April 1, 2006  

Echoes of Abyssinia

One of the happier unintended consequences of the global war on — oops, the “long war” for the greater Middle East — has been a flowering of thoughtful writing about war. For decades, the U.S. defense community contented itself with the conduct of battle, emphasizing the tactics and, lately, the technologies of conflict rather than its political purposes. Ironically, the invasion of Afghanistan and the blitzkrieg to Baghdad marked the culmination of such thinking, and the long-term constabulary missions that have followed both invasions have produced its near-ruination, or so Must Reads believes and hopes.

Perhaps the best and most recent example of this shift is in the person of Stephen Biddle, until lately associated with the Army War College and best known for his excrutiatingly detailed analyses of engagements in Operation Desert Storm and Afghanistan. Under Biddle’s microscope, the conventional wisdom about technology providing the decisive edge for U.S. forces evaporated. The more likely explanation, he often argued, was superior tactical training. But these days, Biddle resides at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is “senior fellow in defense policy.” He moves on a larger stage and has larger horizons.

His thought-provoking article “Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon,” in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, shows Biddle trying to make sense of the Iraq war. He begins at the right place, by looking at the political context of the conflict, and thus correctly sees Iraq as a communal civil war, not a Vietnam-like “people’s war.” The fault lines in Iraq are along sectarian lines, not class or nationality. The measure of victory for the U.S. is in building trust among communities that “worry that other groups with historical grievances will try to settle scores. The stakes can be existential, and genocide is a real possibility.” Think Rwanda on the Euphrates.

Thus the Bush administration’s policy of rapid “Iraqicization” is very risky. As recent press reports from the front emphasize, U.S. and coalition forces provide a buffer between Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and indeed among these communities’ internal factions. Until the government in Baghdad is both legitimate and strong enough — and the Iraqi army and security forces are unequivocally seen as something other than sectarian militias in different uniforms — U.S. forces remain the only potentially mediating agents. So we see, as we might have predicted, the Sunnis actually asking for American protection as they begin to participate in the Iraqi political process.

Unfortunately, Biddle pushes his analysis too far when he advocates separating the political deal-making in Iraq from the building of a truly national army. He is right that the latter task is much harder, and to be in a rush — as the Bush administration so clearly is — is a recipe for failure. But, practically speaking, there can be no grand political deal in Iraq without progress in building trustworthy security agencies. The truly important political deal in Baghdad will be when the militias are demobilized.

Moreover, although Iraq may be the central front in the region or in the Muslim world more broadly, it is not the only front. U.S. policies in Iraq must be considered in the context of the larger war in the Middle East, which is very much a “people’s war.” Thus, while we can acknowledge the risks of too-rapid or simplistic democratization in Iraq — and can minimize them by not panting about our own withdrawal — we must also acknowledge the larger risks of failing to deliver on our promises of liberation, certainly our strongest weapon in the long war.

The wisdom and strategic value of the “liberation policy” is underscored in an excellent new monograph from the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute — Biddle’s old stomping ground. Sherifa Zuhur’s “A Hundred Osamas: Islamic Threats and the Future of Counterinsurgency” marks a significant advance in understanding the complexities of political Islam. Her conclusion is worth quoting at length:

“The 100 Osamas are, by and large, opposed to democratization, because such movements compete with their own and encourage other values, like pluralism, personal freedoms and populism. While local allies have and will continue to object to the destabilization that democratic transformation may carry, blind authoritarianism has no more future in the Muslim world than in the Christian one. The democratization process will be slow and painful, but the building of stakeholders, those with an investment in their society’s future, is more essential to the future of counterinsurgency than any stockpiling of armored vehicles or antimortar weaponry.”

One man to whom a liberation policy would most certainly not appeal is Sir Harry Flashman, the fictional but fully realized poltroon and war hero. The most recent of George MacDonald Fraser’s series of novels, “Flashman on the March,” makes the most imperative of Must Reading for soldiers in search of wisdom about small wars of empire; that they are Gladstone’s rather than Bush’s does not matter. Indeed, “Flashman on the March,” the story of the Abyssinian campaign of 1868, is quietly but quite obviously a reflection on Iraq, among its many other virtues.

The novel concludes with a discussion among the staff — military and political — of the triumphant Gen. Robert “Bughunter” Napier. Luckily, Flashman was there to record it. “There’s bound to be an outcry because we’re not leaving a garrison to pacify the tribes and police the country,” laments one officer about British domestic opinion. “As though Abyssinia were a country to be pacified and ruled with fewer than ten divisions and a great civil power!” The old warrior Napier allows the conversation to continue in this ironic vein before intervening: “Brutal indifference or selfish imperialism; those are the choices. As an old Scotch maidservant of my acquaintance used to say: ‘Ya canna dae right for daein’ wrong!’”

American veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan might have similar feelings, if not now, then certainly after a career such as Napier’s, for the Flashman novels are impressively researched, constituted of constabulary duties on the imperial frontier. MacDonald allows in a footnote — for he never relinquishes the conceit that he is simply the discoverer of the long-lost “Flashman Papers” — that “the brief exchanges among Napier’s staff have echoes which continue to be heard today.” Yet he does allow that it has been held “that Britain’s leaving Abyssinia did not become her as well as her manner of entering it.” A hard judgment, but the sort of nettlesome thought that makes the Flashman novels Must Reads.

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• “Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon” by Stephen Biddle, is available on the Foreign Affairs Web site.

• Sherifa Zuhur’s “A Hundred Osamas: Islamic Threats and the Future of Counterinsurgency” can be downloaded from the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.