Small wars can down big countries, world affairs teach us

U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed to avenge the murder of J. Christopher Stevens, America’s former ambassador to Libya. How he proposes to do this is unclear – historical precedent is of little use.

In 1864, the Emperor of Abyssinia took hostage the British consul with some missionaries in the country’s then-capital, Magdala. Three years later, with Emperor Tewodros still refusing to release them, the British dispatched an expeditionary force of 13,000 troops, 26,000 camp followers and 44 elephants.

In his book “The Blue Nile,” Alan Moorehead described the expedition thus: “It proceeds first to last with the decorum and heavy inevitability of a Victorian state banquet, complete with ponderous speeches.” Yet it was a fearsome undertaking. After a three-month journey through the mountains, the British reached Magdala, released the hostages, and burned the capital to the ground. Emperor Tewodros committed suicide, the British withdrew, and their commander, Lt. Gen. Sir Robert Napier, was made Baron Napier of Magdala.

Today’s great powers have relied on similar methods, also heavy with rhetoric, against puny opponents, but with far less convincing results. The United States put 500,000 troops into Vietnam in the 1960s, but withdrew before North Vietnam overran the South in 1975. The Russians began pulling their 100,000 troops from Afghanistan in 1987, after nine years of fighting had failed to subdue the country.

Now, 25 years and $500 billion later, roughly 100,000 NATO troops, mainly American, are about to leave Afghanistan, with the Taliban still controlling much of it. Meanwhile, the United States has withdrawn 150,000 troops from Iraq, after nine years of frustration.

The evidence is clear: big countries can lose small wars. Therefore, if massive use of force fails, how is a big country, believing that its interests or moral duty compel it to intervene in the affairs of a small one, to do so successfully?

Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers” spelled out the dilemma for the occupying colonial power. The FLN (National Liberation Front) uprising against French rule in Algeria started in 1954 with assassinations of policemen. The French at first responded with orthodox measures – more police, curfews, martial law and so on – but the insurgency spread amid growing atrocities by both sides.

In 1957, the French sent in paratroopers. Their commander in the film, Col. Mathieu (based on Gen. Jacques Massu), explained the logic of the situation from the French point of view. The way to crack the insurgency was not to antagonize the people with oppressive, but “useless” measures; it was to take out the FLN’s command structure. Eliminate that and the result would be a leaderless mass.

This required the use of torture to identify and locate the leaders, followed by their capture or assassination. Even though torture was illegal, the French colonel explained, “If you want France to stay, you must accept the consequences.”

Col. Mathieu is the unsung hero of current counterinsurgency orthodoxy, which requires a minimum military presence in the target country, mainly of intelligence agencies like the CIA and “special forces.” Through “rendition,” a captured suspect can be handed over to a friendly government to be tortured, and, on the basis of the information thus gathered, “kill lists” can be compiled.

The killing of Osama bin Laden last year required an actual hit squad to verify its success, but normally assassinations can be left to drones – unmanned aircraft, mainly used for surveillance, but which can be armed with computer-guided missiles. Not surprisingly, the United States is the leading developer and user of drones, with a fleet of 7,500. An estimated 3,000 drone killings have taken place, mostly in Pakistan, but also in Yemen and Somalia.

The other half of the counterinsurgency strategy is to win the “hearts and minds” of populations that are susceptible to terrorist propaganda. The Americans did this in Vietnam by pouring in consumer goods and building up infrastructure. They are doing the same in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The civilian side of “nation building,” it is reckoned, will be made easier by the absence of a heavy-handed foreign military presence.

Trying to win hearts and minds is certainly an improvement over bombing or shooting up the local population. But the new way of conducting “asymmetrical warfare” does raise uncomfortable ethical and legal issues. The United Nations Convention on Torture explicitly forbids “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment,” so their use must be denied. Also, assassination by drones inevitably leads to the killing of innocent civilians – the very crime that defines terrorism.

Even putting aside moral and legal questions – which one should never do – it is doubtful whether the strategy of torture and assassination can achieve its pacifying purpose.

It repeats the mistake made in 1957 by Massu, who assumed that he faced a cohesive organization with a single command structure. Relative calm was restored to Algiers for a couple of years after Massu’s arrival, but then the insurgency broke out again with redoubled strength, and the French had to leave the country in 1962.

Today, the international community similarly misconceives the nature of the “war” that it is fighting. There is no single worldwide terrorist organization with a single head. Insofar as Al-Qaeda still exists at all, it is a Hydra that sprouts new heads as fast as the old ones are cut off. Trying to win “hearts and minds” with Western goods simply corrupts, and thus discredits, the governments established by those intervening. It happened in Vietnam, and it is happening now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We are being driven slowly but ineluctably to the realization that the people whom we are fighting will, to a significant extent, inherit the shattered countries that we leave behind. They are fighting, after all, for their peoples’ right to (mis)manage their affairs in their own way. Blame the French Revolution for having bequeathed to us the idea that self-government is always better than good government.

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 25, 2012, on page 7.




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