Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Eating Soup with a Knife
Eating soup with a knife. That's how the legendary Colonel T.E. Lawrence (yes, "of Arabia") described the challenge facing conventional armies in fighting insurgents. Lawrence ought to have known. He led a highly successful Arab insurgency against the Turkish Ottomans who ruled the Middle East until the end of WWI.
Western nations have been struggling with insurgencies for the better part of two millenia. Roman emperor Hadrian crushed the 'Caledonians' of present day Scotland in a fixed battle perfectly suited to his Legions. When it was over, however, the survivors melted away into the hills and came back at the Romans with an insurgency. Eventually Hadrian threw in the towel and built a massive, stone wall from sea to sea that severed Scotland from Britain. You've heard of it, Hadrian's Wall.
Not every battle nor every conquest of a people led to an insurgency. Sometimes there was some political accommodation that smoothed things out. Sometimes the victor just put the losers to the sword, using unrestrained brutality to crush out any idea of insurgency. The first is the diplomatic solution, the second is the military solution.
Today we haven't got the stomach for putting entire peoples to the sword (we're supposed to be 'saving' them after all) and, without that option, we've had a tough time defeating insurgencies with military force. There have been some successes, or at least one: Malaya.
Post-WWII Malaya was beset by a Maoist-insurgency which was eventually defeated by the British. They had a couple of advantages, however. The insurgents were ethnic Chinese, not Malays. They were identifiable and lacked the support of the Malay majority. That left the British with the task of relocating half a million ethnic Chinese to secure camps which enabled them to sever the guerrillas' base of support. After that, British forces used their military superiority to drive the insurgents into the swamps where they pretty much ended their days. Game, set and match.
The Malayan counter-insurgency is an exception because rarely, if ever, are the same advantageous circumstances present. It's not fair to say the Brits got lucky but they did make the utmost of every advantage that fell their way.
Which brings us to Afghanistan:
You've got a bunch of Christian white people in a Muslim, South Asian country. That means we're the ones who stand out. We have an alien culture, an alien language, an alien religion, even alien weapons and equipment and we want to bring them a totally alien political concept, secular democracy.
We're there to prop up a civilian government that never really took hold, on anything remotely approaching a national scale, and which has already succumbed to corruption and weakness. The government hasn't delivered anything for its people and they are already turning their backs on it. Now they're facing the other direction, directly toward the insurgency.
We're up against an insurgency that is well-schooled in guerrilla warfare. Remember what they did to the Soviets or to the British a century before that? If you don't, you can guess. Most NATO members don't really have any experience in this stuff. We take our cues from the Americans and you might ask yourself when they last defeated an insurgency? Maybe it's the blind leading the blind.
Even we don't believe we're there for the ten or twenty years it can take to exhaust an insurgency. The guerrillas will be there forever.
We're trying to dominate a vast territory with piddling numbers of 'boots on the ground.' With all the disadvantages confronting us, we still want to do this on the cheap.
We're even doing things to lose the "hearts and minds" of the local populations. We're not providing them security which leaves them at the mercy of the Taliban. We can't give them security because we don't have nearly enough soldiers to realistically pacify (occupy) any significant amount of territory. Because we don't control the countryside we can't give the people essential services such as water and electricity. They are left to fend for themselves and they bloody well know it.
We go into their poppy fields and destroy their livelihood. Having taken the food out of their families' mouths, we don't give them some alternative means of survival, we just leave. That's all right, the Taliban will give them a helping hand.
What I've described here is just a glimpse at this awful mess. Sorry people, we're just not going to win this one. Support the troops, get'em home.