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Fighting Clever

Friday, May 29, 2009

Thomas E. Ricks. The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006–2008. Penguin Press. 394 pages. $27.95

David Loyn. Butcher and Bolt: Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan. Hutchinson. 351 pages. £18.99

The u.s. military is a conservative institution, as Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl reminds us in his instant classic Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife from 2002. Set up like General Motors in the 1950s, with ample layers of middle management, its specialty is conventional wars against conventional forces, which it fights very well. The American way of war emphasizes mass and maneuver, exploiting the nation’s superior technology and firepower: It aims to engage and destroy the enemy’s main body at the earliest possible moment. Their job done, the troops are brought home for a well deserved victory parade. This approach, prescribed by Antoine-Henri Jomini back in Napoleon’s day, worked like a charm against conventional forces in World War II. It worked in the Gulf War, and it seemed to work in the first phrase of the war in Iraq, where fast maneuvering U.S. forces sliced straight through Iraqi defenses. Speed did indeed kill, as Tommy Franks and Donald Rumsfeld said it would. At first, that is.

But it did not work in the second part of the Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein’s army simply melted away and the war turned into insurgency. It did not work in Somalia. And it certainly did not work in Vietnam.

According to Nagl, the tricky bit in counterinsurgency wars is one of finding your enemy: He does not wear a uniform, he does not hold ground, he strikes from the shadows and vanishes. Guerrilla fighters are “like fish swimming in the water of the population,” in Mao’s phrase. Flushing them out requires separating the fish from the water. To do this you need to win the loyalty of the population: Burning the village to save it is not conducive to good relations with the locals; neither are random bombings. In short, relying on the indiscriminate use of firepower is counterproductive.

Ever since the defeat in Vietnam, the U.S. military has had a revulsion against small wars. They are drawn out and hard to fight, they demoralize the troops, and they create fierce domestic opposition. As Nagl notes, rather than paying attention to the lessons of the defeat in Vietnam, the army allowed collective amnesia to set in. The preferred attitude, as expressed in Colonel Harry Summers’s influential On Strategy, was to blame the civilian leadership for having forced the army to fight the war with one hand tied behind its back, and not allowing it to bring its full power to bear on the source of the problem, North Vietnam.

This mindset was reinforced by the Powell Doctrine, which attached so many conditions to the use of military power that it pretty much ruled out war as a tool of foreign policy in Third World conflicts, which presumably was Powell’s point.

The trouble with this is that most of the wars the U.S. is likely to be involved in the future will be small wars in unpleasant locations. This certainly applies to the ones it is fighting at the moment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Operating in this kind of environment does indeed evoke the T.E. Lawrence image adopted by Nagl in his book title: “To make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife,” Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The sickening feeling that the U.S. was about to lose another war in Iraq, where each year saw increased rates of violence, prompted a small group of outsiders to press for a rapid rethink of U.S. strategy, thereby bypassing the system. How this was achieved is told in Thomas E. Ricks’s riveting The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006–2008. The book covers some of the same ground as Bob Woodward’s The War Within, but does so from the army’s angle rather than the White House’s.

In military affairs, Ricks notes, the hardest thing for a general to achieve is turning strategic defeat around. In 2007, Petraeus managed to do that in Iraq: “This is an extraordinary accomplishment — typically, once one loses the strategic initiative in war, it is difficult, if not impossible, to regain it,” he writes. And in the process, Petraeus reformed the way the army does business. “It is rare for a single person to have as dramatic effect as Petraeus did on how a large institution operates, and especially on how the US. Army wages war.”

The godfather behind the surge in Iraq and the rise of David Petraeus is retired General Jack Keane. Appalled by the confusion and uncertainty of the top U.S. military leadership about how to handle the situation, Keane in 2006 appealed directly to the White House for a change in game plan. A rapid influx of American troops was needed to stabilize the country, he warned, or else the situation would deteriorate into full-fledged civil war. In his calls for change, General Keane was in concert with Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and with General Ray Odierno, the deputy commander on the ground in Iraq, who desperately wanted an increase in troops, rather than the reduction and the quick handover to the Iraqis favored by his superior, General George Casey. Unwilling to return to active service himself, Keane recommended Petraeus as the man with the necessary stature to head the effort in Iraq.

Another figure who pops up regularly in Ricks’s pages is Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategy at Johns Hopkins. At a meeting in the White House in June 2006 with President Bush, Cohen argued that Lyndon Johnson’s failure in Vietnam lay not so much in his micromanagement of the conflict, but in his failure to knock heads together. Generals often disagree on strategy, which makes it imperative for the civilian leadership to bring these differences out in the open and choose among them.

For more than three years in the war in Iraq, Bush had made the same mistake as Johnson by not forcing his commanders into a critical review of the war effort. Instead, they were treated as if they were interchangeable clones, one as good as the next. “The current promotion system does not take into account actual effectiveness in insurgency. We need not great guys, but effective guys. Routine promotion and assignment in wartime is a disaster,” Cohen told his audience.

To remedy the situation, Cohen likewise pointed to David Petraeus, whose career he had followed since the mid-1980s.

As a result of these various efforts, Petraeus took over as commander in January 2007. By background — unlike previous commanders Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, who came from the heavy mechanized army, built for war in Europe — Petraeus was a light infantryman. This, notes Ricks, means something for an officer’s outlook, as it tends to make him rely less on technology to solve his problems. Petraeus was also an intellectual, holding a doctorate from Princeton in international relations.

Acutely aware of the need for a different tack in Iraq, as head of Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College, Petraeus had ordered up a new counterinsurgency manual for the Army and the Marine Corps. The idea of the manual was, in Petraeus’s words, to teach Army officers “how to think” rather than “what to think,” the latter usually being the preferred mode of Army publications. Fighting insurgencies successfully meant unlearning a lot of ingrown reflexes, chief among them the one that tells you to call in air support indiscriminately and just cream the bastards.

The manual, which came out in the winter of 2006, sees the support of the local population as the prize to be won in counterinsurgency wars. It sets out a number of paradoxes, one of which reads, “Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be,” i.e., if you isolate your forces in huge military bases, you are cutting yourself off from the population, which should be your best source of intelligence.  Another reads, “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it will be,” i.e., if, in the attempt to kill a few insurgents, you end up turning the whole village hostile, you have actually harmed the war effort. This attention to the “hearts and minds” aspect of war is very different from the one prevalent in Vietnam, where the adage was, “If you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

Thus in the first years in Iraq, the Army had been “more preoccupied with force protection than winning,” complains a captain quoted in the book. U.S. forces were stationed in forward operating bases, from which they would sally forth in humvees on patrol, exchange some fire with hostiles, and then return to the safety of the base. Frustration with having to retake the same land and the same neighborhoods again and again led to a drop in morale among the troops, whose sacrifices seemed pointless.

As commander, Petraeus immediately put an end to soldiers commuting to war. The troops were broken up into small teams to live among the population, patrol on foot, and take part in the rebuilding efforts. “Clear, hold, and build” had been Colonel H.R. McMaster’s motto in the city of Tal Afar, one of the few early successes of the war. Significantly, McMaster was author of Dereliction of Duty, an indictment of the military leadership during the Vietnam War.

This new strategy meant taking bigger risks and incurring higher casualties in the beginning, but these were expected to fall as the local population would start cooperating and supplying the Americans with intelligence. Petraeus also insisted that the Army cut out the happy talk and focus strictly on results: In the words of Lieutenant Colonel Suzanne Nielsen, “It really began to think about outcomes. Before that, it judged itself a lot by process and inputs,” often encouraging “mindless activity” and mistaking this for results. The change meant introducing new measurements of success: The old “body counts” approach of Vietnam was always a highly suspect indicator. A more reliable measurement of progress is a reduction in civilian casualties.

Thus, in true Clausewitzian tradition, which stresses the primacy of the political over the military, Petraeus insisted that the conflict could not be won by the military alone. In Vietnam, the U.S. Army had won every major battle it had participated in, and yet it still lost the war. The conflict was summed up by the famous postwar exchange between Colonel Summers and a North Vietnamese officer. “You know,” said Summers, “you never defeated us on the battlefield.” To which the North Vietnamese coolly shot back, “That may be so. It is also irrelevant.” Or as Petraeus’s manual puts it, “Tactical success guarantees nothing.” To win, all the efforts — the political, the diplomatic, and the economic — must be coordinated.

Most important, as commander, Petraeus quietly reduced expectations. The Bush administration’s dreams of turning Iraq into a democracy functioning as a beacon for the region were scaled back to more modest ambition of “sustainable security.” This meant working with the grain of the country rather than against it, engaging the country’s tribal structure in fighting al Qaeda. The new aim was to create structures with a measure of popular backing, rather than perfect Jeffersonian democracy.

The problem with too much democracy, too quickly introduced in politically immature Third World populations, is that it often leads to undesirable outcomes, as seen in Gaza and in Algeria, where elections had to be cancelled in the early 1990s because they would have brought the fundamentalists into power. In Iraq, elections actually helped harden sectarian positions. As Ricks notes, in changing policy, Petraeus may well have exceeded his authority. But since guidance was lacking from the top in Washington at the time, somebody needed to fill the vacuum and fast.

As a result of these policies, as predicted, after an initial spike of violence, both U.S. casualties and civilian Iraqi casualties dropped as the oil-spot concept of revived neighborhoods started to spread. Vital in this effort was the turning of Sunni insurgents, who had been killing American troops, and making them fight al Qaeda instead. By the end of Petraeus’s turn as commander, Iraq was a place of relative calm.

Before taking up the new position as head of Central Command in Tampa, responsible now for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Petraeus ran the Army’s selection board that picks new brigadier generals. Here he institutionalized his reforms by promoting to brigadiers clever colonels such as McMaster and Sean MacFarland, who have been successful in Iraq. This, Ricks acidly points out in the book, stands in marked contrast to the Washington tradition of rewarding failure, as in the case of Tommy Franks and Paul Bremer, who both received the Medal of Freedom, and in the Army’s own mindless promotion of generals who had only made matters worse in Iraq.

Petraeus also ensured continuity on Iraq by handing over to Odierno command of the U.S. forces there. Odierno started the war as a devotee of the clunky “mailed fist” approach to war, but came to realize it didn’t work. Odierno represents that rare phenomenon, a person who learns from his mistakes and adapts to changing circumstances.

While acknowledging the need for the U.S. to stay on in Iraq, Ricks stresses the tenuousness of what has been achieved. Though security has improved in the country, the political reconciliation has not taken place under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi politicians still seem wedded to the old ways of thinking, with the Shiite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr foreseeing 2 million dead in the eventual showdown. The national Iraqi police force is mistrusted for being simply Shiite militia in uniform; this was amply demonstrated in an incident, mentioned in the book, in which Sunni police applications were returned on the pretext of not having used the correct ink color.

In allowing the Sunnis to field militias, Petraeus produced an armed and professionalized counterweight to the Shiite majority, which for the moment works with the Americans. But they can easily revert to their old hostile ways. It is like raising a crocodile, a Maliki cabinet minister has warned: “fine when it is a baby, but when it is big you cannot keep it in the house.” However, it is a hopeful sign that Maliki took on his fellow Shiites in Basra and Mosul, though he did need to have the American contribution spelled out afterwards.

The greatest danger in Iraq is that President Obama’s insistence on a drawdown may threaten Odierno’s stated policy of never ceding territory once it has been gained: If Odierno thought the Iraqis themselves could not hold it, the American units would simply stay. Demanding that a reduced American troop contingent take on the same amount of work may not be doable. One scare scenario, outlined in the book by an anonymous colonel, is that Muqtada al-Sadr will just bide his time and go on amassing weapons and infiltrating the Iraqi army and the police. And then, when American troops are down to sufficiently low levels, he will make his move, trusting that the U.S. is too exhausted to undertake a new buildup.

The attention has now shifted to Afghanistan, which has descended into the worst state of turmoil since the victory of the Northern Alliance in 2001 and has to be handled without risking the gains made in Iraq. Many of the same methods applied in Iraq will be used, with the emphasis placed on reducing civilian casualties. But a core tenet in counterinsurgency doctrine is that no two nations are alike, and that each country requires its own solutions. Afghanistan is both bigger and poorer than Iraq; where Iraq has three main opposing groups, Sunnis and Shiites and the Kurds in the North, in Afghanistan a host of different groups and warlords exists. Iraq has what might pass for an educated middle class; half the population of Afghanistan is below the age of fourteen.

A somber reminder of the extent of the challenge in Afghanistan comes in bbc reporter David Loyn’s Butcher and Bolt (U.S. publication is set for October), a lucid review of two centuries of foreign involvement that has given the country its reputation as “the graveyard of empires.” The book resonates with constant and unpleasant echoes: As a local ruler once menacingly asked a British envoy, “You have brought an army onto the country. But how do you propose to take it out?”

A common theme runs through the book: The futility and short-sightedness of such outside attempts to impose solutions on Afghanistan without regard for local conditions. Writes Loyn, “This is a country with strong centrifugal forces where loyalty is always given to individual local commanders and not to the state, although all tended to unite against outsiders.” The only period of relative stability the country has experienced was the 40-year-reign of Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan who was deposed in 1973.

The natives’ extraordinary capacity for cruelty and treachery has been a constant source of amazement to foreign observers. Lord Curzon wrote in 1895, “At Chitral I fraternized with fratricides, parricides, murderers, adulterers and sodomites. . . . I start tomorrow for Kabul where a female donkey is the object of favorite solicitude.” Another visitor had noted, “They quarrel for an insignificant thing, and kill each other for a trifling offence. . . . They cut off a man’s head with as much indifference as we cut a radish.” As Loyn notes, this is a country that requires a special word for revenge between cousins.

The British involvement in Afghanistan started in 1808 with the visit to Peshawar by a political officer, Mountstuart Elphinstone. With the British government fearing a combined French-Russian thrust towards India, he had been sent to negotiate a pact with the amir, Shah Shuja, that would commit the king to attack Persia if Napoleon’s troops should arrive. During the negotiations, Elphinstone observed that the king’s advisers had a somewhat hazy notion of the outside world, one of them believing that Calcutta was in England. He also observed that the king’s authority “did not even extend as far as the royal stables”: The camels that had carried Elphinstone’s gifts for his Royal Highness were lifted by the king’s servants.

With Napoleon’s defeat, Russia became the main threat to British interests in India. In 1838, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, saw Afghanistan as “the best rampart India could have” and proposed sending an army to remove a troublesome leader, Dost Mohammed, and install a more pliable man. The victor at Waterloo, the old Duke of Wellington, firmly opposed the move: “In Afghanistan a small army would be annihilated and a large one starved.” His words proved prophetic. After a prolonged siege of the cantonment in Kabul, during which the envoy Sir William Macnaghten was killed and dismembered and his head put on show in a horse’s nose bag at the bazaar, the British garrison was forced to retreat in January 1842, constantly attacked and reduced in numbers.

The book’s illustrations include W.B. Wollen’s painting of the heroic last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamack, with Captain Souter wrapped in the Union Jack, and Lady Elizabeth Butler’s Remnants of an Army, which shows a bleeding Dr. William Brydon  arriving at Jalabad on his wounded pony, having miraculously managed to escape. The Afghans produced an “artwork” of their own in the Khyber Pass: They carefully arranged the skeletons of the British fallen in obscene poses as a warning to foreigners — an early instance of an installation.

An Army of Retribution was dispatched to punish Kabul. It blew up the city’s bazaar, but withdrew later that year, allowing Dost Mohammed to reclaim his throne. Her Majesty’s government concluded that “the people of these countries are far from ripe for the introduction of our highly refined system of government or of society.”

Chastened, Britain chose to embark upon a policy of “masterful inactivity,” as advocated by the viceroy of India, John Lawrence, who in his much quoted memo of 1867 warned that “to try to control such a people is to court misfortune and calamity. The Afghan will bear poverty, insecurity of life: but he will not tolerate foreign rule. The moment he has a chance, he will rebel.” And in 1873, the British signed a treaty with the Russians, making the country a buffer state.

Round two in what was known as “The Great Game” was triggered when the Russians, fired by renewed ambitions for southward expansion, sent a mission to Kabul, a clear breach of the agreement. In London, this gave the advocates of the so-called “Forward Policy” the upper hand when the Tories under Benjamin Disraeli took power. An expeditionary force was dispatched in 1878 to secure control of the vital mountain passes, including the Khyber.

In a repeat of events of the first war, the Afghans killed the British envoy, Sir Louis-Napoleon Cavagnari, and burned down the mission in Kabul. A punitive force was dispatched, commanded by General Frederick Roberts, who won a major set battle in 1879 on the Charasiab Ridge, killing warriors by the hundreds. Accordingly, the Afghans switched to guerrilla tactics, designed to wear out the British, who ended up controlling only the ground they stood on.

Disraeli’s successor as prime minster, the liberal William Gladstone, who came into office in 1880, had run on a platform of high-minded principle, acknowledging “the rights of the savage,” and accused Roberts’s army of atrocities. Gladstone ended the “Forward Policy.” Roberts himself had had enough: “I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us.”

But throughout the period of British rule in India, British troops continued to engage in punitive raids against the border tribes of Waziristan, who were protecting jihadis operating out of training camps in Afghanistan, and against Hindustani fanatics in the Swat Valley, as in 1897 where a force commanded by the splendidly named Sir Bindon Blood marched through torching villages and crops.

The practice was known as butcher and bolt, hence the book’s title; but the problem of such efforts, in the words of Colonel Thomas Holdich, a cartographer, who had helped draw up the border, was ever the same: “the extreme difficulty in administering a satisfactory thrashing to a mountain-bred people who have an ever open door behind them.”

In the modern part of the story, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan a century later proved as frustrating as that of the British. The Soviets came in 1979 with 80,000 troops to supplant one puppet tyrant of theirs, Hafizullah Amin, with another, Babrak Karmal, and to fight a growing Islamist insurgency, upset by the communist stance on women’s education and headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Massoud.

For the next 20 years, the Red Army’s recipe was one of butcher and butcher some more, its forces eventually numbering 130,000 soldiers. Among its advantages, Loyn numbers a land border which made it easy to reinforce its troops and bring in fuel though pipelines, a strong secret police, and a willingness to cover the country with antipersonnel mines. Its most feared weapon was the heavily armored Hind helicopter, and in 1985, the Soviets came close to having the mujahideen licked.

As a battlefield game changer, the American Stinger missile, introduced in 1986 and channeled through Pakistan, allowed the mujahideen to shoot down the hated Hinds, thus forcing helicopter pilots to fly so high that Soviet ground troops scathingly referred to them as “cosmonauts.” In retelling the part played by Congressman Charlie Wilson, Loyn indulges in a bit of reflexive anti-Americanism. His disdain for Wilson, described as a “fun loving buffoon,” is enormous, and he particularly obsesses about Wilson’s mistresses. As a congressman, Wilson may have had his flaws, but his efforts were deadly effective in defeating the Soviets.

Similarly, Loyn quotes with apparent disapproval former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s comment: “What was more important in the world view of history? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” It turned out to be more than a few, but Brzezinski’s statement still holds true. The Soviet system was an abomination, the removal of which was worth the subsequent turmoil.

After the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, the man they had left in place, the secret police chief Najibullah, managed to hang on for a few years before he was tortured and killed. In the murderous battle for Kabul that ensued, the forces of Hekmatyar and Massoud went at each other with heavy weapons amidst the civilians, reducing much of the city to dust; Hekmatyar himself took to feeding his enemies to the lion in the city’s zoo. Fierce fighting also occurred in others part of the country such as Kandahar, “culminating in a tank battle in the streets between two commanders who both wanted to have sex with the same boy.”

Frustrated by its man Hekmatyar’s inability to gain the upper hand, Pakistan switched its support to the Taliban, a movement it had created for use in its conflict with India over Kashmir, and many of whose members were Afghan orphans educated in its madrassas. The Taliban warriors took Kabul in 1996, engaging in an orgy of stoning, amputations, and hangings from tank barrels in their zeal to control morality. They also allowed Osama bin Laden to stay in the country. The result we know only too well.

As may be surmised, Loyn is pessimistic about the chances of the Western allies of prevailing in asymmetrical warfare in Afghanistan. He quotes Kipling’s lines from “Arithmetic on the Frontier” when a colonial officer, representing “Two thousand pounds of education/ Drops to a ten rupee jezail,” the jezail being the long matchlock rifle still used by the locals in Kipling’s day. In the long run, what Kipling calls “the cheaper man” is likely to win: “Strike hard who cares, shoot straight who can, the odds are on the cheaper man.”

Translated into today’s terms, Kipling’s frontier arithmetic asserts itself when the cost of removing a sniper from a tree in the estimate of a British officer can run into one million pounds when you include air cover and bombs, while terrorists managed to bring down the World Trade Center for less than $500,000 and some flying lessons in Florida.

As for the tactic of suicide bombing, which was rarely resorted to before but is now increasingly used in Afghanistan, rather than a final resort of desperation as portrayed by British officials, Loyn sees it as the logical answer to the allied strategy of getting close to the local population, which becomes hard when soldiers have to fear every civilian they meet as a potential bomb. Suicide bombers have even been used as artillery. In an attack on a prison in Kandahar in 2008, they were used to blow up the gates. Four hundred prisoners were freed.

Conditions in Pakistan, which has withdrawn its forces from northern Waziristan, and allows the Taliban to rule in the Swat Valley, only exacerbate the situation. The border is as porous as in the past: Insurgents who in the days of empire would escape Sir Bindon Blood’s forces by slipping into Afghanistan now evade nato forces by slipping into Pakistan. Back and forth it goes. And Loyn notes that there are some 1.5 million students in Pakistan’s madrassas, making them veritable factories of Taliban fanatics.

To this one can only respond that no sane person would want to be involved in places like Afghanistan and Iraq if he did not have to. But a policy of “masterly inactivity,” leaving the Afghans to their benighted medieval practices, though tempting to more cynical minds, is not a choice that is available to us. Almost all terror attacks since 9/11 originate from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, making this the front in the war against fundamentalist terror. An American defeat here would be an overwhelming propaganda victory for the Islamists.

Similarly, failure in Iraq would mean civil war, chaos, and a bigger regional war. We cannot just pull out of a region that is central to our economies. The stability of the Western democracy rests on access to oil. And it is not as if we are not paying for it.

The problem, as usual, is one of keeping the backing of the electorate. Insurgency wars are lost at home. The reason we lose them is that a small but influential part of society lacks the intestinal fortitude for this kind of fight. But in The Gamble, Ricks points out that the U.S. public will stick it out if they believe the United States is winning and that the sacrifices have a point. Here it may be advisable for policy makers to stress the element of self-interest a little more, as dispatching troops to die for Iraqi or Afghan democracy always sounded a little hollow. In order for these efforts to make sense, Americans need to know that we are in these areas primarily to protect our own way of life. That the locals will benefit is an added boon, but the main interest is our own.

It may also be advisable not to oversell the people we support, like some sort of Third World equivalent of the Founding Fathers. To survive in the murderous world of Third World politics requires rather different qualities. When our choices fall short of the buildup and prove themselves to be overly brutal or inept, we end up with egg on our faces. Yet the people we back must have a measure of popular support and be committed to transcending narrow religious and tribal interests, which both Maliki and Karzai have found hard to do.

Finally, patience is needed. As David Kilcullen says in The Gamble, “there has never been a successful counterinsurgency that took less than ten years.” To prevail, a long-term commitment is essential. Only by demonstrating staying power will we be able to convince the locals to throw in their lot with us. They are not suicidal. This is why the constant talk of deadlines and exit strategies is so harmful.