Myth Telling

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 6 months ago

The Captain’s Journal will not endorse any particular political candidate for President, at least not during the primaries.  However, as absurd things come up in the context of the debates, we will address them.  One such absurd thing was promulgated by Ron Paul during the latest GOP debate.  It is a variant of one which I have addressed before in Attacking the Enemy’s Strategy in Iraq.  Kevin Drum sets out the scenario for us in his exercise in strategy-bashing.

I’ve mentioned a few times before that our “bottoms up” strategy of supporting Sunni tribes in the provinces surrounding Baghdad carries a number of risks. The biggest risk, I suppose, is that once the tribes finally feel safe from the threat of al-Qaeda in Iraq, they’ll relaunch their insurgency and start shooting at American soldiers again. The second biggest risk is that the Shiite central government understands perfectly well that “competing armed interest groups” in the provinces are — well, competing armed interest groups.

In response to Drum’s criticism of the strategy, I stated:

Having been militarily defeated by U.S. forces, we consider it to be unlikely that the Sunnis would take up the fight once again with the U.S.  More likely, however, is an escalation in the low intensity civil war that was ongoing for much of the previous two years.  This all makes it critical that political progress take root in the wake of the military successes.  But Kevin Drum’s concluding comment is absurd: ” … a year from now, if the Iraqi civil war is raging once again, this is where it will have started.”

Rather than an observation of the necessity for political progress, this statement follows the template of criticism set out by the left, and it has been followed with religious fervor.  Note carefully what Drum charges.  Rather than the seeds of violence being one thousand years of religious bigotry between Shi’a and Sunni, or recent history under Saddam’s rule, or the temptations of oil revenue in a land that has not ever seen the largesse of its natural resources due to corruption, the cause is said to be the “concerned local citizens” groups, i.e., U.S. strategy.

This outlandish claim betrays the presuppositions behind it – specifically, that it would be somehow better to continue the fighting than to, as they charge, buy peace with money.  But for the hundreds of thousands of disaffected Sunni workers who have no means to support their families, this criticism is impotent and offers no alternative to working for the insurgency to feed their children.  It ignores basic daily needs, and thus is a barren and unworkable view when considering the human condition.

So Drum’s charge is that if a large scale civil war emerges in Iraq, then the U.S. strategy is to blame.  Ron Paul offers a variant of this criticism.  It is that “we are arming the Sunnis,” and the Sunnis will then be able to carry on the fight against … perhaps the U.S., or perhaps the Shi’a … he didn’t say.  He just said that it isn’t over, something we can all observe for ourselves.

Regarding this charge of “arming the Sunnis,” Ron Paul ignores basic data that is quickly available to any motivated researcher.  I wouldn’t expect him to have recalled the long discussions I have had over this blog, or the Small Wars Journal folks had, over disarming the population as recommended by the Small Wars Manual.  Many observations emerged during this tête-à-tête, from the nation and population being too large for this solution to be effected, to it being culturally anathema, and so on.  But even if Paul is not a student of this blog or the Small Wars Manual, he can perform a Google search with relative ease, or so I assume.

There are too many hits in a Google search of this kind to mention, but just a few should suffice.  This Department of Defense article (and this one too), along with this Stars and Stripes article and this Telegraph article all go to remind us of what we have all known for four or more years.  The Multinational Force has continued to allow each home to have an AK-47 for self protection.  Arming the Sunnis is not something we did or had to do.  They were already armed.  This is how they carried on an insurgency since 2004.  The strategy had nothing to do with arming the Sunnis.  It pertained to settling differences with them, proving that the U.S. was the stronger tribe in Anbar, and in the end remembering that most of them never fought for religious reasons (as did al Qaeda and Ansar al Sunna).  This allowed the coalition to consider the issues of livelihood, income-earning, and support for families, basic anthropological issues that should be considered in any counterinsurgency.

But if Ron Paul has a childlike understanding of the issues, John Robb’s detailed understanding boggles the mind.  He charges the following:

The best explanation for the spike in violence between February 2006 and June 2007 is that the Askariya bombings initiated a process that was leading the conflict towards total war. Total war (Ludendorf) is a form of non-trinitarian conflict that ignores moral, political, cultural, etc rules in favor of complete mobilization to achieve total victory (global thermonuclear warfare is the ultimate example of total war). In Iraq, total war means religious cleansing via militias. Up until February 2006, Iraq was a limited conflict where US and Iraqi forces under strict modern rules of engagement, kept a lid on the scale of conflict (although they were unable to win). The Askariya bombing changed that dynamic. It so completely sundered the domestic social system in Iraq that the conflict lurched towards total war.

By early 2007, Sunni forces were suffering defeat after defeat as large Shiite militias violently cleansed towns and neighborhoods across Iraq (if measured in terms of Johnson’s coefficient, we would have seen a move towards 1.8, the coefficient of conventional warfare). This put the open source insurgency in a crisis. Sunni insurgents weren’t able to form the large local militias needed to defend themselves as long as they were in conflict with the US (these formations would be easy targets). The US military saw this opportunity and enabled the Sunnis for form local militias under the protection of the US (putting 60,000 on a US/Saudi payroll) as long as they sacrificed jihadi groups associated with al Qaeda. The US also began to target Shiite militias. The result was that the onrush to total war in Iraq was averted as the Sunnis began to develop conventional forces. The return to limited war also means that the open source insurgency can now thrive again.

Robb is a very smart analyst.  But his basic problem is one of presuppositions.  His axiomatic starting point is always that there is no solution to the problem of insurgency.  No counterinsurgency strategy can win, rather like the Kobayashi Maru.  But even a basic rendering of history proves this wrong.  The Romans successfully put down a Jewish insurgency for many years while occupying Jerusalem.  A more modern example is Vietnam.  The insurgency was basically defeated, and the South Vietnamese government fell only when NVA regulars came across the border en masse and the U.S. Congress cut funding for the war.

All of this isn’t to say that Iraq is a paradise right now.  The Sunni awakening leader Sheikh Ahmed Abu Reesha has said that the U.S. must stay in Iraq.

“Right now, any quick withdrawal will be disastrous because the Iraqi army is incapable of taking over,” Sheikh Ahmed said in an interview. “Any withdrawal must happen only when the Iraqi army is 100 percent ready to protect the country.

“The government and the country cannot afford to be without help from the Americans.”

Sheikh Ahmed took over as head of the Anbar Awakening in September after the murder of his celebrated brother Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha, the pioneer of the Sunni groups that switched allegiance from Al-Qaeda to US forces.

The movement has been a prime factor behind a sharp drop in violence across Anbar and especially in its capital Ramadi, which was reduced to ruins as US forces battled with Iraqi nationalists and tribes allied with Al-Qaeda.

Over the past year, attacks in Ramadi have dropped from 25-30 a day to fewer than one a week, and the numbers of roadside bombs have declined by 90 percent, according to latest US military figures.

Low grade or large scale civil war may indeed break out upon the decrease of U.S. forces, or in fact this may not happen.  If Robb is right about a return to an insurgency, he is so spuriously.  There is no necessity for this to happen, and since none of us can claim omniscience, we’ll wait on history to tell us whether Iraq will continue down the road to stability.  The point is that childlike objections like we are “arming the Sunnis,” and high-brow objections like Robb suggests are all variants of the same gripe.  In the end, they are just gripes; and myths die hard.

  • Brian H

    The spending on CLCs is, IMO, a many-birds success. It replaces, at much lower cost, repair of equipment and soldiers. It leverages forces to an amazing degree, allowing US forces to do all the really important stuff, both civil and military. And it EXPLICITLY works to cycle men through to either official positions in ISF or to productive civilian work in their own specialties.

    The BS-mongerers ignore all of that. And the Iraqi government’s fears are not just overblown but phantasmagorical. The CLCs are actually providing them with a golden opportunity to show it knows how to manage civil society and reconstruction. They seem to be almost too invested in sectarian one-upmanship to see or admit it.

    And they know they will be swept out like last week’s garbage in the next election. You’d think that would concentrate their minds. Maybe it will yet.


You are currently reading "Myth Telling", entry #896 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Counterinsurgency,Iraq and was published January 15th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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