Not Winning or Losing?

November, 2006

Al Globus

I just finished reading the classic “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice,” by David Galula. Published in 1964, it nevertheless succinctly explains why we're losing all four of the wars we are engaged in.

The short story: you win counterinsurgencies by gaining the support of the population. Lose their support and lose the war. Winning battles is necessary, killing insurgents is necessary, but they won't win the war. Interestingly, the new version of the U.S. Army's field manual comes to these same conclusions. The Bush administration is fixated on winning battles and killing insurgents, but does it in a way that alienates the Iraqis, the Afghanis, and world opinion. That's why we're losing.

In my last blog, A Tale of Four Wars, I noted that America, led by the Republican party, finds itself engaged in four wars:

  1. Against al Qaeda, declared by Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s.

  2. Against 'terror,' declared by Republican president George Bush in 2001.

  3. In Afghanistan, invaded by the U.S. in late 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks.

  4. In Iraq, initiated by Bush in 2003.

I noted that we aren't winning any of these. Galula's book convinced me that it's not that good, we're losing them. We are losing them because Bush and Co. don't understand the nature of the conflict. They think the military and secret prisons can win it. They are wrong. The military and CIA can help, but these wars can only be won with the support of the people, the kind of support we had just after 9/11 but which we have lost. We lost it by being a bully. In a hundred ways we pushed people around, alienated them, and acted as if our vast power gave us the right to abuse anyone we chose. Ignoring the ethical issues, this policy has failed to win. Rightly or wrongly, we will forgive our leaders their ethical lapses if they win, but not when they lose.

Perhaps the worst blunder of the Bush administration has been it's treatment of prisoners. Galula's book claims that to win, you must treat prisoners very well. In some cases, successful counter insurgents have actually released most prisoners after a couple of weeks of indoctrination, although this may not be the best approach for us now. Why does good treatment work? For a couple of reasons. First, many prisoners are innocent, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Few American soldiers know the local language or customs, so they inevitably arrest the wrong people. One military official estimates that 75% of the inmates at Guantanamo are completely innocent. If you abuse innocent people, they will become your enemy and, once released, will turn their friends and relatives against you. Second, if you treat guilty enemy captives well, this will become known. In combat, the first law of nearly everyone is to survive. If they know they will be well treated, they are much more likely to surrender. Even outside of combat, insurgents will be more likely to give themselves up or simply quit and go home. Finding and killing insurgents is very difficult. It's much easier to convince them to just walk away. Good treatment of prisoners is a key tool in this endeavour.

Wikipedia definition of torture: the infliction of severe physical or psychological pain .. as a tool for the extraction of information or confessions.

Perhaps most important disgust people feel is when they hear about prisoner abuse, and the information age everyone will hear about it. While the Bush administration repeatedly says the U.S. doesn't engage in torture, few believe it. Reading about what we've done to people: chaining them to the floor in 'stressful' position for hours while they soiled themselves, beating them, 'dunking' them in water (a.k.a. waterboarding, or simulated drowning), and reading the White House definition of torture (sufficient pain to simulate organ failure or death) makes me bitterly ashamed of my government. The affect on non-Americans can only be guessed, but I can imagine. No wonder we've lost the world's support.

Perhaps worse, torture doesn't work. It doesn't get you quality information. The victim will say anything, true or not, to end the pain. John McCain was tortured to reveal names, and he reputedly did: he named the offensive line of the Chicago Bears. Possibly not what his torturers had in mind. Torture can get confessions – any confession you like. It was a torture victim that, incorrectly, tied Saddam to al Qaeda.

Once I realized that these wars are a struggle for the support of the people, I suddenly understood that we've already lost in Iraq. We lost years ago. We lost when it became known that American soldiers were abusing prisoners at Abu Grab. While much of Iraq supported America just after the invasion, seeing their countrymen tortured and humiliated on TV has certainly ended that support (except in Kurdistan, which the U.S. never occupied). Worse, once the newspapers broke the Abu Grab story, a few low level guards got short prison sentences and the brass got off scott-free. The message was crystal clear and devastating to the war effort: America doesn't give a s—t about Iraqis.

The Bush administration is fighting these four wars in a manner that is guaranteed to end in defeat. We must change direction, and the sooner the better. We will pay a terrible price for our foolishness, and if we don't turn these wars around the cost will be catastrophic.