Wednesday, 11 August 2010

A Decade of Brilliant US Foreign Policy

I used to naïvely believe that America's right wing War on Terror was a childish over reaction to a limited terrorist force that has destroyed any international sympathy it had gained after 9/11. I thought that its actions critically ignored classic counter insurgency theory which was its only means of success in the Middle East. I now believe that it wasn't really looking for success in the East at all, just a new enemy to perpetually fight. Its foreign policy over the past decade has achieved this recent aim perfectly.

Classic counterinsurgency doctrine arose as a state centric response to domestic guerilla actions. Robert Thompson's writings on counterinsurgency are key. Writing first hand on successful counterinsurgency experiences in Malaya and unsuccessful American policy in Vietnam, Thompson exposed the weaknesses in insurgency strategy and provided a good model to counter it.

This thought centres around the fact that the insurgent has to win the hearts and minds of the populace to survive. Mao famously stated that “the guerrilla must swim in the people as the fish swims in the sea”. The insurgent relies people for supply, movement, personnel and camouflage. The state on the other hand does not have any of these limitations but instead has its own weaknesses, based on its large mass. By being small and mobile guerilla forces can strike and withdraw to safe areas (usually rural areas). Their aim is to elicit a response from the state such as the sending out forces, to be targeted, or a disproportionate and unfocused use of force (such as the bombing of village havens for insurgents in Vietnam). This response further alienates the population and increases the support for the insurgents. The insurgents then are able to amass more support than the state to encircle cities and take power. This third stage is key for success, happens quickly and is the only point where anything that resembles conventional warfare takes place. Thus conventional warfare strategy is largely irrelevant for the state.

The state vs insurgent struggle hinges on which side can encourage the other to piss off the populace the most. The state can do this by having a clear political vision to combat insurgent propaganda, sticking to the rule of law so that it can be seen to be just, limiting movement, using an economy of force and using small well supplied and trained mobile units to fight the insurgents on their own grounds. This is designed to put pressure on the insurgency without losing support from the population. Similarly if the insurgent's actions cause civilian damage then they lose any moral authority and claim to power. The modern world only increases the importance of the counterinsurgency doctrine as mass communication means that all action is captured and relayed faster than ever before. The winning of hearts and minds (a term originally coined in Malaya) therefore is more effective for either side than ever before.

Whilst this strategy concerns a domestic struggle I would argue that they are also applicable on a global scale and thus The War on Terror. If you replace the ideas of central areas of governmental control such as cities with Western states and rural areas with rogue and pariah states much of the same strategy applies. Therefore, it appears that by ignoring this reinterpretation and trying to wage a conventional type of warfare US action has completely played into insurgent hands. They had no political vision for the states they were entering above removing the old regime, they abandoned their own rule of law in Guantanamo Bay, they moved into remote areas with uneconomically large forces that are open to hit and run attacks, they repeatedly use disproportional force such as artillery, bombing and helicopter attacks and have done nothing to prohibit the movement and supply of the insurgents. As a result they have created a more unified enemy in the the Middle East and lost a large amount of troops in the process.

If this is all true then why am I claiming that US foreign policy has been so successful? I believe that the US correctly identified a crucial difference between domestic and global counterinsurgency strategy. This difference is the separation of each area of control. In the domestic struggle the insurgents, if successful, are able to encircle the areas of government control (usually cities from rural areas). The boundary of these areas is not black and white. If you bomb and destroy a village in the countryside you might have killed a government employee's mother which could make them support the insurgency from inside your power base (a city). The US on the other hand can lose all support from the Iraqi and Afghani people without it translating to a loss of power on US soil. The Iraqi and Afghani insurgents will also never be able to encircle the US.

In a post Cold War world the American right had no external enemy to justify military spending and unite the public behind them. There was now no left wing threat to the American way of life which could be used to justify the movement to the right or at least the preservation of the status quo. By doing the opposite of what counterinsurgency doctrine states they were able to construct a better enemy than one which is state led. They were able to create an insurgent enemy that can never be defeated. Every attempt simply solidifies insurgent support which never really threatens US soil. I don't believe this was a conscious plan from the start but an evolutionary road
begining with public demand for action in Afghanistan.

While the administration in the US has changed the situation created by the Republican administration of George Bush still exists. The genie has been let out of the bottle, the enemy has been created. It turns out that sending 150,000 troops, 5000 of which have died isn't such a great strategy to stop 19 people hijacking 4 planes or 4 people blowing up tube trains, it is good for getting George Bush elected twice, Tony Blair three times and everyone else looking the other way.

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