June 30, 2010
Border WarsBy Jonathan F. Keiler
A principal problem in the Afghan war is that it has been improperly defined and thus subject to an unworkable strategy. The replacement of General McChrystal by General Petraeus is not likely to immediately reverse the error, but it at least appears to be leading to some reconsideration of American interests and options. The situation in Afghanistan should not be approached as counter-insurgency battle as in Iraq, but rather as a distant border war.
The Afghan campaign began as a large-scale punitive expedition following the 9/11 attack. Afghanistan (formerly Bactria) was the target of the expedition because al-Qaeda, an Islamic terrorist group made up mostly of Arabs, had used the Pastun-dominated borderland between historic Persia and India (today Iran and Pakistan) as a base and staging area.
That punitive expedition was remarkably successful -- routing al-Qaeda from its bases, sending its remnants fleeing into Pakistan, and overthrowing the Islamic Taliban regime that had supported the terror group. At that point, the vital American interest in this historically wild and lawless border region ended. The Afghan war is not a necessary war.
The Bush administration got sucked into an expanded role in Afghanistan when follow-on counter-guerrilla operations morphed into a nation-building enterprise. The situation became further confused when the United States embarked on a truly necessary war against Iraq.
While the Afghan campaign was a punitive expedition gone wild, the Iraq war was a necessary geopolitical endeavor against a supremely hostile nation-state, which may or may not have produced weapons of mass destruction, but which without doubt threatened vital American and Western interests in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The Bush administration's reluctance to properly define and defend the war allowed the Left to mischaracterize the campaign pejoratively as "blood for oil." In an attempt to further demonize the Iraq war without appearing to be soft on defense, the Democratic Party went on to turn the truth on its head, characterizing the Iraq war as historic blunder and the Afghan war as necessary, a direct inversion of the truth which Republicans have done little to rectify.
Militarily, the Iraq campaign began brilliantly, but it too bogged itself down in a nation-building enterprise. However, unlike Afghanistan, Iraq is a historically civilized area, capable of being rehabilitated and governed. The enterprise was necessary, just as the rehabilitation of Germany and Japan was necessary after World War II. Unlike Japan and Germany (although it was a real possibility in both cases), the United States was forced to wage a counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq against various armed elements that sought to undermine stability. After several starts and stops, we found an effective counter-insurgency commander in David Petraeus, who appears to have brought the Iraq war to a successful conclusion.
Largely as a result of Petraeus' success in Iraq, we have been attempting to mimic his counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. With McChrystal gone, Petraeus will have direct control, but not likely more success. That's because Afghanistan is not a nation. It is a collection of warring tribes, ethnic groups, warlords, drug traffickers, and criminals, just as it has been for millennia. It is a border region, and the only war that can be successfully fought on the border is border war. Effectively, Afghanistan is now a distant border for the United States, one that has to be monitored and muzzled, but not necessarily governed.
"Border war" has become a strangely archaic and little-used term in these politically correct times, but it is a legitimate and necessary form of warfare, and one that operates in complete contravention of the strategy of counter-insurgency. The major object of counter-insurgency is providing security to the civilian population, which the enemy seeks to undermine and disrupt through intimidation and violence. In border warfare, the objects are deterrence, preemption, and reprisal, which by their very nature may injure the civilian population.
Thus, in counter-insurgency, it is important to limit civilian casualties, even if this occasionally means losing your own soldiers through restrictive use of firepower, or exposing units to fire as they "show the flag" in contested areas in order to inspire civilian confidence in the government you represent or are attempting to promote. This is the type of campaign we waged successfully in Iraq but which is foundering in Afghanistan. On the other hand, in border warfare, civilian casualties are an inevitable but necessary consequence of combat on a lawless border, and the moral and legal responsibility for those losses rests with the enemy combatants who use the border areas.
In a recent column entitled "The Western Way of War," the Jerusalem Post's invaluable Caroline Glick touches on this issue when she complains that the United States and Israel have both suffered setbacks when fighting wars while attempting to limit civilian casualties. This is true, but it is for mostly differing reasons that need to be understood before effective corrections can be made.
For the United States, using highly restrictive rules of engagement in Iraq, even at the cost of some soldiers, was a necessary aspect of counter-insurgency war. Israel too imposes highly restrictive rules of engagement on its soldiers, but not because they are engaged in counter-insurgency war. It does so in order to limit international and domestic criticism of its military operations.
Israel is not now engaged in counter-insurgency war, nor, really, has it ever been. It fights border wars. Even before Israel became a state, beginning in the 1930s, when Jewish combat groups under the eccentric British officer Orde Wingate took the fight to hostile Arabs, the Israelis have excelled at border war when allowed by officers and politicians to fight it properly. Evelyn Waugh in his satirical novel of World War II Men at Arms seems to poke fun at Wingate through a one-eyed oddball British officer named Richie-Hook who Waugh says "had wandered through the Holy Land tossing hand grenades into the front parlors of dissident Arabs."
In a border war, the enemy is on the other side of the border, and the population on the other side of that border is by definition an enemy population. Soldiers are bound by the various rules of war not to wantonly harm those civilians, but they are not required to sacrifice themselves should an enemy combatant choose to use the front parlor as a sniping post. In that case, you might just toss in a grenade. Not necessarily so in counter-insurgency warfare, when harm to the parlor and the family inside might outweigh taking out the odd sniper.
Israel's latterly problem is that it has imposed counter-insurgency tactics on its soldiers in its border wars. The Lebanon campaign of 2006 was frequently and falsely described in the press as a counter-insurgency war when it was nothing of the sort. It was a deliberate war waged by Hezb'allah on a lawless border using a combination of guerrilla and conventional tactics. Israel's relatively poor performance in that war was caused in part to the use of counter-insurgency tactics in an all-out fight.
Even Israel's battles with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not counter-insurgency conflicts -- they are just incredibly complex border wars. As Glick pointed out in her column, Israel's last truly successful campaign was when it went into the West Bank heavy and hard in 2002, even though at times, as in Jenin, it sacrificed soldiers in an unsuccessful attempt to lessen domestic and international criticism.
The Western Left has problems with borders, which they, in their usually clouded and contradictory world, view see as impediments to universal fellowship. Of course, few leftists actually live in borderlands, preferring the security of large, comfortable cities run on fossil fuels from which to expound their opinions. But borderlands are often inherently problematic and violent, as we can see on our own southern border today. Afghanistan is such a land, and it likely always will be.
General McChrystal's staff mocked Vice President Biden's proposed approach to fighting the Afghan war -- through special forces and air power -- because they were ordered to prepare a counter-insurgency campaign for which such tactics are counterproductive. And Biden and his boss, no doubt, would quail at my description of border war now in Afghanistan -- or, if we continue to do nothing, likely one day again on our southern frontier (as happened early in the 20th century).
But the fact is that Afghanistan should be treated as a lawless border state, not worth our blood and treasure unless we are threatened, at which time we should hit the place heavy and hard. And if we don't have exact intelligence and there are collateral losses to Afghan civilians, sad as that may be, in the context of border war, it is acceptable. Sometimes a grenade through the parlor is the only way to go.