Friday, December 18, 2015

No Military Solutions?

 Anne Barnard is one of many well-informed commentators who feel that you can't overcome unconventional military opponents by purely military means.  This almost unqualified claim is often applied to Iraq and Syria.  It is essentially an argument for doing nothing, because no one even believes the West is really going to implement broad, deep, political and social 'solutions'. I will argue that (i) it's false, (ii) the opposite is true - in most relevant cases there are only military solutions, (iii) there are two military solutions in Syria, but only one is a live option.  It consists in massive support for the rebels, without vetting.

There are military options.

 The evidence Barnard offers for 'no military options' makes it unclear exactly what she has in mind.  She gives the example of Israel's failed campaign against Hezbollah in 2006.  She calls Israel's opponent "a guerilla force".  She quotes Andrew Bacevich, who says that the war on terror isn't working.  She of course applies these claims to ISIS.

It's puzzling because a war on terror seems to mean stamping out terrorist attacks within countries, especially in the West:  no more 9-11s or Paris massacres.  Her examples have only indirect bearing on that.  She talks of a guerrilla war, but Hezbollah's resistance in Lebanon was more like in-depth defense of permanently held territory from well-prepared positions.  ISIS isn't fighting a guerrilla war either; like Hezbollah it holds territory.  But if Barnard's specific message is unclear, the general lesson isn't.  It's what we hear all the time: we need to think beyond the battlefield to what one quoted analyst calls "a comprehensive political solution".  We need somehow to encourage good governance, address deep grievances, win hearts and minds.  In the current situation, we need to make Syria and Iraq better, more or less.

Well it's true that, if we don't make the world better, the angry and oppressed will always find ways to make trouble.  If ISIS goes, something about as troubling will eventually emerge.  But this truth masks an absurdity - that what we should be looking for are 'comprehensive solutions'.

Why?  We are unlikely to make the world, or the Middle East, or even Iraq and Syria, all that much better: the West's record for such attempts is far, far worse than its military record.

This is not a coincidence, because the West's political meddling has been built, not on military success, but on failure.  You can't improve a mess you can't control, and the West has never, in recent times, established territorial control in any of its military campaigns.  But Barnard is wrong to infer from these failures that there are no military solutions.  She doesn't go as far as to say that military means never work in asymmetrical conflicts, but she and those she cites clearly think the historical record supplies all but conclusive 'evidence' - she uses the word - that more military force just makes things worse.

That's false.  The historical record shows that military means typically work just fine if you fight your own wars rather expecting someone else to fight them.  When advanced nations use their own troops and not proxy forces, they often succeed - maybe always, but there are so many possible cases I won't go that far.  And when advanced nations want others to fight for them, they generally lose - even if they themselves commit large forces to the battle.  The gospel of hearts and minds is just a symptom of unwillingness to face this reality.

Look again at the evidence.

Barnard cites the 2006 Lebanon war as a case where Israel's overwhelming force couldn't overcome its irregular enemy.  Israel may have possessed overwhelming force.  Like all modern major military powers, it was happy to use that force from thousands of feet in the air, with predictably atrocious and unfruitful results.  But it only got a taste of ground fighting, and decided that wasn't for them:

The Israeli cabinet agreed to the cease-fire on August 13, almost immediately after it committed the IDF to a full-scale ground attack. (*)

Barnard says:  "If overwhelming firepower alone could guarantee success, the United States would have won the Vietnam War and emerged victorious from Afghanistan and Iraq."  Here we have cases that go to the heart of the matter.  In all these conflicts, the US, with touching faith, expected proxy forces to make the difference.

Vietnam showed that even with large troop commitments, that doesn't work.  Proxy forces are at best collaborators with foreign forces, at worst, corrupt marauders.  Such forces are always undermined by the hatred they inspire and by their lack of serious commitment to the Western cause, whatever it may be.

The French experience in Algeria is another example of how, even with large commitments of your own troops, the use of proxy forces prevents sustainable triumph.  Wikipedia notes that

According to French government figures, there were 236,000 Algerian Muslims serving in the French Army in 1962 (four times more than in the FLN), either in regular units (Spahis and Tirailleurs) or as irregulars (harkis and moghaznis).

Four times as many proxies as their opponents' total forces!  The French did, in a way, win on the ground - resistance at least went dormant - but failed in their objective of keeping Algeria French:  they could not see how to sustain the troop commitments necessary to secure that goal.  In conventional military terms, not attaining your objective means you've failed.

What then of US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Overwhelming force from up in the air and commitments of US ground troops a fraction of what military analysts required.  How to make up the difference?  oh, proxies.  We know how that worked out.

But this does not mean there are no conventional, non-political military solutions in 'asymmetric' warfare.  To find them you have to start with the 19th Century when colonizers and imperialists fought their own battles.  They did use some 'colonial troops', but these were not, as in Algeria, special-purpose auxiliaries recruited from the target area on an ad hoc basis.  They were, like the Gurkhas, full-fledged units of the colonial army, deployed all over the world.  The imperialist/colonialist forces bore no resemblance to the proxy armies of recent times and often did without colonial units of any kind.

History has partially obscured the success of colonialist armies by focusing on lost battles in won wars.  One hears how a British force was wiped out by Afghans in January 1842, but not how the British returned and crushed their opponents in August of that same year - and again in 1878-1880.  Similarly the Sepoy mutiny and rebellion of 1857 did have initial success, but was decisively suppressed.

In virtually every case where the colonizers or imperialists fought their own battles, they won.  The British overcame the Boers and the Zulu rebellions in South Africa. Later they defeated the Mau-Mau.  The indigenous population was consistently defeated throughout Central and South America and throughout the Caribbean.  The North American Indians were all defeated with infamous finality.  Perhaps the last time colonizers took on a rebellion with their own forces, they also won - in the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960.  In those days, somehow, the West didn't realize there were 'no military solutions'.

The reason this absurd doctrine has gained currency is that the military solutions are not only not tested, they are not even contemplated.  No one suggests that maybe the US should send 600,000 Americans to fight in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or anywhere else.  This is unfortunate because it substitutes fantasies about hearts and minds for a realistic assessment of the situation anywhere the West thinks it ought to 'fight terror'.

There are only military options.

The truth is that the West is utterly, permanently unwilling to commit the forces needed to effect the military solution that must precede any political solution in Iraq, Syria, or anywhere else.  Yet these solutions are often needed, even if it is to solve problems the West itself has created.  What's more, the whole world knows this and, as one acute analyst has observed, this unwillingness in practical terms amounts to inability.  Militarily the West is not powerful any more; it just has a lot of powerful military equipment.

Unfortunately the fact that the West is unwilling to undertake military solutions doesn't mean they're unnecesssary, or that somehow, proxy forces with a sprinkling of colonial advisers will do the trick.  Military solutions are required because there is no other sort of option.

In Iraq, the decision has already been made.  Dealing with ISIS has been left with the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and the Iranians.  It is unlikely this will go well, but the West will not and for all practical purposes cannot do anything about that.

Syria is a very different matter.  Syria's warfare is not particularly 'asymmetric' since the rebels, ISIS and the régime all hold territory and fight with heavy weapons.  The Syrian conflict began with and continues to be a revolution that has taken on much of the character of a civil war.  In this conflict ISIS is not, as it is in Iraq, insurrectionary.  It is more like a rogue third element which would have no future if either the régime or the rebels effect a decisive victory.  This is not a conflict where the combatants can just melt away or go elsewhere.  If they lose, it will be a disaster for them unless there is just the sort of international policing and intervention that no one can rationally expect given the reluctance of the West to commit ground forces.  Indeed that's why the war goes on and on.  This is a conflict that will be decided only when someone wins.

Never in history, so far as I know, has a full-tilt civil war ended without one party achieving military supremacy.  This isn't surprising:  in civil wars, unlike many cross-border wars, the stakes are always very high.  In some cases, like the English civil wars and the French Revolution, there were no negotiations at all.  In others, like the US and Sri Lankan civil wars, there were token negotiations or formal acknowledgement of defeat, but only after vicious and prolonged warfare finally convinced one side they couldn't win.  It is just the opposite of the 'no military solutions' trope:  there is no political solution, only a military one.  No one can build political institutions unless someone is in physical control of the territory on which those institutions are to be built.  Establishing physical control is a military task that comes prior to any political tasks.

The live option

The West, frightened by ISIS and annoyed by refugees, at long last believes it must actually respond to this situation.  Proxies, we've seen, won't do, but neither will neutrality: this once-popular option has to its credit nothing but futile negotiations and the desperation that fuels ISIS.

At this point the West seems inclined to join Russia in backing Assad, but this is irrationality motivated by distaste for involvement.  Neither Russia nor the West is going to give Assad the massive support he'd need to win.  Were they to do so, it wouldn't do anyone any good:  the record of promoting murderous dictators is not encouraging. Though a Pinochet did last quite a while, in the end he failed to attain his objectives.  So did the brutal Greek and Argentine and Brazilian military dictatorships.  But these examples are inappropriate. What fans of Assad need to understand is that he is not even like the murdering, torturing, sadistic Pinochet.  He does not belong on the political spectrum at all.  He is like Idi Amin or Pol Pot - who like Assad may once have had objectives or even principles but who descended into madness.  Pinochet killed something like 3000.  Assad killed 200,000 in an only slightly more populous nation.  His forces murder babies and inflict indescribable tortures even on children.  The idea that the survivors of such horrors will kiss and make up with their tormentors to build a stable democratic society is laughable.

Elections are a non-starter because, again, you cannot have meaningful elections when no one controls the whole territory, so that voters everywhere are in the power of one faction or another.  Nor will the families of those so atrociously murdered be up for a sprightly electoral contest.  The alternative is partition, and the West half-expects this.  It hopes for a stalemate in which exhausted rebels get enclaves and the régime gets the rest.  So the 'political solution' is either to leave the régime to govern its remaining territory, or to legitimate that régime nationwide through bogus elections.

Perhaps the US is unaware of this strategy's costs.  In 2011-2012, Syrians did not chant "Assad must go"; they didn't feel they had a basically good government corrupted by a bad leader.  They chanted "The people want the fall of the régime".  Now that both the US and Russia explicitly reject 'regime change', the US can no longer be seen as merely lukewarm in its support of the rebels.  It has come out against the rebellion's objective, which in rebel eyes must amount to coming out against the rebels themselves.  That means everything done to preserve the régime - if not in the past, from this time on - shall be laid at the door of the US.

Every bomb dropped by Russia on civilians and every régime offensive proceeding under Russian air cover must now be seen as an implementation of joint Russia/US policy.  Every Syrian with murdered relatives, every Syrian displaced, everyone living under barrel bomb attacks, everyone starving in besieged Damascus suburbs, everyone who is actually still in rebellion ...all of these must now see America as set against them and ready to condone any atrocity, however horrifying, ever committed against them.  And of course it is a metaphor to say any of these atrocities were committed by Assad.  They were committed by the régime he heads, the one the US doesn't want to change.
What possible benefit the US expects to reap from this policy is a complete mystery.  They have adopted a stance which forces every genuine rebel against the régime to choose between ISIS on the one hand and Nusra/Ahrar on the other:  any US vetted or supported groups are now hopelessly compromised because they are aligned with a backer who explicitly rejects régime change and therefore rebellion.  What's more, at least every Sunni Arab and many other Muslims world-wide will now see the US as an enemy who idiotically supposes it can make up with a little political correctness for the horrors it allows to be visited on Syria.  Is this America's 'hearts and minds' strategy to counter ISIS?  One can only conclude that the US is not looking for benefits, but simply for a way to do as little as possible whatever the price.  This is irrationality in pure form.

As if this were not enough, the strategy of angling for a partition of Syria cannot succeed.  Any such partition, to endure, would have to be enforced.  But the outside parties don't want to send ground troops; that is the whole point, if any, of their responses.  How then do they expect partition to be maintained?  from 5000 feet in the air?  Do they think that somehow Iran, Saudi, and Turkey will join hands in fervent desire to undertake one of the most costly police operations conceivable?

So the only realistic choice is one the US has decisively rejected:  to back the rebels, not with an ass-covering trickle of arms to allegedly sanitized factions, but with hundreds of tanks, thousands of other heavy weapons, and millions of rounds of ammunition.  To resolve the conflict, 'backing' must involve supporting rebels who are by no means proxies, so without the niceties of 'vetting'.  We have already seen that the vetting process, in its eagerness to see that no one with any taint to Islamism receives supplies, results in a negligible weapons flow and, increasingly, a flow to forces that are not rebels at all, but US proxies against ISIS.

There is a slight chance Turkey and the Gulf States will pursue this course of action.  They must now see that the US cannot be relied on even to stick to its own stated objectives.  This is also a case where immorality is a political liability.  When so much of the world sees America as irresolute, cowardly, selfish and unjust, governments will not find it wise to maintain their links to US policy.  So perhaps there will be a regional push to overthrow the régime.  Perhaps too it is worth looking at the reasons the US will doubtless consider when it decides whether to obstruct such a push.
If it does consider the consequences of supplying unvetted rebels, it will find many analysts in hysterics - after all, some of these radical Islamists call themselves Al Qaeda!  Their reaction is based on two things - justified but irrelevant apprehension, and relevant but unjustified apprehension.

First, they present evidence these groups are anti-liberal, anti-democratic, sectarian and repressively orthodox.  Since analysts work with the groups' official statements and interviews with its leadership, they are looking at the official stance of the groups, and they are correct in their verdict.  But you can't parlay dislike of their domestic agenda into some danger to the West.  So apprehension about their agenda, though justified, is irrelevant to Western policy concerns.

What is relevant to those concerns is any likelihood of attacks on the West.  But the evidence supporting apprehension about attacks is very weak.  One problem in linking Jabhat al Nusra to official Al Qaeda statements - which these days are in any case not very threatening - is this sort of analysts' material needs to be balanced by facts on the ground.

The core of Jabhat al Nusra is of course not its officials who issue statements but its fighters, mostly Syrian.  Here it's worth heeding Mowaffaq Safadi:

As a Syrian who lives abroad but still closely follows the dynamics of the civil war in my country of birth, it has became clear to me that for many young men being a fighter has become more of a job than a calling – a career path they feel they have to follow for lack of alternatives. As in any job market, employers will compete for the biggest talent by providing different benefits.

Many rebel fighters simply do not care about the affiliation of the group they are joining – whether it is with al-Qaida, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the international coalition, the British government or anyone else. The international geopolitical situation simply isn’t the first thing on a rebel fighters’ mind when considering joining this group or that one.

To give you some idea of just how divorced from ideology are many of these fighters, one such fighter, interviewed at age 16, said he loved Bin Laden "but also George Bush".   The idea that Jabhat al Nusra is a robotic brigade of stern Al Qaeda ideologues is not borne out by the facts, and this bears on both their domestic and their foreign agendas.

Beyond this, the analysts have nothing more than guilt by association and innuendo. Yes, some Nusra guy hung out with some guys who somewhere else at some other time liked the idea of attacking Western targets, but did not do so.  Yes, some media guy in the Khorasan group did once fight in Afghanistan. Yes Nusra has "bomb experts", not surprising since they use bombs when fighting in Syria and sometimes over the Lebanese border.  So here we have a valid but not a justified concern.  None of this is serious evidence, unlike the dead bodies of Westerners actually killed in Western cities by actual attackers who actually heeded ISIS' exhortations to attack Western countries.

It is probably true that, if you bomb Nusra enough, they will develop an interest in retaliating - after all, they are not masochistic or irrational.  But for them, at least, Al Qaeda seems merely, as many security analysts say, a brand.  The last time the US government issued a warning which mentioned Nusra was on the July 4th weekend of 2015.  Yet they said there was no specific, credible threat.  Does that mean they were warning about a general threat? was that threat credible?  Yes Jabhat al Nusra may pose some risk to the West, though not nearly so much as the pro-régime strategy, and far less than the complementary strategy of treating them as enemies.  As might be expected, there are only risky alternatives, but the assessment of risk mustn't be one-sided.

In broader terms, there is a difference between disliking someone's domestic agenda and expecting them to plant bombs in Times Square.  Analysts seem to have forgotten this distinction when they never worry about Assad, the head of a régime which for decades was excoriated as a sponsor of terrorism abroad, but trumpet the danger of Nusra, which has only tenuous connections to anything of the sort.  Perhaps if Nusra fighters wore suits...

Risk is not a reason to throw up your hands and run away.  You can try to affect what will happen when the rebels succeed.  In the aftermath you can try to come to an understanding with hostile groups, or build up their rivals: this would be a very different matter from siphoning off rebels to fight ISIS rather than Assad.  But in Syria at least, to deny support to groups tainted by association with people you don't like is unrealistic and childish.  Nothing in recent years has disposed Syrians to abandon groups who have fought with them side by side while the world stood by and let Assad slaughter at will.  It is the West that needs to earn the trust of Syrians, not the other way around.

(*)  Andrew H. Cordesman, “Lessons Of The 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War”, Washington DC (The CSIS Press), 2007, p.5