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Stupidity, Brutality, and the Failure of Military Occupations

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2012 by whatafteriraq

In the past decade, the United States has engaged in the military occupations: one (Iraq) that was the result of an American invasion and conquest, the other (Afghanistan) as part of a coalition of states seeking to rid the occupied state of the remnants of Al Qaeda. To put the matter mildly, neither excursion has been an unambiguous success.

There are, of course, numerous reasons why these occupations have not yielded the results the United States set out to accomplish in both of these adventures, including the adoption of unattainable objectives (e.g. representative democracy in countries with no tradition of democracy as we think of it), the lack of clear interests that are supposedly served, misstatement of the conditions being rectified, dealing with allies whose primary interest was in getting rid of us, and a host of others (e.g. a botched occupation administration in Iraq). Some or all of these no doubt have played a role. Let me suggest that there is another reason both have failed (technically, Afghanistan has not failed yet, but will): it is simply impossible to run an effective occupation of a hostile country in the modern electronic world in which we live.  

The problem of running an occupation is that those occupied generally do not want to be occupied and thus resent whoever is doing the occupying. This revelation is, of course, a classic BFO (blinding flash of the obvious) that American leaders never seem to grasp. Just last week, General Allen (the comander of American forces in Afghanistan) tried to buck up the troops after the murder of several American soldiers by reminding them of our mission there: to help out our “friends.” Hello, General! Very few Afghans think we are their “friends”; most of them think we are foreign occupiers, a genre to whom the Afghans have never especially warmed. To make matters worse, they are apostates (as the Quran burning episode demonstrated), a further source of disfavor. To the vast majority of Afghans, I would submit, the friendliest thing the United States can do is to go home (preferably leaving several large suitcases of money behind when we do).

That occupations are resented is no revelation. That they are opposed is further no more than a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious): that we do not understand this simple truth is beyond my personal comprehension. But why? Are we just that dumb?

I  can think of three possible reasons for this self-delusion. One is that we do not see ourselves as occupiers, but rather as liberators freeing first the Iraqis and now the Afghans from vile oppression. That is a much happier role, and one that fits our self-image much better (especially if you are a neo-conservative). Everybody likes liberators, after all. Well, everybody (except the former oppressors) like the liberators when they are being freed; it is when the liberators stick around and become occupiers that their initial action loses acceptance. Just ask the citizens of the Philippines, whose 1898 “liberation” from Spain lasted until 1946.

A second explanation is that occupations can be benign and poular with the subject population. The post-WW II occupations of Germany and Japan are always cited in this regard: it worked there, so why not other places? The answer, of course, is that other places are not like Germany and Japan (absolutely defeated western-style countries) who were essentially bribed into embracing the occupation with generous dollops of reconstruction assistance. There is no equivalent transfer of resources to Iraq and Afghanistan, which the American people whould not accept.

Self-image (we are not really occupiers) and faulty analogies (with Germany and Japan) help explain why we are blind to why those we occupy don’t appreciate our effort and thus oppose us, but that is only part of the problem. The crux of the problem (and the third explanation for why our occupations fail) is the dynamics of occupation in the modern world. Historically, the principal dynamic of successful occupations has been their brutal suppression of dissidents. Occupied populations can be won over by bribing them or by the departure of the occupiers, but if the occupying force stays–especially in a long, open-ended tenure–it will be opposed. If one wants to maintain an occupation, the only way to do so is to eliminate the opposition–the more brutally, the better. The Nazis understood this, Genghis Khan understood it, and so have countless others.

The problem is that the kind of ruthless brutality necessary to cow a population into submission just does not work in the modern electronic world, because there is no longer any fully private behavior. The Syrians are today’s best example of slow learning on this point, but it is becoming universal. To repeat, the only ways to have any chance to run an occupation that has any chance of success is to egregiously bribe the entire population into accepting it or to engage in massive and ruthless violent suppression that will inevitably be on the six o’clock news “in living color” that will outrage everybody. If one is willing to do either of those two things, occupation has a chance. If not, forget it!

The United States is unwilling to do either of these things in Iraq or Afghanistan. Massive economic assistance (bribery) has no domestic constituency and its simple advocacy would be political suicide in today’s fiscally restrained environment. Overt brutality broadcast on worldwide cable television is similarly unacceptable. So that leaves the United States with a series of half-efforts that don’t work. The drinking water of anyone to whom any of this is a surprise should probably be tested for hallucigens.

Oh yes, there is one foolproof method to avoid these dilemmas, and that is not to go around invading, conquering, and occupying places where you are unwilling either to bribe or slaughter the population. Too bad no one thought of that in 2001.

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