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Counterinsurgency’s Resurrections

No matter how many times the doctrine has proved a bloody failure, the American military keeps coming back to counterinsurgency tactics.

Early in Richard Rowley’s documentary Dirty Wars, based on the book of the same name by Jeremy Scahill, an Afghan civilian confesses that fellow villagers call American Special Forces, the gold standard of counterinsurgency operators, “the American Taliban.” After all, he indicates, like the fundamentalist insurgents, the American operatives often sport long beards, tend to strike at night, and attack those suspected of heretical views — or, sometimes, those accidentally appearing on JSOC’s (Joint Special Operations Command) “kill list.”

Hearts and Minds, a collection of essays edited by Hannah Gurman, explores the military practice of counterinsurgency. From its beginnings in British Malaya, the Philippines, and Vietnam, to its ongoing reverberation in Afghanistan through elite military formations like JSOC, Gurman explores how the doctrine of counterinsurgency, or COIN, inevitably becomes a self-defeating strategy: “At its core, counterinsurgency is a struggle for the population’s support” in the midst of violence — producing, almost inevitably, sentiments similar to the Afghan villagers Scahill interviewed.

Hearts and Minds is subtitled as a “People’s History of Counterinsurgency.” Using the accounts of journalists, academics, and historians, the book attempts to shine the same light on those ignored by official history as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States did. COIN lends itself well to this sort of treatment, as its operations are decidedly one-sided in their official telling. With rare exceptions like the classic Vietnam War documentary from which the title of Gurman’s book comes or journalist Dahr Jamail’s reporting on the war Iraq, the civilians on the receiving end of COIN operations — residents whose doors are kicked down, whose villages are torched — are never heard. Instead, Gurman and her fellow writers pull from a range of primary sources to give voice to the silenced and address whether future generations can avoid further strategic blunders and moral atrocities under the banner of COIN.

Citing a visit to a conference of COIN experts she attended, Gurman writes, “The attendees consisted entirely of military personnel, State and Defense Department personnel, and government contractors. . . I was one of only three women and, to my knowledge, the only person with no formal ties to the national security establishment.”

That centers of power would wall themselves off from the outside world isn’t surprising; that those in power would so brazenly disregard the pitfalls of COIN operations is. Gurman writes, “According to the military’s own reports, for every enemy effectively targeted in these operations, there were three civilians wrongly killed or captured.”

This mindset is given voice by Billy Waugh, a CIA paramilitary expert, in Jeremy Kuzmarov’s exploration of COIN tactics in Afghanistan:

He [Waugh] told a reporter that the way to win the war is to “let them kill each other. Send up a satellite and take pictures. Keep the Special Operations teams in the hills, fifty miles out of the towns. Then go in at night and do your work. Kill them [. . . ] Flatten the place. You have to not mind killing innocents. Even the women and children.”

Gurman and her colleagues document how COIN procedures have become, especially at the start of this decade, buzzwords among neocon think tanks and military strategists. That’s a bit odd considering officials’ unwillingness to label the uprisings in Iraq and Afghanistan full-fledged insurgencies rather than just the last gasps of a dying regime. During the early days after occupation, images of toppled Saddam statues and grateful civilians were in abundance. No one in power wanted to shatter that tableau and face that those we claimed to liberated were actually taking up arms in opposition to the self-styled liberators.

What does it mean to conduct counterinsurgency campaigns? As the title of this collection suggests, running a COIN operation means winning the hearts and minds of people with guns in their faces. The collection’s authors ably document how civilian populations were often left with few choices, forced to decide between oppressive regimes in insurgent hotspots like Malaya, the Philippines, Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan, or their armed families and neighbors fighting against those regimes. But the book’s strongest section is its analysis of how governments and militaries (backed by the US) failed to win “hearts and minds” because they soon were committing far greater atrocities than the guerillas they were fighting.

Take, for example, this report from Vietnam in the wake of Operation Speedy Express, a bloody pacification of the Mekong Delta by the Ninth Division.

The carnage prompted one sergeant to write an anonymous letter to [General] Westmoreland and, later, two other top generals, in which he described how the brigade commander “used to holler and curse over the radio and talk about the goddamn gooks and tell the gunships to shoot the sonsofbitches, this is a free fire zone.” The sergeant reported that together, the four battalions in the area were killing forty to fifty people a day. . . “If I am only ten percent right, that means 120-150 month, or My Lai a month for over a year”. . . Following a half-hearted internal investigation, the sergeant’s letter was buried in a dusty archive.

If those implementing COIN couldn’t win the hearts and minds of their subordinates, what hope did they have with a rebellious, downtrodden population?

Gurman and her colleagues, especially Vina A. Lanzona’s account of the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines, argue that military leaders do not acknowledge that insurgencies are often the last resort for those with genuine political, economic, and social grievances — problems that Hellfire missiles and night raids don’t solve.

Despite the winding down of both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, COIN has significant impact at home. In Gurman’s introduction, she says, “COIN tactics are increasingly being applied in the United States and other NATO countries at the domestic level, especially in the area of surveillance.” Libertarian journalist Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop documents the increasing militarization of American law enforcement which employs tactics that seem, startlingly, similar to those of counterinsurgent specialists abroad. Although the focus doesn’t linger long at home, Hearts and Minds becomes an inadvertent companion piece to literature documenting the growing porousness between soldiers and cops and the growing trend of subjecting citizens to shock and awe.

A key part of COIN is control of a population’s movements. Dissidents abroad in operation areas know they are likely under surveillance by authorities. However, Gurman notes, domestic dissidents should take extra care, as today in the US, the FBI maintains a Terrorist Watch database with over one million names. Not since the days of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s covert intelligence-gathering and disruption program, and the CIA’s MH/CHAOS, both designed to target leftist political groups, “has a paradigm designed for foreign enemies been so readily applied to the domestic population.”

Hearts and Minds closes on slightly hopeful notes. Large-scale COIN operations were largely suspended in Iraq, with the United States’ departure, and Afghanistan, after significant blowback — seeming to discredit the practice so widely held as a silver bullet for sticky insurgencies. Nevertheless, contributor Jean Mackenzie cites author and COIN critic Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars:

Whilst its believers would state that it is rather in the nature of an applied science, perhaps a more appropriate analogy might be a somewhat cultish religion. One “does” COIN in much the same way as one practices Catholicism. Doctrine must be followed, and fiercely defended if attacked. When believers are shown evidence that COIN is all too often so much snake oil, the response is that COIN is not being “done.”

If COIN fails, it must be due to a lack of conviction and purity in its implementation. The only solution to a failure of COIN practices is more COIN.

Hearts and Minds is a look at a military ideology that has filtered down to the domestic level. While the book is only a snapshot of a subject that, the authors confess, will never be able to be examined fully due to the sheer amount that happens in the shadows, the manifestation of the uncompromising mindset of COIN implementers in many of our public discourses on politics, foreign affairs, law enforcement, and drug policy is disturbing.

Contributor Marilyn Young notes that COIN is “a tactical phoenix, dying only to rise again, ever-ready to win hearts and mind for the American empire.” With the military’s mythology erected around COIN repeatedly discredited only to be resurrected soon after, one should keep eyes open on the ashes, looking for the signs of the doctrine’s inevitable return.