Friday, March 11, 2005

War against the network

In a second important posting, Tom introduces an essay by Michael Schwartz explaining why the U.S. is not getting ahead of the ball in Iraq because we fundamentally misunderstand the organizational structure of the people we are fighting in Iraq.

Schwartz argues that the American military and Bush's political leadership believe, in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, that we are fighting an enemy that has a "Command and Control" structure, i.e. a centralized and hierarchical leadership that both organizes logistics and dictates military and political strategy. This conception of the enemy's organizational structure results in the U.S. thinking that the key to winning the war in Iraq is to eliminate the leadership of the insurgency. We see evidence that this belief is endemic to our strategy in Iraq whenever a major figure is captured or killed: the Bushies invariably declare that a "turning point" has been reached. (The most conspicuous case was the capture of Saddam, and we may expect that the eventual capture of Zarqawi will produce a similar prognosis.)

But somehow those "turning points" never seem to materialize. Schwartz argues that this may be because the insurgency in Iraq is in fact so decentralized that there is no central leadership, no command and control. It may simply be a number of completely disconnected insurgent cells, united by nothing expect a desire to drive the United States out of Iraq. If Mao was right that guerillas are fish that swim in a sea of popular support, then metaphorically speaking the U.S. is strategically focused on shooting the fish in the Iraqi barrel, when in fact it's the water in the barrel that is our real enemy. (And if that's the case, then democratization is hardly going to be of much help.)

We shouldn't push the Maoist analogy too far, however, since Mao, at the end of the day, did believe in command-and-control. Schwartz is arguing that the insurgent decentralization in Iraq is much more elemental than what Mao had in mind, with dire implications for the Iraqis themselves: if and when the Iraqi insurgents achieve their goal of driving the U.S. out, there will be no successor government or leadership. There's no Ho Chi Minh or Taliban to come in and reassert order. Rather, what will follow will be Somali-style chaos.

Which is exactly why, despite everything, the U.S. has a moral duty to stay in Iraq, even though we may be unable to win there: since we destroyed the stability of the place, we are now responsible for working to restore that stability, even if that task is Sisyphean. Eventually we may hope that a strong leader may emerge who can provide that stability, but it's more than likely that such a leader will not be very democratic, since he certainly will have to be ruthless in repressing what by now is being institutionalized as a political culture of militarized insolence.

If Schwartz is right, what we're fighting is not an organization, however structured, but rather a movement. Beating a movement requires winning the hearts and minds. And this is precisely what we're not doing, as Schwartz concludes:

So why does the U.S. military relentlessly build its anti-insurgency strategy around the idea of decapitating the leadership of the Iraqi resistance? The answer lies just beneath the surface of Donald Rumsfeld's now infamous statement, "You go to war with the Army you have."...

This army is the best equipped in the world for advanced conventional warfare -- with tanks, artillery, air power, missile power, battlefield surveillance power, and satellite imaging to support highly mobile, well equipped, and superbly trained soldiers. No supply route is safe from its firepower, and no conventional army would be likely to hold its ground long against an American assault. But the most intractable part of the resistance in Iraq is fighting a guerrilla war: they do not have long supply lines and they rarely try to hold their ground.

Guerrilla armies hide by melting into the local population. (Everyone knows this, including, of course, American military men.) To defeat them, an occupying force must have the intelligence to identify guerrillas who can disappear into the civilian world; and it must station troops throughout resistance strongholds in order to pounce upon guerrillas when they emerge from hiding to mount an attack. American military strategists know this, too. But these lessons -- painfully drawn from Vietnam -- can't be implemented by the army that Donald Rumsfeld sent to war.

The Americans, in fact, have neither of these resources. Anti-guerrilla intelligence, after all, requires the cooperation of the local population, which, at least in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, the U.S. has definitively alienated, largely through its use of blunt-edged conventional army attacks on communities that harbor guerrillas. And it cannot station enough troops in key locations because too small an occupation force is spread far too thinly over contested parts of the country. Estimates for the size of an army needed to pacify Iraq range upward from General Eric Shinseki's prewar call for "several hundred thousand" troops.

Reading Schwartz's piece got me thinking that a major problem, maybe the major problem, the United States has in thinking about the GWOT may be the notion that what we are faced with is a single battle (a "World War IV," as the neocons like to call it) against an enemy which is admittedly shadowy, but ultimately as unified as Hitler's Germany or the Soviet Union. This is why they believe that we can "decapitate" the leadership and simply put into place a leadership friendly to the United States (that was the original plan in Iraq, as some may recall: "decapitate" Saddam and Uday and Qusay, and put Chalabi on the throne).

But if Schwartz is right, then this vision of political transformation is a pipe dream. There is no single enemy that can be replaced. This is not like Germany or Japan in 1945, or Moscow in 1991, where by changing a few people at the top, we can install a friendlier system on top of what is already a functional society organized according to rational-legal norms largely similar to the ones operating in the West today. No such system exists for us to dismantle or reappropriate, pace the 'wingers. Indeed, the very name "Al Qeada" is in this sense pernicious, reifying an enemy which in fact does not exist except as an ideological force.

That ideological force must, of course, be defeated. Whether it can be defeated by fellow fundamentalists, albeit of the Christrian variety is an open question. What is almost certain, however, is that misconceiving of the organizational structure of the enemy is a dire political and military mistake.

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