot solve it. The underlying problem for the American military is that the resistance has already reached the sort of critical mass that ensures an endless back-and-forth tactical battle.

 

One solution not under consideration might work very well: abandoning the military patrols themselves. But such a tactic would also require abandoning counterinsurgency and ultimately leaving Iraq.

 

Paradox 8: Tactical Success Guarantees Nothing

 

This point is summarized by Gordon of the Times this way: “[M]ilitary actions by themselves cannot achieve success.” But this is the smallest part of the paradox. It is true enough that the insurgency in Iraq hopes to win “politically,” by waiting for the American people to force our government to withdraw, or for the cost of the war to outweigh its potential benefits, or for world pressure to make the war diplomatically unviable.

 

But there is a much more encompassing element to this dictum: that guerrilla fighters do not expect to win any military battles with the occupation. In the military strategists’ article, they quote an interchange between American Colonel Harry Summers and his North Vietnamese counterpart after the U.S. had withdrawn from Vietnam. When Summers said, “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” his adversary replied, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

 

A tactical victory occurs when the enemy is killed or retreats, leaving the battlefield to the victor. In guerrilla war, therefore, the guerrillas never win since they always melt away and leave their adversary in charge.

 

But in Iraq, as in other successful guerrilla wars, the occupation army cannot remain indefinitely at the scene of its tactical victories — in each community, town, or city that it conquers. It must move on to quell the rebellion elsewhere. And when it does, if the guerrillas have successfully melted away, they will reoccupy the community, town, or city, thus winning a strategic victory and ruling the local area until their next tactical defeat.

 

If they keep this up long enough and do it in enough places, they will eventually make the war too costly to pursue — and thus conceivably win the war without winning a battle.

 

Paradox 9: Most of the Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals

 

Because guerrilla war is decentralized, with local bands deciding where to place IEDs, when to use snipers, and which patrols or bases to attack, the struggle in different communities, provinces, or regions takes very different forms. Many insurgents in Falluja chose to stand and fight, while those in Tal Afar, near the Syrian border, decided to evacuate the city with its civilian population when the American military approached in strength. In Shia areas, members of Muktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army chose to join the local police and turn it to their purposes; but Sunni insurgents have tried, instead, to disarm the local police and then disband the force. In every city and town, the strategy of the resistance has been different.

 

The latest American military strategists are arguing that what they call the “mosaic nature of an insurgency” implies the necessity of giving autonomy to local American commanders to “adapt as quickly as the insurgents.” But such decentralization cannot work if the local population supports the insurgent goal of expelling the occupiers. Given autonomy under such circumstances, lower level U.S. military officers may decide that annihilating a home suspected of sheltering an insurgent is indeed counterproductive; such decisions, however, humane, would now come far too late to convince a local population that it should abandon its support of a campaign seen as essential to national independence.

 

There may have been a time, back when the invasion began, that the U.S. could have adopted a strategy that would have made it welcome — for a time, anyway — in Iraq. Such a strategy, as the military theorists flatly state, would have had to deliver a “vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope.” Instead, the occupation delivered economic stagnation or degradation, a powerless government, and the promise of endless violence. Given this reality, no new military strategy — however humane, canny, or well designed — could reverse the occupation’s terminal unpopularity. Only a U.S. departure might do that.

 

Paradoxically, the policies these military strategists are now trying to reform have ensured that, however much most Iraqis may want such a departure, it would be, at best, bittersweet. The legacy of sectarian violence and the near-irreversible destruction wrought by the American presence make it unlikely that they would have the time or inclination to take much satisfaction in the end of the American occupation.

 

 

Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, as well as on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on numerous internet sites including Tomdispatch.com, Asia Times, Mother Jones.com, and ZNet; and in print in Contexts, Against the Current, and Z Magazine. His books include Radical Protest and Social Structure, and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). His email address is [email protected]

 

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]

 

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