Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Voter’s Guide to Reality in the Middle East, or What the Politicians Won't Tell You


In a little more than four months from now, this country will elect a new President, a new Congress and one-third of the Senate. Candidates will promise to make changes in the conduct of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regardless of their campaign promises, what the President and members of Congress actually are able to do will be limited by three immutable realities. Failure to take these into account could have tragic consequences for this nation.

Reality No. 1: Victory in the traditional sense is simply not possible in Iraq. There will be no formal surrender with terms clearly stated in a treaty. Insurgents will simply fade back into the shadows, taking their weapons and stores of explosives with them for future use. A major problem is that proponents of keeping our troops in Iraq until victory is achieved never seem to be able to define what constitutes victory. Our government claims the point that will trigger a major withdrawal of US troops is the ability of the Iraqis to create a functioning government able to stand on its own and defend itself from internal and external enemies. At the moment, the only areas of Iraq or Afghanistan that can be described this way with certainty are the Kurdish portion of northern Iraq and a tiny enclave around Kabul in Afghanistan. (The explosion of a car bomb outside the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7, 2008, negated the accuracy of this statement with respect to Afghanistan.)

Pragmatic experts do not foresee victory of any kind in Iraq, no matter how long occupying forces remain. The reasons can be read in the tea leaves of military history. Since the end of the Second World War uprisings have flared up around the world. These can be classified as either of two main types: The first (Table 1) are revolutions in which a portion of the population rises against an oppressive government, are what might be called true insurgencies. These have been singularly unsuccessful. In contrast, the second type (Table 2) comprises struggles in which insurgents fight to eject the forces of an unwelcome occupying power. These so-called “wars of national liberation” have been uniformly successful.

Table 1: True Insurgencies




GreeceGreek government
Communists lose
NamibiaSouth AfricaSouth Africa loses
EritreaEthiopiaEthiopia loses
SomaliaUSUS withdraws
Gaza StripIsraelIsraelis withdraw
Sri LankaIndian governmentIndia loses
NicaraguaSandanista governmentUS-backed Contras lose
El SalvadorSalvadoran government.Communists lose
BoliviaBolivian governmentCommunists lose
AngolaAngolan governmentUS-backed Savimbi loses
PeruPeruvian governmentShining Path leaders captured

Those who claim that insurgencies cannot succeed often cite only the examples of Table 1, which shows that national governments can usually successfully suppress rebellions arising within their own borders. When insurgent groups oppose occupation by foreign troops, however, the picture changes and it becomes impossible to apply principles of traditional counterinsurgency theory, such as winning the hearts and minds of the local population. The bleak results that come when foreign governments, either colonial powers or invading military forces, touch off wars of national liberation are displayed in Table 2.

Table 2: Wars of National Liberation


Power involved


MalaysiaUKUK leaves
KenyaUKUK leaves
PalestineUKUK leaves
CyprusUKUK leaves
Aden (S. Yemen)UKUK leaves
IndonesiaNetherlandsDutch leave
AngolaPortugalPortuguese leave
MozambiquePortugalPortuguese leave
VietnamFranceFrance leaves
VietnamUSUS leaves
CambodiaVietnamVietnam withdraws
AlgeriaFranceFrance leaves
AfghanistanUSSRSoviets leave
ChechnyaRussiaRussians leave
Lebanon (Hizbollah)IsraelIsrael withdraws
GazaIsraelIsrael withdraws
IraqUS, UKUK leaving/US?

The Vietnam War is a classic example of a war of national liberation in which insurgents prevailed. Similarly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan both qualify as small wars of the same type. In each case, despite overwhelming technological superiority, U.S. forces have been unable to achieve victory. Barring drastic changes in U.S. policy, guerrilla fighting could drag on for years in both countries.

Unfortunately, partial success in reducing the level of violence in Iraq as a result of the surge has not meant any substantial political gains for the al-Maliki government. We should remember that the surge was never intended to win the war in a military sense. Contrary to popular opinion, Gen. Petraeus never promised victory. He and other senior officers have already pronounced the war to be militarily unwinnable. Proponents of the surge were quite clear that the surge exercise was not intended to impose our will on the insurgents, but rather to facilitate political reconciliation among warring Iraqi factions. The reality is that the Iraqis are still not ready to go it alone, hampered as they are by the 1,400-year-old schism between the Sunni and Shiia branches of Islam.

Reality No. 2: American forces cannot leave Iraq quickly or easily.
Getting out of Iraq will require almost as much effort as it took to get in. Politicians who talk about speedy departure from Iraq simply do not understand the sheer volume of the military equipment on the ground that must be removed.

Civilians with no experience in military matters may think that departing American troops have only to pack up their weapons and ammunition, jump into their vehicles and drive to Kuwait with their equipment. Easier said than done. Vehicles now in Iraq include a total of 10,000 flatbed trucks, 1,000 tanks and 20,000 Humvees and MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles resistant to land mines and improvised explosive devices. Just to move so many vehicles from Iraq to Kuwait at 30 miles per hour would consume 75 days. This would be the equivalent of a continuous line of bumper-to-bumper traffic stretching from the island of Manhattan all the way to Denver.

According to the watchdog Government Accountability Office, 300,000 pieces of large and expensive equipment will have to be cleaned and crated or wrapped. After use for even a short time in Iraq's dust and sandstorms, the Army's 70-ton M1A2 Abrams tank ceases to be an awesome fighting machine and becomes a crippled repair headache in which sand has infiltrated everything from the 25-ton rotating gun turret to the intricate gun-pointing electronics. Major tank overhauling operations cannot be done in the field or at rear echelon bases in Kuwait. Helicopters must be shrink-wrapped. Even treated as an emergency, evacuation of most of the combat brigades and support troops plus millions of tons of equipment in orderly fashion would take a minimum of 20 months.

The idea of simply abandoning much of the heavy equipment and leaving it in Iraq is tempting but too risky. To do so could allow lethal weapons to fall into the hands of forces hostile to whatever government we are able to prop up to govern the despoiled country. Nor will evacuation be easy. The present 334-mile supply route for convoys that run between Kuwait and Baghdad is permanently under the threat of hit-and-run attacks by insurgents, particularly with highly effective improvised explosive devices. There is no reason to believe that insurgents will let up in their attacks once the US announces that its armed forces are leaving.

Reality No. 3: Afghanistan has always been the graveyard of foreign armies. Compared to the conflict in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has been treated almost like a sideshow, with funds and equipment allocated grudgingly. But the conflict in Afghanistan has always been more important and an even harder war to win than the one in Iraq. In the months of May and June of 2008, more U.S. and coalition forces were killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

One reason Afghanistan is such a tough nut to crack is the porous border with Pakistan, making it easy for enemy forces to move in and out of Pakistan’s so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where Osama bin Laden and the upper echelon of al-Quaida are believed to be hiding since 2002. Two other reasons for gloom are the superb fighting abilities of the Afghan guerrilla warrior and the forbidding mountainous terrain characteristic of much of the country.

An impoverished nation whose economy is based on the opium poppy, Afghanistan has been devastated by warfare for the last three decades. As part of the Cold War, the U.S. provided the Afghans with millions of dollars’ worth of weapons with which to fight the Russian invasion. After Russia pulled out in 1989, the U.S. quickly lost interest in the fate of the country.

Our 2001 invasion of Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban and capture or kill Osama bin Laden followed by the subsequent occupation of the country by the U.S. and a NATO Security Assistance Force are all a continuation in “The Great Game” played in the nineteenth century between Britain and Russia. In 1839, British and Indian troops marched into the capital, Kabul, with banners flying and bagpipes skirling, taking the city almost without resistance. They quickly learned just how resilient the Afghans could be.

This invasion, like others, followed a pattern. First, an almost unopposed occupation of the capital, followed by upcountry skirmishes that went from minor to major, and then open resistance. In 1842, the Afghans showed what their ragged fighters could do to a traditional army of the period. When the British expeditionary force of 4,500 British and Indian troops and 10,000 camp followers tried to escape from Kabul and reach the British base at Jalalabad, only about 90 miles away as the crow flies, it was almost totally wiped out by guerrilla attacks as it threaded its way down narrow river valleys and through mountain passes. Only a few prisoners survived in captivity. One member of the invasion force who made it to Jalalabad was the assistant surgeon, Dr. William Brydon.

Even if American planners were ignorant of the British experience in Afghanistan in the 19th century, they could have drawn upon the more-recent calamitous Russian disaster there. In December of 1979, ignoring the historical record, Russian army tanks and trucks moved into Kabul. As invasions of Afghanistan tend to do, the operation went easily and smoothly. From the moment of their arrival, however, the Russians experienced nothing but trouble and harassment.

In ten years, the Russians killed more than a million Afghans by indiscriminate carpet-bombing of hundreds of villages. Five million Afghans crossed borders to safety in Pakistan's Tribal Areas or in neighboring Iran. Another two million were displaced inside Afghanistan. By the time the Russians accepted the inevitability of defeat, and the last of their tanks and trucks rumbled back across the Friendship Bridge into Tajikistan, Russian losses were staggering.

Russia claimed troop deaths totaling 14,453 in Afghanistan, but some experts put the actual figure at more than 20,000, with close to 100,000 seriously wounded. The Russians also lost nearly 500 aircraft, including 350 helicopters shot down by missiles supplied by the CIA. Countless numbers of burned-out hulks of tanks, trucks and personnel carriers still dot the countryside. Huge quantities of artillery weapons and other equipment were destroyed.

The Central Intelligence Agency supplied weapons to Osama bin Laden and helped to create al-Quaida in the hope that Afghanistan would be Russia’s Vietnam. Their strategy succeeded beyond their wildest dreams--the debacle in Afghanistan contributed to the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union. Osama bin Laden’s stated aim is to cause the U.S. to exhaust itself by expending men and money in Iraq and Afghanistan, making the Middle East America’s second Vietnam. Iraq is the size of California, and Afghanistan is the size of Texas.

Summing Up. The three above-cited realities govern the possible actions of those who will direct the military fortunes of this country after the election. So, if candidates promise to keep our troops in Iraq only long enough to achieve victory, don’t believe them--demand that they define victory. If any candidate promises to withdraw troops from Iraq quickly, be wary and ask to see the timetable. And if any candidate promises that our experience in Afghanistan will be different from that of other invaders, withhold your vote. As in Iraq, there can be no quick and easy solution in Afghanistan.

A Brief Biographical Note from the Author, Robert Scott.

Screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood correctly described the years spent by those who fought in the Second World War as “the best years of our lives.” From early in January of 1942 to just before Christmas of 1945, I gave four of the best years of my life as one of the millions of Americans busy with that war. In his 1998 book The Greatest Generation, TV journalist Tom Brokaw called us "the greatest generation any society has produced." Yet we never thought of ourselves or what we were doing as great. A big job had to be done, and the whole country pitched in with quiet determination to do it.

At war’s end, I was left with an abiding interest in the art of warfare, its history, strategy and tactics. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., who actually hungered for battle, saw war as the finest expression of the human condition. Countless others have looked at war’s carnage, and regard it as an expression of the most foolish impulses of humankind. A few wars can even be called “good wars.” World War II was such a war. Nevertheless, all wars are worth studying for the lessons they can impart.

After the war, I spent many years working as an exploration geologist looking for oil in Europe, North and West Africa, and the Middle East, and visiting old battlefields and war cemeteries in my spare time. (War exacts an incredibly heavy toll.) This itinerant experience also gave me a wider perspective on how the rest of the world lives. Thanks to having learned a smattering of local languages, I can attest that Turkish is easier to learn than Arabic. I also have a closer understanding of culture and attitudes in the Middle East, a part of the world in which we are now fighting two simultaneous and inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have not been what one could call “good wars.”

I cite these fragments of my history only to establish my modest credentials to counter those neocon chickenhawks who never risked their lives in battle yet are willing to offer up the lives of others in two wars in which we have no national interest. I do it, too, to counter the opinions of garrulous politicians and TV “consultants” who have never been close to an oil well or a battlefield, or who have never lived in the Middle East, yet pretend to have all the answers.

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