The Liberal Romance of small wars

In fighting a small war against an armed uprising, we know the formula.
Protect the population, give them governance, outgovern the rebels, and we will succeed.


But how do we know this? Simple: history. We know that the only campaigns that succeed are enlightened campaigns that use minimal force and win over the people. Malaya and Kenya tell us so, in this Anglo-Centric little story, and the Soviets in Afghanistan and America in Vietnam show us the bitter wages of brutish efforts to kill off resistance.

And America’s success in pacifying Iraq after 2007, by refining military force around the rediscovered classical doctrines of the past, seems to reinforce the message.

There is a comforting moral lesson in this story: that, as Henry V tells his men in Shakespeare’s version, ‘When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.’

And that, right there, should sound alarm bells. Henry V, like many Plantaganet expansionists, waged a brutal war in France. And successful overdogs have often won campaigns with highly unsentimental cruelty. The United States used notoriously vicious methods to put down an uprising in the Philippine-American war (1899-1902), and in the ‘golden era’ victories of Malaya and Kenya, the Brits used methods ranging from proxy torture, indiscriminate bombings and well-serviced concentration camps to subdue their colonial subjects.

The history of counter-insurgency is not a liberal romance of enlightened political engineering. It is not about out-nicing the opponent. It is not ‘countering irregular activity.’ It is crushing a revolt. Sometimes it works (when the enemy is a minority, is isolated from external support, when the occupied population is more terrified of other predators than the occupier, when the insurgents turn away from resistance to pure crime, etc). And when such conditions are not present, it doesn’t work so well. Successful revolt-crushings have used a whole array of other methods, including bribery on a massive scale, and the exploitation of racial hatred, or in some cases, the forcible removal of whole populations.

And the jury is still out on the long-term meaning and explanation of the victorious ‘surge’ in Iraq. First, we don’t yet know how victorious it really was. Did it engineer a long-term political reconciliation, or did it just tactically create a temporary space for fragile political progress, in the long-term only postponing more waves of civil war?

And how important was the surge anyway? The prior results of sectarian and ethnic cleansing, the ceasefire from the Mahdi army, the realignment of Anbar powerbrokers against Al Qaeda, were other forces that coincided with the surge. And none of these was obtained by creating a central state of enlightened ‘governance.’

Does that mean we should fight brutally? Not for my money. It means we should be honest and clear-eyed about the political realities of such wars, and be wary of mythologised histories, before we choose to wage them.

To misunderstand this – to believe that foreigners are just biddable dupes who can be permanently bought off with development and welfare by transient external powers from far away, is to overlook some of the most powerful and dangerous forces – nationalism, fear and contempt for outsiders, and the human desire to survive, by hedging or aligning with the winning side – the side that is on the battlefield last. Even the Afghan who prefers our model might be too terrified to support it wholeheartedly. And other Afghans who like elections and new amenities might not want foreigners in strange uniforms speaking strange languages governing them.

The Taliban know this, and it is at the core of their ‘Night Letters.’ the logic is simple and powerful: ‘these foreigners may build wells, hold elections and give you lessons in gender awareness. But we are part of this soil, and only we can give true law and order, and you know that they will leave but we will always return.’

Our better histories already tell us this. But because it is uncomfortable to swallow, the liberal romance about small wars and the deeper romance about the British empire continues to seduce us.

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