Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Human Decency is Hardly Wishful Thinking...

Ralph Peters is a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and has written numerous commentaries on security issues. As can be expected of a former military man, Lt. Col. Peters is rather hawkish in his outlook, though I rather suspect he regards himself as a realist. In any event, he recently wrote this article for The Journal of International Security Affairs in which he attempts to argue for "moral clarity" and "an end to wishful thinking" in the ongoing military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. His central argument is that the United States has lost it's appetite for bloodshed and that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been unnecessarily lengthened by the failure to commit large numbers of troops in the early stages of the conflict, as well as the failure of officials to recognize that "[T]he point of [warfare] is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty."

He goes on to state that collateral damages and civilian causalities are unavoidable in war, which is true, but his implicit statement is that nothing should be done to attempt to mitigate them. Indeed, given that the first several pages of his argument are full of bloviating tirades about how the United States has become "seduced...with a false-messiah catechism of bloodless war" thanks to "think tank scholars" and a "white-collar suburban society" with no "sense of grit in daily life", it's hard not to characterize Peters as a sort of cartoon character macho man. He talks extensively about how "think tank astrologers" wish to "constantly [narrow] the parameters of what is permissible in warfare" and complains that in the fight against Islamic terrorists "[t]hey pray to their god for help in cutting out throats, and we want to chat."

I'm not sure where to begin addressing his mischaracterizations of the issue except to refer the reader to the full article and note that Peters seems at all times to be talking about the current conflict with Islamic fundamentalists as if it were simply World War II with the bad guys in different costumes. This is bizarre, because he's correct to note that Islamic terrorists of the Al-Qaeda vein are not the same as "secular groups groups fighting for power or wealth". He spends nearly two entire pages discussing the contrast between of religiously-motivated terrorists and secular foes, and yet he somehow seems not to notice that that these differences, well, make a difference.

Indeed, it seems very much as if he only mentions Islam as another attempt to jab at what he sees as a weak society in which

We have oversold ourselves on the notion of respect for all religions (except, of course, for Christianity and Judaism) that we insist that faith cannot be a cause of atrocious violence. The notion of killing to please a deity and further his perceived agenda is so unpleasant to us that we simply pretend it away...

...A paralyzing problem...is that our religious class has been educated out of religious fervor...[They] no longer comprehend the life-shaking power of revelation...Emotional displays of faith make the functional agnostic or social atheist nervous; he or she reacts with elitist disdain. Thus we insist, for our own comfort, that our enemies do not really mean what they profess...
Here Peters' has twisted real suggestions that perhaps some Al-Qaeda leaders are using religious rhetoric to motivate their henchman to fight for their own otherwise esoteric or distant political ends into a non-existent claim that no Islamic terrorists are actually religiously motivated. I don't think I've ever heard that claim. Indeed, Al-Qaeda foot soldiers and their ilk are religiously motivated to the core, regardless of whether or not their leaders are sincere in their own professed beliefs. No, this is just Mr. Peters spewing bile. Still, he's correct that religiously-motivated foes are unusual in that they possess a dangerous martyr mentality not present in secular foes- "Where", he notes, "are the atheist suicide bombers?"

Unfortunately it seems that Peters wishes to match fervor with fervor (I don't think I'm being unfair to say that I can see some lionized Christianity between the lines in this article) and that he sees no answers to the problem of Islamic extremism that do not lie on the battlefield:

The essence of warfar never changes - it will always be about killing the enemy until he acquiesces to our desires or is exterminated...

But how can that work against foes enamored with the idea of a glorious martyr's death? This is not World War II. The United States is not engaged with an enemy state that can be beaten on the battlefield until it's leaders submit under the threat of the annihilation of their country. Indeed the state-to-state phases of these conflicts (the ousting of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and the defeat of the Hussein regime in Iraq) have become in a sense only minor prologues to the ongoing operations in the region. Defeating the state militaries of Iraq and Afghanistan could almost be called relatively straightforward tasks, but subduing the irregular insurgents and extremist forces in the region has proven far more complicated and slow-going. The current foe (or rather, aggregation of foes) is a stateless, decentralized organization able to recruit young, desperate men and fill their heads with religious nonsense and send them off to die. It's leaders don't care in any real way about battlefield losses, the destruction of infrastructure, or the deaths of civilians - all of these things are recruitment tools for the Jihadists. Peters is fond of using the of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an example of "fighting dirty to win", but Bin Laden and his cronies would be delighted to see such catastrophic civilian bloodshed in Iraq or Afghanistan - After all, they have no state to protect per se, and such bloodshed would only help to legitimize their cause in the eyes of their potential recruits.

I studied terrorism under Dr. Okbazghi Yohannes, a man who was involved for years in the struggle to break away from Ethiopia and establish the state of Eritrea. One thing that was drilled into my head repeatedly is that terrorist (or "resistance") organizations can only be successful if they can convince a meaningful portion of the population that their goals are legitimate. Bin Laden recruits his cannon fodder by filling their heads with tales of a hostile, callous United States that wants to wipe Islam from the face of the earth. Say what you will about the evil lunatic, but he's got a good recruiting strategy - And the war of attrition that Peters is advocating feeds right into it.

This is obviously not to say that the United States should not respond with force against terrorist threats from extremist organizations like Al-Qaeda, nor is to to somehow imply that I don't understand that civilian casualties are a part of any conflict. The issue is rather that Peter seems to think we are still engaged in 20th-century state-oriented combat in which strategies of attrition and total war can actually work. That is not the case here. If civilian casualties become too much of a part of the current conflict, the U.S. will simply generate outrage among the Arab world that will lead more and more young Arabs into the clutches of the Jihadists. Peters, I suspect, would respond with something along the lines of "kill those new recruits too, then the ones after that, until there's no one left to recruit." (Or perhaps I'm being uncharitable.) That's perhaps technically possible, but it can also be avoided by a strategy that centers around de-legitimizing and marginalizing the extremists.

If the United States can effectively define its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as something along the lines of a temporary provider of security - one that can effectively provide protection to civilians while helping their own officials to facilitate a return to normal day-to-day and an improved standard of living - then the extremist's cries of American hostility, colonialism, and a new Crusade will begin to ring false to the people of the region and the numbers of young men enticed to join the the Jihadist cause will begin to dwindle. Religious extremism of all stripes thrives in times of hardship and fear.* Absent these conditions, the appeal of a martyr's death and posthumous paradise begins to dull and the most dangerous religious extremists are left lonely and ranting at the walls in their mosques, synagogues and churches. The cure for most of the extremism in the Middle East may lie in helping people live their lives comfortably and without the shadow of violence hanging over them. Certainly combat missions have a role in the process, but they are only part of the process.

Peters is correct on another point: There will always be religious extremists, just as there will always be factions who wish to do violence to others for a panoply other reasons. That being said, the answer to violence isn't always "kill the enemy until he acquiesces". It's not "wishful thinking" to look for a way to resolve conflicts without resorting to out and out barbarism, nor is it somehow effete to view military force as something to be used sparingly and with an eye to minimizing the suffering of innocents. In the end I'm afraid that the "reality" that Lt. Col. Peters wants us to face exists only in his own mind.

*Peters even notes this, and implicitly laments that increasing standards of living and a decreased perception of danger has led to a weakening religious fervor in the U.S. Why then can he not see how it applies to the situation in the Middle East?

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