See September 1, 2003 – the Pentagon had just screened The Battle of Algiers (there was a follow up on that three months later). It was all pretty simple. We didn’t want to be caught up in another Vietnam, it was time to do this counterinsurgency thing right, and the Pentagon flier had read:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas… Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
Yep, learn from the French mistakes. Of course, unlike the French mission in Algeria, our goal in Iraq, and Afghanistan, was, and still is, not to prevent the people from governing their own country but the opposite – to help them to do just that. But no matter – you don’t want to turn them against you. That’s pretty basic. Lyndon Johnson may or may not have said those famous words about winning over the locals – “Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.” That was stupid, but then, the French blew it too. There was that scene from the movie where the commander of the French paratroopers, Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu, realizes that, even with all the strategic successes the French had against that insurgency, he is losing the larger battle for public opinion. At a press conference, reporters confront him with allegations that his men have tortured Algerian informants. Mathieu reminds the reporters that the press had originally been unanimous in calling for the suppression of the rebellion:
That’s why we were sent here. And we’re neither crazy nor sadistic. We are soldiers. Our duty is to win. Since we’re being precise, I’ll now ask you a question. Is France to remain in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, you must accept all the necessary consequences.
Apparently Dick Cheney didn’t attend the screening – or he was really impressed with Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu. But Mathieu was a fictional character, a composite.
It doesn’t matter. We are where we are – still stuck in the same damned movie. We just added remote-control aerial drones to the mix. And they haven’t helped much:
The nation’s top military officer warned Monday that the deaths of Afghan civilians caught up in US combat operations could cripple President Barack Obama’s revamped strategy for the seven-year-old war. “I believe that each time we do that, we put our strategy in jeopardy,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. “We cannot succeed … in Afghanistan by killing Afghan civilians.”
That does happen with those drones. Mullen said additional forces and new tactics can help us turn the tide in Afghanistan – he hopes in the next year or two we can reverse “the trends which have been going very badly in Afghanistan the last three years.” But he’s not a happy camper:
Mullen sounded frustrated that as the first of 21,000 US reinforcements arrive, Taliban insurgents are having a seemingly easy time using America’s military prowess against it.
Mullen pointed to this month’s disputed US airstrikes in Farah province, in which women and children were apparently among dozens of civilians killed. The United States says the Taliban is responsible for at least some of the deaths, but Mullen didn’t spend much time defending US actions.
Why bother? He says the details of what happened may always remain murky, and he certainly will not rule out the use of unmanned drones. They got the bad guys and “We can’t tie our troops’ hands behind their backs.”
But it gets tricky:
Afghans blame US airstrikes for the deaths and destruction in two villages in the western province. American officials say the Taliban held villagers hostage during the fight.
“We’ve got to be very, very focused on making sure that we proceed deliberately, that we know who the enemy is,” Mullen said. “The enemy uses this very effectively against us.”
It is unclear how many people died. The Afghan government has paid out compensation to families for 140 dead, based on a list gathered from villagers. The US military has said that figure is exaggerated, but it has not provided its own estimate.
That doesn’t look good to the locals either. We really cannot say how many civilians died – incompetence – or will not say – embarrassed or ashamed perhaps – or we really don’t give a damn. Do we offer the locals any other alternative explanation? Add in our reputation for torture – deserved or not – and you have a recipe for disaster.
But the drones have killed the bad guys in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan, where we cannot otherwise go. But David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum in the New York Times offer an argument on why we shouldn’t use drone attacks in Pakistan:
The drone campaign is in fact part of a larger strategic error – our insistence on personalizing this conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Devoting time and resources toward killing or capturing “high-value” targets – not to mention the bounties placed on their heads – distracts us from larger problems, while turning figures like Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban umbrella group, into Robin Hoods. Our experience in Iraq suggests that the capture or killing of high-value targets – Saddam Hussein or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – has only a slight and fleeting effect on levels of violence. Killing Mr. Zarqawi bought only 18 days of quiet before Al Qaeda returned to operations under new leadership.
And they put it even more simply:
Governments typically make several mistakes when attempting to separate violent extremists from populations in which they hide. First, they often overestimate the degree to which a population harboring an armed actor can influence that actor’s behavior. People don’t tolerate extremists in their midst because they like them, but rather because the extremists intimidate them. Breaking the power of extremists means removing their power to intimidate – something that strikes cannot do.
Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.
Matthew Yglesias extends that:
In my mind, this is one of the big problems with using the phrase “war on terror.” It gets people in a frame of mind where they’re thinking of analogies like “what would I do to a Nazi tank column?” rather than “what would I do to a crime-plagued neighborhood?”
He’s not impressed with analogies at all:
The right thing to do is to ask yourself what kind of strategic goals you have and what kind of tactics are likely to achieve them. What we want is for Muslim communities around the world to cooperate with various governments around the world to smoke out and apprehend would-be violent extremists. That’s more like a crime-fighting mission.
But it’s not exactly the same thing, and Matt Steinglass argues that it high time to think more clearly:
I think it’s creating a false dichotomy to say that people tolerate extremists not because they like them, but because they’re intimidated. The success of a revolutionary movement, be it Maoist or Islamicist, rests on a mix of popular appeal and coercion. Like the Taliban, the Viet Cong were respected by the local population for their patriotism (or, in the Taliban case, their piety) and for their capacity to dispense rough but honest justice; they were also feared for their capacity to assassinate political enemies. For that matter, successful governance by any government involves elements of popularity (elections) and intimidation (prison).
By all accounts, and according to my one Pakistani friend in the tribal areas, the Taliban are strikingly unsuccessful at sustaining popularity in areas they take control over, so in their case the scale leans towards intimidation. This, it seems to me, may be a good reason to leave them alone, restrict ourselves to a minimal role in that war, and watch them fail.
That’s a thought. But it’s a thought not likely to appeal to the new guy, General McChrystal:
From 2003 to 2008, led the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which oversees the military’s most sensitive forces, including the Army’s Delta Force. McChrystal’s leadership is credited with the December 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein.
Oversaw a task force that was criticized in 2006 for abusing detainees and harsh interrogation methods at Baghdad’s Camp Nama.
Singled out in a March 2007 report by the Pentagon inspector general for his role in the death of ex-NFL star and U.S. soldier Pat Tillman. Though the two-year investigation cleared McChrystal of any official wrongdoing, it faulted him for failing to immediately notify Tillman’s family of the military’s suspicions that Tillman’s death was the result of friendly fire.
Now that’s interesting – all of it (and there’s more at the link). And it gets Andrew Sullivan thinking:
What’s undeniable is the awe with which many in the military treat him, Petraeus’ support and Gates’ enthusiasm. I’m deeply troubled by the legacy of prisoner abuse – but I’m also deeply impressed with the man’s obvious talent, service, determination, patriotism and ruthlessness. It seems to me that a man like McChrystal is indeed a huge asset, if used ethically and intelligently, in a war to defeat al Qaeda. A man who successfully located and killed a monster like Zarqawi is the kind of man we need to find and kill Osama bin Laden. His entanglement in abuse of prisoners places him in the forefront of all that went wrong under Bush and Cheney – but if Obama has unequivocally ended that abuse and McChrystal is idling in the Pentagon, it seems to me a shrewd choice to show that such ruthlessness, if clearly divorced from betrayal of our core values, is what we need.
And that brings up larger issues:
What Obama understands is that the war on terror is real, that we need to win both ideologically and militarily, and that we have lost a lot of ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I remain worried that this war has become unwinnable, its goals unclear, its rationale more and more an attempt to prevent the unpreventable. But it remains a fact that Obama campaigned to wage war successfully in Afghanistan and Pakistan – and he cannot exactly withdraw precipitously now. Petraeus, an honorable man whose stance on abuse and torture has long been unequivocally on the side of the angels, backs McChrystal. A combination of better Petraeus-style counter-insurgency strategy with McChrystal special ops’ targeting of Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan might be the way to advance. It certainty would be an advance on these drone attacks, which appear to be winning battles and losing the war. I don’t know, but I’m perfectly prepared to give the president the benefit of the doubt on this, as I did the last one at this juncture. And I think all of us who supported him last fall should – for the current summer military campaign at the very least.
And there is one other pesky matter, regarding Mathieu-Cheney:
I don’t believe we can move forward without accounting for the war crimes of the past. With every passing day, the evidence of real criminality in the past accumulates. But I also understand that so long as Cheney and his ship of macho, torturing fools get to posture as the only ruthless prosecutors of the terror war, they will have a card to play to get back into power. They have no shame and no ethical boundaries. And so the only truly profound way to defeat them and what they represent is to show that a humane ruthlessness is still possible in the fight against al Qaeda – which remains a threat rather than a phantom.
But that may be on the way to being solved:
Cheney is taking the torture bait from Obama even as Obama refuses brilliantly to take the terror bait from Cheney. Obama is resisting the red-blue reductionism of the past while forging a new and powerful center. And the more Cheney and Kristol and Limbaugh posture as the future of the GOP, the worse they will do and the more likely it is that more sane and sensible conservatives will eventually fight back.
At least that’s one reading of recent developments. I may, of course, be wrong or projecting false hopes onto a new president (which wouldn’t be the first time). But if I’m rightly understanding this strategy, and it is followed through with care, it’s a very potent one. And if Obama can defuse and defang the Dolschstoss right, if he can outflank them on the terror war, if he can both appeal to the world to look at America in a new light, while also pursuing the covert war on terror with more ruthlessness and focus than Bush – then he will not only destroy the Republican rump, he will help heal this country.
So there is a lesson to be learned from the French mistakes in Algeria:
We want to undercut and undermine Jihadism as we stymie and forestall terror. And we want to retain our soul as a defender of human rights. Cheney’s choice is a false one; and history will damn him for presenting it as true.
And Lyndon Johnson was wrong too, of course.
And there is the matter of Robert Draper, the fellow who wrote Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush – that’s the Bush-endorsed biography written after receiving cooperation from the Bush and his top aides – with that new item in GQ about Donald Rumsfeld, that Frank Rich discussed it in his New York Times column – Rich saying that Draper adds “new details to the ample dossier on how Donald Rumsfeld’s corrupt and incompetent Defense Department cost American lives and compromised national security.”
But some of that can be fixed:
The Pentagon said Monday it no longer includes a Bible quote on the cover page of daily intelligence briefings it sends to the White House as was practice during the Bush administration.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he did not know how long the Worldwide Intelligence Update cover sheets quoted from the Bible. Air Force Maj. Gen. Glen Shaffer, who was responsible for including them, retired in August 2003, according to his biography.
For a period in 2003, at least, the daily reports prepared for President George W. Bush carried quotes from the books of Psalms and Ephesians and the epistles of Peter. At the time, the reports focused largely on the war in Iraq.
Those quotes “offended at least one Muslim analyst at the Pentagon and worried other employees that the passages were inappropriate.” And they didn’t help matters in the nations we occupy for their own good.
It took six years, but someone remembered what that odd movie was about. But recovering from our reputation will take a long, long time. On the other hand, now is as good a time as any to start – just don’t tell Dick.