Thursday, March 22, 2007

Drawing lessons from the Iraq War (2)

(cont. from previous post)
 The very disturbing trend in military thinking about counterinsurgency that I mentioned has to do with the notion that the most important thing in winning a counterinsurgency war - a war where Americans are fighting against nationalist insurgents in another country where most of the Americans don't even speak the language - is to have the political support of the American public.

In practice, this is only a small step away from assuming that it is the duty and the right and responsibility of the US military to propagandize the American public on behalf of the war supporters in the United States. And maybe not even a small step away from it in many cases.

Here are some quotes from Metz' paper on this topic:

The insurgents and their outside supporters probably assumed that American will could be shattered by terrorism — the "Black Hawk down" syndrome. (p. 19)
Metz does procede to say, "This proved wrong," in the particular context of August 2003. But he doesn't bother to explain why he thinks such an assumption was probable.

Gradually the insurgents settled on a four-part military strategy: causing steady U.S. casualties in order to sap American will, sabotage to prevent the return of normalcy, attacks on Iraqis supporting the new political order to deter further support, and occasional spectacular attacks and shows of force to retain the psychological initiative. (p. 20; my emphasis)
Whether accurate or not, this was the perception among the Iraqi population. And in counterinsurgency, perception matters more than reality. (p. 30; my emphasis)
Like Tet 1968 in Vietnam or the January 1981 national offensive of the Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberación Nacional (FMLN) in El Salvador, the Ramadan offensive [in 2003] tried to demonstrate the insurgency’s courage and power, expose the weakness of the Coalition and, galvanize public support. As in those earlier offensives, the insurgents suffered a tactical defeat but made psychological gains. U.S. Government assessments soon after the offensive provided a bleak picture, noting that a growing number of Iraqis believed the insurgents could defeat the United States.

While ebbs and flows are normal in counterinsurgency, the Bush administration could not take the continued support of the American public and the Congress for granted. Counterinsurgency seldom involves constant, demonstrable progress and quick resolution, but that was what the American public had come to expect of military operations after Operation DESERT STORM. In the decades after Vietnam, the public and Congress appeared to have forgotten what insurgency was like. The administration thus realized that it only had a limited period of time before public and congressional support eroded. The dilemma was whether to seek the quickest possible transfer of responsibility to Iraqi security forces, or a modulated pace of change that did not demand more of the new Iraqi forces than they could provide, thus maximizing the chances that Iraq would end up stable and democratic. Strategic failure, in other words, could come from two sources: the collapse of the new Iraqi government and security forces, or the collapse of American will. The Bush administration had to navigate a treacherous course between these dangers. (pp. 37-8; my emphasis)
Other observers talked of a “powerful, deeply symbolic myth” emerging from Fallujah. This was an important idea: myth creation is often the goal of major insurgent offensives. Insurgency, after all, is armed theater. ...

Ultimately, Fallujah did not have the impact of Tet or Dien Bien Phu but did increase sympathy for the insurgents, both within Iraq and elsewhere in the Islamic world. It also had a polarizing effect, eroding the number of neutrals among the Iraqi public and driving the majority into one camp or the other. Even in the United States, the furor of the April 2004 battles increased criticism of the counterinsurgency strategy and was the beginning of a long decline in public and congressional support for American involvement. As always, trends and expectations were central in the evolution of the insurgency. Politically and psychologically at least, Fallujah was an insurgent victory, creating a sense among the insurgents and their supporters that victory was possible, and raising the idea within the United States that defeat could happen. (p. 44; my emphasis)
Fourth forces in insurgency were unarmed nonstate organizations which affected the conduct and outcome of the conflict. They include international organizations, nongovernmental organizations involved in relief and reconstruction, private voluntary organizations, the international media, and international finance and business (which influence the conflict by deciding to invest or not invest in the country). Both third and fourth forces played a central role in Iraq: al Jazeera and other Arab and Iranian broadcasting organizations played a major role in shaping public opinion in Iraq, in the region, and in other parts of the world. But neither the U.S. military nor CPA had effective programs to deal with them. Doctrine offered little guidance on how to do so.(p. 47; my emphasis)
Moreover, contemporary insurgencies, particularly "Iraqi model" ones, are even more adept than their forebears at manipulating the psychological effects of violence. Many of the armed actions of Cold War era insurgencies took place in isolated areas, so the psychological and political impact was limited to audiences in the immediate vicinity. Now with the Internet, satellite television networks, and cheap digital video cameras, the audience for insurgent violence is immediate and extensive. Even more than in the past, contemporary insurgency is "armed theater." In addition, modern insurgency is shaped by the role of third and fourth forces. In Iraq, for instance, criminal gangs have worked with the insurgents on kidnappings, killings, and sabotage. Sectarian militias and death squads shape the conflict. The international media — whether intentionally or not — amplify insurgent psychological operations. But American counterinsurgency strategy and doctrine have not addressed the important role of third and fourth forces. It does not indicate how to think about them or what to do with them. (pp. 77-8; my emphasis)
We will hear much, much more about this whole notion of a failure of Will on the part of the wimpy American public over the Iraq War. The temptation for military officers to embrace the notion that public opinion can be controlled with the proper censorship and propaganda seems to be almost overwhelming.

For here, I'll just say some mistaken assumptions are being made about this and bad "lessons" drawn, even among many military analysts and the officer corps. This is bound to cause problems in the future. Certainly it's possible to make realistic assumptions about US public opinion when it comes to wars. But this theme of the public Will is already strong enough that people who don't like being bamboozled should put on their critical-thinking hats immediately whenever the topic comes up in this context. Particularly if the military-theory phrase "center of gravity" is associated with it.

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