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Democrats and War

There is an admirable strain of pacifism among many Democrats, especially among Democratic activists. Every rational, compassionate individual dislikes war and seeks to avoid it whenever and wherever possible. Yet there are circumstances in which war can be justified from a moral standpoint as well as that of national interest.

There is an admirable strain of pacifism among many Democrats, especially among Democratic activists. Every rational, compassionate individual dislikes war and seeks to avoid it whenever and wherever possible.

Yet there are circumstances in which war can be justified from a moral standpoint as well as that of national interest. Clearly, and especially with the benefit of hindsight, World War II was one such event. The Korean war, too, was among the most egregious examples of naked, unprovoked aggression of any in history. (Although at the time North Korea made the preposterous claim that South Korea had first invaded the north.)

The lesson here is that not every conflict since WWII involving the U.S. comes as a result of U.S. corporate or imperial interests as is occasionally alleged by some of those in America's extreme left. This is not to deny that the Korean war, like the Vietnam war, did result in part from the cold war mentality that the West must resist Soviet/Chinese Communist expansion in all parts of the world.

The pacifism felt by many Democratic activists has caused many of them to disparage military affairs as well as those that choose the military as a career. This has had the unfortunate consequence that these Democrats remain disinterested in military history, strategy, and tactics. This disinterest puts them at a disadvantage in fully appreciating the problems that America faces as the world's greatest economic and military power. Had Americans fully understood the capabilities and limits of American power in the late 50s and early 60s, the disaster that was the war in Vietnam might well have been avoided. Today, our power and our foreign policies have made us the target of hostile movements, which have resulted in the 9/11 attack, the Nairobi embassy bombings, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. Similar attacks in the future would not be surprising.

Lessons Learned and Not Learned
The war in Iraq has been costly in terms of lives lost and injuries sustained, both military and civilian, as well as money wasted. It was based on lies about weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist, and a nonexistent threat to the U.S. by the Saddam Hussein regime. The single-minded determination of the Bush administration to rid the world of that regime led to the pre-emptive strike in March of 2003 against Iraq.

Because that first strike was justified based on fabricated evidence, many Democrats have concluded that no pre-emptive war is ever justified. For example, a membership requirement of the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party is that one endorses a statement beginning, “We believe that pre-emptive war is wrong…”

History provides a number of examples where a pre-emptive war was or would have been justified. This telling example is from the Second World War.

As a result of the defeat of its in World War I, Germany was required to accede to and sign the Treaty of Versailles in which it was forced to accept sole responsibility for the war, to agree to complete demilitarization, and to accept the joint administration of the Rhineland, Germany’s industrial heartland, by Great Britain and France. In 1936, after only three years of secret and illegal re-militarization, Hitler ordered his army to reoccupy the Rhineland. His generals had orders to high tail it out of the Rhineland if Britain or France had made any military challenge to this invasion. When a pre-emptive strike into Germany would have been justified, both Britain and France lost their nerve. The result over the following decade is well known. William L. Shirer, in his book The Collapse of the Third Republic, quoted Hitler as confiding, “A retreat on our part would have spelled collapse…”.

A question sometimes posed by opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is this: "Have we learned nothing from Vietnam?" We have indeed learned an enormous amount from that war but also from many other wars involving a Western power fighting a guerrilla insurgency. Just a few of these: Great Britain in North America during the American Revolution, France in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, Britain in South Africa in the Boer War (of 1899-1902), America in the Philippine Insurrection, France in Indo-China, Britain in Malaya, France in Algeria, and Russia in Afghanistan. All of these were popular insurrections against the Western power.

It is extremely important that we draw the correct lessons from these wars. It is a mistake to conclude, as many Democrats seem to have done, that because the war in Vietnam was a popular insurrection that America lost, America is bound to lose any such war. In some of the wars mentioned above the European power defeated the popular insurrection. The important question to answer is this: When are such wars won by the Western power, and when are they lost?

A war that is instructive as a counter-example to Vietnam was the Malayan Emergency, 1948 to 1960, a war won by Great Britain.

That war broke out in 1948, as did several other insurrections in Southeast Asia. It was started by the Malayan Communist Party, a primarily ethnic Chinese group, and fought by its armed wing, the Malayan National Liberation Army, which sprang from the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army during the Japanese occupation of Malaya and Singapore during World War II. The MNLA employed pretty much the same kind of guerrilla tactics used simultaneously by the Viet Minh against the French, and like the Viet Minh the MNLA was successful, at least initially. By 1951 the MNLA controlled a substantial number of villages, and it was clear that the situation was deteriorating for the British and their local allies, who were primarily ethnic Malays. In October of 1951 the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, was ambushed and killed. His replacement was General Sir Gerald Templer, who had commanded a mechanized division of the British army in Italy during WWII.

Despite his training in conventional warfare, Templer combined creativity and imagination (attributes sadly lacking in many military commanders) in dealing with the insurrection. He either sped up or implemented many effective features of counterinsurgency warfare. He isolated many Chinese rural villages that were providing food and other supplies to the MNLA, moving the residents into what were euphemistically called "New Villages" where the residents could be guarded. (In this Templer used the same technique that the British used successfully in the Boer war. At that time the Brits coined a new term for these guarded encampments: In South Africa the Brits called them "concentration camps.")

Templer also made it a higher priority to protect the noncombatants rather than to find and kill the Communist guerrillas. Part of this program involved soliciting anonymous written "ballots" from Chinese and other villagers indicating who among them were Communist sympathizers. When any resident of Malaya purchased canned food, the can had to be punctured with hammer and nail so that the food could not be stored for more than a day or two without spoiling, thus denying guerrillas the ability to stockpile food. Curfews and other such measures were also implemented. The result was that by 1954 the incidence of terrorism and attacks by the MNLA were greatly reduced. A major defeat of the MNLA and Malayan Communist Party came when Malaya was granted independence in 1957, an act that removed the principal justification for the insurrection. The MNLA was driven to marginal significance and scurried to the Thai border, where they remained for several years thereafter, and the Emergency regulations were lifted in 1960.

There is one other factor that should be borne in mind. Those three Southeast Asian nations where Communist insurgents succeeded, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos, all shared a common border with another Communist nation that provided arms, sanctuary, and supplies. Those nations, Malaya, the Philippines, and Indonesia, where the insurgency failed had no such common border.

What, then, is the principal lesson to be drawn from the British experience in Malaya and the American experience in Vietnam and Iraq? It is this: conventional warfare applied against a popular insurgency is almost always doomed to failure. Both the French and American experiences in Vietnam are illustrative. But counterinsurgency warfare effectively applied can win and has won wars in a far-off land between a Western power and a popular insurrection.

Conventional and Counterinsurgency Warfare
To fully appreciate the distinction we must understand both conventional and counterinsurgency warfare.

The primary strategic objective of conventional warfare is to kill the enemy and to destroy his means of supply and support. And if a few, or even huge numbers of civilians are killed and maimed in the process, that's the cost of doing business. In WWII this meant equipping the Allied armies with machine guns, flame throwers, tanks, heavy artillery, fighter and bomber aircraft, and even nuclear weapons. The result was the devastation of both Germany and Japan with large numbers of military and civilian deaths.

The primary strategic objective of counterinsurgency warfare is perhaps not 180 degrees opposite from that of conventional warfare in that at times enemy combatants still must be killed, but it is, perhaps, 90 degrees away. The Australian adviser to the U.S. military command in Iraq, David Kilcullen, put the objective of counterinsurgency warfare very succinctly:

  • A defection is better than a surrender.
  • A surrender is better than a capture.
  • A capture is better than a kill.

Note that the last, least desirable item on the list is to kill, even to kill an enemy soldier. It is far better to have an enemy soldier defect, to turn over his weapons, and to provide information.

Critical to counterinsurgency warfare is isolating and protecting the civilian population. A necessary adjunct to the protection of the civilian population is the establishment and promotion of domestic political, economic, social, medical, law enforcement, military and other such civic institutions.

America's war in Iraq provides illustrative examples of both forms of warfare. These are described in great and instructive detail in the two books by Washington Post journalist Thomas Ricks: Fiasco tells of the war from 2003 to 2006; The Gamble continues the story through early 2008.

Until late in 2006 American forces in Iraq were under the command first of Gen. Tommy Franks, then of Ricardo Sanchez, both trained in and implementers of conventional warfare. The title of Ricks's book covering that period, "Fiasco," pretty much sums up the result. The insurrection grew, no doubt largely as the result of the many civilian casualties resulting from American military operations including frequent air strikes, which are singularly incapable of distinguishing between enemy combatants and civilians.

In late 2006 Gen. David Petraeus was given overall command of U.S. forces in Iraq. Petraeus is brilliant, knowledgeable, and he is the author of Army Field Manual 3-24, appropriately entitled "Counterinsurgency." He is an authority on the subject. He replaced the existing conventional warfare strategy with a counterinsurgency one. That change was popularly termed, "the surge." That term was very unfortunate, because it implied in the minds of many people, especially on the left, that the change amounted to no more than increasing the numbers of American troops, which would imply more American casualties and was reminiscent of the continual and unsuccessful "escalation" that we saw during the Vietnam war.

The result of this change in strategy, documented in The Gamble, was a reasonably rapid decrease both in American and in Iraqi civilian casualties–exactly the outcome that many Democrats on the left claim that they want. One example that Ricks cites: In late 2006 the probability that an American military convoy would be damaged by an IED–an Improvised Explosive Device–was about 1 in 5. That's a huge number given that a soldier would be expected to deploy to a target area many times in such convoys. By April 2008, a scant 18 months or so later, that probability had dropped to about 1 in 100, and, Ricks notes, the IEDs of 2008 were substantially less sophisticated and hence less lethal than those of 2006.

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The war in Iraq is, unfortunately, not over. Recently, we have seen American forces withdrawn from population centers to be replaced by Iraqi troops and police. Subsequently, we have seen an increase in suicide bombings and deaths among the civilian population. Evidently, all those domestic institutions alluded to above that are critical to a successful counterinsurgency strategy are not yet fully mature. Thomas Ricks, in the final chapter of The Gamble is unsure that Iraq is capable of establishing such institutions before American patience runs out.

Prospects for Afghanistan
What, then, are we to think of the prospects for Afghanistan?

Opponents of American intervention in Afghanistan like to cite an old bromide that Afghanistan is "the graveyard of empires."

Afghan history gives little justification whatsoever for this description. In the 6th century BCE, what is now Afghanistan was conquered by the Persians, who remained in control until the Persian empire was defeated by Alexander the Great, who invaded Afghanistan in 327 BC. That's about two centuries of foreign control. When Alexander died his empire broke up, but the Greeks and their descendants remained in control until a confederation of central Asian tribes, the Kushans, took over in 135 BCE. That's nearly 200 years of Greek control. The Kushans remained in control for some 279 years, not a bad period of time as empires go. There followed a period of internal strife and the rise of a number of Islamic dynasties until the country was conquered by Genghis Khan in 1221.

The Mongol rule ended late in the 14th century (almost 200 years) followed by conquest by Tamerlane in 1404 and his descendants, who ruled until 1507–another 100+ years. In 1526 the Mogul emperor Babur, a descendant both of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane rose to power, and his followers ruled much of Afghanistan until the mid 19th century. At that time both the British and Russian empires were expanding, and they clashed in Afghanistan. One result was a major defeat of a British army as they were evacuating Kabul in 1842. This event is perhaps what has led to the cliché the "graveyard of empires" even though the British reoccupied Kabul the following year. Bottom line is that throughout much of its history, Afghanistan or parts of it has been ruled successfully by foreign occupiers.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 but were driven out by Afghans with the aid of the U.S. and its stinger missiles, which made Soviet attack helicopters useless. This defeat, too, added credence to the "graveyard of empires." But the Soviet defeat lends support to the point that conventional war is ineffective against an insurgency. The U.S.S.R. waged such conventional war in Afghanistan leading to the deaths of an estimated one million Afghans. The U.S.S.R. faced as many as a quarter of a million armed Afghan opponents. Today the estimated size of the Afghan Taliban is at most 20,000.

In November, 2008, in a number of coordinated attacks Taliban fighters squirted acid in the faces of young girls and for what reason? Because those girls were on their way to school. These incidents are indicative of the policies and practices of the Taliban. Is there any movement in history that is both more brutal and reactionary than the Taliban? Who else can you think of that squirted acid in the faces of girls for the simple reason that they were on their way to school?

Seventy years ago progressives volunteered to fight fascism. Think of the Thaelmann, Garibaldi, Lincoln, Marty, Dabrowsky, and other battalions of the International Brigades that fought for the Spanish Republic. Like the Taliban, the Spanish Falangists had both religious and totalitarian motives. Many Democrats seem to have lost their resolve to oppose a brutal, reactionary, theocratic, authoritarian movement.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan is, like Gen. Petraeus, familiar with and committed to a genuine counterinsurgent strategy. He has already reduced the number of air strikes in the country by half. But counterinsurgent warfare requires a large number of "boots on the ground." The Army FM 3-24 indicates that successful counterinsurgency operations require a minimum of 1 counterinsurgent for every 50 host country residents. The population of Afghanistan is estimated to be about 34 million. Divide that by 50 and one finds that the recommended number of troops is 680,000, a somewhat larger number than our commitment to Vietnam at its maximum.

Is this realistic? FM 3-24 hedges a bit. That ratio, 1 to 50, it says, depends on the circumstances. It could be smaller, but it would still require a much larger commitment of troops than we have at present.

Here is a relevant question to consider–the kind of problem soldiers consider in ROTC or Officer's Candidate School or West Point: Suppose the enemy occupies a hill than must be captured, and he defends it was a rifle squad. That's 8 or 10 men, You have a platoon, about 30 men, and your field manual tells you that if you attack you can expect to take the hill but suffer 3 or 4 casualties including 1 man killed. Now suppose instead of having a platoon of 30 men, you had a whole company of 100 men to attack that same hill. Would you expect your casualties to go up, to remain about the same, or to go down in absolute numbers?

The answer is that the total number of casualties should go down. The reason is obvious. You as an officer are required to safeguard the lives of your men, and if casualties would increase with 3 platoons instead of 1, you'd obviously only use 1. But with 3, you could have one platoon attack while the other two provide fire suppression thereby adding to the safety of the attacking platoon.

This simple example shows why it is that if you really want to reduce the number of American casualties in a war, you should increase the number of American troops. Of course, one could reduce American casualties to zero in Afghanistan by withdrawing all American troops, a policy advocated by many, particularly on the left. But does that reduce the total number of casualties, which include those of the Afghan civilian population? Reducing American forces seems to have resulted in an increase in civilian casualties in Iraq. We on the left must ask ourselves if American mothers love their children more than Afghan mothers do. If we can use our military might to bring peace, progress, and prosperity to a nation in the face of a brutal theocracy, is there not a moral justification for doing so? If not, let us at least be honest about the prospect of the bloodletting that is almost certain to follow from this decision.

A common objection is that the U.S. can't do everything. That is quite true, and there are a number of current wars, particularly in Africa, that should be the responsibility of others. However, does the fact that we can't do everything imply that we shouldn't do anything?

Another objection is that we invaded Afghanistan because it provided a base for al Qaeda, and al Qaeda is no longer there. Two problems with this objection. First, if we were to evacuate Afghanistan and the Taliban were to take over –a very real prospect–there would be nothing to prevent al Qaeda from re-establishing training bases there. Doing so, would be attractive given the pressure from the Pakistani army against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan. Second, Pashtun speaking people comprise about 42% of the Afghan population, but they also comprise about 15% of the population of Pakistan. The border between the two countries is unmarked and ill defined. We do know that al Qaeda is in Pakistan. Thus, the war in Afghanistan must be conducted in conjunction with military operations in Pakistan if al Qaeda is to be eliminated there. The Pakistani army is primarily posted to the border with India and is as yet untrained in counterinsurgency operations. An American withdrawal or defeat in Afghanistan would clearly embolden and strengthen al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Colin Powell had posited a number of conditions that would justify America going to war. Among these is that we intervene in overwhelming force, so that victory is assured quickly and with minimum American casualties. This we did in Iraq in 2003. He also said we must have an exit strategy, which we did not have in Iraq.

Most seem to have taken Powell's word as gospel, but Powell is wrong about an exit strategy. Both in Iraq and in Afghanistan the occupation was very likely to lead to an insurgency. That was less likely in Iraq, which had a better educated, more secular population than Afghanistan, but the utter incompetence of the Bush administration invited an insurrection in Iraq. That the Taliban regrouped in Afghanistan after their initial defeat should have been considered at the outset due to their fanatical commitment to fundamentalist Islam. Hence, any conceivable exit strategy from there for the near term would have allowed the Taliban to return to power.

Before invading Afghanistan we should have prepared for a counterinsurgent war. In such a war it is estimated that maybe only 20% of the effort is in military operations. The rest is the creation and fostering of all those domestic civic institutions–political, economic, social, etc. Like it or not, that's nation building. That takes a very long time. In Malaya it took 12 years to defeat the insurgency, and Britain had a very long head start in nation building given that the Malay states had been incorporated into the British Empire decades before. There were schools for the locals and university educated civil servants that were local people. Thus, when independence was granted in 1957, a domestic civil service was experienced and ready to take over.

Gen. McChrystal is expected to ask for more troops for Afghanistan. There will be three choices:

  • Maintain our current troop strength but remain in Afghanistan. The Taliban is currently gaining. The result of maintaining current levels would be continual and very possibly increasing U.S. and Afghan casualties with no prospect of success.
  • Withdraw all American forces. Yes, we'd reduce American casualties in Afghanistan to zero, but the war would go on resulting both in the strengthening of al Qaeda and the severe oppression of the Afghan people, especially the estimated 49% that is female.
  • Apply a vigorous counterinsurgency strategy. This would require increasing the number of U.S. (and hopefully NATO) troops with the aim of reducing Taliban violence to a level that could be handled by Afghan forces alone, at which time all foreign forces could be withdrawn. Where would these additional troops come from? Additional troops might well be unavailable due to continuing need in Iraq. During the 2008 primary campaign Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd had proposed compulsory national service for Americans to include both military and civilian options. If we are really going to engage in a major counterinsurgency war and do it right, raising taxes and raising troops by means of a draft would have to be considered.

These are difficult choices. We must think carefully about which one is the least worst considering both the interests of the U.S. and those of the Afghan people.

herb engstrom

by Herb Engstrom

Herb Engstrom is a retired physicist who worked on materials problems related to energy production and storage at both Brookhaven and Oak Ridge National Labs. See Herb's blog.