Loose Canons

Bonfire of the Neocons, Part 2

Getting a grip on the nation-building delusion and the real sponsors of terror.

By 8.3.10

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Call it nation-building, call it counterinsurgency, the neocon way of war is based on the antihistorical idea that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are capable of resolution within those nations' borders. It willfully ignores the conclusive influence that the intervention of foreign terror-sponsoring nations has.

Many of us who supported military action in Afghanistan and Iraq weren't neocons then, and by condemning nation-building now aren't turning coat.

Literally from the moment the towers of the World Trade Center fell, I have written that the nations that sponsor terrorism are our enemy, and that we cannot win this war unless and until we force them out of that business.

On 9-11, I wrote a column that was published the following day in the Washington Times. In it, I said, "Nations that sponsor or harbor terrorists are our enemies. We have to treat them accordingly. We must act against them, using whatever force is necessary to destroy the threat."

The only other people to cast the war in those terms were Michael Ledeen in his 2002 book, The War Against the Terror Masters, and retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers in his 2009 book, Eyes on the Horizon. I am honored to be in that small company.

Unless our national leadership quickly joins us, the terror sponsors will win this war and America will cease to be the land of the free.

From the beginning, I have argued that this war is as much an ideological war as a kinetic one. And, with equal consistency, I have been opposed to nation-building.

In Loose Canons on April 30, 2002 I wrote that Bush's thinking had become dangerously confused. On September 4, 2002, I wrote that even if we dealt with the terrorist threats in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war would not be over until we ended -- forcibly or otherwise -- nations' sponsorship of terrorism. And, on March 20, 2006, in a Loose Canons piece entitled "Endgame Conservatives," I explained comprehensively the problem with the neocons' war plan, that it placed us on the strategic defensive and precluded victory.

I explained that nation-building is not "neoconservatism" but actually "neo-Wilsonianism." That it is, at its core, a colonialist strategy bound to fail anywhere, not just in the Muslim world. That if you do not fight a war in a manner calculated to win it decisively, you will lose it inevitably.

It is immoral -- and contrary to the nation's security -- to spend American lives in nation-building. In the Muslim culture it's doubly so, because the religion prohibits democracy. Under sharia law, the separation of church and state is prohibited. The Koran prescribes a comprehensive law that encompasses both religion and government.

And that's the point of failure at which neocon nation-building and the military idea of "counterinsurgency" merge.

The commander of the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan reports regularly to Congress. In the April 2010 report, there is little but bad news. The classic text, "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice" by the late David Galula, shows why the Bush-Obama nation-building strategy is failing in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few examples from the ISAF report and Galula's work illustrate the problem.

Galula wrote that for an insurgent to succeed, he must have a cause -- political, religious, economic or social -- that the counterinsurgent cannot also espouse. The Taliban's cause is the re-imposition of Islamic fundamentalism. It is already a dominant force in neighboring nations such as Iran and perhaps Pakistan. That cause is apparently succeeding in Afghanistan. The April ISAF report says, "[Taliban] organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding…. The strength and ability of [Taliban] shadow governance to discredit the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan Government is increasing."

The Karzai government offers no cause that can seriously compete. Vague promises of democracy and economic development -- made by an unpopular government seeking to bring the "good Taliban" into the fold -- cannot compete with the undiluted Islamic fundamentalism the Taliban offer.

Galula wrote that support for an insurgency from other nations can take five forms. The Taliban receive them all. First, moral support "…by the weight of public opinion and through various communications media." The Taliban receive it almost constantly in Islamic media and by word of mouth from the terror-sponsoring nations.

Second on Galula's list is political support "with pressure applied directly on the counterinsurgent, or indirectly by diplomatic action in the international forum." The Kabul government is not quite and international pariah, but American politicians may soon make it so. From Iran and Pakistan comes direct pressure on Karzai that accomplishes its isolation.

Third is technical support, fourth is financial, fifth is military support. All three come directly to the Taliban from Iran and elements of the Pakistani government. Financial help is even more prevalent.

The April ISAF report says, in part, that the Afghan insurgency "…has a robust means of sustaining operations." It mentions the availability of weapons and the fact that the Taliban has "consistent streams of money to sufficiently fund operations." The money comes in part from the opiate trade and, "Externally, funding originates in Islamic states and is delivered via couriers and halawas," an Islamic informal banking system.

That report also says, "Most concerning, Iran continues to provide lethal assistance to elements of the Taliban, although the quantity and quality of such assistance is markedly lower than the assistance provided to Shia militants in Iraq. Tehran's support to the Taliban is inconsistent with their historic enmity, but fits with its overall strategy of backing many groups to ensure a positive relationship with potential leaders and hedging against foreign presence."

How can the counterinsurgency succeed unless these sources of outside support are cut off? It can't.

Most telling, Galula wrote, "The cruelty of the revolutionary [i.e., insurgent] war is not a mass, anonymous cruelty but a highly personalized, individual one. No greater crime can be committed by the counterinsurgent than accepting or resigning himself to, the protraction of war. He would do as well to give up early." We have been nation-building in Iraq for six years and in Afghanistan for nine. It's too late to give up early, but not too late to be defeated.

The Pentagon report says, "Insurgents' tactics, techniques and procedures for conducting complex attacks are increasing in sophistication and strategic effect." The strategic effect is enormous: it prevents achievement of the first goal of any counterinsurgency campaign -- establishing security for the populace -- by hampering our operations from those bases. No counterinsurgency can succeed without establishing local security. In that, the Afghanistan campaign has already failed.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Taliban are conducting a targeted assassination program, killing people -- even whole families -- who cooperate with American and Afghan government forces.

In Iraq and in Afghanistan we haven't been fighting the enemy: we've been fighting his proxies, bogged down on the battlefields the enemy has chosen, allowing them to control the pace and direction of the war.

If you were to choose an ideal country for an insurgency, Afghanistan would be at the top of the list.

There, are ideal for the insurgent: an ethnically diverse population loyal only to tribes and sects, highly dispersed, with no loyalty to or confidence in the central government; a highly-motivated insurgency which is actively supported with funding, arms and training by Iran and other terror-sponsoring nations; a weak economy; and a prolonged inability of the central government to provide security or basic services. All this adds up to a metaphysical impossibility for Obama's fourteen-month Afghanistan counter-insurgency to succeed.

It will have taken a decade, from September 1, 2001 to September 1, 2011 for the curtain to come down on the neocons' malignant nation-building idea. Counting Vietnam, Afghanistan will mark the third time America has been defeated as much by itself as by an insurgency.

If we had a different president, this defeat could be avoided. But Barack Obama will not do any of the things we need to do, quickly and decisively.

This war can still be won, but not with soft words for Islam or the waste of more American lives in nation-building. This is hard saying, but it needs to be said.

We need to pull our ground forces out of both Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as the logistics can be managed. And when we do, we need to tell the world that the game has changed.

Iran and Syria should be told, only once, that their dedication to terrorism is intolerable and that if they do not cease immediately (and of course, they won't) they will suffer undefined consequences. There should first be a declaration of war and then those undefined consequences should begin, delivered at night by the vast variety of stealthy weapon systems we have (and can build).

Islam -- and all our Arab "friends" -- cannot be reformed by non-Islamic peoples. But we can and must attack the ideology that goes under the name of Islam. If we give our fullest attention to denigrating the ideological Islam -- which precludes the freedoms we preserve in our Constitution -- we can engage defeat the Islamists in the ideological war that is essential to winning against the terrorist nations. If our Muslim friends cannot accept this, so be it. It must be done regardless.

Before we can end state sponsorship of terrorism, we must first elect a conservative to the presidency. In order to do that, we must settle the nation-building argument between neocons and traditional conservatives. It's an argument worth having, so let it begin.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.