Listening to Lawrence – Part I

Last Sunday, August 1st, the Dutch began a low key, unceremonious withdrawal from participation in the NATO/ISAF mission to Afghanistan. With 24 dead, 140 wounded, and over a billion euros expended, Holland is the first major member of the ISAF coalition to head for the exit. This event, however, was almost lost in the Canadian mix of news coverage over the holiday long weekend, despite the fact that Afghanistan remains among Canada’s top international priorities.

As the number of outside  military forces active in Afghanistan shrinks – Canada, and likely Germany are set to follow the Dutch example next year – the US is more than compensating with a troop surge which is now in full swing. These developments, in combination with the record number of casualties, may serve to encourage more public and media attention and give rise to a broad consideration of the way ahead.

Early in the Afghanistan piece, and especially before the centre of gravity in the Global War on Terror was shifted to Iraq, there was ambitious talk of attaining lofty objectives related to development, security, democracy, and the promotion of human rights and good governance. In the face of widespread corruption, wavering leadership and scant evidence of demonstrable progress in the intervening eight years, most of that kind of language has fallen away. Within NATO and the Pentagon the discussion is now almost exclusively about counterinsurgency (COIN).

The current strategy in Afghanistan  is centred on protecting the population and attempting to win them over while preparing the Afghan army and police to take the lead in maintaining security by 2014. This strikes me as somewhat akin to the ill-fated efforts undertaken by the U.S government 1973-75 to secure the “Vietnamization” of that now distant Southeast Asian war. As then, the goal may represent mission impossible.

But let’s focus on the interim prospects for conducting a successful counterinsurgency campaign in the “graveyard of empires”.

Interest in COIN doctrine – how to prevail in a war among the people – is again running high. For theorists, there is apparently something appealing about the idea of using an armed occupation to effect cultural transformation and win local hearts and minds. The record, however, indicates that serious difficulties can be anticipated. The burden of history is real.

In that regard, I am struck by the entry for “Guerrilla” penned by  T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) for the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica back in 1929. Speaking of the irregular Arab resistance to Turkish occupation of the Middle East, Lawrence  asks: “ …suppose they were an influence, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head.”  In such circumstances, to control the land they occupied, the Turks “would have need of a fortified post every four square miles, and a post could not be less than 20 men. The Turks would need 600,000 men to meet the combined ill wills of all the local Arab people. They had 100,000 men available.”

According to Lawrence, then, simply having the numbers of boots on the ground is a critical counterinsurgency pre-requisite. Another involves the capacity to communicate with the population, a challenge which has proven significant for NATO.  “The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern (guerrilla) commander,” he continues, predicting accurately the modern-day use of the Internet by the likes of the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, and various Jihadist groups for recruitment and propaganda purposes.

Popular support is also crucial. From the perspective of the insurgents, Lawrence observes, “Rebellion must have an unassailable base ….It must have a friendly population, not actively friendly, but sympathetic to the point of not betraying rebel movements to the enemy. Rebellions can be made by 2 percent active in a striking force, and 98 per cent passively sympathetic … Granted mobility, security … time, and doctrine … victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical factors are in the end decisive, and against them perfections of means and spirit struggle quite in vain.”

As veteran author and journalist Robert Fisk has noted, Lawrence’s words remain chilling, if not prophetic… NATO lacks the critical mass, the communications ability, and the grass-roots moral authority necessary to achieve their present objectives.

We will consider the counterinsurgency alternatives in the next post.