Thursday, January 15, 2009

"The Savage Wars of Peace"

We recently went over a week without electricity, which gave me plenty of time to get caught up on my reading. I actually started reading Max Boot’s excellent book about the United States’ history of involvement in small conflicts back in Hawaii, but got sidetracked by some other projects before I finally finished it last night. Any marine would love the book because it lionizes marines and the Marine Corps in general for its exploits over the past couple of centuries fighting “small wars” in such places as North Africa, China, the Philippines, and Latin America. Boot convincing demonstrates that small conflicts have actually been the norm, not the exception, in our nation’s history – an important lesson for those that think the counter-insurgency wars we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have unnecessarily weakened our armed forces ability to fight potential large-scale conventional conflicts against China or a resurgent Russia.

Those “small wars” of the past were often counter-insurgency style warfare like what we’re doing here in Afghanistan. For a few marines to be embedded with and work with indigenous forces, like we’re doing here, is nothing new. The Marines have done it many times, especially in Central America and the Caribbean, with great success. In those situations in the past (with the notable exception of Vietnam) the marines were left in charge of a group of local forces – marine leadership, local troops. The situation here is a bit different. We’re embedded with local forces…but they don’t work for us. We’re here to advise them…we can’t really tell them what to do. Granted we do have some leverage over them in the form of our logistical supply chain which provides them nearly everything they use, but at the end of the day the decision on whether to do a particular operation or training event is up to the Afghan commander. And so it is that our operations tempo is considerably slower than it would be if a marine were calling all the shots.

Does the slower ops tempo dictated by local command make us less effective? Well, yes, it does, because we know that to fight a war like this one needs to provide a constant security presence to the local populace and we simply don’t do enough patrolling to achieve any semblance of a constant presence, despite my best efforts at the scheduling meetings. But I think maybe the question is not whether it makes us less effective, but whether it makes us ineffective. And to that question, I would say no. We may not do as many patrols as I would like, but the fact of our presence on the side of this mountain sitting above the local village has a positive effect on the security situation and the lives of the villagers below.

At any rate, our job here is not just to police the place today but also to build a self-sustaining local army for the future – to do that we obviously need experienced and competent local commanders, and we can’t develop commanders if we don’t let them command. Boot’s book is full of examples of marines commanding the local constabulary and bringing peace and relative prosperity to those regions…but in nearly every case upon the marines’ departure the situations in those places reverted to much like it was prior to our involvement, i.e. in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, even though the governments were not subsequently defeated by an insurgency. Today Haiti and Nicaragua continue to be the two poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Any number of reasons could exist for those unfortunate eventualities: maybe those cultures were just not ready for democracy and the ordered lifestyle we dragged them into, or perhaps the human capital and education level remained too low. Or maybe the result was preordained when we didn’t properly cultivate local leadership at all levels. I don’t know. I know the South Vietnamese military forces failed in the end, and they were led by their own countrymen. But the situation in Vietnam was different in that the South Vietnamese were defeated in the end by a regular army – and only then after we stopped supporting them with our air power and supplies. Whether or not the South Vietnamese leaders we helped develop would have helped turn South Vietnam into another Taiwan or South Korea will be forever open to debate as a result of our abandoning them to the communist North.

I hope that someday historians don’t look back on this war in Afghanistan and “small wars” fighting in general and thereby find applicable to American armed conflict a quote made by the great investor Jeremy Grantham regarding the recent financial bubble, “We will learn an enormous amount in a very short time, quite a bit in the medium term, and absolutely nothing in the long term.” Of course, the big concern regarding Afghanistan is that the country will be taken over by Islamic extremists, or more likely, that the government and country will remain so broken as to not be able to police itself, thereby reverting to the international lawbreakers’ safe haven it was prior to 9/11. Given the disastrous state of the country when we started here seven years ago no one is really afraid that Afghanistan will merely evolve to become a middling member of the international community in the mold of the Dominican Republic or Nicaragua. We could call the overall mission here a success if we established a reasonably stable, reasonably secular, government that maintained law and order to some small degree...and said government survived. While I’m certain we could have better effects on the insurgents here by turning over the leadership roles to professional foreign soldiers, I also believe that for the long-term future of Afghanistan, developing the local leaders at all levels can go a long way towards keeping the country from indefinitely being an international ward…assuming we stick around long enough to help them win this war and in so doing give their leaders the opportunity to use the skills we so painstakingly developed in them.

When you're out power, the picture is how we stay warm.

No comments: