Global Counterinsurgency, Part 3

GLOBAL COUNTERINSURGENCY, PART 3….Glenn Reynolds responds here to my post on Saturday criticizing the “bomb ’em into the stone age” crowd, and says via email, “It’s possible you might even agree with my suggestion.” Let’s find out!

But first, an aside: my comment about “casual genocide” wasn’t aimed at a few random blog commenters, as Glenn suggests. I was responding primarily to John Podhoretz, who suggested pretty clearly in his New York Post column last week that we made a mistake in Iraq by not killing enough Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35; secondarily to the Ann Coulters and Michael Ledeens of the world, who regularly imply that our only path to victory is to pulverize ever more of the Middle East; and more generally to all the conservative hawks who think the main reason we’re not doing better in Iraq is because we just haven’t been willing to fight a tough enough war. So that’s where that came from.

But on to the main topic. I believe that our fight against Islamic jihadism is analogous on a global scale to a counterinsurgency. To use the hoary phrase, we’ll succeed by “winning hearts and minds,” and conventional warfare just can’t do that. In fact, it’s mostly counterproductive: it won’t succeed in killing the guerrillas and it will lose us the support of the local citizenry, which in turn will make the insurgency even more formidable. Lebanon is serving as a pretty good case study of this right now. Here is Glenn’s general response:

It’s not so much a question of more or less violence as it is a question of applying the proper amount of violence to the proper people….In the 1990s, we followed the “ignore it and maybe it’ll go away” strategy. As I’ve noted before, I can’t blame people for that ? it was the strategy that I favored, too, based on what I knew at the time, as I thought that if we waited Islamic Jihadism would collapse under the weight of its own idiocy. But it clearly didn’t work. I don’t know whether the current strategy is correct or not, though it seems to me that so long as we give Syria and Iran (and for that matter, Saudi Arabia) a pass, we’re never going to get much of a handle on this problem.

So do we agree? I can’t tell for sure (what’s the opposite of giving Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia “a pass”?), but I doubt it. We may agree in theory on the idea of conceiving the overall war against jihadism as something like a counterinsurgency, but in practice I think Glenn will support conventional war at every turn. Conversely, I believe that the evidence of the past half century clearly suggests that conventional war, no matter how brutally prosecuted, is ineffective against guerrillas. If we don’t have the strength to face up to this and stop fighting conventional wars just because that’s the kind of war we’re comfortable with, the end result is likely be a nuclear bomb in downtown Manhattan.

So what’s the alternative? I believe it’s fundamentally nonmilitary and revolves around engagement: trade agreements, security pacts, genuine support for grassroots democracy, a willingness to practice the same international rules we preach, etc. The idea is to slowly but steadily promote democratic rule, liberal institutions, education of women, and international commerce. When military responses are necessary, they should be short, highly targeted, and designed to piss off the surrounding citizenry as little as possible. This will, needless to say, take a very long time and a lot of self restraint, but it won’t succeed at all if every few years we set things back a decade with a conventional war.

And what if this doesn’t work? What if we make progress among the great majority, but the committed jihadists retain enough support to become dangerous on a much broader scale than they are today? What if they nuke Manhattan anyway?

If that happens, then we really do have World War III on our hands. There are no guarantees of success, after all. But a series of conventional wars pretty much guarantees this outcome, whereas the counterinsurgency mindset at least has a chance of success. If we’re serious about our future, it’s the best option we have.

UPDATE: On second thought, I really should include this comment from Glenn’s post too:

The real problem in the war on terror, I think, is a relatively small number of terror-backers in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Why aren’t we waging unconventional warfare against them? They undoubtedly have toes we can step on in the form of business interests, overseas accounts, vacation homes, etc. Would we make more progress by targeting those sorts of things, rather than fighting their cannon fodder in the field?

If his suggestion that we stop “fighting their cannon fodder in the field” means that he agrees that conventional warfare isn’t working, then maybe we agree more than I think. I’m not sure if that’s his point, though.