Some Call It 'Counterinsurgency' It sounds better than 'brutal military occupation'


It is widely reported that the US military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, continuing on for over five years, have been "counterinsurgencies" (COIN) led in Iraq by the expert on COIN General David Petraeus. Petraeus has been highly praised for his COIN abilities and soon will be able to expand his influence to Afghanistan, the almost-seven-year quagmire.

From the Washington Independent: "David Petraeus will go down in history as a great counterinsurgency theorist and practitioner," said retiring Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of the counterinsurgency experts who helped write FM (Field Manual) 3-24 on COIN. "From his Princeton doctoral dissertation on counterinsurgency in Vietnam through three tours in Iraq – during the last of which he wrote the introduction for the first-ever translation in French of David Galula’s classic Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice after leading the writing team that produced the Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual – Gen. Petraeus has led the Army to rediscover ‘the graduate level of war.’"

Hogwash and poppycock, these counterinsurgency experts rediscovering stuff. General Petraeus is an accident of history, a guy who wrote a key op-ed with inaccurate rosy military predictions just prior to the last presidential election and has been rewarded for it. Along the way Petraeus helped oversee the drafting of a new Army Field Manual (FM 3-24) purported to cover counterinsurgency, which supposedly is being followed in Iraq. I will show that both of these premises are false.

The term counterinsurgency gained currency under President John Kennedy in the 1960’s, and referred initially to countering "communist inspired, supported, or directed insurgency, defined as subversive insurgency" by Soviet-aligned guerillas against western colonial nations. (When the US aided indigent forces in the overthrow of unfriendly governments it was called paramilitary operations.) As in the above quote the US involvement in Vietnam was called a counterinsurgency.

Then came the definition of insurgency: From the DOD Dictionary of Military Terms: insurgency – (DOD, NATO) – An organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict.

So an insurgent by definition is trying to overthrow a government, usually his own. Therefore if a population is resisting a foreign military occupation (or fighting other sects) they are not insurgents and it is not an insurgency. Is this just semantics? No. The point is that it is a natural human reaction to resist by force an alien foreign military occupation, whereas people are inclined to be more tolerant of their own government, before they take up arms, no matter how badly they act. Understanding this simple fact explains why the US has not been and will not be successful in its military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Vietnam, Petraeus’s wellspring of doctrinal knowledge, was not really a counterinsurgency. Vietnam was a country where the US illegally installed a government in its southern part, invaded that part of Vietnam and then fought a long, losing campaign against the properly constituted and recognized Vietnam government which had its capital (and still does) in the north. If anyone, it was the US military which acted as insurgents! Similarly Iraq and Afghanistan are not insurgencies.

In Iraq, combatants include not only those contesting the US military presence and killing US collaborators, but also various religious sects fighting each other as a result of the instability the US has brought, and also religious fanatics calling themselves al Qaeda-Iraq from outside Iraq who have been drawn there, again, because of the US destabilization of that tormented country. A similar situation exists in Afghanistan. None of these are "insurgents" according to the Pentagon definition.

Oh, we know, the implication is clear. We’re not supposed to believe that other countries actually have sovereignty over their own territory. According to this scenario the US Empire owns the world, particularly those parts situated over oil, and anyone resisting US hegemony and occupation of those parts is an insurgent. Even under this interpretation, is this "insurgent" (AKA "terrorist") trying to overthrow the US government? No, he’s resisting a US military occupation. In Iraq the Iraqis weren’t people we liberated, as the initial story went, they are our enemies because of the extended occupation. That’s essentially what George Bush said back in November, 2005 – that our enemy is ordinary Iraqis: "The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists. The rejectionists are by far the largest group. These are ordinary Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, who miss the privileged status they had under the regime of Saddam Hussein – and they reject an Iraq in which they are no longer the dominant group." Current US enemies in Iraq include not only the Sunnis, but also the most popular Shiite sect, the Sadrists (consisting of various splinter groups).

Wonderful – the people we’re liberating are our enemies, because of the extended occupation – now there’s a good reason to support the troops and extend the occupation. I guess Congress thought so too. They’ve continually done it despite the fact that the Iraqis DON’T want it – a recent poll indicates that nearly 60% of Iraqis see attacks on US-led forces as justified and nearly half say the US should leave now.

Actually the facts are that the world is composed of 190-odd sovereign countries and the US can’t legally act as though it is the legal government over other countries. From the United Nations Charter, Article 1, Chapter 2: "The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members." While in Iraq and Afghanistan there are no functional governments, they still have loyal citizens, nationalists, and the people in these countries (US enemies according to Bush) are resisting brutal US military occupations. Who among us wouldn’t resist a foreign military occupation? A military that raids neighborhood homes often in the middle of the night like this, this, this, and this, harasses the inhabitants including taking retina scans, rounds up, handcuffs and blindfolds young males and carts them roughly off to prison (over 20,000 now) where they are tortured and detained for months without any sort of legal review. There is in each country, Iraq and Afghanistan, a corrupt and dysfunctional government but the people, mostly, are not fighting (insurging) against these governments, which being weak are not even factors. They’re fighting the US military occupiers (and each other due to instability). No country, including our own, will ever tolerate an intensive occupation by a foreign nation. (photo credits: AP, JM, JM, AP/Petros Giannakouris, AP/Marko Drobnjakovic, REUTERS/Bob Strong, JM, defendamerica,

The principal US strategy in both places is more time, more money and above all, more troops. The "COIN" part of this, the purported new and unique part, is the concept of using troops to secure the population, thereby fostering conditions conducive to reconstruction and reconciliation. COIN is nothing new. In Vietnam it was "win their hearts and minds." Regarding Iraq, Petraeus described the effort this way in October 2003: "This is a race. This is a race to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. And there are other people in this race. And they’re not just trying to beat us to the finish line. In some cases, they want to kill us." In other words these are old techniques for gaining acceptance from a hostile population enduring a brutal military occupation, which is an impossible task as has been proven many times. The US in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan are the two most recent historical examples, the British in both places are earlier examples. All failed. The US is failing now in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidenced by the stumbling US attempt to obtain a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq which after five years of warfare would allow continued US military sovereignty in that battered country. The Iraqis of all political persuasions are against it, but of course they may yet be bought off (or threatened). The Independent reports that under the terms of the new treaty, Americans would retain the long-term use of more than fifty bases in Iraq. American negotiators are also demanding immunity from Iraqi law for US troops and contractors, and a free hand to carry out arrests and conduct military activities in Iraq without consulting the Baghdad government. Does this sound like a liberated country, or an occupied one?

Field Manual FM 3-24 (pdf) essentially promotes an approach to dealing with "insurgents" (really occupation resisters) with a minimum of force so as not to alienate them unduly from the occupiers. "Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force." Deal with the populace with a minimum of force? Protect the populace? Obviously this was not the idea of the Petraeus surge and it is not the course of action Petraeus pursued in Sadr City, resulting in a humanitarian crisis. The inability to move armored vehicles through the narrow slum streets of this poor city meant an increased use of indirect fire and air power to destroy hospitals, apartment buildings and entire blocks of buildings, where a lot of people were present. So there are more dead, more refugees and more hatred toward the US in direct contradiction of the "minimum of force" concept which is supposed to be essential for "counterinsurgency" operations.

The Washington Post on the recent US attacks in Sadr City: "Since late March, the military has fired more than 200 Hellfire missiles in the capital, compared with just six missiles fired in the previous three months." The military says the tactic has saved the lives of ground troops and prevented attacks, but the strikes have also killed and wounded civilians, provoking criticism from Iraqis. So the COIN tactic of "protecting the populace, not the COIN force" is not being followed. This is not surprising when you think about it – the primary motivator of soldiers, after accomplishing the mission, is to stay alive.

Prior to Petraeus’s arrival as Iraq commander, US military forces applied bogus "counterinsurgency" tactics to the utmost in the siege of Fallujah in 2004. From Tomdispatch: "Fallujah was gutted. Two months after the invasion, Erik Eckholm of the New York Times described the city as "a desolate world of skeletal buildings, tank-blasted homes, weeping power lines and severed palm trees." At least a quarter of its homes were fully destroyed, and virtually all the others were severely damaged. Blown out windows, wrecked furniture, three-foot blast holes in walls, and disintegrated doors demonstrated that American troops had relentlessly applied what they jokingly called the "FISH" strategy (Fighting in Someone’s House), which involved "throwing a hand grenade into each room before checking it for unfriendlies." Since (in the words of Lt. Gen. Sattler) "each and every house" was searched, very few remained livable.

"The civilians who stayed during the fighting found themselves in a kill-anything-that-moves free-fire zone. When the first medical teams arrived in January they collected more than 700 unburied and rotting bodies (reputedly including those of 550 women and children) in only one-third of the city; and these obviously didn’t include the dead already buried during the battle or hidden under the debris."

It is the policy of the US government to conduct preemptive strikes on potential threats (think Iraq), so how could we expect less of soldiers and Marines? From the National Security Strategy (pdf): "America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed." The occupation equivalent to the US attacking a country considered to be potentially dangerous, is the Marine who throws a fragmentation grenade into a room before entering, a soldier who shoots a man carrying a shovel and a soldier who turns his machine gun on an approaching car. The room and the car might only contain innocent adults and children or they might contain potential killers, and the guy with the shovel might intend to implant a mine. Therefore the basis of COIN – "Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force" – is what we used to call in the army "eyewash," for civilian consumption only. The operative tactic is to kill them so they won’t kill you – this is the tragedy of a brutal military occupation. Even in wanton revenge killings of old men, women and children, like the Haditha massacre, soldiers (or in this case Marines) are not punished

In the Haditha massacre (also prior to Petraeus’s command), where 24 Iraqi men, women and children were killed in a mindless fit of revenge after a Marine died from a convoy mine, Lt. Gen. James Mattis dropped the charges against one Marine who had been accused of murder and against another accused of failing to investigate the incident. The reason? Marines are trained to kill and they can’t be punished for doing so. General Mattis is infamous for his remarks about the joy of killing people. News report: Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who commanded Marine expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, made the comments Tuesday during a panel discussion in San Diego, California. "Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot," Mattis said, prompting laughter from some military members in the audience. "It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling. You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil," Mattis said. "You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them." This is "protecting the populace?"

A secondary but important tragedy of this strategy of tormenting and killing the populace and not protecting them, of course, is the mental anguish brought upon the government operatives, actually "the boy next door," who must implement the terrible government strategy. The number of US veterans receiving disability compensation for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has increased nearly threefold since 1999, rising from 120,000 to nearly 329,000, according to the Veterans Administration. The Army is losing its battle to stem suicides among troops serving in Iraq, with a new report showing that 32 soldiers killed themselves in the war zone last year (2007) – a record high since the war began five years ago.

The US military is in Iraq to fight insurgents who are attempting to overthrow their government? No. Recently Iraqis have taken to the streets protesting the American occupation and promoting their heroes, the anti-occupation nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr and the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, while displaying the Iraqi flag and burning the American flag. (Photo credits: AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani, REUTERS/Stringer, AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani)

So toss the counterinsurgency "COIN" into the fountain of government propaganda. Don’t use the word; use resisted occupation instead. Counterinsurgency doctrine is not followed and anyhow it doesn’t apply to foreign military occupations which bring instability and hated occupation to a country. Counterinsurgency is a meaningless term when applied to military occupations except to try to put a legitimate face on a criminal act. After all, it does make the US look better to call our enemies insurgents (or terrorists) rather than occupation-resisters. But it’s not accurate. Might as well put lipstick on a pig, or call the War Department the Defense Department.

The cure? End the brutal US military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. As General Petraeus said in Iraq: "There are many here who regard us still as liberators. But there are also some that say, jeez, when are these guys going to leave? And inevitably, over time, even the best of liberators will become seen as occupiers." Petraeus for once got it right – and Louise gets it too. (photo credit: Judy)

June 10, 2008