Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Edward Luttwak's article on counterinsurgency in the February 2007 Harper's is now available online, Dead End. A large part of his argument is that nationalism, or in a less pleasant form, hatred of foreigners, is a powerful motivator for insurgent operations against foreign armies. In other words, a counterinsurgency by a native government can be successful where one directed by a foreign power can't.

This problem is painfully obvious in Iraq, though the same problem at a lower level of death and destruction faces NATO forces in Afghanistan. How anyone imagined such missions could be accomplished without large numbers of Arabic speakers (for Iraq) and Pashto and Dari and speakers for Afghanistan is mind-boggling to consider. Luttwak writes:
It is a sad story indeed when the astonishing linguistic incapacity of U.S. military forces and intelligence organizations is contrasted with the abundance of American civilians who speak all known foreign languages, and the brilliant record of foreign-language education in the U.S. Army and Navy, which used to produce as many good Chinese and Japanese speakers as they wanted by selecting for natural aptitude in the recruit pool, giving them a year of intensive courses (eight hours a day, six days a week), and quickly sending away those who failed to keep up with their classes. Nothing prevents the military from doing the same for Arabic, Persian and, say, Azeri now, except for an unwillingness to invest in the future, and probably a lack of disciplined volunteers willing to learn a language eight hours a day, six days a week, for a whole year or more.
Note that this is not primarily a problem of civilian interference or Presidential incompetence or lack of Will among the American public or any of the other alibis that the generals are already using to duck blame for their own failures in the Iraq War and Afghanistan. Prioritizing language instruction, at least for Arabic, is something that should have been obvious even as early as the Gulf War of 1991. It was obvious to military decision-makers by the end of 2003 latest that the occupation of Iraq was going to be a long haul. If they had started such year-long crash courses in Arabic even in 2004, they would have many more Arabic speakers available by now. The generals screwed that one up.

Luttwak also explains the limitations of the high-tech weapons and gadgets in fighting insurgents. This, by the way, is a feature of all wars. There's always some new techie device or super-duper new weapon that is going to change everything. The airplane, for example, was going to make war obsolete by creating such devastating destruction on the enemy that no one could consider having a war. Oddly enough, multiple experiments over decades and many wars don't seem to be able to wipe that particular fantasy aware from even otherwise reasonable minds. Luttwak writes:

Naturally, every form of technical intelligence and every possible sensor is being employed to supplant the lack of very elementary but indispensable human intelligence, including synthetic-aperture radars aboard big four-engine aircraft and the infrared and video sensors of the latest targeting pods on two-seat heavyweight jet fighters. The expense of these flights alone is huge, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars a month, but the results are very meager. The aim, of course, is to gather immediately actionable imagery, especially at night, showing such things as insurgents placing side bombs alongside U.S. patrol routes or approaching oil pipelines bearing explosives. Failing that, it is at least hoped that possible insurgent activities could be detected for further investigation; for example, people furtively bringing things to isolated buildings at night. But in practice, unless insurgents carry recognizable weapons, it is simply impossible to differentiate between them and innocent people going about their peaceful business. In the meantime, very elaborate equipment that is very costly to operate, and very effective in identifying armored vehicles, bunkers, missile launchers, and any other readily recognizable target of classic form, is still being employed every day in futile attempts to detect deliveries of a few dollars of food, or the emplacement of readily improvised explosive devices. This too is an aspect of the structural unsuitability of modern armed forces to fight elusive enemies that present no stable targets.
It's worth noting here that air power is being used for more than high-tech reconaissance. As Tom Engelhardt writes in Words to Die For 04/17/07:

Air power has long been the American way of war. In fact, the use of air power with all its indiscriminate terror has, in the last year, ratcheted up strikingly in Afghanistan and may now be in the process of doing the same in Iraq. (It's hard to tell without the necessary reporting.) Journalists in Baghdad evidently do not look up - and military press briefers don't point to the skies. We have, in fact, been bombing and missiling in heavily populated urban areas of Iraq throughout the occupation years. But no descriptive language has been developed that would capture in any significant way the loosing of the U.S. Air Force on either country; and so, in a sense, the regular (if, in Iraq, still limited) use of air power has next to no reality for Americans, even though Iraq's skies are filled with attack helicopters, jets, and drones. (my emphasis)
There are some problems in Luttwak's arguments. He seems to suggest toward the end that a longer-term commitment by the US to govern a conquered country like Iraq - conquered in conventional military terms, at least - would make a successful counterinsurgency effort more feasible.

And what would any article on counterinsurgency be without the inevitable Second World War reference? Luttwak has an uncomforable discussion about how Roman ruthlessness back in the old days and German reprisals in occupied territories during the Second World War were effective in maintaining control. He also says that this wouldn't work for the US because we wouldn't be willing to do such a thing.

Actually, the pacification of Fallujah just after the 2004 Presidential election was largely the Roman method. The city was evacuated and something like a third of the buildings in the city distroyed. The resistance remains active in Fallujah. And the air war referenced in the Tom Engelhardt quote above is also a kind of Terror in its old-fashioned sense from the French Revolution.

And a couple of thoughts about the German occupation example. In the east, i.e., central Europe and Russia, the Hitler government wasn't interested in having friendly cooperating governments. That territory was "Lebensraum" (living space) for the German people in Hitler's eyes. The supposed lesser peoples like the Slavs were to be enslaved and possibly eliminated. "Wining hearts and minds" over the long term was just not part of the plan.

I don't know enough specifics about the Third Reich's intentions for France to be able to judge that example that well. But in that case, as also on the eastern front, the partisan guerrilla forces were acting in very much a subordinate role to the conventional forces on the other side of the German lines behind which they found themselves. As long as there was any reasonable hope of a counteroffensive by their side's main forces, which was the case on both fronts even at the darkest moments for the Allies, the partisans could afford to limit their attacks in order to be of maximum use as an harassment force later on when the German position weakened. Luttwak is surely partly right in the argument that he makes here. But those German-occupation examples are really of limited value in determining what was effective in opposing insurgencies like the one in Iraq.

Finally, Luttwak opens his article by accepting what I think is a deeply flawed assumption about the American people's attitude toward casualties in war:

Modern armed forces continue to be structured for large-scale war, but advanced societies whose small families lack expendable children have a very low tolerance for casualties. Even supposedly warlike Americans [??? who besides Republican warmongers assumes that?] gravely count casualties in Iraq that in three years have yet to reach 3,000 — fewer than were lost in many a single day of battle in past wars. Fortunately, this refusal to spill the blood needed to fuel battles diminishes the likelihood that advanced societies will deliberately set out to fight one another (pas des enfants, pas des Suisses, pas de guerre) unless they are somehow able to convince themselves that a war could be entirely or very largely aerial and naval. Such wars, however, are difficult to imagine, except when islands are involved, as in a China-Taiwan war, which is very improbable for its own reasons. Air and naval forces can certainly be employed advantageously against any less advanced enemy incautious enough to rely on a conventional defense, conducted by regular forces, but in that context as well here must be severe doubts about the continued usefulness of the ground orces of advanced countries that are intolerant of casualties. It is easy enough to blockade the enemy, to successfully bomb all the right nodal points and shut down electrical, transportation, and communications networks. Air strikes can disable runways and destroy both sheltered and unsheltered aircraft, ballistic missiles, and nuclear installations. Air power can also sink warships, or rout any mechanized forces eployed in the open, as the United States did with Iraq in 1991 and partly in 2003, and as it could do with Iran. No real role would remain for ground forces except to dislodge the enemy from any territory he had occupied, or to occupy his own territory. That, however, is bound to cost casualties that might not be tolerated; it is also bound to provoke an insurgency. (my emphasis)
In my earlier comments on John Mueller's arguments about war and public opinion, I talked about my reservations on this widely-held assumptions. It seems to me that the example of the Second World War (there it is again!) shows that the public will support a long war with heavy casualties if they have good reason to believe that it's in the national interest. The Iraq War shows that the public can also reject a war that most people don't believe is vital to the US, even with relatively small death toll. (Although we should note that total casualty figures including both injuries and deaths are larger in relation to the Vietnam War than the death toll. More severely wounded soldiers are surviving longer thanks to better battlefield medical care and also the ability to airlift the wounded to top-quality military hospitals in Germany.)

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