Monday, July 11, 2011

All Means Available

Michael Yon has a post on his Facebook page about "respecting the enemy and then beat them down". Obviously he is talking about the Taliban. He also posted a link to the Youtube video below.

I think it is very interesting to see the responses from Michaels "friends". Some of them believe there is a difference between Kamikaze pilots during WWII and suicide bombers during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Todays suicide cowards have nothing on these guys. Kamikaze pilots went full on after hard, military targets, can't say the same for the suicide cowards."
"Kamikaze attacks are a legitimate military tactic. Suicide bombing of civilian targets is a criminal tactic."
"If these kamikazes are so "honorable", as so many here claim, then where are the great American suicide warriors? What is the deal w/ our propensity for patronizing certain groups of people who do awful things? The way American blacks have been "compassioned" into functional oblivion comes to mind."

But what is the actual difference between the two ways of waging war? Is there any targets more legitimate than others during a total war? Can a war be kept at a "just" level?

First of all, the Kamikaze pilots were not seen as "honorable" during WWII by the US, but as crazy lunatics in the same way as Taliban suicide bombers are seen today. For the Japanese the Kamikaze was a final drastic tactic to stop the Americans from reaching Japan. The "Divine Wind" was a reference to a legend when the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274 and 1281 was stopped by typhoons. One reason for the Kamikaze tactics was the lack of trained pilots. Japan could build new aircraft, but could not replace all the pilots that were killed in air battles such as the one during Midway or the "Great Mariana Turkey Shoot". A Kamikaze pilot did only get some very brief lessons on how to start his aircraft, follow his leader, a seasoned pilot who knew how to navigate and then dive onto his target. (Does this reminds anyone about the "pilots" that flew the passenger aircraft into the Twin Towers during 9/11?) The lack of skill resulted in that most pilots missed their targets completely and the Kamikaze tactics was in reality to very little effect. But the US seamen feared the Kamikaze. The psychological effect was much larger than the actual physical effect. This was maybe what the Japanese wanted. One final effort to make the Americans understand how costly it would be to attack the mainland Japan.

For the Taliban, suicide bombings is the only way to engage the US and ISAF troops with any chance at all of winning. Asymmetric warfare per definition. And yes, they are killing more civilian Afghans than western military troops. But their goal is not to kill all ISAF troops, just to spread fear in the same way as the Kamikaze. They do not only want ISAf to fear the Taliban, but also the population at home to fear more killed soldiers (and loose the political will to continue the war) and the local Afghan population to fear supporting ISAF. In a way the are using the "Hearts and Minds" tactic, but not as we in the west are used to.

Unfortunately killing civilians is a reality in war. Accidentally or intentionally. During WWII the allied used terror bombing against Germany. "Bomber" Harris preferred night time bombing since the German fighters were less of a threat at night to his bombers. Unfortunately the only targets that could be hit from high altitude at night was entire cities. The tactics was then changed into "frighten the civilian population and make them want to end the war". Exactly as Douhet had once predicted was the perfect mission for Air Power. Did it work? Maybe in the long term after years of bombing, but it also made the population want to defend their country more. The US dropped not one, but two nuclear bombs over Japan. It was to "save american lives since a invasion of Japan would be very costly". Maybe they were right about that. The invasion of Okinawa showed the Americans how hard the Japanese soldier fought for their home land. The resistance of the Japanese (including Kamikaze tactics) ultimately led to them being hit by atomic bombs. But I doubt the west will see the atomic bomb as the final solution in Afghanistan.

Even with precision weapons a lot of civilians die today in Iraq, Afghanistan and now in Libya. The Taliban are clearly killing more civilians and so are colonel Gadaffis troops. But are we morally any better than them? We have a just cause and therefore it is a just war? Maybe, but we do accept civilian casualties to reach our objectives, even though our politicians will never admit to that. In Sweden we have a saying about this, "the end justifies the means".

One reason to why the Taliban suicide tactics might work in Afghanistan is because every Afghan know that the west will leave them in 2014. President Obamas promise to withdraw his troops by that date has given the Taliban a timeline. A classic saying is that "You (the west) has all the watches, but we (the Taliban) has all the time".

How has fear been used in historical wars?

One example is during the US Civil War, when general Sherman brought havoc to the south during his "March to the Sea". Modern analysts like Liddel Hart states that Sherman was the first modern general who declared total war on the south. The north won the war, but in the south they still remember the torching of Atlanta, known from the movie "Gone with the wind".

Machiavelli once said that "A Prince can choose to be loved or to be feared by his people. But, there will always be another Prince that is more loved and therefore more preferred by the people to be the next leader. However, there will be no other Prince that is more feared and at the same time more preferred by the people. That is why it is wise to use fear to rule the people". Today the west always try to be loved and therefore have a hard time competing with those who rule the population by fear.

One of the very few wars that can be used as a role model for a successful COIN - Counter Insurgency campaign is the one in Malaya 1948-60. The British soldiers gave birth to the tactic known as "Hearts & Minds". Unfortunately too many believe that this means being nice to the population and winning their friendship. In reality, the British soldiers used some very harsh tactics including moving entire villages in order not to be able to support the guerrilla. There is a very fine line between this tactic and the concentration camps used during the Boer War.

What we want in every COIN-campaign is winning the support of the population. But since everyone know that we will be leaving Afghanistan there is no support to win. Everyone know the Taliban will return to power when ISAF leave and they rightfully fear the Taliban more than they love us.

I am not trying to defend the Taliban tactics. It is clearly not morally acceptable from a western point of view. But we need to understand how this type of tactics have been used historically to be able to win the war. The Malayan campaign took 12 years. The British then had the advantage of the colonial background with knowledge of the population and the terrain. This together with a clear goal that the population would be able to build a new free country (the Afghan already have one) and a stable income to the government based upon natural resources (there are none except opium in Afghanistan) made it possible for the British to succeed. It would take many more years to succeed in Afghanistan. Time we clearly do not have and the Taliban can afford to wait.

In Sweden analysts now fear the withdrawal from Afghanistan, "It will be bloody". And the planned future tactics using UCAV to kill leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda will continue to take a toll from the civilian population. Do the western world actually have the guts to use these tactics? Or will the coalition break down and leave the US to continue the fight from outside Afghanistan? Are we prepared to use all means available to win the war or are we crippled by our own moral standards?

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