Permissible Arms

Memory (Stop) Loss: Counterinsurgency Edition

My office is knee-deep in a full-scale move to a larger suite, which has eaten away at this week like a particularly adventurous pika with stack of vegetation. I’ve been spending my limited spare time finishing Tamim Ansary’s compelling, thoroughly wonderful Destiny Disrupted, a history of the world from the Islamic perspective (more on that later) and reading the Qur’an for the first time. At some point I realized that, while I had read excerpts from the Qur’an, and interpretations of bits of the Qur’an, I had never actually read the Qur’an itself. This is an attempt to rectify that, though it’s a bit slow going as I try to digest the translation, the footnotes, and the meaning of the suras.

A US Army soldier looks over a note containing Pashto translations of frequently-used phrases June 14, 2010 in rural Dand District, just south of Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

In other reading, Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter, has a raw and incendiary op-ed in the Asia Times Online. I disagree with much of the substance of Jones’ article–that counterinsurgency is a failed policy that has not worked in Afghanistan–and, fundamentally, with her understanding of what counterinsurgency is and how it works. She seems to think that proponents of counter-insurgency consider it to be a panacea, a trick that will work to end violence and poverty and insecurity overnight, or at least in the nine months since it was implemented in Afghanistan. But that is simply not so–most expressions of the doctrine pair it with the idea of entrenchment, of a substantial period of time. To look at a policy that has been in place for less than a year, a policy which explicitly requires a substantial duration of time (the relative softness of the July 2011 withdrawal date notwithstanding) and say that it has failed is either a deliberate misreading of the situation or a lack of understanding about the doctrine itself. I won’t recommend that you read the op-ed–it comes across more like the teenaged rage of someone who has just understood what poverty means for the first time rather than a thorough criticism of doctrine as it’s applied in country. And it pains me to say that, because Jones has spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan and certainly has earned her bones on the subject. But the piece is sloppy, poorly understood, and far too loose with tone for me to be anything but critical.

Tim Hsia, at the NYT At War blog, has a compelling piece on the military and politics, which is probably another wave in the hopefully terminal RollingStan flap. Worth reading both for commentary about personal politics of soldiers and the larger political frameworks of both the US and Afghanistan/Iraq.

In other words counterinsurgency turns Clausewitz’s famous maxim that “war is an extension of politics” on its head. Military officers in a counterinsurgency environment realize that “politics overseas is an extension of a counterinsurgency war.”

Counterinsurgency is not just about eliminating insurgents; at its core it is a political struggle that requires identifying and separating political irreconciliables, whilst also shepherding former insurgents into reconciliation meetings. After all, if one has won the hearts and minds of the populace, then one has just as likely won their political affiliation to the incipient national government of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Soldiers with whom I have worked have been more versed in the politics of Iraq and Afghanistan than in domestic politics. Back home, I have yet to meet any American civilian who is more knowledgeable about the politics of Afghanistan or Iraq than the typical Army company commander. This perhaps is the real “political” problem: a civilian population detached from the nation’s foreign policy issues.

Great start to a discussion from that post.

Laleh Khalli at the Middle East Report writes on The New (and Old) Classics of Counterinsurgency, running through names and works familiar to most who are well-read in the subject. However, it does offer a nice overview of COIN literature and a healthy bibliography for someone interesting in wading more deeply into doctrine.

This, frankly, creeped me out. Wanted: Jihadists to Marry Widows at the NYT:

A snippet of news from a shadowy corner of Iraq: Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia recently issued a fatwa telling its fighters to marry the widows of those who have fallen…“Asking current or future fighters to marry the widows means either that they are seeking to re-establish marital ties in an effort to regain some traction in the tribes, or that they have completely moved away from the ideological foundation that fighters are to come to Iraq and immediately die in suicide bombing attacks,” Mr. [Malcolm] Nance said.

“It’s fascinating either way. If it’s the former, then they must believe there is a glimmer of hope that blood ties with these Iraqi women will gain them an edge of protection in a country that wants to be rid of them. If it’s the latter, it’s akin to a call for their fighters to settle down and gain an earthly reward by having a wife and children and to start a new generation of jihadists.”

Mr. Nance said the fatwa was “so absolutely desperate” that it could have come from only the highest levels of the organization.

Either way, it reinforces an idea that women are a possession, and that their husbands, as jihadists, have made them part of a kind of tribe of jihadists who can now claim them for other jihadists. That’s one meta-reading. It also speaks to a consolidation of power and assets within a group that can be controlled. Mostly, I figure it has to do with financial insecurity among widowed families, but the implications are unsettling.

Jason Sigger’s Civilian Strategists Should Be Better is a must-read for the last week(ish).

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