Sunday, January 09, 2005

Gangs, Counter-gangs, Pseudo-gangs, Keeni-Meenis, Death Squads, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and All...

I think this might be the most important story of the day. File it away in your memory for future reference.

What to do about the deepening quagmire of Iraq? The Pentagon’s latest approach is being called "the Salvador option"—and the fact that it is being discussed at all is a measure of just how worried Donald Rumsfeld really is. "What everyone agrees is that we can’t just go on as we are," one senior military officer told NEWSWEEK. "We have to find a way to take the offensive against the insurgents. Right now, we are playing defense. And we are losing." Last November’s operation in Fallujah, most analysts agree, succeeded less in breaking "the back" of the insurgency—as Marine Gen. John Sattler optimistically declared at the time—than in spreading it out.

Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. (Among the current administration officials who dealt with Central America back then is John Negroponte, who is today the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Under Reagan, he was ambassador to Honduras.)

Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries, officials tell NEWSWEEK.

The fact that South America is being used as the historical frame of reference for this sort of thing does not fill me with confidence. Right wing death squads in places like El Salvador were notoriously indiscriminate and unpleasant. Coupld that with this...

Shahwani also said that the U.S. occupation has failed to crack the problem of broad support for the insurgency. The insurgents, he said, "are mostly in the Sunni areas where the population there, almost 200,000, is sympathetic to them." He said most Iraqi people do not actively support the insurgents or provide them with material or logistical help, but at the same time they won’t turn them in. One military source involved in the Pentagon debate agrees that this is the crux of the problem, and he suggests that new offensive operations are needed that would create a fear of aiding the insurgency. "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists," he said. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation."

...and alarm bells start ringing immediately. Can the Sunni population be brought over to the side of the counterinsurgents purely through carrots, lacking any stick? Perhaps not but the hallmark of successful counterinsurgencies is, if not liberalism, then at least discrimination in violence and a broadly recognised degree of accountability. The hallmark of right wing paramilitary activity in South America was that it was neither accountable nor discriminate. Many COIN specialists also believe that it was largely counterproductive. Sending Kurdish death squads into Sunni areas to teach them "the cost" of providing a sea in which the insurgents can swim is, frankly, barking mad.

There are cases where a more discriminate and constructive version of this sort of thing has worked. British counterinsurgency has often employed "countergangs" and "keeni meenis" as part of the counterinsurgency effort. However, there are key differences between these groups and the sort of thing one saw in South America.

First, the remit was fairly narrow. Capturing or killing insurgent leaders would feature on the menu, acting as death squads to terrorise the population would not.

The Keeni Meenis provide an interesting case study. Keeni Meeni squads operated in Aden and were made up of soldiers who could pass as natives. The squads were trained to an extremely high standard and would effectively go undercover in insurgent territory, living as natives and gathering human intelligence. They also assassinated insurgent leaders and went toe to toe with insurgent assassination units within their own backyard. They were very good at it. They did not, however, engage in "burn the village in order to save it" type operations.

There is much in the Keeni Meeni experience that may have practical application to Iraq. Unfortunately, there are also key differences. Keeni Meeni units were deployed on what were - characteristically in British counterinsurgency (and indeed all successsful COIN operations) - intelligence led operations. Targets were carefully selected, target choice was backed by intelligence gathered by a Mark 1 human eyeball on the ground and the methods used were highly discriminate. There is reason to believe that Coalition forces in Iraq do not enjoy access to this sort of intelligence (though the creation of Keeni Meeni units might provide a starting point for getting some). Without it, undercover units are destined to be a blunt sword, capable of inflicting fear and terror and not a great deal more. Keeni Meenis were also tightly tied into the overall counterinsurgency command structure and their operations were carefully directed and focused. I see little reason to believe that Kurdish pesh merga or Shiite militia will be so accomodating.

There is also a precdent for successful raids into insurgent-harbouring territory outside the key zone of coflict. In Borneo, SAS teams regularly launched raids into Indonesian held territory with great success. However, in that case the Indonesians actually were the main enemy, whereas in the case of Iraq the main problem is internal. If there are select high value targets in Syria then undercover hit squads may well have a use but the Coalition needs to be wary of overstating the importance of the Syrian theatre. Quite whether these high value former Ba'athists are key to the insurgency or not remains to be seen. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't.

I may make some more points on this topic later on but here's a final thing to consider. The Coalition is, we are told, in Iraq to build a liberal democracy. The South American experience does not bode well for this sort of thing. El Salvador style policies were at best marginal to the emergence of more amenable regimes, at worst they were morally abhorrent and actively damaging in practical terms. There are precedents for repression and death squads crushing an insurgency through wholesale oppression and coercion - but not for a liberal democracy to emerge at the end of it.

On a final, final note I also have to say that the people who will emerge over the next few weeks as the noisiest boosters for this sort of policy will almost certainly be the very people who should be least trusted with running it.


Blogger J. said...

Thanks for bringing our attention to this story, it is as you say potentially indicative of future issues. I like your references to other COIN operations. I am about halfway through Creveld's "The Transformation of War" and already convinced about his point that insurgent/low intensity conflict is more the norm than the exception. No question we need smart ways to counter these efforts for future military operations. But to go back to Reagan's contra strategy? Oh my god. Someone needs to be taken to the woodshed and badly beaten.

It's unfortunate that the typical American response to some military issues is to just throw more money at the issue and let someone else run with the ball. You'd think that the CIA backing of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan during the 1980s would be example enough of the fallacy of the contra approach. We need a good COIN strategy but this isn't it. Perhaps the British COIN operations in Malaya as Creveld points out as one of the few successful examples?

8:08 AM  
Blogger Josh Jasper said...

God help us all if he's as inept as his father was in Angola.

9:51 AM  

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