Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Of History and Counterinsurgency

Nothing much has been going on as of late (even the Onion seems to agree). More of the same has been coming from: Iraq's challenged security situation; the troubles with Iran; the costs of China's growth; the continuity with Kadima in Israel; Russia's increasing bad boy behavior and the tepid US response; Republican weakness and Democrat ineptitude; generalized Euro-sclerosis (the moldy Lisbon agenda and 70ish pipedreams in France); and finally as mentioned here back in december: Denmark's anti-terror laws as proxy for the carelessness with which the Western democracies adminstrate their hard-gained freedoms. Unless they get nukes or bioweapons, the terrorists can kill only in the hundreds, maybe thousands: this, horrific as it is and will be when the next attack comes, will not destroy our way of life. Only our own reactions to it can. But that is an aside: Iraq is still the place where most is at stake.

The discomforting signs emanating from the rubbles of the Golden Mosque were accompagnied by some rather different signals, which together serves to underscore not only some of the practical challenges ahead, but also the conditions for thinking about them and politics in general. The Washington Post published a fine column by the ubiquituous Michael O'Hanlon on "How to Stop a Civil War" while columnist David Ignatius had gone down there and come to some tentatively different conclusions about "Fighting Smarter in Iraq".

O'Hanlon wants to use the coalition forces much more actively in order to quell the violence: This would be a change in policy from the last year and a half where the foreign troops have increasingly been disengaged and withdrawn to barracks. Ignatius is cautiously optimistic when it comes to the general ability of the local Iraqi forces and especially their likelihood of sticking with the state rather than the factions. As already mentioned, the degree of factionality of the local forces is probably the single most important factor in the equation. Another element is the coalition forces' ability to truly learn counter-insurgency: Ignatius quotes one Colonel's whose step up in reflexivity...

"This is the hardest thing I've ever done," [Col.] Pasquarette says of the new rules of counterinsurgency. "In the old days, it was black and white -- see a guy and shoot him. But counterinsurgency is a thinking man's sport. Every decision you make, you have to step back and say, 'What's the next thing that's going to happen?' " He says he drills his troops to remember the "three P's" of the new Iraqi battlefield: "be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill."

...had better be matched by something fundamentally more far-reaching in terms of effetcs-based thinking at the strategic level and echelons immediately above the Colonel. Otherwise there will simply not be enough iterations for the thinking to become adequately sophisticated. Effects-based thinking is like chess where there's a hell of a difference between thinking 1, 3 or 5 moves in advance: it is necessarily about politics, and cannot be reduced to a simple friend-foe dichotomy.

Counter-insurgency (COIN) doesn't make a nice fit with regular military processes and outlooks. This incongruity stems from the fact that military thinking and values during and since its slow and incremental professionalization from the Renaissance onwards has been an important part of and influenced by the utilitarian engineer-worldview. As such the military in many ways incarnate the modern organization's emphasis on rationality (calculability as opposed to fatalism or trust in divine providence) and impersonal administration (Weber). In this sense, there is absolutely nothing wrong with engineerism. But when applied to "populations" who are an ontologically fickle bunch, the implicit belief in manipulability of the world, a faith in social engineering becomes problematic. And this is exactly the move called for by the QDR: from a focus on kinetics to a focus on effects.

In COIN the enemy center of gravity is the "population": the goal is a stable, non-challenged regime. Such a "state" consists in both a legitimate and functioning state apparatus, and the active accept of the legitimacy among the populace of the same institutions. In effect, an opting in which makes citizens out of inhabitants. It seems the unidirectional engineer outlook is not well suited to multidimensional (stability and/or reconstruction of security, politics, economics, institutions, including the cultural dimensions) and iterative systems of challenges (the fact that everything we do or don't do play back into the over all system like ripples in a pond). But the nature of such a situation -- which is basically akin to any political system, just with added physical violence -- also points to an important lesson for anyone outside trying to understand.

The discrepancy between O'Hanlon and Ignatius, and between the Pentagon's emphasis on progress and the press' on its absence points -- even discounting for spin -- to the huge element of uncertainty. Nobody really knows whether Iraqi forces will stay or grow more loyal to the state or the factions; nobody knows whether the gamble on the Iraqi responsibility by staying relatively put will provoke unity and an effective cabinet. They don't know at Centcom, and they don't know in Iraq either. This is not the proverbial fog of war: it is the nature of history, the uncertainties with which we must live, as Raymond Aron brillantly showed in his doctoral dissertation,
Introduction the the Philosophy of History.

This absence of an ending foretold is a necessary but not sufficient requirement to let us be set free from determinism and religious leftovers -- and it gives us the responsibility of our own time, to act and to attempt justice.

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