This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Monday, 26 November 2012

Of Body Counts And Surges

From Oct 2009"

The point of what I’m going to say, in this article, for those of you who have patience problems or attention deficit disorder, in five words:number games do not work.

As just about anyone who’s been following the news in recent days is aware, there’s been a certain amount of debate on Afghanistan. Basically, the debate hinges on recent “reverses” suffered by liberating, er, occupation, um, liberating troops (primarily US) in that nation, and on what benefits might or might not accrue by a “surge” of troops, and what should be the size of that “surge” – 20,000, 40,000, 45,000, 60,000 or whatever fantasy figure the local US commander, General Stanley Mc Chrystal, thinks sufficient.

I was also reading recently about a certain battle in which nine US soldiers were killed and several more injured; a battle that led to the US giving up a forward base and withdrawing its forces into relatively safer and more secure areas. A US spokesman vehemently denied reports that it was a defeat for the US, claiming that since 100, or 150, or 200, or something, Taliban were killed in the same battle, it couldn’t be called a “defeat.” Some comments on the news item made the same point in much cruder language: “Great US military victory called defeat by traitorous liberal media” about sums up that attitude. (On a side note: it’s always amazed me that the word “liberal,” with all its connotations of humanism and humaneness, could ever become a term of abuse.)

To take the second point first, a war of body counts is hokum. It’s only the militarily illiterate or the deliberately blinkered person who’d claim that victory means killing more enemy soldiers than you lose; if that were true, the Nazis won World War II, the US in Korea and Vietnam, and the Soviets in Afghanistan I. Since, manifestly, the side that killed more than it lost was either defeated or fought to a stalemate in all these conflicts, it’s more than obvious that a war of body counts doesn’t indicate victory.

What, in the case of the battle I alluded to above, would indicate victory? The US occupied a base and was forced to cede it; in the final analysis, the occupying power was compelled to yield ground to the “insurgent” force. Therefore, the side left in occupation of the battlefield after the combat was the Taliban (who no longer call themselves the “Taliban”, but “mujahideen”, since by their own count only 10% of them are original “Taliban”). And, following logically on that premise, the victor of that engagement was the Taliban. How many soldiers they lost is immaterial. If they had suffered a thousand dead and the American soldiers hadn’t suffered a scratch, so long as the US had to withdraw from the battlefield, the Taliban still would have won. 

(It’s strange, though, how pervasive the temptation to argue for victory by body count is; in the aftermath of the “battle of Mogadishu” – the incident around which the film Blackhawk Down is based – the Canadian columnist Gwynne Dyer angrily denounced, I remember, any claim that the US had been defeated in that little episode. Since the US had only lost 18 soldiers and killed approximately 300 Somalis, Dyer claimed, the US had not been defeated, even though it was forced to abandon its Somalia mission and cancel the warrant against its bête noire, warlord Mohammad Farrah Aidid. There is none so blind as they who will refuse to see, and so forth...)

But isn’t there the chance that if you kill enough insurgents, however you term them – “terrorists”, “freedom fighters”, or whatever – the other side will run out of fighters and quit? Superficially, the idea has a certain logic. But that logic is only superficial. By definition, when you fight a war against “insurgents”, you’re fighting on their territory and not on your own. Therefore, you’re fighting people who are defending (if only in their own minds) their farms and villages and families. If you kill one of them, all you’ll do is create a further reason for revenge, and the dead man’s brothers and sons and cousins will most likely take up arms against you. This is what happens, over and over again, in primitive tribalistic societies like Afghanistan. Creating more insurgents with every one you kill isn’t a recipe for victory.

Then there’s the other thing about body counts. Once you begin defining (if only for popular consumption) victory in terms of stacking up enemy corpses like firewood, the creation of enemy corpses becomes your primary concern. From there it’s a very, very short step to killing civilians at random and passing them off as enemy troops. As the old Vietnam War rule of thumb went, “if it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.” Where did it get the US? 

So let’s get this straight once and for all; body counts do not decide wars. Wars are decided, as they always were, by who controls the battlefield when the shooting finally stops.

Now let’s go to the “surge” we were talking about a while back. What it basically means is putting more soldiers into a situation where the number you already have present aren’t winning your war. Since you aren’t fighting in your own backyard but in someone else’s, you’ve got to put those troops there and maintain them there. Unless you’ve got an inexhaustible source of manpower, of course, the troops you put in that combat situation will have to be withdrawn from other duties and will be unavailable in case of emergencies, but that’s really beside the point unless you’re planning to fight a series of other wars in other parts of the planet. Let’s, for the purpose of this discussion, assume that you have just the one war on your hands, and that, with the number of troops you have on the ground, you’re losing.

So let’s suppose you’ve decided to “surge” those troop numbers by several tens of thousands. You do realise that those soldiers will have to be deployed, fed, clothed and protected, in the territory the enemy considers his backyard. You do also realise, even if you don’t wish to admit it for public consumption, that your forces are perceived by the ordinary citizens of that land as occupation forces. Will an increase in your troops’ numbers suddenly make them loved instead of being feared and hated? How would you like fifty thousand foreign soldiers in your land instead of ten thousand? Would you feel five times happier? Would you feel five times safer, since the “insurgents” will have five times the number of targets? 

Let’s assume that you, as the occupation power, decide that placing one of your soldiers on every street corner will go some way to securing peace. Let’s ignore for the time being any possibility that the populace will feel further threatened and angered by the ever more visible presence of your troops. All you’ve achieved, however, by your actions of putting more and more soldiers into the battle is that you have to import more and more food to feed them, weapons to arm them, ammunition to let them use those weapons, and the more you do that, the bigger the strain you put on your lines of communication and the more tempting a target you make of them; so the greater the proportion of your forces you simply have to keep protecting the means by which you feed them all. And remember that the larger the number of your forces, the greater the number of targets for the opposition. That one soldier on the corner will likely be a sitting duck without another to cover his back, and likely yet another to cover his back as well, and so on. Therefore by increasing troop levels you’ve just tied a very heavy ball and chain round your ankle without any corresponding benefit. 

Hence, the “surge” will not work.

There’s a third and somewhat farcical component of the numbers game; training “local forces” to fight the war for you. These local forces are usually described as the perfect vehicle by which the war can be carried on while (at some point in future) drawing down your troop numbers. Instead, these local forces are virtually always corrupt, incompetent, poorly trained and motivated, and infiltrated deeply by the enemy. You’d be wise not to depend on them to fight their way out of a paper bag. Meet, for instance, the Afghan army.
As I said, number games don’t work. If you can’t take the heat, it’s time to leave the kitchen. Turning up the thermostat won’t make things any better.

Now, what are the people in Washington saying...?
 [Tailpiece: No, I do not think the "surge" in Iraq worked. Bribing peoplenot to fight you is not the same as winning a war and will stop working as soon as you stop bribing them. It's already begun to stop working in Iraq.]

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