Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shadowland Replay from November 2003

Written about Iraq, relevant to Afghanistan:

Lessons of History

War can never be democratic. The danger of winning in Iraq could be losing in America

President Bush made one of his great speeches this week, calling for an end to despotism in the Arab world and preaching the values of democracy as the key to life, liberty and stability.

It's a vision that most Arabs would embrace. They're sick as hell of the repression, stagnation and tyranny the United States supported for so long just because certain rulers helped guarantee a reasonable price for oil, or fought communism in the 1980s, or fought Islamism in the 1990s or signed peace treaties with Israel. If the United States is truly making democracy its first priority, and putting all those other issues on the back burner, it could have the Arab masses firmly behind it.

But let's get real. The journey from despotism to democracy in the Middle East is going to take us down a bloody, thankless road and, the truth is, it's a trip that could put America's own democracy in danger.

Occupied Iraq is the critical test case. No need to recount once more all the delusions and illusions that led us into that mess. The position of the administration is now clear: we're not leaving until the country is up and running, with a constitution, elections and all the trappings of pluralism. No democracy, no exit.

But democracy doesn't beat an insurgency, which is what we're looking at right now. I've been covering guerrilla wars for almost 25 years, and in every case I've been convinced that the only way to defeat committed insurgents fighting on their home ground, in the short and medium term, is with ferocious, unrelenting repression. Afterward, compromise with the insurgents can help finish the job for good, and the democratic process can be part of that. But first: force.

This is one of the points the best-selling military historian John Keegan makes in his new book, "Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al Qaeda" (Knopf) His argument is that intelligence is helpful in any battle, but rarely decisive. "War ultimately is about doing, not thinking," he concludes. And what you do in war can never be called democratic.

The first insurgency I covered in detail was El Salvador in the early 1980s. Back then, it was conventional wisdom among liberals that the activities of right-wing death squads were not only morally repellent, they were counterproductive in the fight against communists. They supposedly drove people into the arms of the rebels. In fact, the death squads were morally repellent. The slaughter they carried out, murdering and torturing many more of the innocent than the guilty, was nauseating. But it was effective. The urban infrastructure of the Salvadoran rebels was virtually obliterated, preventing them from launching any effective uprising for years to come. Salvadoran democracy, such as it is, was built on the corpses of those killed by the death squads. The party that has held the presidency ever since that war ended was founded by the leader of the death squads.

Much is made of guerrilla ideologies--communist, or Islamist, or Baathist. But the driving force in most guerrilla movements is simply dignity. Throughout history, long before any "-isms" were known, men fought against conquerors and occupiers because they found the presence of the foreigners humiliating. They used any means at their disposal to strike back, and as often as not they were denounced by the occupiers as bandits, savages and, yes, terrorists for doing so.

You discover the same pattern repeated over and over again, literally for thousands of years, in Robert Asprey's "War in the Shadows," a two-volume history of guerrilla warfare that came out in 1975 and really ought to be reissued now.

You read about a general in an occupation force saying, "There is but one way of inducing the violent rebels to become our friends, and that is by convincing them it is in their best interest to do so"--a none-too-veiled threat. Another complains that "the violence and passions of these people are beyond every curb of religion, and Humanity, they are unbounded and every hour exhibit dreadful wanton mischiefs, murders and violence of every kind, unheard of before."

The sentiments are familiar enough in Iraq right now even if the syntax is not. But the officers quoted by Asprey were British--Lord Cornwallis and Brig. Gen. Charles O'Hara--writing about Francis Marion, "The Swamp Fox," and other guerrillas in the Carolinas during the American Revolution. Cornwallis shattered the conventional American Army in the South in less than an hour at the Battle of Camden, but he couldn't get rid of those guys in the South Carolina Low Country, who just wouldn't play by the rules. The political leadership back in London was balking at the cost. The local allies Cornwallis picked up started to desert him. He couldn't get the boots on the ground to do the job. And he just couldn't understand why he couldn't win.
Some readers will call this moral relativism (and they're welcome to expound on the subject at But it's really just a matter of learning from the past experience of guerrilla fighting, and of terrorism. There are few mysteries here, unless we refuse to read the history at all....(more)

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