Monday, November 24, 2008

Walls in Iraq

A big part of the alleged success of The Surge of 2007-8 came from the establishment in Baghdad of neighborhoods that had undergone sectarian cleansing along Shi'a-Sunni lines. And part of The Surge strategy was to construct a system of walls in Baghdad that reinforce the separate sectarian characteristics of neighborhoods. While it has played a role in reducing violence in the overall context of the American approach, it makes sectarian reconciliation even more of a challenge. And sectarian reconcilation was supposedly the political goal of The Surge.

Steve Neva in "Walling Off Iraq: Israel's Imprint on U.S. Counterinsurgency Doctrine" Middle East Policy Fall 2008 looks at this aspect of a phenemenon that I don't see discussed very much in the US commentary on the Iraq War, which is great extent to which American counterinsurgency (COIN) approaches in the Middle East are influenced by Israel's approach.

This always concerns me when I hear about it. Because Israel was founded in 1948 and has had conflicts with the Palestinians ever since. That conflict entered a new stage in 1967 with the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. That was 41 years ago. And there is no end in sight to Israel's conflict with Palestinian terrorism. I'm not exactly sure what kind of "success" that represents.

Neva writes:

Although overall measurements of violence in Iraq may have numerically declined, Iraq has become increasingly caged within an archipelago of isolated ethnic [more accurately, sectarian] enclaves surrounded by walls and razor wire and reinforced by an aerial occupation.
He expands on the point:

Yet, while the military touts its increased use of embedded anthropologists and “human terrain systems” teams as examples of this new culture-friendly approach, the cornerstone of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq today is less about cultivating human relationships or political solutions than about limiting and imposing them, primarily through concrete walls backed by increased violence from the skies above Iraq.

This surge in walls and enclaves suggests that the primary “lessons of history” being followed by the U.S. military’s actual counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq today derive less from Malaya, Algeria or Vietnam, than from Israel’s urban-warfare laboratory in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip over the past decade. [my emphasis]
Now, obviously, there's nothing wrong with learning from Israel's experiences. But given what we're seeing in Iraq, I have to wonder how much our military's COIN experts are taking into account the downsides of the Israeli experience.

Neva also points to the plausible likelihood that the strategy of targeted assassination by aerial strikes that we've seen practiced by the Cheney-Bush administration not only in Iraq but in Pakistan, Somalia and Syria is also heavily influenced by Israeli practices, if not by any demonstrated long-term net benefit:

[Israel] has erected hundreds of miles of separation walls and high-tech fences and over 400 checkpoints across occupied territory that enclose Palestinians within an archipelago of enclaves in order to separate them from each other and from illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

This strategy is maintained under a blanket of aerial surveillance and deadly unmanned drones, backed up by frequent airborne assassinations and strikes.
It seems to me that it's important to recognize that, official rhetoric aside, Israeli policy in the West Bank has in practice been build around a model of permanent occupation and a willingness to continue such "low-intensity" (i.e., counterinsurgency) operations indefinitely. It's already been going on for 41 years. As Neva describes it:

The United States continues to be mesmerized by a mythical version of Israel that is based more on savvy marketing than demonstrated performance. Israel’s responses to
unconventional war have never been well developed or very successful. It was defeated by Hezbollah in South Lebanon not once but twice. Its attempt to crush the Palestinian uprising through force actually led to further suicide bombings, while its destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure has left the political field open to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel is arguably more insecure now than it has ever been.
Is that really the optimal model for the US in Iraq and Afghanistan and the various other countries against which this administration has been making strikes predicated on the aerial-assassination strategy? (Just to be clear, when I refer to targeted assassinations, I mean air strikes aimed at killing particular individuals, like the one that alleged successfully targeted Rashid Rauf in Pakistan early today their time.)

Neva gives the immediate background of this desire to copy Isreal's approaches of dubious long-term success:

[N]ew U.S. military deployments in Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti and then in the Balkans in the early 1990s provoked a longer-term recognition that the future of war was likely to include unconventional and counterinsurgent warfare, and a growing strategic desire to find a way to “win” such conflicts.

In this context Israel emerged as a default model for how to directly fight insurgencies, especially after the “Black Hawk down” debacle of 1993 in Somalia, which led U.S. military strategists to rethink their approach to fighting urban warfare in Third World “battle spaces.” In the following years, according to urban theorist Mike Davis, Israeli advisers were brought in to teach Marines, Rangers and Navy Seals the state-of-the-art tactics against urban insurgencies that Israel was using to suppress Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. At that time, the United States had an almost dreamy regard for Israel’s military acumen: lightning victories on the battlefield, ruthless pursuit of enemies, and intelligence agencies worthy of great deference. [my emphasis]
Nava points out that despite the seemingly enlightened talk from our generals that counterinsurgencies can't be solved by military means - a line that also serves as an alibi for the military's failures - Israeli and American COIN strategies in practice seem to assume the opposite:

Behind the use of Israeli-style walls and enclaves in Iraq there appears to be a deeper U.S. embrace of a new post-Vietnam strategic doctrine regarding counterinsurgent warfare that bears many similarities with Israel. It is based on the
belief that violent insurgencies against foreign military occupation can actually be
defeated through shifting military tactics rather than through a political solution that addresses the root of the insurgency, namely an end to foreign occupation.
Which is a strategy that makes sense if it's aimed at implementing a foreign policy like Israel's in the West Bank oriented toward an essentially permanent state of violent conflict. And in practice, the Israelis see that state as something very much like "winning".

But that's not how the famous COIN doctrine of our Savior-General Petraeus is being passed off to the American public. It is consistent, though, with Cheney's original idea of a permanent occupation of Iraq with the ability to use bases in Iraq as jumping-off points for applying "regime change" in other Middle Eastern countries.

With our generals now hinting at a "surge" (aka, military escalation) in Afghanistan of as many as 20,000 troops, these aspects of the Savior-General's COIN strategy need to be examined closely.

And in the broader sense, this has implications for long-term US military planning. On the one hand, given actual experience of the last two decades especially, it makes sense to maintain a higher level of COIN capability than our glorious generals did prior to 2001. But on the other, if that COIN capability is based on a deeply flawed approach, that could wind up doing a lot more harm than good. Especially if we go looking for wars in which to apply those mistaken COIN appraoches.

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