The Bush administration’s recent “get tough” approach to the chaos in Iraq is predictable and will likely make things worse there in the long-term. With few good options left in Iraq — few foreign countries will send troops to help with the American occupation, inserting more U.S. forces is politically unacceptable, and the newly created Iraqi security forces resemble the keystone cops — the Bush administration’s escalation of the violence, in an attempt to quell the Iraqi insurgency before next year’s election, comes as no surprise. But such escalation will kill, wound or anger even more Iraqi civilians and thus make long-term stability in Iraq even more unlikely.
Of all the Bush administration’s inept bungling during the occupation of Iraq, the new aggressive tactics on the ground may take the cake. Not only are U.S. forces becoming more combative against the insurgency, they are making no secret about imitating a failed Israeli model. Like the Israeli forces occupying Gaza and the West Bank, U.S. occupiers are now bombing or bulldozing houses and buildings used in attacks against them, wrapping towns in razor wire, locking them down for 15 hours a day, issuing photo identification cards for those Iraqis wishing to go in or out during the other 9 hours and imprisoning relatives of suspected guerrillas to pressure them to turn themselves in. Senior American military officials admit that the United States sent officers to Israel to learn Israeli techniques in urban counterinsurgency warfare.
Although the U.S. military is the most powerful in the world, it still envies the much smaller Israeli armed forces for their history of winning against larger or multiple opponents. Unfortunately, war is too important to be left to the generals — Israeli or American.
In the short term, aggressive counterinsurgency tactics work; in the long-term they will be disastrous. Aggressive Israeli tactics have reduced the number of suicide bombings in Palestine — at least in the short-term. Similarly, more aggressive U.S. tactics have cut in half the number of attacks on allied forces from 40 per day to under 20 a day (of course, some of that reduction has to do with the insurgents redirecting their attacks to “soft” or non-military targets, which are more vulnerable). In the long-term, that combative posture–designed to intimidate both the guerrillas and ordinary Iraqis–will alienate the Iraqi populace, which is crucial to win over if a counterinsurgency is to succeed. Although Israel’s military has been successful in fighting conventional Arab armies, its counterinsurgency techniques are only enraging another generation of suicide bombers. Bombs are cheap and easy to make, but recruiting young people willing to kill themselves to fight the enemy is the most challenging aspect of such attacks. The aggressive Israeli tactics are acting as a recruiting poster for such would-be terrorists. Similarly, an enraged and humiliated Iraqi populace will breed and shelter more anti-U.S. insurgents.
Aside from the bad practical consequences of the American adoption of Israeli tactics, such imitation has abysmal moral and public relations implications. Invading and occupying a country with little cause, leveling its houses and imprisoning parts of its population in what are effectively urban prison camps clearly violate international norms. Even worse is holding innocent family members hostage until suspected guerrillas surrender. In the American tradition of holding accountable only those who commit a crime, we do not lock up the families of convicted murders, let alone those of suspected ones.
Apart from the immorality of U.S. actions, imitating anything Israeli in an Arab country is horrendous public relations, which is likely to make the population even more hostile. Such imitation, when combined with well-publicized politically incorrect statements on the part of some U.S. soldiers, is guaranteed to generate ill will in Iraq for some time–even among the Shiite majority in Iraq). For example, according to the New York Times, when talking about the new aggressive American tactics, Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander in the Fourth Infantry Division stated, “You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face.” Perhaps Custer’s men at the Little Big Horn had similar ignorant and unsophisticated sentiments about Native Americans.
And Capt. Brown’s boss, Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, the battalion commander who oversees one village gulag, also came up with some condescending and counterproductive comments for the Times reporter. He succinctly summarized the American administration’s twisted thinking in Iraq by saying, “With a heavy dose of fear and violence and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.” Lt. Col. Sassaman’s quote is reminiscent of the Vietnam War protesters’ satirical characterization of the American attitude toward the South Vietnamese: “We have to kill these people to save them.” Killing innocent civilians turned much of the South Vietnamese population against their U.S. “saviors” and led, ultimately, to a humiliating U.S. defeat. The adoption of aggressive military tactics in Iraq is likely to have the same horrible long-term outcome.