The age of arrogance
I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that we’re living in the age of arrogance. People, meaning individuals and governments, seem to be of the opinion that they can understand and control events, and predict outcomes. And no amount of empirical evidence to the contrary can dissuade them otherwise.
Governments and quasi-governments are doing it. For example, there is a war going on in Iraq between the U.S and just about everyone. There’s a war in Lebanon winding down between Israel and Hezbollah, and there’s a war in the Gaza strip between the Israelis and Hamas, and in every one of those wars, all the combatants are absolutely certain they know how it’s all going to end.
Let’s start with Iraq. It’s not that we haven’t had experience with wars of insurgency. We’ve had plenty. We were in Vietnam for a number of years and if it proved anything, it showed that if you try and fight a war in a country where most of the population is hostile to you, and you have bad intelligence because you never know who to trust, and you’re blinded by the fact that despite having this big, powerful military, it’s designed to fight the last war and not the one you’re fighting, you’re probably going to get your ears pinned back.
Iraq is not any different. We did fine as long as it was a conventional war, which we were equipped and set up to fight. If we expected the local populace to greet us as liberators, we were sadly delusional. The good you will get for knocking off the old tyrannical regime lasts about 20 minutes and then they spend the next five years blaming you for everything that goes wrong thereafter and usually start trying to blow you up. There is nothing particularly surprising or even unexpected about that.
Major modern armies don’t do well in wars of insurgency. It’s not just the United States. The French with a very seasoned professional army lost Vietnam (Indo China in those days) and managed to con us into taking their place. The Russians got murdered in Afghanistan and are now trying now to survive in Chechnya. The Brits fought an endless battle in Northern Ireland. The Israelis invaded Lebanon with a conventional army and Hezbollah has virtually fought them to a draw. In every case a modern, well-equipped army lost to an insurgency or at least was incapable of destroying the insurgency, principally because all the tools of a modern army are designed to fight another modern army-not insurgents who use unconventional means in battle.
The majority of the evidence would seem to say that you can’t beat an insurgency with a conventional army or from the air, unless you’re prepared to drop a nuke and simply kill everybody.
So is there an answer? I think there is.
First, since we can’t crush the insurgency and we can’t dictate or predict outcomes, despite what all the neocons say, we have to be realistic. So what do we do in Iraq? We say “mission accomplished,” pack up and go home. We take our guns, our tanks, our planes, our troops and all of our money and we let the Iraqis settle it between themselves. If they decide they want to spend the next decade fighting over which is the purer form of Islam, that’s their business. After it’s over, we recognize whoever is left standing as the legitimate government of Iraq.
Ditto for the Israelis. They hold until an international force comes in to take over the border between Israel and Lebanon. Will it work? Not very well. There still will be rockets lobbed over the border from time to time and the Israelis will fire back with their artillery and air attacks. If raiding parties come across the border to kill or kidnap, Israel will have to do the same. At least they avoid being bogged down in an impossible-to-win war in Lebanon. If they couldn’t do it in 18 years, they certainly couldn’t be expected to do it in a month.
As for the Palestinians, that situation is a little different. The Palestinians want a country; theirs is a war of independence. That’s something that lends itself to a political solution. The Palestinians can’t get what they want without Israel’s cooperation, and the Israelis will never have peace without Palestinian cooperation. It mandates a political deal, provided of course that Hamas accepts the idea that Israel will continue to exist and Israel accepts that they can’t dictate who will run the new state of Palestine.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. I believe in force. In our world, if you’re not strong, you are perceived to be weak. We need to be prepared with a modern day military service, but we can’t be unrealistic about what force can and can’t do. Conventional force can’t defeat a broadly supported insurgency and despite the reassurance of the president, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, it’s reasonably clear that’s where losing ground. Iraq is sinking into civil war and we have absolutely no idea who is going to win, or even who we want to win. Under those circumstances, the best thing we can do is to surrender our unrealistic view that we can control events and get out. It’s time for us to go.