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Published on Tuesday, July 20, 2010 by Informed Comment
Advice for General Petraeus on the Rules of Engagement: It’s Neither/Nor, Not Either/Or
Recently, we've been flooded with news stories and debate about the "rules of engagement" for
Articles in which troops or mid-level officers claim to be "handcuffed by our chain of command" are now almost as common as implicitly critical stories about the dismal failure of McChrystal's counterinsurgency effort in
What this means, we don't yet know, but we should know one thing: the present discussion of counterinsurgency and of those rules of engagement makes little sense. They are being presented as a kind of either/or option - kill us or kill them - when it would be more accurate to say that it's a neither/nor situation.
After all, in another, less protective part of McChrystal's counterinsurgency war, he was bulking up special operations forces in the country and sending them out on night raids searching for Taliban mid-level leaders. These raids continue to cause a cascade of civilian casualties, as well as an increasing uproar of protest among outraged Afghans. In addition, even with McChrystal's tight rules for normal grunts, stories about the deaths of civilians, private security guards, and Afghan soldiers from air strikes, misplaced artillery fire, checkpoint shootings, and those night raids continue to pour out, followed by the usual American initial denials and then formulaic apologies for loss of life.
Whatever the rules, civilians continue to die in striking numbers at the hands of guerrillas and of American forces, and here's the thing: tighten those rules, loosen them, fiddle with them, bend them, evade them, cancel them - at some level it's all still neither/nor, not either/or. In any counterinsurgency war where guerrillas, faced with vastly superior fire power, fight from cover and work hard to blend in with the populace, where the counterinsurgents are foreigners about as alien from the land they are to "protect" as humanly possible, and fight, in part, from on high or based on "intelligence" from others about a world they can't fathom, civilians will die. Lots of civilians. Continually. Whatever rules you make up. The issue isn't the "rules of engagement." No rules of engagement will alter the fact that civilian death is the central fact of such wars.
It's time to stop talking about those rules and start talking about the madness of making counterinsurgency the American way of war. It wasn't always so. Not so long ago, after all, it was considered a scandal that, post-Vietnam, the
Then, of course,
So, after being buried and disinterred, COIN, as its known, is once again the reigning monarch of American war-fighting doctrines as the Pentagon prepares for one, two, three Iraqs or Afghanistans - and the scandal is that (surprise, surprise!) it's not working. This should, of course, hardly have been news. The history of counterinsurgency warfare isn't exactly a success story, or our present COINistas wouldn't have taken their doctrine largely from failed counterinsurgency wars in
Our generals might have better spent their time studying the first modern war of this sort. It took place in early nineteenth century
Looked at historically, counterinsurgency was largely the war-fighting option of empires, of powers that wanted to keep occupying their restive colonies forever and a day. Of course, past empires didn't spend much time worrying about "protecting the people." They knew such wars were brutal. That was their point. As George Orwell summed such campaigns up in 1946 in his essay "Politics and the English Language": "Defenseless villagers are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set afire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification." The rise of anti-colonialism and nationalism after World War II should have made counterinsurgency history. Certainly, there is no place for occupations and the wars that go with them in the twenty-first century.
Unfortunately, none of this has been obvious to Washington or our leading generals. Of course, if they can rewrite the Army's counterinsurgency manual for a new century, any of us can, so let me offer my one-line rewrite of their 472 pages. It's simple and guaranteed to save trees as well as lives: "When it comes to counterinsurgency, don't do it."
© 2010 Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project , runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com . He is the author of The End of Victory Culture , a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing . His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's  (Haymarket Books), will be published in June.
URL to article: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/07/20
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs