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They Are Fighting Because We "Are Down There"

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Simple truths are often overlooked in military conflict.

In 1862, during the early stages of the U.S. Civil War, a group of federal soldiers closed in on a young, undernourished, ragtag Confederate somewhere in Tennessee. Since he clearly owned no slaves, and did not care about the Union or cotton tariffs, he bewildered the Northern soldiers with his willingness to sacrifice his life for matters ostensibly beyond his little universe. After capturing him, the Northerners posed the question, "Why are you fighting anyhow?" to which he replied, "I am fighting because you are down here!"

This simple statement is essential in understanding people's willingness to lay down their lives and pick up weapons to fight Western forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than being motivated by religion, ideologies, or other forms of indoctrination, most people fight when they see their way of life, their property, and the sanctuary of their homes threatened -- a point well argued in David Kilcullen's book The Accidental Guerilla. In it, he states that the West's interventions created "the accidental guerilla", a person who fights for the simple reason that we are intruding in his daily life:

Our too-willing and heavy-handed interventions in the so-called "war on terrorism" to date have largely played into the hands of this AQ [Al Qaeda] exhaustion strategy, while creating tens of thousands of accidental guerrillas and tying us down in a costly (and potentially unsustainable) series of interventions.

The sober conclusion is that if resistance to the occupiers is provoked by the West's sheer presence, any attempt to influence insurgents with a "heart-and-mind campaign" can only achieve partial results because the root cause of the problem -- i.e. the foreign military presence -- is not addressed.

The few successful cases of counterinsurgency, such as the Malayan Emergency or "The Troubles" in Ireland in 1982, are isolated incidents of successful campaigns with external events often superseding any counterinsurgency strategy. In the case of Malaya, where the insurgents were an ethnic minority (mostly Chinese), the British promised Malaya independence, and during the insurgency, the Korean War caused an export boom in rubber making, which resulted in the average Malayan being better suited economically than before the campaign. In Northern Ireland, violence still continues on a sporadic basis, but a political settlement has been reached by the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain only sixteen years after the allegedly successful counterinsurgency campaign.

David Kilcullen's thesis is supported by Professor Robert A. Pape's book, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It published in October 2010. In it he makes a compelling argument by stating that military occupations rather than Islamic fundamentalist teaching caused the spike in suicide attacks. He states that:

Each month, there are more suicide terrorists trying to kill Americans and their allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Muslim countries than in all the years before 2001 combined. From 1980 to 2003, there were 343 suicide attacks around the world, and at most 10 percent were anti-American inspired. Since 2004, there have been more than 2,000, over 91 percent against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.

To counter this, Pape argues for a strategy of "offshore balancing," rather than counterinsurgency , extracting US forces from the Middle East and Afghanistan and readying small, available, deployable expeditionary forces that can intervene on short notice, topple regimes, and hunt terrorists detrimental to Western interests. The heyday of "offshore balancing" was the 19th century gunboat diplomacy, but Pape includes the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan as a successful offshore balancing act until it was transformed into a nation-building exercise.

There are still various policy makers and military brass that think countries have a breaking point, and if enough force is applied, insurgents submit. During the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger insisted that "a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam must have a breaking point" and advocated an increase in bombing raids on North Vietnam. This "gloves off" approach has been practiced in the past by German forces in both the First and Second World War in Eastern Europe, by the French in Algeria and Indochina and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to name a few. The success was minimal and caused the civilian population to turn towards the guerillas. In the end, all of the above-mentioned examples ended in defeat for the occupying power.

The idea of a breaking point stems from the 18th and19th century pseudo-scientific study of war, heavily influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, of which Carl von Clausewitz's work On War is the most prominent example. In the often-quoted Clausewitzean universe, defeating the enemy in a decisive engagement or with a series of "Hammerschlaege" (hammer blows) thus breaking his will to resist will bring victory. What few people know, however, is that Clausewitz warned that if the enemy's "Schwergewicht" (center of gravity) -- both political and military -- cannot be located or fully destroyed, the result could be a "formenloser Krieg" (a formless war), a conflict without acknowledged enemies and stated war-aims. When writing this, Clausewitz referenced the devastating effects and carnage of the 30 Years War (1618-1648), which depopulated large sections of Central Europe. The War was primarily fought by bands of private mercenaries plundering the Central European countryside with little political control or military strategic leadership. Battles were sporadic and indecisive.

For the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the logical conclusion has to be that winning over the local population amidst an insurgency will be all but impossible. They are fighting because we are down there! The increase in civilian casualties due to drone strikes and the raised Western troop presence only will increase the chances that more people will pick up arms against Western forces. The resolution of the conflict therefore cannot be found on the military front but rather has to be political.

Coming back to the example of the US Civil War, in April 1865, a couple of days before Lee's capitulation at Appomattox, he was approached by one of his lieutenants about the possibility of conducting a guerilla campaign against the Northern invaders in Virginia. Lee severely rebuked him, citing that he was too old and too good of a Christian to hide in the bushes like "rabbits or partridges". He chose surrender over further resistance since he grasped the horrible price that the South would pay for eventual victory.

This is in stark contrast to the fanatical revolutionaries of ideology and religion of our time that suffer neither the strictures of a more gentlemanly and moderate religious code nor the war wariness that terrible conflicts should instill. A continuum of harsh wars has wrought a more dogged and complex insurgent in Afghanistan and Iraq who is unlikely to follow the path of aged veterans into retirement in the short term.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a defense analyst. He works for the EastWest Institute.