OxBlog

Saturday, January 14, 2006

# Posted 1:47 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BRITISH GENERAL EVALUATES US WAR EFFORT: In the current issue of Military Review, a US Army publication, Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster of the British armed forces shares his thoughts on "Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations".

Aylwin-Foster neatly sums up his argument about the current situation in Iraq on page six:

• There was a training issue: a significant proportion
was unaware of the doctrine, or the relative
importance of influencing the population through
appropriate interaction.

• Intuitively the use of options other than force
came less easily to the U.S. Army than her allies.

• High levels of emotivity, combined with a
strong sense of moral authority, could serve to distort
collective judgement and invoke responses to
insurgent activity that ultimately exacerbated the
situation.

• Despite its own multi-cultural nature, the Army
was not culturally attuned to the environment.

• U.S. Army personnel instinctively turned to
technology to solve problems. Similarly, their
instinct was to seek means, including technology,
to minimise frequent close contact with the local
population, in order to enhance force protection,
but this served further to alienate the troops from
the population.

Although all of Aylwin-Foster's observations -- based on first-hand experience serving in Iraq -- should be taken seriously, his article doesn't evaluate a number of plausible hypotheses that run directly counter to his own.

First of all, with regard to US forces being too eager to go on the offensive, I think it is important to consider the possibility that in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the insurgents had the opportunity to establish themselves precisely because American forces didn't go on the offensive right away.

One of my friends has argued that during the first months of the occupation, before it was even clear we were facing an insurgency, American commanders kept their soldiers in the barracks to avoid further casualties after the invasion, rather than taking to the fight to the fledgling guerillas.

Of course, it is possible that both my friend and Aylwin-Foster are right. We may have been too cautious at first and then become too aggressive in the face of an established insurgency.

My second general point in response to Aylwin-Foster is that he ought to consider the positive side of the Americans' "strong sense of moral authority". To be fair, Aylwin-Foster does consider one positive side: the motivation that moral authority provides. Yet in addition, given that our mission in Iraq to build democracy, the principles on which this moral authority rests are absolutely vital to ensuring that our soldiers conduct themselves in a manner that befits the mission.

Of course, embarassments such as Abu Ghraib make some critics wonder whether American soldiers and Marines can serve as ambassadors of democracy. Yet I would argue that our forces' unflagging commitment to minimizing civilian casualties and taking other measures that protect the population, possibly at the cost of American lives, is only sustainable because of the principles on which our moral authority.

Now, in an ideal world, we could have both moral authority and a capacity for judgment uninfluenced by moral precepts. But that may be a little too much to ask.

Aylwin-Foster's third point is that our forces would benefit from greater cultural sensitivity. In general, I agree. Greater knowledge of and sensitivity to local culture is always an advantage. Yet I have serious questions about whether a lack of cultural sensitivity has played all that important of a role in provoking the insurgency.

Strangely, Alywin-Foster never discusses the remarkable fact that the occupation force has established a solid working relationship with the Shi'ite majority in Iraq. Cultural insensivity has not prevented that from happening. As I see it, we demonstrated to the Shi'ites that we really will allow them to reap the benefits they deserve from a democratic system. This calcuation of interests seems to be far more important than culture.

As for the Sunnis, I'm not sure that greater cultural sensitivity could have changed anything. Have there been numerous small incidents that might have been avoided as a result of greater sensitivity? Unquestionably. But the insurgents' leadership emerged out of the wreckage of the Ba'athist regime and has fought to restore Sunni domination over the whole of Iraq.

The Sunni population as a whole may have been somewhat amenable to demonstrations of sensitivity, but my instinct tells me that this privileged minority simply couldn't accept the American notion of an Iraq in which Shi'ites held majority power. Yet amazingly, the Sunni population has come around and decided to participate in elections and government, presumably because it has begun to question whether violence is the answer.

Aylwin-Foster's final point regards the American forces' excessive reliance on technology. Not being all that familiar with the issues at hand, it is hard for me to make a call on that one. However, I am fully amenable the notion that the current drive for "transformation" at the Pentagon places far too great an emphasis on technology, as opposed to human knowledge and skills.

All in all, I would say that Aylwin-Foster's comments are very welcome both because of their intrinsic value and because they are coming from someone who is self-evidently committed to a victory for America and for democracy in Iraq.

Yet interestingly, a number of Aylwin-Foster's observations bear a striking resemblance to an arch-liberal version of the quagmire hypothesis, which holds that cultural insensitivity and an excess of moral confidence were responsible for our defeat in Vietnam and are responsible for the negative aspects of the war in Iraq. (The more common version of the quagmire hypothesis is that Bush's incompetence is the real problem in Iraq.)

Aylwin-Foster himself makes it absolutely clear that he rejects simplistic comparisons of Vietnam and Iraq. Nonetheless, parts of the conceptual framework he applies to the situation almost seems to have been borrowed from the multi-cultural relativists of the academic left.

Perhaps this is a good thing. There should be some generals on the ground capable of asking whether the academic left's criticism of the war has any merit. Yet because such generals still have the best interests of the Coalition at heart, they will not presume that such criticism has merit simply because it advances a certain ideological agenda.
(21) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
Lack of cultural sensitivity! I would suggest that cultural sensitivity and moral sensitivity is one reason for some of the problems we are having in Iraq.

Remember the no attacking Mosques and cemeteries order early on. Where were the bad guys operations centers and storage depots. Mosques and cemeteries.

Although written for a military audience and published in a military journal I do question the motivations of the author.

The Brits essentially locked themselves in in their area of operations and left everything up to the local civil administration.

Iranian bodies, money and supplies coming across the border - not our problem. See the locals.

Religeous extremists beating up on the locals. Not our problem. See the locals.

How are the Christians and animists being treated - don't know. Not our problem.

They did get off their backsides quickly enough when two of their own were captured. What about the locals.

Where is the cultural sensitivity in the Brit area of operations.

I admire the professionalism of the British soldier. The rules of engagement used by the Brits does nothing to help the Iraqi's in the long term. Keeping a low profile is another way of keeping a low casualty count.
 
Speaking as a Brit myself, the American approach comes across as both more attractive and likely more effective in the long term too.

The British armed forces' goals are typically strictly colonial, i.e. get in, kill off or in some other way pacify whatever small numbers are currently causing us a problem, and get out again leaving the current local power structure intact.

The effect is often to fix a short term problem by not addressing longer term ones, strengthening the hold of the most brutal local thugs whose cooperation the Brits typically solicit from the moment of their arrival.

It seems a bit cheeky to construct a critique of the American armed forces which ignores these weaknesses. The famous British 'softly softly' approach can all too easily become a way to tiptoe completely around the problem they were sent in to tackle.
 
"parts of the conceptual framework he applies to the situation almost seems to have been borrowed from the multi-cultural relativists of the academic left"

This kind of rhetoric is getting very tiresome. You have plenty of persuasive substantive arguments, so why engage in meaningless flag-waving? Do you need to burnish your credentials with the wingnut crowd or piss off your sympathetic left-wing readers?

Who are the multi-cultural relativists of the academic left, and how does Aylwin-Foster's framework "seems to have been borrowed from them," anyway? You list some rather broad points of convergence between a particular set of arguments about what went wrong in Vietnam--arguments that could come from any number of interpretive positions--and claims that lack of American "cultural sensitivity" exacerbated the insurgency. So I ask again, what's the point of these increasingly meaningless rhetorical tics?

And for the record, I agree with the last poster. Less cultural sensitivity and more Machiavelli would've served this administration well at the start of the occupation.
 
"There should be some generals on the ground capable of asking whether the academic left's criticism of the war has any merit."

And this coming from a member of the academic right. You almost sound like an imitation O'Reilly, straining to be oh so fair and balanced, and still you end up agreeing with yourself. Piffle.
 
This was a queer war which required conquest of "hearts and minds" to achieve victory. So we went the whole way with one hand behind our back, fearful of antagonizing a major group against us or against another major group. In the end it worked. We took more casualties than necessary because we wanted victory. We could have turned the whole country into an oil slick, in five minutes, with a loss of 12... Instead, we opted for victory, and it looks like we have achieved victory. And if so, there is hardly any room for carping.
 
From paragraph two of the Aylwin-Foster article:

"In contrast, 2 years later, notwithstanding ostensible campaign successes such as the elections of January 2005, Iraq is in the grip of a vicious and tenacious insurgency."

So exguru exactly what victory are you referring to?

And with respect to David's posting, Vietnam is definitely not a parallel but the French experience in Algeria and the Russian and British experiences in Afghanistan are useful comparisons. Hint: Islam.
 
Of course, embarassments such as Abu Ghraib make some critics wonder whether American soldiers and Marines can serve as ambassadors of democracy.

"Embarassments?" It doesn't even rise to the level of outrage for you? Especially after the way that this administration has tried to make end runs around the Convention Against Torture.

Good God.
 
Cultural sensitivity lessons from some Limey Shithead!! Their former colonials should be polled on that one! My mother came from Ireland and I was raised on stories about what the Brits would do, letting drunken Black and Tans patrol the countryside shooting guns into farmhouses....
 
More media bias from the Military review.
 
The first two anonymous posters are spot on. This blog relies far too much on casual ad hominems - the assumption, for example, that the 'academic left' advance certain arguments *only* because they fit into a broader ideological agenda (and not because they may tally with an explain some of the facts on the ground).
Whether the topic be Iraq, 'liberal' education or Alito's confirmation hearings, time and again dissuading viewpoints seem to be dismissed not because of their flaws, since no engagement has been made with the substance but simply because of where they come from.
Josh Chafetz was much better at taking his opponent's arguments on their merits - this blog suffers for his absence.
 
Niall:

I suggest you read the article and posts before commenting. My post was based upon what I saw and heard from USDOD reps during and after the normal war phase, and what has been written by people who were in the British area of operations.

Annonymous posters - Annonymous says it all.
 
At least us anonymous posters can spell.
 
The editorial staff here at OxBlog certainly misses Mr. (excuse me, Dr.) Chafetz and wishes we could have him back. But alas, the law beckons and Dr. Chafetz does not have time.

Even so, with reference to the points made by Niall and Anonymous #1, I listen to those who suggest that my writing takes too many cheapshots at strawmen such as "the academic left".

I also listen to those such as Anonymous #2 who suggest that my desire for balance is calculated rather than sincere.

I often find such criticism unpersuasive, since it often amounts to precisely the sort of "casual ad hominems" that Niall condemns.

Regardless, I'm glad that the comments section on OxBlog, which has only been around for a couple months, has developed strong voices on both right and the left. Will OxBlog be able to maintain such balance? I don't know, but I hope.
 
Pretty hilarious on the part of the usual suspects here. You folks criticize the Brits for letting SCIRI and the Mahdi Army run loose in the South. Hello, who's running the Iraqi government nowadays? The Interior Ministry, the Special Police Commandos, the Iraqi Army? Khalilzad's strategy is pretty much the Brit strat in the south writ large: bet on the Shia/Kurd militias and let them take over, with a little Sunni placation thrown in to appease the Saudis and Gulf Sunni emirates.

W/regards to Adesnik's arguments:

1) "Taking the fight to the insurgents" would require that the Pentagon first understand that it was an insurgency, and that it could gather the intelligence necessary to fight it. Not to mention finding the troop numbers necessary to do so effectively. Since Rumsfeld didn't even admit it was an insurgency for almost a year, and the Army still can't do #2 or #3 --- wistful thinking at best, separation from reality at worst.

2) W/regards to your very optimistic view of how Iraqis view U.S. soldiers and Marines and the coalition's "moral authority" --- we could go over the polling data again about how the Iraqis generally dislike the coalition, but Aylwin-Foster's point about "the erroneous assumption that given the justness of the cause, actions that occurred in its name would be understood and accepted by the population, even if mistakes and civilian fatalities occurred in the implementation" works just as well. The Iraqis don't believe the Americans are there to bring democracy --- thus they're not willing to cut the Americans any slack. Thus the lack of civilian support for coalition troops, lack of willingness to put oneself in danger to save those troops' lives by providing intel.

3) Our ability to keep the Shia onboard is directly proportional to our kowtowing to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and, increasingly, the conflicting wishes of SCIRI and al-Sadr.

Adesnik, are you one of those stab-in-the-back losers who think that if we just committed 800,000 American soldiers in CAP programs across Vietnam and spent another $30 billion we would have won back in 1969? Or do you follow the Sorley line that just a couple billion more in 1975 would have turned the trick, because of the incomparably valorous legions of the ARVN? I recommend reading Willbanks and Bergerud for more realistic arguments.
 
To reiterate from above: criticism is always welcome.

But OxBlog also hopes to go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to maintaining a civilized approach to debate.

Why? Because civility is the best way to encourage input from participants across the ideological spectrum.

On some sites, being referred to as a "stab in the back loser" would be par for the course. But OxBlog has a different set of standards.

Tequila, I look forward to more to comments from you, either here or on your blog, provided that you're willing to work with the OxBlog style of debate.
 
Speaking of cultural sensitivity, can there be a more stereotypically British name than Nigel Aylwin-Foster? Is that his real name? What is this, musical comedy?

I'm afraid I have nothing constructive to say. I shall have to stop laughing first.
 
I suspect it merely means that class divisions in the British army are alive and well. That might be one of the few areas where the Americans are more 'sensitive' than ourselves.
 
I thought "stab in the back loser" was a pretty colorful phrase and excellent in the context of a thoughtful post. Good writing makes for good reading.

David, you already had some fun with respect to a feminist email criticising your use of the term "cat fight." You took the oppurtunity to express your unwillingness to submit to speech codes. So you should give same latitude to your posters.
 
Not a bad point, Chris, but I think it's a good idea to differentiate between the use of phrases directed at no one in particular such as "cat fight", as opposed to personal attacks.

If I could, I would propose a rule which says that commenters may insult myself or Patrick to their heart's content, but not direct such language at one another. We don't care.

Because my real concern here is to keep the comments section civil so that everyone feels welcome. I just don't think it's practical, however, to allow insults directed at certain targets but not others.

(Although I will exercise a much lighter touch in criticising harsh language directed at myself.)
 
So does anyone want to talk then? Some of the comments here about my article do seem to suggest a distorted view of the truth about what was happening on the ground in 2004. Some of them are unbelievably naive/idealistic. And I wonder what my motivation could have been, other than to be helpful, given that the risk to my career, in going public, was not insignificant.

And yes, it is my real name, but that would be my parents' fault, not mine. You think it's a problem? Try living with it...
 
Dear Nigel,

So kind of you to drop by.

Cheers,
David
 
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