No this title by no means is a sequel to “Why the West Rules for Now” by Ian Morris, nor is it contemplating comparing West with East to decide who is winning. It is a sad commentary of the biggest military alliance in the world losing peace in all the wars it is fighting globally.
We had discussed the Af Pak component of this narrative here last month. The wider ramifications of a post US Iraq were analysed here.
In a soul searching article, How we lost the peace in Iraq in Small Wars Journal, organisational failings of West in fighting the war in Iraq have been analysed. We go beyond this and analyse basic causes for the political and military defeats or whereabouts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. As both these wars were being fought simultaneously, mistakes from one were being replicated in the other. We also discuss if the West has something to learn from Indian experiences in Kashmir.
NATO’s shortsighted intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan with no clear end game in mind has left these regions in a chaotic condition far worse than what they were in when the West first intervened. President Bush “invaded” Iraq and Afghanistan with short term aims of removing Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. The “mission” accomplished statement displayed his apparent arrogance.
However the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan both began only after the fall of Saddam and the Taliban regime when the West had to switch from conventional war fighting to an unconventional format. If US was weary of rise of “Islamic Extremism”, it provided the Islamists all the ingredients for a prolonged battle in which time was on their side. Today, with its quest to leave Iraq to its own machinations with Iranian and Saudi Arabian overtones, the West has lost more credibility.
Apart from political gaffes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a living example of how unconventional wars should not be fought. The conventional wars were won by the West courtesy their technological superiority after destroying basic military and civil infrastructures of both the countries. However, it was not prepared for the speedy transition required to fight the war amongst people- amongst those people who were famous for defeating all powers by shear dint of their staying power and fanaticism.
In 2003 West made their first major blunders.
In Iraq it did not take the local tribal Sheikhs, whether Shia or Sunni, on board while operating amongst people. The Iraqi system worked on this basic grass root level system of governance.Thereafter, the West blundered along by dismantling the Iraqi Army and the police. Having left Iraq to Iran’s machinations, it found it did not have sufficient troops trained in unconventional operations to take on the hybrid forces that now confronted them with hybrid threats from terrorism to insurgency.
In Afghanistan it gave up a good opportunity to neutralise Taliban by letting them slip into Pakistan. This because it followed a flawed policy of too few boots on ground. By the time they realised this blunder, Pakistan had strengthened Taliban and continued to play a double game with the West.
As per the SWJ article, the Western forces were not equipped to fight this unconventional war against a rabidly fanatic force which had the luxury of time on their side. Moreover, the West continued to operate largely with conventional troops rather than the Special Operations Forces (SOF). As a result, they lost out on the battle of cultural sensitivities, perception management and finally failed in winning and keeping hearts.
This argument is flawed to the extent that you cant have quick transition from an expeditionary conventional force to an all together different SOF format in double quick time. The hybrid nature of threats and warfare would seldom permit this luxury in the short term. Hence the concept of a single force gains currency unless the wars get too prolonged as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here too the West continued to suffer from lack of good home work to fathom the nuances of fighting the hybrid wars under conditions favourable to the enemy.
The bottom line of all psychological operations should have been to convince Iraqis and the Afghans that the US was there to make peace for them. Instead the West continued to reinforce the popular Islamic belief that this was a US vs Islam contest thus uniting their efforts against US and whatever it believed in. This was the biggest US failing in these wars.
As Petraeus was getting to grips with the situation through the surge in Iraq, President Obama took charge of White House and shifted focus to Afghanistan, thus leaving the West to avoid a defeat rather than win a war. Americans now agree with General Sanchez when he stated that “The best we can do with this flawed approach is to stave off defeat.” The entire allied effort after 2005 was to “starve off defeat”, not to win the peace. In Afghanistan once again the surge seems to have been called off too early as the ANA and ANP are still not capable of handling the situation even with NATO help. Further the Tajik dominated ANA may fracture if the West left too soon.
Amidst all this the West never fought a cogent battle of hearts and minds and allowed the advantages gained at various moments – such as killing of Sadr of the Sadr Mahdi Army and handed over the advantage to the insurgents operating against American troops. The top civilian and military leadership in Iraq demonstrated that they had no clue of how to actually win the battle of hearts despite using the term extensively.
Hearts and minds, as a concept, is a much more than mere use of the cliches. It’s application needs the counter insurgent to be faster, sharper, more nimble and adaptive than the insurgent. Further Counter Insurgency is a thinking soldier’s war. The themes, their means of transmission and the belief are paramount in understanding how to win over the population to your side. More than anything else it needs a detailed knowledge of cultural sensitivities of the target population, their beliefs, faiths and ethnic loyalties. More than anything else it has to be a credible consistent and genuine effort. It is a specialised mission and can not be left to the whims of the uninitiated. A mistake US repeated often by not distinguishing between these roles for their commanders and troops.
Further, this lack of understanding, as blamed by most US commanders, led to large deficits in the counter insurgency organisations to gather, evaluate and disseminate central themes to their troops on ground. In counter insurgency operations the intent of the commanders is delivered on ground by troops, troops who are well informed as “diplomats in contact” with the population. This failure to adapt invariably meant defeat.
The most critical part of operating amongst people is to win the support of local population with credible action. For better part of the war the West struggled to understand the ethnic, religious and regional dynamics of Iraq or for that matter Afghanistan. The same mistakes were repeated in Afghanistan. Troops were never allowed to befriend the locals for fear of causalities. The reverse happened when high handedness resulted in more casualties and loss of credibility.
This has heated up the debate in US military circles about the validity of a single force fighting a conventional and unconventional war. Today, after 9 years in combat US is proposing a rapid shift of forces to take on both these missions separately.
As brought out in our earlier posts, the West is very articulate in postulating theories and thesis but is far removed from reality in implementing these lessons of fighting amongst people. Only a dynamic, thinking and adaptive counter insurgent can achieve the requisite congruence to fight the hard and soft components of such wars – an aspect often missing in the current US conventional capability.
Perception management was another casualty of both the wars. Unfortunately the insurgents never read the US PR manuals and their handling left much to be desired. Forces launched to capture Baghdad in the beginning of the war were not educated enough or prepared enough to deal with these soft skill complexities. As a result, the psychological component of the war was never exploited fully to help shape opinions.
Finally, as the US forces pulled out of Iraq the perception that the US lost the war in Iraq reigns.
Now the US thinkers argue that a multiple effort should have been launched to harness tactical, political, individual, criminal and tribal issues to gain support of the local population.
In Af-Pak, where Petraeus had lost substantial credibility of shooting from the hip; literally blackmailing his President into “surging”; painted Net Assessments of peace, tranquility , development, people contact and stability by 2014…and delivered hogwash.
Since Attack Helicopters and Predator drones cannot distinguish one bearded man from another, US and ISAF have killed more terrorists than ever claimed as nafri (numbers) by the Taliban…most innocent bystanders. They did the same at Kosovo too; and the Russians at Grozny.
The UN has a long standing tradition of keeping mum on Western HR violations and so they are…MUM…In the swish corridors of the UN, Greenpeace, Wold Watch on HR…elegant and “happening” men and women sip Brazilian Latte…talking of Michealangelo…Greece…Renegade Britain…Euro collapse and Dollar, Yuan in that order…Human Rights matters only if it happens in Kashmir; certainly not in Af-Pak or in Best Pal Pakistan’s courtyard…Quetta, Pindi or thereabouts.
Did Petraeus, with the Government playing ball with him deliver Heart? Did he mess up? Do the Yanks understand Sufiism? Do they really care? The answer, we are afraid, lies on the wrong side of the fence.
The Indian experience of winning hearts goes to prove that the Indian approach has delivered every time in dealing with the nuances of wearing heart on its sleeves. Today the situation in Kashmir is far better than in any other proxy war led situation in the world. India has a lot to teach the world about fighting among people by resorting to a multi dimensional humanitarian approach. If the West too employs its “heart as a weapon” it may be able to operate better without the need to create a large number of special forces to combat insurgencies. The cliche, Fight, Talk and Build would automatically transform to Talk, Build and Fight. Unfortunately for US the flaw lies in translating these theories into practice.
If the West leaves Afghanistan also without settling all the issues including Pakistan, they would again leave an Iraq like anarchy behind them with little hope for peace.