American policy makers are debating the merits of the Congress-mandated Baker-Hamilton Report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) announced almost three weeks ago. The gist of the ISG report calls for an American military withdrawal within 18 months, well before the US presidential elections in November 2008. President Bush has rejected the ISG recommendation for a “graceful interval” of US forces pull out of Iraq, implying that the US will remain in Iraq until “the forces of freedom” triumph there.
At the same time, the Pentagon is wrapping up its own Iraq Review. The Pentagon review, led by Chairman of the Joint-Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace and prepared by three American colonels (two army and one marine) with experience on the ground in various insurgency-afflicted countries, provides a much more “ground level” military approach to the American military role in Iraq. The three options mentioned___ Go Big, Go Long and Go Home aims to boost US troop presence by 20.000 personnel, stave off sectarian violence and support Iraq to build a government of “national reconciliation”. There is no mention of a timetable for American withdrawal, though Defense Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged that America “cannot win in Iraq.” However, there seems to be speculation that a “Go Long” strategy means “a surge” of American troop increase (“Go Big”), will eventually lead to a “Go Home” scenario.
In essence, American policymakers are reviewing the role of US military forces abroad, realizing that superior military technology has limits over essentially social and political problems on the ground. The paradox of American military power seems to be that the more overwhelming its military presence the less influential it becomes on matters pertaining to the local social and cultural situation on the ground. This is true of Afghanistan and even more pertinent to the situation in present day Iraq.
The recently published Pentagon “FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency” field manual asserts that American soldiers and marines must be prepared to be “nation-builders” as well as “warriors.” The aim is not to kill as many insurgents as possible but to maximise support from the local population (the old “winning hearts and minds” doctrine of 1960s Vietnam).
The US revised military doctrine is a throwback to the military doctrine of Indonesia in the early 1960s, when the Indonesian Army adapted its strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the Indonesian people in its counter-insurgency against the Darul Islam (DI) and Tentara Islam Indonesia (TII) in West and Central Java, as well as South Sulawesi.
This much is acknowledged by George Packer in an article in The New Yorker magazine of December 18, 2006. Entitled “Knowing the Enemy”, Packer article cites the role of Australian colonel David Kilcullen, who currently assists the Pentagon in revising US military doctrine abroad . Kilcullen’s experience as a captain in a language immersion program in West Java in the early 1990s revealed to him the essentially political and anthropological nature of the “Islamic insurgency” in West Java. It was, he acknowledged, not a primarily religious as a matter of social identity and network. Kilcullen later completed a dissertation in political anthropology on the Darul Islam conflict at the University of New South Wales. Paraphrasing the American political scientist Roger Petersen, he observes “People don’t get involved into a rebellion bytheir ideology. They get pulled in by their social networks.”
The Indonesian Army in the early 1960s effectively won over the hearts and minds of the local populace because it was able to deploy soldiers skilled in networking with the people, understanding the local social and cultural make-up, thereby effectively depriving the DI and TII of their social support . More recently, the Indonesian army’s territorial back-up role of the police effectively deprived the DI’s supposedly successor, the Jemaah Islamiyah of popular support among moderate Islamic civic organizations.
The Indonesian Army was less successful with East Timor, when its militias created a backlash and instigated events that eventually led to the birth of Timor Leste.
There is of course one big difference between the current Iraq problem and the Indonesian Army success in the early 1960s. That is the importance of the information warfare conducted by insurgents everywhere against heavily armed conventional armed forces too reliant on technology and firepower. Al Qaeda and other anti-American insurgents skillfully manipulated satellite television coverage and the internet to apply political pressure to the millions of American viewers at home. Iraq effectively became a major domestic political agenda in the US.
It has been argued that anti-American insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan attacked American forces and interests to deliberately help re-elect George Bush in 2004, knowing that his hard line policies would further inflame anti-Americanism and replenish financial as well as political support against American military presence in Iraq . The Indonesian experience in battling Islamic insurgents in the early 1960s may be one useful lesson. But Indonesia’s loss of East Timor in 1999-2002 could be of greater relevance to the Pentagon planners contemplating the Iraq problem in the months and years ahead.
*) Wishing you a safe and happy holidays, and a prosperous New Year!