Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Strong Horse and Dominoes: COIN and prospects in the Middle East

From Michael Totten:

A very interesting and long interview with Lee Smith, the author of a new book The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations

A key portion:

Al Qaeda, Islamist terrorism, is a function of states. Yes, it is an ideological movement with its own history and sources and political ambitions that run counter to the current nation-state system of the Arabic-speaking Middle East; but it is a movement that is sustained by Middle Eastern regimes and their intelligence services who use terror organizations to advance their own strategic interests and deter other states from using terror organizations against them.


I can’t repeat this enough because the President needs to understand this. All of us need to understand it. The Bush administration understood it but the lesson seems to have evaporated into thin air with all the confusion and miscommunication that left some Americans with the belief that the White House was claiming Saddam was directly responsible for 9/11. But this is not what the administration said, and we know for a fact that Saddam did work with Al Qaeda and with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman Zawahiri’s outfit that constitutes the core of the Bin Laden group. But we’re moving away from this understanding and it spells real danger for core American interests and citizens.


If you want to fight Islamist terror you have to go to the heart of the matter and that is Middle Eastern regimes, but this is not what we’re doing now. In fact, we are doing the opposite, counterinsurgency is the opposite of going to the source of the problem. COIN is a losing hand for us. No matter how good the US military gets at counterinsurgency it is never going to have the same sort of success as Arab regimes do. The Arabs can’t win wars, but Arab regimes have never lost to an insurgency, ever. Thank God that the Americans will never emulate the tactics of these regimes—the collective punishment, rape, torture and murder that Arab states typically employ to put down insurgencies, but if you don’t do it you will not defeat an Arab insurgency. Everyone says the Surge was successful, but maybe we should ask the family and friends of the almost 500 Iraqis killed in mega-terror attacks in Baghdad since August. Relative to Iraq’s population, that’s close to two 9/11s. Maybe someone can explain to me how the blood and mangled flesh of almost 500 people is the harvest of a successful counterinsurgency. Prime Minister Maliki—whose political future is obviously jeopardized by the violence, and this is of course the point of the operations—and his security officials are pointing fingers at their neighbors, especially Syria and Saudi, and the Americans are hushing them up. Why? Because we want to ignore the role of states in terrorism, and the President still seeks to engage the Syrians on our way out of Iraq, as the sage men who authored the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report counseled. That is, explain to Iraq’s neighbors who have been working so hard over the last 6 years to destabilize the country that a stable Iraq is in their best interest, a subtle point that they are obviously too foolish to understand without American policymakers explaining it to them. American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning, largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.


The gist: states in this region are too weak to defend themselves against each other, or take the fight to each other, so their secret police and intelligence services employ various terror groups who have their own sometimes apocalyptic political goals, amongst which are AQ and Hezbollah. These states are involved in tit-for-tat proxy wars, making moves and counter moves in an ongoing game of PR, power acquisition and power maintenance. The terror groups function as mercenary special operations units for the states that support/employ them.

However, they are independent organizations and do go rogue. So the middle eastern state sponsors have to play a complex triangular game amongst themselves, these groups and the U.S. They do not want to, and do not have the capability to, completely eradicate the groups. They do not want to, and do not have the ability to remove the U.S. from its role as protector of the relative stability and oil supplies in the region. So, these groups will continue to be a problem just as long as these states exist and play their double/triple games.

AQ, Hezbollah and other such groups could not possibly survive, recruit personnel, collect materiel, nor train were it not for the various states in the region carefully using them to to play this game and keep each other in check. There is a complex system of checks and balances amongst the states, the outside world (U.S. primarily but not exclusively, see the French and Russians for instance) and these sub national entities, which are for all intents and purposes really sorts of mini-states themselves, extra-legal mini-states without borders. Mini-states with their own political agendas (often apocalyptic visions).

Behind all this, motivating the conflict is the long standing Sunni/Shia rivalry. Both the states and trans-national terror groups compete for perceptions of the Arab/Middle Eastern world. They compete to be seen as the proverbial 'strongest horse.' The U.S. and Israel are used not merely as distracting scapegoats to keep popular anger directed outward, but as touchstones or proofs of power and sunni/shia authenticity. We are attacked because it shows strength. For instance, Iran has taken up the anti-Israel colors partially to show the general population of the region that it, a Shia state, is a genuinely powerful state, not having treated with Western powers as have the Sunni states (Saudi for instance). They read the middle eastern populace as preferring 'resistance' to internal reforms and treating with the non-Muslim world. So this is as much 'strong horse' posturing as it is anti-Semitic animus.

Now, Smith thinks we are making a mistake if we believe our COINcentric operations in Afghanistan, and more to the point, Iraq, are going to make a difference when it comes to this complex problem. For, as long as the states surrounding Iraq are the same old autocratic regimes, and as long as there is shia/sunni animus, the same intrigues will continue (from Iran and Syria in particular), the same efforts toward subversion of Iraq by way of the proxy organizations will go on.

Smith reads the Obama administration as being dangerously and perhaps willfully blind toward this threat as it encourages the Iraqi state to 'look the other way' and act as if this game is not continuing. In an equally strong bid to avoid reality, they even encourage Syria to stop playing patty feet with their special ops mercenaries, assuring them that a stable Iraq is in their genuine national interest. But, the Syrians perceive a stable Iraq as weakening their strength, so of course they will persist, and our efforts in Iraq are doomed long-term. For once we leave, they'll be back in, figuratively at least.

That warning is well taken; compromises with the triangulating realities of the region were problems in the Bush years, as well as before. Realism has been a feature of U.S. policy to the region since the discovery of oil. We do tend too often to look the other way and act as if the obvious were not happening at all. And it is no help to us or to the Iraqis to be doing so today. However, having said that, I do not think it follows that a COINcentric approach is fundamentally ill-conceived as a long term corrective to this realism, and its consequences. It's also false to say that the strategy is not responsive to the underlying political realities that Smith so ably describes.

It seems a truism to say this: If regimes are changed and stabilized in substantive ways, that take them away from autocratic fear-based models of control and power they will in effect gain perceived and real legitimacy as being strong horses, horses that exercise their strength by other, and arguably for the region, novel means.

But, it is said, that this cannot be imposed from the outside with reasonable chance of success. Pre-surge Iraq is proof. How, then to bring this sort of change about?

Well, to the chagrin of realists old and new we could do what the U.S. has in effect done in Iraq. Remove the old regimes, and foster growth of new regimes, by actively recruiting and growing the infrastructure of power from the local to the regional to the national level in each state, relying first of all on the local engines of social control and commerce that predate and in many ways are independent of the autocratic regimes grafted upon them. The result will not be a Virginia colonies on the Tigris, but neither will they be murderous regimes that play patty-fingers with Al Qaeda and other terror groups looking to satisfy apocalyptic visions. It may not look like western democracy, but it will be more participatory than the autocratic regime of a Saddam Hussein, or the family Saud.

The argument Smith seems to have, is that we cannot afford to do any more of this. Consequently, the two fledgling states we have carved out are surrounded and will simply be swamped once we leave. Subversion from within, and infiltration from without is already doing this. He cites recent bombings and asks rhetorically, if the Iraqis consider the surge to be a success in the light of these. The sub-national groups will continue to do their proxy dirty work. So, be pessimistic says Smith.

If the only way our present strategy will work is if we go on a world changing mission, toppling and replacing a few more regimes, thus taking away the state sponsors and surrounding threats to our fledglings, then prospects for success in using the COINcentric strategy in the region are low.

I think not. We needn't think the only way the strategy will work is by toppling a good number of dominoes. It might work with two toppled regimes.

Success depends on how strong our fledglings become, and how involved we continue to be. While not a perfect analog, consider Israel. Israel is surrounded, but certainly not a weak state. It is a legitimate state, enjoying the consent of the governed. The people would not willingly trade their lifestyle, their state for one that played patty feet with terror groups, even if there was a promise that this would add to security. In fact, they would laugh at the offer. Turkey, too might be a case in point, or stable Muslim states farther afield. It is clear that such moves would only invite insecurity, and would be rejected. Why? These states are strong and legitimate horses.

So, to steal a well-worn phrase, if we 'stay the course' , and if it is also the case that Iraq comes to enjoy that sort of legitimacy, showing strength to its populace, effectively guarding its borders, and is not in fact encouraged to look the other way, but given true exercise of its sovereignty, and flexes that muscle, and we too remain committed to it, it will be seen as a strong horse, and as was said more often during the Bush years, those under the yoke of the autocrats in surrounding states will ask "why not us?" Perhaps they will act. We have seen rumblings in Iran. That would spell success for the COINcentric strategy we have adopted in the region. Sometimes dominoes fall on their own.

1-27-1945 Auschwitz Liberated by Russians

Benjamin Netanyahu: Remember AND never let it happen again

Part I



Part II



Part III



Part IV