Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Algerian Counterinsurgency

I downloaded the new U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual [13.6 MB PDF], and I've been leafing through it. As noted in the foreword, this manual is the first update in 20 years on the Army side and 25 years on the USMC side. I jumped ahead to the chapter on "Leadership and Ethics for Counterinsurgency," specifically the section on Detention and Interrogation. I was heartened to see unambiguous condemnations of torture and inhumane treatment — not only as illegal and immoral, but also as ineffective at obtaining "actionable intelligence." I was particularly glad to see a lesson drawn from the French experience with a Muslim insurgency in their colony of Algeria in the late 1950's and early 1960's, since the Bushies' refrain that "this is a whole new kind of war" is largely false. The United States is not the first nation ever to face terrorism, nor is Iraq the first insurgency pitting citizens of a Muslim nation against an occupying army from the West.

From section 7–44, page 7–9 of FM 3–24/MCWP 3–33.5 (15 December 2006):

Lose Moral Legitimacy, Lose the War

During the Algerian war of independence between 1954 and 1962, French leaders decided to permit torture against suspected insurgents. Though they were aware that it was against the law and morality of war, they argued that—
  • This was a new form of war and these rules did not apply.

  • The threat the enemy represented, communism, was a great evil that justified extraordinary means.

  • The application of torture against insurgents was measured and nongratuitous.
This official condoning of torture on the part of French Army leadership had several negative consequences. It empowered the moral legitimacy of the opposition, undermined the French moral legitimacy, and caused internal fragmentation among serving officers that led to an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1962. In the end, failure to comply with moral and legal restrictions against torture severely undermined French efforts and contributed to their loss despite several significant military victories. Illegal and immoral activities made the counterinsurgents extremely vulnerable to enemy propaganda inside Algeria among the Muslim population, as well as in the United Nations and the French media. These actions also degraded the ethical climate throughout the French Army. France eventually recognized Algerian independence in July 1963.
Any of that sound eerily familiar? It sounds like a conversation between Don Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and Dick Cheney. However, as the authors of the new field manual recognize, it is a recipe for failure. The Algerian War lasted for more than 7 years, resulting in the deaths of more than 140,000 Algerians and more than 18,000 French, with tens of thousands more wounded, and in the end France fled with its tail between its legs.

The use of torture by American personnel in Iraq, whether military or CIA or contractors or somebody else, whether explicitly ordered from on high or merely wink - wink - nudge - nudged into the shadow realm of official deniability, compromises the moral legitimacy of the U.S. occupation and therefore compromises its ability to stabilize Iraq before the impending U.S. withdrawal. The legalistic hair-splitting as to whether the conduct at Abu Ghraib was ordered by the top commanders, or merely inspired by the mad rush to justify "extraordinary interrogation techniques" and the abrogation of the Geneva Conventions, is meaningless to the people of Iraq and to the people around the world who sympathize more with the Iraqis than with the American occupiers. The United States tried to define "torture" out of existence by permitting what Jon Stewart calls "Freedom Tickling," so long as it didn't result in organ failure or similar near-fatal injury. We called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and insisted that the President could order a real-life "Jack Bauer" to get medieval on the terrorists' asses. And then we said that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples at the bottom of the chain of command.

My concern is that the people like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, et al., have so scorched the earth that it will take a generation for any kind of peace and stability to take root. We shouldn't have invaded Iraq in the first place, but if we did invade, we should have given a lot more thought to defending the moral high ground.

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