Sunday, March 18, 2007

Here's how US political scientists are talking about Iraqi civilians

Colin Kahl is the political scientist who wrote in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs that "US compliance with noncombatant immunity in Iraq has been relatively high by historical standards, and it has been improving since the beginning of the war". By "historical standards" he was alluding to the fact counterinsurgencies in Philippines at the turn of the 19th century, and in South Vietnam more recently killed somewhere around 3% of the entire civilian populations in those countries, while the civilian death-toll in Iraq has been much lower on a dead-persons-per-capita basis. To understand what he means by "improvement since the beginning of the war", you would have to steel yourself, put on your white lab-coat and the read the whole article.

Today, thanks to the public-spiritedness of one of Kahl's scientific colleagues, we are offered some hints about the latest thinking about this. First of all, it seems the military-academic community has actually borrowed from the medical community the concept of "best practices", only in this case they are called "COIN [which means counterinsurgency] best practices", and this "COIN best practices" is something that is being implemented under the new leadership of Petraeus. So not only have efforts to "spare the civilian population" been improving, they are actually now part of an ideal approach: They represent "COIN best practices". There appear to be two main components of this: First of all, naturally you try not to do too much shelling of civilian neighborhoods; you try to minimize atrocities, and so on. Secondly, this appears to involve "spreading American troops out into smaller bases from which they can work with Iraqi forces to provide local security".

The next thing we learn is that there has recently been a "briefing", but the details of the briefing are kept out of sight, behind the three dots. All we can glean is that it appears US military authorities were doing the talking, and academics including Kahl were doing the listening and the nodding of the heads. Here's what Kahl says about the briefing:
. . .This shift [in COIN strategy] makes sense from the perspective of COIN best practices and the new COIN field manual. There are other successful approaches to COIN, including what the briefing calls "the Roman Strategy" ("make a desert and call it peace"), which was basically the approach Saddam used to prevent sustained insurgency in Iraq. But, as the briefing properly notes, adopting this approach (or even somewhat softer, but still highly coercive COIN practices, such as those used by the Americans effectively in the Philippines between 1899-1902), is incompatible with norms against targeting civilians embraced by the U.S. military and political leadership. So, with the Roman strategy off the table, that leaves the "clear, hold, and build" option. However, as the briefing makes clear, this strategic shift may simply be too little, too late. What the briefing doesn't say is that it is also unclear whether employing COIN best practices will work in the context of not only a raging insurgency (in Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala), but also a sectarian civil war (in Baghdad, Diyala, and increasingly Kirkuk), diffuse criminal anarchy and militia rivalry (in the South), and endemic separatist tendencies (in Kurdistan).
In other words, among the other successful approaches to counterintelligence is the "Roman strategy", or scorched-earth approach, where the occupying forces annihilate target civilian populations. Kahl doesn't say this (along with its "somewhat softer, but still highly coercive" variants) is recognized as a shameful crime by every decent human being, he merely says it is "incompatible with norms against targeting of civilians embraced by the US military and political leadership." That is the first point. We have his word for it that the "Roman strategy" was "taken off the table," but only because they are "incompatible with the norms..." of the Bush administration. Am I the only person who hears an echo of the verbiage that has been used in the discussions about torture?

The second point is Kahl's own contribution to this.
What the briefing doesn't say [he writes] is that it is also unclear whether employing COIN best practices will work in the context of not only a raging insurgency (in Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala), but also a sectarian civil war (in Baghdad, Diyala, and increasingly Kirkuk), diffuse criminal anarchy and militia rivalry (in the South), and endemic separatist tendencies (in Kurdistan).
If "COIN best practices" don't work, what then? Could the "norms" be relaxed and some of the "other successful approaches" be tried? Think of the language this administration has used in support of torture.

Kahl's little essay is something he sent to other experts who participate in a listserve, and he gave Juan Cole permission to publish it. Cole's own point in publishing it is no doubt that Iraq is on the brink, and this is no time to be thinking of toppling the SCIRI-led administration. But I think this tells us more than that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn't COIN mean "counterinsurgency" rather than "counterintelligence?"

8:42 AM  
Blogger badger said...

that's what I meant, its a typo and I'm going to fix it right now. thanks for the quick heads-up

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no problem. its flattering to hear so quickly from the author.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From "parvati_roma" in Italy - thanks yet again, Badger, your blog is invaluable!.. and this chilling little pointer further confirms the lie of the land. I've been following your blog for a few months now, have frequently quoted it in debate and have been trying to thank you for your excellent work for some time now but blog-mechanism technicalities have defeated me. Let's hope "this time lucky!" - amongst other things, I've just reposted your memorable reflections on Samaha's magnificent "hand of fitna" article here:

All the best.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your commentary on my recent email on the evolution of U.S. counterinsurgency in Iraq, re-posted on Juan Cole's website. The "academic" tone should not lead you to believe that I, personally, think about the horrible ongoing human tragedy in Iraq in purely calculating terms. Rather, the original email was in the context of commenting on the analysis in a widely circulated briefing by Andrew Krepenevich, a well-known scholar of counterinsurgency, on the thinking leading up to the recent U.S. "surge" (the briefing and the full context of my email can be found at:

I think it is fair to take the military and administration to task on the torture issue. However, despite the widely publicized abuse of detainees and the failure of the U.S. to live up to its international legal obligatons as occupying powers to provide for basic security in Iraq, the U.S. military has not thrown out the Geneva Conventions altogether. As my FOREIGN AFFAIRS piece makes clear, the U.S. military has taken more steps than is commonly recognized to protect Iraqi civilians. That is a good thing, both morally and strategically. We know what contemporary wars look like when powerful militaries combat insurgents without any regard for the population. In Chechnya, for example, between 50,000 and 250,000 Chechen civilians have been killed by the Russian military in indiscriminate attacks since 1994 (out of a total population of 1 million).

All that said, in my FOREIGN AFFAIRS article, I note the many instances in which American troops have engaged in misconduct or conducted operations in ways that put Iraqi civilians at signficant risk of death and injury. And I clearly note in the conclusion of the article that the U.S. should take additional steps to protect the Iraqi civilian population and improve its record of investigating alleged atrocities.

Lastly, I share your concern about what might occur "after the surge." Indeed, I have an essay on precisely that topic in the new FOREIGN POLICY (online):

10:42 AM  
Blogger badger said...

thank you. I take up the Krepenevich item in the following post.

12:45 PM  
Blogger badger said...

parvati_roma, thank you so much for the comments. You finally got through ! I re-read that "hand of fitna" piece on the site you mentioned, and, well, you're right...
I didn't reply sooner because I was taken up with replying to my other Unexpected Guest...

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.

1:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

badgers are so cute (at least in that picture) lol

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