Archive for the ‘Insurgency’ Category

Rural Ruminations

by Haviland Smith


Before we adopt a new Syria policy, a quick review might be helpful in better understanding the endless confusion that rules over the situation in that region today.

Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turks make up about 72% of the Syrian population, Shia 13% and Christians about 10%. The Syrian government, its military and economy under Bashar Al Assad are dominated by the Alawites (Shia). Minority Alawites and their allies run everything important in Syria.

The current civil war in Syria began in the Spring of 2011 with the establishment of the Free Syrian Army, a group of Syrian Army defectors who are roughly 90% Sunni.

This struggle has been something of a proxy war with Iran (Shia) and Yemen (Shia) the main supporters of the Assad (Shia) regime with outside help from Russia. Arrayed against them in support of the rebels are Jordan, Saudi Arabia (the birthplace of Sunni fundamentalism), Turkey and Qatar (both Sunni) along with France, Britain and the US. The sectarian violence has spread to Lebanon where Hezbollah (Shia) has allied itself with the Assad regime and, additionally, fought with Lebanese Sunni groups.

ISIS began life as a fundamentalist Sunni organization. In effect, ISIS is a criminal organization populated by thugs for whom there are no rules of decency. Given sufficient exposure, it is highly likely that ISIS will completely alienate the Sunnis in Northern Syria and Western Iraq, as there is nothing in the Koran (as it is seen by the vast majority of its adherents) that justifies the murderous activities in which they have continuously been involved. Shia Iran is ISIS’ foremost committed enemy. Whose side are we on?

In addition, we have the new Iraqi army which is now being trained by the United States, but which has been referred to as “not so much an army as a vast system of patronage”. The Army, beholden as it is to the Shia government of Iraq, excludes from its ranks any Iraqi who might be opposed to that government. The army is widely said to have been infiltrated by local militias and foreign insurgents, resulting in secular killings and operational failures. It is, to all intents and purposes an inefficient, albeit Shia, operation. Further, current reporting indicates that much of the anti-ISIS opposition comes from Shia militia from Iraq. Do we want our boots on the ground with them?

Then we have the Kurds who are the largest ethnic group (28,000,000) in the world without a country and whose people are spread out over Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They are estimated to represent 15-25% of the total population of Turkey. Even though they are Sunnis, like the Turks on whose land so many Kurds live, they are viewed with grave suspicion by the Turks as ongoing threats to the sovereignty of Eastern Turkey. In fact, they do find time to kill one another on a fairly regular basis. Whom do we support?

So we have this incredible mélange of ethnic and sectarian Middle Easterners involved either directly or indirectly in the Syrian insurgency. It is impossible at any given time, to predict just how they will react to the wide variety of scenarios that exist for the future. They are hardly the sort of allies that the US is used to and from whom we could possibly profit. Who are our friends? Our enemies?

Counterterrorism doctrine promotes police work, intelligence collection and Special Forces operations, never military. No matter what the Administration says, Syria is not a counterterrorism problem. It is a counterinsurgency problem. Some Americans openly promote American troops on the ground in Syria. US military doctrine dictates that in fighting an insurgency the occupying force must have one combatant on the ground for every 20-25 residents of the country involved. Even with all the Syrians who have left their country, there are probably around 22 million left. That would mean a force of 440-550,000 troops. Are we up to that? Who will pay for it?

And then there is the other reality. We have learned from our invasion of Afghanistan that if you overlook the rules and put American troops on the ground fighting against an organization that even the local residents hate, you present those residents with a dilemma. Do they support the invading Americans or do they support an indigenous group that they otherwise would hate? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq give us a pretty clear answer to that question.

These realities will not change simply because our policy makers want them to. And then, what is our goal? Even if we are successful in bringing down ISIS, what then?

We are so over our heads here!







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Originally published in  SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS

With its meteoric military rise, its leadership, management and financing, the newest terrorist scourge facing the world is ISIS.  Operating in what is clearly a political vacuum in northeast Syria and western Iraq and benefitting from the studied indifference of most of the Muslim world, Isis is clearly on a roll.

The chaos in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world is largely the result of a combination of incredibly bad United States military/foreign policy decisions and the concomitant disintegration or destruction of all those elements, both good and bad, that were in place and maintaining order in the region before we invaded Iraq in 2003.

And in the midst of all of this chaos, Americans are coming slowly to the realization that ISIS presents us with real, long run, existential problems and that we probably have absolutely no idea how to deal with this situation at the moment.

Our problem in policy formulation on this issue is also of our own making.  It comes as a result of the same horrendous decision to invade Iraq, for that invasion created two new realities for us.

First, it has made more than half of the U.S. population extremely wary about any further military involvement in the Islam.  We are war-weary to the extent that virtually no policy proposal for dealing with ISIS has failed to mention the guarantee that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground.

Secondly, that Iraq invasion, coupled with our endless stay in Afghanistan, has virtually guarantees that the re-commitment of American troops in uniform will have a unifying anti-American effect on Muslim populations, even though the radical ISIS is viewed with horror by most of those local populations.

If you doubt that, look first at the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 2003 which was driven largely by the fact that when the locals were faced with a choice between foreigners (Americans) and locals, they decided to back their own.  Or, look at the way Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, heavily influenced by hostile, unaccepting Shia governments in Baghdad and Tehran, have tolerated, even joined with ISIS in its fight for power.   The fact is that, particularly in Islam, given any need to choose between foreigners and locals, it is a rare thing that the foreigners will be favored.  All one has to do to understand that is read the history of the region.

So, what are our policy options?  The attitudes of both American and Muslim citizens toward the American military establishment, basically rule out the effective reintroduction of U.S. troops into the area, even if we had the necessary resources to do it.  Yet, if ISIS is to be neutralized, it will not be done without ground forces.  It’s not just the ISIS soldiers, it is the larger question of denying them control of the territory over which they now preside in Iraq and Syria.

Then we have Kurdish and Iraqi troops.  The problem there, accepting that they are ill-equipped, ill-trained and relatively ineffective, is that there are historical political reasons to worry about such confrontations.  We have ages old Kurdish/Turk frictions.  Additionally, any Iraqi army of the future is going to be Shia dominated in a struggle with Sunni ISIS.  That scenario bears the strong possibility that a Shia-Sunni conflict ultimately could easily embroil the entire region.

Needing foot soldiers and ruling out all non-Muslims, we are left with the rest of the Muslim world.  Note that none of them have so far rushed into the fray against ISIS, either because they are frightened to be seen to do so, because they prefer them to the alternative, or might even actually support them.  Why else would the Iraqi Sunnis, who are among the more secular Muslims, support a bloodthirsty bunch of zealots who want to install the most conservatively radical sectarian government imaginable? Perhaps as a counterbalance to Iraqi Shia forces?

We need to keep trying to find Muslims who disagree enough with ISIS to fight against them.  Barring such an unlikely find, we need to arm anyone – Kurdish, Iraqi or Shia – who wants to fight against them.  We need to keep US military uniforms completely out of the fray, but we might be well-advised to get ready for a protracted, completely covert or clandestine struggle against ISIS which would involve our intelligence resources as well as our black, paramilitary operational capabilities.

Or we can pretend there is not a real threat and wait until they hit us, which, absent meaningful U.S. involvement, they most certainly will do at some point in the future.

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

When the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, Americans were given sequential reasons for that decision.  We were told that Iraq was full of Al Qaida terrorists, even though no such terrorist could conceivably have survived under Saddam Hussein.  We were told that Iraq was full of WMD.  There was poison gas and nuclear weapons.  None of this proved to be true.

What was never explicitly said at the time was that we were invading Iraq in order to turn it into a democracy.  That democracy would then be the model for the rest of Islam.  The flourishing of democracy in Islam would make the Middle East a safer place for Israel.  And that was the key reason behind the invasion – increasing Israel’s security.

This was not the first time that Americans had thought of the democratization of Islam.  Many knowledgeable US government experts on the region had seen it as worth consideration. However, in the end, based on the realities as they existed in Islam, that idea had been rejected.  Parenthetically, it is of minor historical interest to note that even when the idea was popular, Iraq was the last country in Islam thought by our experts to be susceptible to such democratization.

The lack of suitability of so many Islamic Middle East countries for democratization is part of the DNA of the region.  The issues that surround regional nationalism, tribalism and sectarianism are, at least for the foreseeable future, so great as to make democratization, at best, problematical.

Nevertheless, we did commit American troops to bringing down Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  In doing so, we precipitated a number of inevitabilities.  Saddam was not beloved by his people. When we removed him and his supporters, we created a situation in which our troops, the “foreign invaders”, became the surrogates for Saddam’s repressive troops.  American troops maintained the order.  Where we thought we were involved in a liberation, we soon found ourselves in an insurgency against our presence.

The same became true as we lingered on in Afghanistan.  Afghanis, who never loved the Taliban, retreated into their tribal mode and turned against us in an insurgency.  All of a sudden, in both Iraq         and Afghanistan, we were fighting insurgencies rather than hunting terrorists, primarily because we were the foreigners.  When an indigenous population has to choose between it’s own “bad guys” and foreign “bad guys”, even though they may not actively support their own, chances are they will not help the foreigners at all. A successful  counterinsurgency requires at least local passivity, and preferably some cooperation.

According to American counterinsurgency doctrine, in order to successfully deal with an insurgency, the counterinsurgents  (the USA) must commit 25 combat soldiers for every 1000 people in the local population.  That would have required around 850,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and an equal number in Iraq, an impossible commitment for us to seriously consider.

Most countries that have dealt with terrorism believe for the reasons outlined above that terrorists should never be confronted militarily, but rather should be dealt with as a criminal matter using police, intelligence and special forces.

The decision to use the term “War on Terror” was a major mistake as it misdirected most of our counterterrorism activities.

The first thing we need to do in the Middle East is decide precisely why we are there.  What is there in our national interest that should be driving our policies?    We are not in the process of installing democracy in that region.  The absolute best we can logically hope for is stability through self-determination.   Beyond that, it is reasonable to hope for a moderate Islam.  Only a tiny fraction of Muslims are fundamentalists.  With real self-determination, it is reasonable to hope that Muslims will elect moderates.  And that should be our goal – the election of moderate Muslim regimes.

After a dozen years of military activity, America has little credibility in the region.  Some of that credibility can be restored with the removal of our uniformed troops and the cessation of hostilities.  The simple absence of drone activity would be a tremendous help.

With our troops gone and our military activities ended, we will regain the opportunity to use all the other available foreign policy tools:  diplomacy, propaganda, covert action, police, liaison with indigenous organizations and economic activity.

We might even get back to the greater level of respect and admiration we enjoyed last century.


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