Saturday, January 20, 2007

50 years on from the Battle of Algiers, the "Battle of Baghdad"?

Charlie Rose put on his first program on counterinsurgency (that I know of) tonight, with Alastair Horne, author of the classic text on the French experience in Algeria, "A Savage Peace".

Alastair listed five similarities that he sees with the effort in Iraq:

  1. US is fighting with a regular army
  2. There are porous borders
  3. Insurgents targeting local police, judges, administration
  4. Torture
  5. Difficulty to extricate [took DeGaulle 4 years]

My comments are as follows:

  1. The army has changed, I believe, at the fighting level. They are ahead of the pundits on what needs to be done, in my estimation.

    What has not occurred is broad changes in incentives and commitment that is needed at the most senior levels, like longer tours of duty (especially for advisers), revamping of financial/career incentives in the officer corps, and true co-integration of effort (i.e. bring civilians outside the chain into the 'circle of classified secrecy'). I'm at a great distance from these issues, but that is how the field looks from afar.

  2. There are hundreds of people in Iraq without jobs. Everyone has their own gun. Why not send them to do border security and kill two birds with one stone? They don't even have to do a great job, but many willing workers will at least have an income and a respectable position.

    The problem here, as viewed from afar, is that the US never saw itself in Iraq for a long period, and therefore did not take the long-term issues of border security upon itself.

    What's more, it is not clear how much of the border insecurity is a problem and how much is positioning related to whose fault the violence is attributed.

    Last, census and other methods are ways to forestall the impact of loose borders. There are smugglers that handle the borders, too. It's not clear that they cannot be co-opted or whether it has been tried.

    The Saudis are building fence to help close their border, physically. The Syrians, despite their bad press, have had a closed border with Iraq for a long, long time (at one point, they even allowed their border to be violated as the US chased, in hot pursuit, what turned out to be gas-smugglers). The Iranian borders in the South ... I don't know enough about.

  3. This is very, very grave and few early on understood the importance of it (did Rumsfeld, et. al?). Even today, many seem to think it is just one issue among many, but it is not. Charlie Rose himself skips over it, even though his second guest, former Head of Research for the Iraqi National Museum, points out the consequences, softly and plainly.

  4. This is a truly a problem, because the domestic politics of the war have been badly handled, in part. The conception of the war as the US bringing something, rather than enabling a chance for something, has permeated enough to have deleterious effects (or, as Noah Feldman wrote, the risks of old school patrician attitudes toward nation building).

    The original mission to "set the conditions for democracy to emerge" was open-ended and, as we can plainly see, a political, not primarily military endeavor. Both the politics and the military have had setbacks, even failure, and there is no domestic consensus about how to re-set, if at all.

    With luck, this consensus will emerge if enough people start to get behind a proper conceptualization of the Iraqi effort and start to manage the politics of it properly.

    The idea that only "success" will dispel the critics is more bad planning, as seductive as that may be. For what the Army is calling the "Long War", we have to transition from notions of "control", fantasies about the "glory" of America, and the promise of Victory, and settle in to a quiet, steadfast, abiding confidence in process.

Just to close, I'll add that the sectarian violence in Baghdad may not have the same motivations as an Algerian-style insurgency. Therefore, at least on that score, the "Battle for Baghdad" is quite unlike counterinsurgency, although it might be linked to it in important ways.

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