Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More on the Iraq/Afghanistan air wars

The Spanish conqueror Cortes and his native lover/collaborator Malinche, back in the days where technology really gave the white folks a leg up on the natives they wanted to kill, conquer and enslave

(You can tell this isn't a Republican site, because that painting shows what many might consider to be a heavy suggestion of an unclothed breast.)

Chris Floyd focuses on the USA Today report on the air war that I blogged about in my last post in his guest gig for Glenn Greenwald, Rain of terror in the U.S. air war in Iraq Salon 10/23/07. His prose gets pretty purple in places, but it's a good piece.

At one place he writes:

The military tactic of close air support in a firefight is not the issue here. The issue is why the U.S. military is engaged in this Iraqi urban warfare, with its inevitable killing of civilians, in the first place. And the reason is that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their cohorts have made the deliberate, conscious decision to engage in state terrorism in order to advance foreign policy and energy objectives they held long before 9/11 "changed the world."

That is the true context, and content, of the war. Anyone who supports its continuation - under any auspices, in any form, for any amount of time longer than it takes to remove all the troops quickly and safely - is advocating the perpetuation of state terror in the name of the American people. (my emphasis)
Given the importance of the issue, the purple prose doesn't faze me. (I indulged in a bit in the picture caption above, actually.) But I would take issue with his comment, "The military tactic of close air support in a firefight is not the issue here."

It seems that he's trying to sidestep the issue of whether such tactics "save American lives". And his basic point is sound: the clowns who planned for this war and those who cheered for it should have really thought through what this was really going to be like. But the "military tactic of close air support in a firefight" is at the core of the issue of how air power is used in situations like the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Sidestepping it leaves the field free for the conventional arguments of the air power zealots.

American military tactics for conventional war calls for heavy "close air support" to ground troops. In the conventional, army-vs.-army situation, that makes a lot of sense, playing to the huge advantage of the US in air war capability.

But in counterinsurgency, it's a whole different thing. I should note at this point that the air power true believers think that air power can do everything in war that's worth doing. It's faith, "the evidence of things not seen", in St. Paul's definition. No amount of real-world disconfirmation makes the faith go away.

But, unlike the R&D for the air power weaponry, the concept at issue is not rocket science. You drop a 2000-lb. bomb in the middle of a crowded residential district in Baghdad, civilian noncombatants are going to get killed. Lots of them, if it's done at the level of intensity that is being applied in Iraq. Everyone who loses a father, mother, daughter, son, brother, sister, cousin, neighbor, friend or even sees the bodies of people lying around who were clearly not combatants, gets a new reason to hate Americans with every noncombatant casualty. And, in a society that still relies heavily on clan links, the extended family of each victim has a solemn obligation to kill somebody from the tribe that killed their relative, i.e., Americans.

Whatever benefits the US gets out of counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq, those casualties work directly against seeing those benefits achieved. So, if the US is going to win whatever can be won in a war like this, the tactic of blowing up a building in the middle of a crowded urban residential area to get one sniper means that we become less and less likely to "win" with every incident of that kind.

But let's be clear. The argument for this approach is that more Americans are likely to be killed if it's not done. And that's true, at least in part. In any given firefight in an urban area like anywhere else, if American troops are penned down, close air support is often a faster way to take out the attackers than directed fire from ground forces. And because it's faster, in some individual combat situations, it's going to save American lives using aerial attack as opposed to not using it. If snipers are firing from an apartment building and a rocket from a helicopter or plane blasts the entire building to splinters right away, its most likely going to take out the attackers. And, in the immediate battle, the noncombatants of both genders and all ages that are taken out weren't a factor either way.

So, if wars were nothing but an aggregation of individual battles, the air power zealots' argument would be hard to dispute. But when members of 10 or 20 families are killed in one of those attacks in addition to the armed fighters carrying out the attack, that means that 10, 20, 30 or 40 more Iraqis feel the urge and even the necessity to go out plant IEDs, or take shots at Americans themselves, or pass information to the guerrillas that will help them kill Americans, or decide to withhold any cooperation whatsoever from the Americans or their local allies - how many Americans die because of that? Lots.

That's the kind of war Cheney and Bush got us into in Iraq. If it wasn't what they wanted, they and their supporters should have thought about this much more carefully than they did.

And the US badly, badly needs to get over this fixation on unconditional surrender as the only valid form of Victory. Afghanistan 2001 was a situation where the United States had a real need to fight a counterinsurgency. Let's pretend, totally counterfactually, that we actually had had a competent American government in power in 2001. In that case, the US would have presumably gone into Afghanistan with a two-pronged plan, the main one aimed at directly (i.e, using US forces) killing or capturing as many Al Qa'ida cadres as they could. The other would have been aimed at replacing the Taliban regime to facilitate the main goal of targeting Al Qa'ida, because the Taliban was so intertwined with Al Qa'ida in practice.

Once the maximum damage had been done to Al Qa'ida, a reasonable version of "winning" for the United States and NATO would have been installing a representative national government in Kabul and planning for a defined number of years, not longer than five years, to assist them with training and direct combat against hostile guerrillas in maintaining themselves in power. If they could achieve reasonable stability, we could help them with economic development, hopefully giving them better business options than growing opium to poison junkies in Western countries. If not, well, we would have given our best shot, and maybe have destroyed Al Qa'ida much more thoroughly than Cheney, Bush and Rummy actually did.

But the idea that the US or European powers can go into any country we decide needs a new government a run an effective counterinsurgency relying primarily on foreign troops is pretty much insane. When Spain and the other European empires were first colonizing the New World, they could pull something like that off. European armies had such an advantage in weapons technology and organizational skill that they could overwhelm natives who didn't want to be controlled by the foreigners. Especially since they were assisted enormously by the fact that the Europeans brought diseases for which New World natives had low immune resistance and therefore killed off staggering numbers of them.

European empires endured in various places in the world into the 20th century. But the fate of Latin America showed the future. Like Britain's American colonies, the colonists of the early 19th century had weapons technology, scientific knowledge and social/organizational skills that were good enough to kick out the European powers, except for minor pockets (e.g., British Guiana).

There aren't going to be any replays of the European conquest of the New World. It didn't work in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. And it's not going to work in Iran, or Syria, or the Sudan, or wherever else our neoconservative warmongers think it would be cool to take over. Hell, it's not even working in the West Bank.

The United States has a huge technological advantage over the insurgents in Iraq, just as we had a big technological advantages over Vietnamese guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars. But the technological gap between the technology of the Iraqi resistance and that of the United States is relatively much, much smaller than that between the European settlers and the New World natives.

The US does need some capacity to wage counterinsurgencies wars. But "success" in doing so means keeping a very realistic view of how much - or, better, how little - is actually going to be accomplished directly in such conflicts by the US in other countries. And it also means recognizing that they have to be fought without such tactics as blowing hell out of residential neighborhoods in crowded urban areas as part of "close air support".

And, since I've been trying to squeeze as many blog posts as possible out of Walter LaFeber's The American Age (1989), it's worth quoting his description of one straight-up American victory. That was when St. Reagan sent in the armed forces to conquer the deadly threat from the Caribbean nation of Grenada, population circa 30,000. (Yes, that's thirty thousand.) That's a situation where you would think that even a police department from a large American city could bring to bear enough force to overwhelm any opposition, no matter how much the natives hated the American invaders. Here's LaFeber's one-paragraph account:

In one tiny Caribbean island, however, Reagan had his way. Grenada had become independent of Great Britain in 1974, then was ruled by a highly corrupt anti-Communist regime until 1979, when Maurice Bishop forcefully replaced it with a leftist government that soon cooperated with Fidel Castro. Between 1981 and 1983, Bishop opened secret talks with the United States. He offered to call elections and discuss Washington's concerns, but Reagan finally refused to talk with Bishop in mid-1983. When a more radical Bernard Coard overthrew and killed Bishop, then fired into pro-Bishop protesters, U.S. officials determined to invade. The official reason for the October 25, 1983, invasion was to protect 595 U.S. medical students supposedly endangered by Coard's forces. The more important reason was the opportunity to use U.S. fire power quickly and successfully on behalf of the Reagan Doctrine - especially after 241 U.S. troops had been killed by terrorists two days before in Lebanon. The invasion, however, suffered embarrassing problems of logistics and a failure of the Eighty-second Airborne Division (supposedly the crack U.S. fighting force) to overcome 700 Cuban engineers who fought back. American troops even discovered that they had to use 1977 tourist maps that had such points of interest as nutmeg factories on it instead of the grid coordinates needed in battle. After the invasion force was increased from 1,900 to 6,000, had lost 19 dead (116 wounded), and had killed 24 Cubans and 45 Grenadan soldiers, it finally conquered the island. (my emphasis)
Overwhelming technological superiority just ain't what it used to be.

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