Thursday, August 28, 2008

How to win a dirty war

My family just finished watching the excellent PBS documentary “The War That Made America,” about the French & Indian War of the 1750s.

That epic struggle determined who would control North America — and drove in the wedge that would soon split the American colonies from Great Britain. It’s a brilliantly produced, well-paced film, done entirely with top-quality reenactments. No dry history here. This is the kind of history you can reach out and touch.

One of the things that struck me in watching “The War That Made America” is how universally applicable the principles of counterinsurgency are. The British suffered humiliating defeat after defeat at the hands of the French and their Indian allies until they initiated something very like The Surge that has succeeded in largely stabilizing Iraq (at least for now).

For one thing, the British finally put sufficient troops in theater and built the American Provincial forces to sufficient strength to do the job. More importantly, they broke some key allies away from the French.

A group of strange bedfellows, including Quaker and Moravian missionaries and British General John Forbes initiated peace overtures to the Delaware and other Ohio Country Indians to clear the path for Forbes effort to take French Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) in 1758. The French and Indians had destroyed a previous expedition to take the fort in 1755 and Forbes didn’t want the same thing to happen again.

The British essentially bribed the Indians away from the French with trade goods, liquor and promises (later to prove false) to leave their lands alone.

The key figure in the drama was a Delaware leader named Teedyuskung, who had converted to Christianity, then renounced Christianity and took up the hatchet against the British American settlers and who now sought peace for his beleaguered and starving people.

The man had plenty of blood on his hands, but the British cut a deal with him anyway and he used his influence to peel the Delaware and Shawnee away from the French at a crucial moment. Unable to hold Fort Duquesne without the protection of the Indians, the French retreated into Canada, where General James Wolfe would soon conquer them at Quebec.

So, what’s the point of this history lesson?

Roughly the same thing has worked in Iraq. The U.S. has cut deals with tribal leaders who have American blood on their hands (at least indirectly) and has succeeded in breaking a coalition of resistance groups. The most intransigent foes are increasingly isolated and placed under pressure. al Qaeda in Iraq seems to be fleeing to Pakistan (which is not entirely a good thing, but still...).

Anbar Province, once the worst place in Iraq, is being handed over to Iraqi security forces.
No matter what you think about the war in Iraq, The Surge — as a tactical approach more than a simple increase in numbers — is an excellent piece of counterinsurgency work.

It’s distasteful to some, inside the military and out, to cut deals and essentially buy the loyalty (or at least non-hostility) of former enemies. But that’s what works.

It’s a dirty war, just as the French & Indian War was a dirty war. That’s how you win it.

Jim Cornelius, Editor

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