Thursday, November 09, 2006

Can the US win wars of insurgency?

The short answer these days is probably no, at least, not like we choose to fight them now. We are fighting the insurgents on the ground, using a myriad of techniques: We attempt to kill the ones we can find with direct fire weapons manned by infantrymen. We try to build infrastructure to win civilians over to our side, and to quit supporting the insurgents. We train police to take over their own cities. We train soldiers to independently go out and kill the bad guys. We show great deference to the civilian courts system to establish the rule of law instead of the rule of the strongest man. We defer to local customs. We negotiate where we can. We buy off others when negotiation breaks down. We are trying many different thing, and many of them are working individually, and all together, the plan to defeat the insurgency is working, but (and this is the BIG BUT) the plan is working slowwwwwwwly.

The old saying was that “Speed kills,” but nowadays, when an American force is fighting an insurgency, the real killer is slowness. Lack of speed doesn’t kill the US soldiers doing the work, in fact, our death rate in Iraq over three years would have made the mothers of Europe and America during World War I weep with joy that so few had to be sacrificed. No, the slowness of the effort kills the will of America to continue to see and hear about American deaths on the TV news. It is not the expense of rebuilding Iraq, or the cost in ordnance to fight the war, it is the steady drip, drip, drip of lost US lives in the glare of television news that has doomed the current US counter insurgency doctrine. The US can go anywhere and do anything so long as what our forces are doing does not involve the loss of American lives or the gratuitous or wanton killing or humiliation.

Don’t believe me? Ask yourself, what are US forces doing in Bosnia 10 years on from the initial deployment? What are we doing in the Horn of Africa? What is the Navy doing about piracy and banditry in the Indian Ocean? We are aggressively rooting out terrorists and evildoers, but no one knows because there is not a newspaper that cares. Men die in these missions, “civilians” are killed, but there is nary of peep from the Human Rights Watch. But roust a family who is harboring terrorist weapons in Ramadi and accidentally unveil a woman, and the entire human rights establishment gets the vapors. Why do we hear about human rights “abuses” in Iraq but not a word about bandits in the Straits of Malacca? The answer? The Iraq theatre features safe press access to well-meaning Public Affairs Officers working hard to get out the “true” story, the press’ ability to quiz Iraqi men on the streets about their attitudes toward the US and the easy access to the morgue that allows the lazy reporter to count bodies that showed up over night and write an article about civilian casualties.

So what news viewers in America are faced with is a poisonous mixture of dead American soldiers who are killed while moving between places, seemingly for no reason, since no context is ever given, while civilian bodies pile up in the streets and Iraqis complain. Is it any wonder that the American people have lost patience with the War? If all I knew about the War was what I learned on some news show, I would be fed up too.

Instead, I hear about the legions of schools that are being built, all the children being educated, all the insurgents being hunted down and killed at a ratio of 10 –1 or better, about Iraqi army and police units becoming better trained and proud of their prowess. How every report ends with the hopeful assessment that while things can be up and down, it will work out with more TIME.

But TIME Magazine is working to make sure that time runs out on the Iraq project. Now why would they do that? Well, the body count stories are the easiest to write because it is pretty easy to walk down to the morgue and start counting. Some reporters are gutless, and don’t want to go outside the wire to report anything. Some are stupid and don’t realize how badly they are demoralizing their audience. Some are shrewd and know exactly how badly they are demoralizing their audience. These are just guesses, however as to the causes, but the effect could not be more clear: people fighting the war believe in it, people watching it on TV, don’t, and they just want it to end. So, these people elected the Democrats to help make that happen.
But I will amend that. People don’t care whether it ends or not, they just don’t want to look at it anymore. If people were subjected to stories about all the Marines killed in training accidents and car accidents, I think 70% of Americans would be against training and driving of Marines. But since the press is looking at Iraq, and presenting only one side of the story, the bad side, the dying side, people don’t want to look at it. Figure a way to get it off the TV, and people would no more care about the Iraq situation than they care about Bosnia or Mauritania. But getting Iraq off the TV seems as likely as getting the Israel conflict off the TV.

This brings me back to my original point that given the constraints we have now, we can’t win an insurgency like we are fighting it. Too much TV, distorting too much of the story, making it seem like it can all stop if we just leave them alone in their own country. That point of view may be foolish and shortsighted, but then again, what is most television programming if not foolish and shortsighted?
So what is the answer, if fighting the insurgency can’t be won this way because we don’t have the time. Check back for the next installment, and I will tell you.