An outside force taking control of a region or state, whether by force or by outstaying an initial welcome, will eventually come to be seen by the people of that state or region as an illegitimate occupier. The original 13 colonies came to see England as illegitimate, despite sharing the same ethnic, cultural, and linguistic background. We can’t claim to have even this much in our favor in current conflicts. It happened here; it happens everywhere. In my firsthand experience of the initial occupation of Baghdad in 2003, the citizenry were wary, but generally welcoming of us. “Thanks for coming. When are you leaving?” was always the question. IED’s weren’t even a concern at that point, mostly random potshots from teenage thrill-seekers and criminals or angry ‘Fedayeen Saddama’. Within six months, we were deep into an insurgency we hadn’t prepared for. One year on, things were so bad we were extended another three months, a period of time in which my unit lost eight more soldiers and I earned a Purple Heart myself. We earned a return trip to Baghdad in 2005/6 for the ‘surge’ and we are still there today.
There is no country in the world that has ever invaded another and held on to that ground permanently without eradicating the local populace or nearly eradicating them and integrating the remainder. There are even examples of the ‘invader’ being absorbed into the culture of those they subjugated (i.e., the barbarian conquerors of Rome). Annihilation is not one of the options on the table as a policy for America in future. That requires no further explanation.
One thing, among others, that America has been more successful at than any other modern nation in the last fifty years is the deployment and use of fast, overwhelming military force. This much is certain from the first Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem comes when we decide to stay. This is also certain from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. What is there to be learned from this?
Occupation of another state or region never works in the long term; it costs too much blood and treasure and is not in keeping with the values, policies, and principles America holds and wants others to believe it holds to defeat those ideologically opposed to us. Despite all that we have learned in our counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, these lessons are only of limited application elsewhere. You could not apply the same template within the broader Middle East, let alone in other regions of the world. What we have been successful at and what we should do to secure victory in the future is to get there, get in, get it done, and get out.
It has been said that amateurs do strategy; experts do logistics. America is unrivaled in the world in its expertise in projecting its power anywhere on the globe. Our troops even get to eat at Burger King when they come off a patrol. We’re good at logistics and that’s what gets us there. There is hardly another state in the world today which the American military could not invade and defeat in every sense of the word inside of three months. We are very good at this too. Our problem comes where we don’t get out while the getting is good.
The policy to pursue going forward is one akin to what has been called ‘punitive incursion’. The idea, put simply, is go in, ‘punish’ the bad guys with military destruction, then leave with a warning that we’ll be back if threatened again. And then actually do it again and again if they don’t straighten up. It would begin with a mass troop build up, which also serves as a warning and gives space for diplomacy to work, then lightning invasion with ‘major hostilities’ ceasing inside of a couple weeks, days even. From that point, we ‘facilitate’, not create, the formation of a caretaker government with a leadership council formed from all relevant groups of the local populace. We make a fair monetary assessment of the damage we caused in the invasion and hostilities and set aside funds for it. The United States maintains total control over the country in the beginning and gradually cedes more and more power to this interim government and slowly feeds the identified funds to that government. We occupy and control all key strategic points in the cities and countryside. The United States, its allies, and the international community provide humanitarian aid, but we do not venture out into the weeds to give it. At six months, this government has total control of the country once again, it has funds to operate, and the U.S. military is completely withdrawn or close to it. This model, rather simply outlined, allows us to avoid many of the problems we have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first and most obvious is that it takes our troops out of harms way quicker and before an organized insurgency can form and before our adversaries elsewhere in the region and world can begin to support an insurgency in a proxy war, as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s been said that it’s better to fight our enemy over there, than to fight them here. It is better and easier for the enemy as well. Instead of having to plan secretly and extensively for years to strike against America and cause few casualties and little physical damage, plots which are usually uncovered at their genesis or along the way, all our enemy has to do now is wait for a U.S. patrol to come by and pull the trigger or funnel money, supplies, and expertise to people that do. It costs them very little, while we spend billions to fight and sustain ourselves over there far from home. No matter our military or technological advantage, we’re fighting on their home turf and this enemy doesn’t wear uniforms. It has taken us years to understand them, their culture, and to find enough people to even speak their language.
The biggest advantage will be that we won’t be essentially responsible for the millions of inhabitants of that country. When you break it, you own it. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and decided to stay, we became instantly responsible for all that happens or doesn’t happen there. An old man dies of a heart attack, an event that occurs millions of times daily worldwide, and the U.S. is responsible for not providing adequate medical care and facilities. We may not like it, but that is how the people there see it. If we don’t stick around and don’t try to rebuild a nation, we won’t be held responsible for the consequences of failing to do so. The idea that America, an outside nation, as strong as it is, can come in by force and build a safe and secure nation, a condition that in most cases never existed there before, is simply arrogant and naïve. Failed states are somewhat like having a dumb child; he’s dumb but he’s our child and we still love him. Any outside force that takes control of another state or region, no matter how enlightened or well-intentioned, will eventually come to be seen and resented as an occupier.
Another advantage comes in quickly returning power to an interim caretaker government formed from members of all relevant national groups. The longer we wait to return power and responsibility to that country itself, the more we ‘own’ the problem and become invested in solving it. The longer we keep control the longer we remain the scapegoat for all cases of failure. To run a system you must learn how it works. The larger the system, the longer it takes. On a national scale, it takes years to learn how to get a system to work efficiently. Some would say our own system in America doesn’t run efficiently. In the meantime, the local population blames you because the electricity doesn’t work, the water and sewage don’t run, and the trash isn’t getting picked up. In America, this causes politicians and officials to lose their jobs. In Afghanistan and Iraq especially, the failure of public services in the cities was blamed on America, though their failure was precipitated by insurgent action. Saddam kept the lights on and the trash off the streets, but America can’t? The sooner we give control back to that country, the sooner they become responsible for coming up with local, sustainable solutions to local problems. We can certainly offer help and expertise where necessary, but they must ask for it.
One of the age-old problems scientists face when observing experiments is whether the fact the experiment is being observed changes the result itself. It’s true in this policy instance. It doesn’t matter how well thought out, planned, or executed a program is in Iraq or Afghanistan, the fact that the U.S. is involved at all ‘taints’ it and it becomes a handle for the opposition to grab onto. The populace may not oppose these programs, but saying they do actively support them is a stretch, though this is also affected by fear of insurgent reprisal. In Baghdad we had to give garbage trucks armed escorts to do their jobs. If the public works and services and their functioning had been turned over to an Iraqi government by an America on its way out the door, the insurgency would not have grasped onto interfering with them as a way to oppose America and its ‘puppet’ government and the local populace would not have blamed America for its deteriorating living conditions. It can be argued that an Iraqi government may not have been able to get services restarted on their own, but it must be said that we did not get it done quickly nor do much better ourselves.
The plight of those affected by war must always be considered. The dead, injured, displaced, homeless, sick, and hungry are always a result. When you invade a country, you create these problems and a country such as America must do something about them or look like a hypocrite. One cannot purport to stand for all the good things in the world and then leave the civilian victims of a military situation one created to fend for themselves. But there is a great difference between giving immediate aid to those affected and rebuilding the lives of the people of an entire country. We should follow the philosophy of feeding a man a fish, not teaching him how to fish. Feed those we can, treat those we can, help where we can, and otherwise do no harm. We should not venture out from our posts to do so. If we go about knocking on doors and telling people we’re going to fix things, we’d better do it. We are now seen in Iraq and Afghanistan as people who do not keep our promises. To actually do so requires a much larger commitment than America is willing or can afford to pay. We should not promise what we cannot deliver, otherwise we’ll be held to book when we fail to do so. That’s how it works in America when our leaders fail and that is how it works everywhere else. Do not promise more than you can deliver.
This is also where multinational organizations, our allies not or less willing to use military force, and our own public and private aid mechanisms come in. We give technical and humanitarian aid and assistance from the outside, not from the inside. We give them as much as they ask for and allow. Using international and multinational non-governmental organizations, such as the United Nations, lends legitimacy to the effort. So does asking for and receiving assistance from our allies that because of their domestic political, social, or constitutional constraints cannot or will not intervene militarily. It makes it everybody’s ‘problem’, not just ours. It places the impetus on the leaders of that country to lead, not just follow the U.S.’s recommendations as we occupy their palaces. We do not wait until after the invasion to start talking about this. We decide to go to war, let everyone know beforehand that it’s going to be messy, we’re going to need help cleaning up afterwards, and helping that nation to rebuild itself is in everyone’s interest, not to mention it’s just the right thing to do.
It is the conventional wisdom today that the way to victory is through winning ‘hearts and minds.’ Machiavelli said that if you are loved and respected, you can always lose that love and respect; if you are hated or feared, you don’t have that to lose and you may always later gain love and respect. America is certainly not the black hat, however our focus on trying to make friends of enemies has led us astray. It is not necessary for everyone to love us, we just need them not to oppose us or just stay out of the way. There is a difference. The longer we maintain a physical, active presence in the Middle East in countries that we have taken by force the more responsible we become for all that goes on there and the more we begin to look as if we have permanent empirical ambitions there. Next year will make a decade in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq. This is bad because that is the line our opponents have been cranking out for decades now. We’re no better than the Soviets and we want to impose our ideology over theirs and will do so through the use of force. Our argument that we can make their lives better is also failing because, simply put, we’re not. We’ve simply exchanged one set of problems for another.
‘Hearts and minds’ can be won without being there. In fact, they’re won easier from afar because we won’t make the deadly mistakes we make in occupation. We were very successful at convincing people behind the Iron Curtain that the American way offered a much better life than what they had. We did it with our culture, our values, and our ideas. It’s hard to knock down someone’s door wearing a Kevlar and carrying an M4 rifle and tell them you’ll be better off on our side. Every time a seemingly innocent person is shot on a checkpoint or killed in an airstrike we defeat our message, unavoidable, necessary or accidental though it may be. Every time someone cannot make it to work or a student cannot go to school because there is a cordon and search of their neighborhood, we destroy a lot or at least a little of the good will we worked so very hard to build. Easy to be hated, hard to be loved. We shouldn’t seek to win ‘hearts and minds’; we should simply seek not to turn ‘hearts and minds’ against us. They don’t have to love us, just don’t hate us. There has been much debate as to whether or not we have actually created more terrorists in the war on terror. If you kill someone’s family member, especially in the Middle East, it doesn’t matter how strong a justification you had for it they are not going to accept it. This is a legacy which we will have to work hard to face down in future generations. Though this does not mean the effected will always become terrorists, it certainly doesn’t mean they’ll like us more than the other guys.
There have been many ‘nation-building’ parallels drawn between Iraq and Afghanistan and Germany and Japan. This is comparing apples and bowling balls. Japan and especially Germany were both very developed nations before World War II and benefitted greatly from not only the reconstruction assistance of the U.S., but also the new era free of empires colliding over resources, colonies, and spheres of influence. These were countries that were developed enough to have colonies of their own before the war. Iraq and especially Afghanistan were not that far along. We are not ‘reconstructing’ nations, we are building completely new ones out of the ashes of an old order that was cobbled together at the end of World War II and survived through the Cold War. Just as the counterinsurgency lessons we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be applied as a template, our nation-building lessons from Germany and Japan cannot be applied there as a template either.
What is the template or the historical comparison that can be drawn upon to show that this new approach will work? The first Gulf War saw us do essentially the same thing up to the point where we stopped before sacking Baghdad. To put it simply, the concerns of having to occupy and reconstruct Iraq were more than George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell wanted to deal with so they stopped short of taking Baghdad after militarily victory. Another example used is the 19th century British expeditions into Afghanistan where they too easily defeated the Afghans initially, but once they set up in occupation faced continual raids on their encampments and logistical columns. Col. T.E. Lawrence of Arabia put the ancient guerilla raiding techniques used by the Bedouin to great effect against the modern Turkish army during World War I. The Russian adventure into Afghanistan shows that continuous, extensive, and brutally-suppressive military action doesn’t work either. The U.S.’s more enlightened approach at occupation has had just as little success. None of these are examples of this model working, but they show that other approaches have not worked. It does, however, show the potential for success is there if we are able to avoid the pitfalls of an occupation fighting an organized insurgency.
Another issue to address is the cost. There are varying estimates of the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that range from the billions up to the trillions. Regardless of which figure you accept, it must be conceded that it has cost us a great deal of money. Every day we move thousands of tons of fuel, food, and ammunition by planes, trains, and automobiles across the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East to get to our troops and civilians there. No matter your view of whether America should withdraw or stay, it is a fact that the longer we are there the more it is going to cost us. Besides the costs of feeding, fueling, and arming our troops, we have also paid billions out to contractors and spend billions on trailers, generators, air conditioners, buildings, and other equipment which we will not be bringing back with us when we do leave. In my time there I certainly appreciated air conditioners and refrigerators filled with cold water more than anything. The PX was good as well. However, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more if we would have came, took care of our military business, and left quickly before we had the need to build entire small towns of our own to live in. I would have also appreciated it if I didn’t have to go back a second time to fight an established insurgency supported by money, equipment, and expertise from our regional opponents. It isn’t the actual fighting that costs so much (though it isn’t cheap either), it’s the logistical sustainment. For every combat trooper, there are three to four support troops working to sustain the fight. Even these support troops have been pulled into the fight and long, slow-moving logistical convoys have become the main target for IEDs. There is no other way to get our troops, supplies, and equipment into the theatre besides float, fly, and drive them in.
If we build up overwhelming force, press the attack fast, hard, and all at once, set the international aid community, ourselves, and our allies to work on the humanitarian situation immediately, turn power over to local authority quickly, and leave before an insurgency can develop on its own or with the help of outside actors, we can avoid many of the problems all other previous empires, states, or nations have faced in occupying another state or region. It will allow us to defeat our enemies militarily and decisively without allowing them to bleed us slowly and determine where and how the fight will go.