John Robb on Iraq and the Taliban Victory in Swat

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 6 months ago

For those who follow John Robb at Global Guerrillas, John turns our head with a couple of recent posts, and they are related (the mistaken narrative in the first informs the view in the second).  First, Robb conveys some strange musings on Iraq and the lack of applicability of our experience there to Afghanistan.

Perversely, the US military doesn’t see what happened in Iraq as luck.  Revisionist history is now attributing it to the successful application of COIN doctrine and secret weapons (arg!).  As a result of these assumption errors, it isn’t using the lull in the conflict as a window of opportunity to withdraw.  This would be the smart thing to do given the fiscal crunch in the US.

The second pertains to the Pakistan’s truce with the Taliban in Swat.

To the extent there is an upside,

  1. Open warfare will slow, curtailing the bad effects of a unpopular guerrilla war on Pakistan’s military.
  2. These groups can now be negotiated with, since it is likely that by giving these Islamic groups local control, it forces them into a position of defending gains.  They now have something to lose.
  3. Internal opposition will mount as these Islamic groups over reach with their application of Sharia.

Attaboy!  Only John Robb could find good in the settlement with the Taliban and bad in the success in Iraq.  Let’s unpack this a bit.  But stay tuned for some personal revelations on this ridiculous notion of luck (and maybe a bit more)!

First off, Robb assumes that the Taliban have no global interests and will negotiate in good faith.  The past three years in Pakistan have shown this to be a false axiom, and we have discussed this in our own articles.  Says Baitullah Mehsud,

“We want to eradicate Britain and America, and to shatter the arrogance and tyranny of the infidels. We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York, and London.”

The second point is just as important and related to both his comment on Swat and his view of the successes in Iraq.  It is absolutely critical to get the correct narrative on Iraq.  Without it the wrong lessons will be learned and thus will become institutional obstacles rather than tools.

The Captain is a Calvinist, and so to The Captain’s Journal, luck doesn’t exist.  But without a doubt The Captain’s Journal has many readers who do not see things through the lens of the Calvinian perspective.  But those who don’t can’t define luck in a philosophically defensible way.  Luck is something that is without power and lacking as a causative agent.  Luck doesn’t effect change or cause things to happen.  “Luck” is what people say when they haven’t thought clearly enough about it to say what really happened.  Luck is when people throw up their hands and refuse to think any further because they are mentally lazy or their system is philosophically bankrupt.

But Robb isn’t really lazy, and he doesn’t ascribe the success to something nonexistent.  He is just using the term loosely.  Writers and analysts shouldn’t do that.  Earlier in the article he summarizes what he believes happened in Iraq.

… a low level civil war that put two front pressure on guerrilla groups, a commander (Petaeus) that was able to abandon doctrine in favor of developments taking place on the ground (local commanders reporting that Sunni tribal groups were willing to work with the US), [creating] a crack in the Iraqi open source insurgency that enabled the US military to turn hundreds of guerrilla/tribal groups into US funded/armed militias.

It’s all about the tribes to Robb.  The tribes were a significant part of the turnaround in Anbar, to be sure, but without the proper context this narrative can be misleading.  As we have discussed before, Colonel MacFarland noted the state of the tribes upon his arrival to Anbar.

… the sheiks were sitting on the fence.

They were not sympathetic to al-Qaeda, but they tolerated its members, MacFarland says.

The sheiks’ outlook had been shaped by watching an earlier clash between Iraqi nationalists — primarily former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party — and hard-core al-Qaeda operatives who were a mix of foreign fighters and Iraqis. Al-Qaeda beat the nationalists. That rattled the sheiks.

“Al-Qaeda just mopped up the floor with those guys,” he says.

Similarly, Abu Ahmed in al Qaim, Iraq (the Western part of Anbar), lost to al Qaeda until the U.S. Marines joined the fight at his behest.  The tribe-only approach to the success in Iraq, or in other words, the either-or approach to the narrative, is flawed in that it fails to recognize the symbiotic connection between the indigenous and U.S. forces.  No one “reported” that the tribes were willing to work with the U.S. forces as if waiting for approval.  U.S. forces worked with tribal sheikhs from the beginning in Anbar, and this persistence it eventually paid off.  Rather than either-or, it was both-and.

With a foreign army (referring to al Qaeda) having invaded Anbar, the tribes needed another army to help drive it away.  Without a functional Iraqi army, they turned to the U.S. forces.  Similarly, the tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan will not be able to drive out the Taliban alone.  Force projection and strength are required.

This is the crucial point where Robb fails to grasp the fundamental nature of the problem with the Taliban and al Qaeda.  He reaches the stunning and inverted conclusion that having achieved victory is the only thing that will bring the Taliban to the bargaining table, and that the circumstances alone will defeat the insurgency.  This coheres with Robb’s usual position that insurgencies cannot be defeated.  Getting the narrative wrong is perilous, and lessons learned and applied can only redound to success when they are the right lessons.

Prior: The Anbar Narrative


You are currently reading "John Robb on Iraq and the Taliban Victory in Swat", entry #2292 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Tehrik-i-Taliban,The Anbar Narrative and was published March 1st, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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