War Fatigue

Even in a best-case scenario, Iraq is going to have an endemic terrorism problem for long, long after the U.S. military has left. Iraq still gets the equivalent of an Oklahoma City every other month or so. But this terrorism receives little or no attention in the American news media. For a bombing to get mentioned on TV news, it has to be big. The war in Iraq has vanished from the attention of the American news viewing and news reading public.

Some of this is understandable. The U.S. role in Iraq's ongoing slow burn is almost done (except for what I suspect will be the U.S. serving as a rent-an-air force until later in this decade when the Iraqi Air Force finally takes delivery of the fighter planes the government's been looking to buy). With the exception of the big, splashy AQ bombings, a lot of Iraq's disputes are increasingly fractal and maddeningly hard to follow. The eventual fate of the fifth most corrupt country on the planet earth should be of interest to the citizens of the country who have vastly remade it's political structures, but the American attention span is famously short.

But then, we go to Afghanistan. The U.S. Marines are about to Fallujah the town of Marja in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. This upcoming offensive has made its way into the news to some degree, but even it tends to only get a small blurb in the media. Obama's two troop increases in Afghanistan generated little of the passion that has accompanied similar movements by, saw, GWB. The ongoing Predator war receives precious little coverage at all, in spite of the fact that we're carrying out regular un-assasinations in the territory that's kind of part of a nation with which we're not at war. Now then, I largely approve of the "warheads on the foreheads" approach of BHO, but, as someone noted here a while back, we should at least be talking about this. At all.

What's most interesting is that even movement conservatism seems to have given up on talk of defense. Oh, there's things like the occasional complaint that we really should be torturing rather than killing terrorists (with the rhetorical fig-leaf of saying "interrogation"). But there's nothing really substantial. Even the so-called Tea Party movement has reverted back to the stock phrases of taxes and big government. The last bit is pretty amazing, because so much of the kooky we saw in the summer of 2008 was about how BHO was a secret Muslim who would endeavor to bring about America's defeat in the global war on terror. But now, even the really angry folks are talking about how Mexicans are getting their tax dollars. In answer to a certain song, it appears, that yes, yes they have forgotten.

Americans, almost all of them, have war fatigue. Even though the war continues, we quietly wish that it would go away. This reaction is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, I'd be very, very concerned for the health of a culture that reveled in unending war. So even as the war goes on, folks ignore it.

This ignoring war is only possible because of an all-volunteer military. If, as was often proclaimed shortly after 9/11, this war is an epic, once in a generation struggle, it's an opt-in epic struggle. So, I may follow things fairly closely because having been a Marine I still feel a great deal of interest in what the Marine Corps is up to and because my brother is smack dab in the middle of Helmand province, but most other folks can simply change the channel without their life being affected at all.

And since the Thing We're no Longer Calling the War on Terror is probably going to be going on for a while and will probably involve lots of small-scale stuff in the nasty ungoverned parts of the world, the best model that I can think of early 21st century America following is that of late nineteenth-century Britain. There were brushfire wars aplenty, but in a country with no conscription, the public could go on with its life with a sense of detachment.

Maybe, though, if we manage to get Afghanistan at least somewhat closer to a state in which it's not in danger of falling back under Taliban rule, the U.S. will be able to carry on with small-scale stuff that can be safely filed away under "it's getting taken care of." There are certain instances in which, in a world as complex as that of the early 21st century, we should be able to simply say, "it's getting taken care of." As I've mentioned here in the past, the fact that I know what the neighborhoods of Baghdad are and what LIBOR is means that someone in power has screwed up very, very badly. With an administration that displays a bit more competence, there are many facets of life and government that probably can safely be left to the professionals. But then, I don't make policy, so my final prognosis is that I don't know.

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Foust on tribes

Bird Dog's picture

Smart piece by the guy who runs Registan.net. It's a little more complex than just focusing on tribes.

In Marja, tribal elders want forces there to remove Talibaners, provided the forces don't pull up stakes and leave. Residents are fleeing ahead of the offensive.

Michael Yon has another dispatch here.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

“There is no spoon”


–The Matrix

What we call Terror, most of the world calls the Status Quo. Iraq is a big, made-up country with many competing interests. At this stage of the USA’s development as a country, we looked exactly the same. So did every other country. France, Germany, Spain, Canada, they all went through this stage of consolidation and hideous reprisals against the minorities and nogoodniks.

The astonishingly stupid part of all this, to me anyway, is now little attention is paid to the historical record. All this could have been foreseen, was foreseen by those of us who were paying attention back during Operation Provide Comfort. OPC did much to create a Kurdish and Free Iraqi identity. Back in the day, Petraeus was the Lafayette of the Kurds. One place in the world still loves George Bush, father and son, and that’s Kurdistan.

Our intrusion into Iraq was surgery, and I don’t mean arthroscopic surgery. This was full-on open heart surgery, with heart-lung machine and rotating shifts of surgeons. The USA excised Saddam from the landscape, at tremendous cost in blood and treasure. But we didn’t get all the cancer. That cancer now lives over the border in Syria. It is the old Ba’athists who intend to destabilize Iraq, return it to the Status Quo, and they'll probably succeed because the Shiites are self-destroyers. They may very well succeed: the fractal and maddeningly hard to follow disputes are pure selfishness. Cut through the Gordian Knot of Iraq and you see the same problem as Afghanistan: warlords and robbers, just wearing cheap suits.

The great lie told to us about Iraq is the lie the Iraqis tell themselves: that Iraq can be saved from itself. Iraq will not and cannot be a full democracy just yet. It must be led by hard men in hard times. The USA deludes itself into believing these warlords are a threat: these warlords are politicians reduced to the bare essence of mandate and the achieving thereof.

Terrorism is what terror does. A small, highly-trained nihilistic group creates havoc in a society in hopes it can create change. Sounds exactly like the US military in Iraq: for all our talk of a bigbig war, never did an army of that size control more people than the US military in Iraq, 28 million people with roughly 160,000 troops. You do the math. There are more cops on the beat in your town on a percentage basis.

There is no war on terror. We stand like Canute in the waves, ordering the sea to retreat. Canute stood there to mock his fawning courtiers: he knew perfectly well he couldn’t control the sea. Do we?

Mostly agree


Although I think that the Sunni Arabs and Kurds are just as fragmented as the Shi'a Arabs. Indeed, I suspect that once the history of all of this business is written, one of the reasons that we'll see that there was never really an "other shoe dropping" with the Awakening fighters was that Maliki has been surprisingly adept at playing them off of each other. I think it's also telling that Maliki, by going to the tribes in central and southern Iraq is following the same pattern that Hussein did in using them to buttress the state.

I always thought that War on Terror was a ridiculous term. But then, the other options are things like "War on Salafism" which are just needlessly provocative. That's one of the things I think that BHO is doing that's quite smart--he's not talking about a campaign slogan Long War, Global War on Terror, or what have you. He's just going after bad guys.

Indeed the Arabs and Kurds are divided internally.


There are two main flavours of Kurds, represented by two different factions. The Arabs, well, they are united by nothing but a language, and that just barely. But come to think of it, there are two flavours of Kurdish, too.

Maliki is adept at nothing. He's the creature of his supporters: Iraq is a parliamentary democracy, though it calls itself a Republic.

Saddam did his damndest to call everyone an "Arab", not an Iraqi. Syria does the same: if you're an Arab you don't need a visa.

The Shiites control the engines of power in Iraq, especially the Interior Ministry, which has turned into yet another مخابرات = mukhabarat. Interesting word, mukhabarat, it literally means "to inform" as we'd say, to rat someone out. But it also forms the root of "news", so you have to be careful, it's a masdar.

The War on Terror is, as many others have observed, a contradiction, as if we could wage "war", which abides by rules, against "terror" which is a technique.

BHO is a military moron, I've come to believe. He's failed to take control of this situation and seems to be expanding his war over the mountains into Pakistan, an exceedingly stupid move. Never was more evil done than with the Best of Intentions. He's lying to us about this war, all of them are lying to us, trying to foist it off as Misdirection, confusing the enemy by stuffing doo-doo in the intelligence pipes.

He's not militarily stupid,

Desidiosus's picture

he's got an ahistorical understanding of how development happens.

Look, Afghanistan cannot be a democracy. We here in the US only barely want one, and we're far superior candidates for the process to the Afghans. They're so far away from having a long tradition of accepting losses in political conflicts. Every dime which isn't spent directly on infrastructure in Afghanistan will be wasted.

But once you start down the hubris of making Afghanistan the 51st state without making it the 51st state, there you are.

I do have to wonder, though, about what to do about Waziristan. There's no way that an internationalized Taliban state is a good thing.

"Assent, and you are sane."


Afghanistan can be a democracy of some sort.


Though that's semantics, I'll grant you.

Insofar as the voice of the people is heard, mandate is derived from the consent of the governed and justice is fairly administered, we could call this a proto-democracy. I'd start with freedom of the press, but Afghans are illiterate, so substitute "freedom of the radio" where applicable. The Taliban are doing a marvellous job of this: Mullah FM truly reaches out to people. We ought to be doing the same. We're not.

My father's master's thesis was on the impact of the radio on the dialects of the USA. A consolidation of Spoken American took place within a few years: it's now hard to find many of the dialects which had thrived for more than a century.

The USA, at its inception, had many newspapers, and they were read aloud in the coffee houses. The impact was enormous.

To imbue these countries with an identity, they must first hear it speaking. This is a war of hearts and minds, in the truest sense of warfare: it is a war we could win handily, if we applied ourselves. But first, we'd have to eat our own dog food and present a viable alternative to the idiotic recitation of the Qu'ran (in a language the Afghans do not speak) and the hateful nonsense the Taliban preach all day on the radio. First thing I'd do is to have a decent Afghan presenter read the Qu'ran aloud, in a good Dari translation, just to annoy the hell out of the Taliban, and delight the local people, who would hear their own scriptures in their own language.

We'd have to not be crazy first.

Desidiosus's picture

Our leaders would have to not hate and fear the people who brought them to power. There's so much that would have to change, and it would be good . . . but it's so far away.

"Assent, and you are sane."


Ecch, this country is a triumph of advertising and PR


I don't believe that for one goddamn second. I'd win this war from Madison Avenue and Hollywood. The very idea, that the Taliban can do better videos than we can, it's just ridiculous.

We in the USA forget the length of our reach. Sell the dream. We've done it since the very beginning. Letting these lumpen Military PR guys run this hearts and minds show, it's just beyond stupid.

Of course they can.

Desidiosus's picture

Number one rule of salesmanship: believe in your product. We don't.

"Assent, and you are sane."


Nah, you've got it backwards. Sell /their/ dream.


Has anyone asked what the Pashtuns and the rest of them what they want? Sometimes, the best sell of all is to say "Because you're worth it." Worked for L'Oreal, and they're the largest cosmetics firm in the world.

See, as long as it's us, trying to sell them OUR dream, this thing is always going to fail. It has to be THEIR dream. That's where the Taliban fails, too. There is a dream everyone has: a better life for their children, enough food on the table, hope for the future. The reason we're failing, the reason the Afghan government fails, the reason any government fails is because it isn't congruent with the Mandate of Heaven, which is to say, the will of the people. Mao taught this all day long. You can't eat ideology.

Hey, you're preaching to the choir.

Desidiosus's picture

But you know as well as I do that this whole business is predicated on stupid.

"Assent, and you are sane."


The people who thought Obama was a secret Muslim


in 2008 still think he is one, but they've wisely decided to shift their attack to domestic issues now that the economy is in the crapper and the public is bored with Iraq. (Not fatigued. Bored. There's a difference.) It's similar to the way the people who thought Bush was an authoritarian thug decided to criticize him on grounds of "incompetence".

The interesting thing on both sides is that there is a presumption of a status quo that cannot shift too far one way or the other. I think that presumption is radically false and will be proven so within the next couple of decades.

The other day I heard that ignorance and apathy are sweeping the country. I didn't know that, but I don't really care.

Indeed, it already has been.

Desidiosus's picture

Things are nontrivially worse now for the average American than they were 30 years ago, despite three decades of technological progress.

"Assent, and you are sane."


I've noticed the drop in coverage

Bird Dog's picture

Even at places like Small Wars Journal, there's a kind of sameness to most of the news. In a respect, there is a stability to the current instability in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although fragile, Iraq is having an election, and the biggest noisemakers are al Qaeda and not much else. The country is doing well enough that Joe Biden is audaciously to trying to claim all the credit for the improvement, even though he and Obama were against the very strategy that brought us to this point. In Afghanistan, the McChrystal Plan is underway.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

my feeling...


....and it's just a feeling I grant, is that the current stability can be credited to the happy boys of the interior ministry and their electric hand drills.

I think the fact we can ignore the "little wars"


is largely a good thing. It's a product, more than anything else, of the disastrous decision to invade Iraq without any coherent post-invasion plan or grand strategy of any kind. If you recall, the country and the world was solidly behind Bush in the war against the Taliban/AQA, and if attention was riveted on that war it was largely because of the shock of 911.

The reason Iraq riveted attention for so long is because it was a highly controversial war. It split the country in the worst way at the worst possible time, in addition to being a foolishly conceived war, and so I believe most of the attention revolved around the domestic disagreement, while the war in AfPak has gone largely ignored.

Which is ok: AfPak is an obvious security threat, the US & NATO nations have an obvious motive for wanting to remove that threat. There just isn't much controversy to be had there. Armchair tacticians will quibble over this or that action, but by and large the public has decided, more or less rightly, that the professionals (and we do have a professional standing army, albeit one made of volunteers) can handle this one.

Best wishes to your brother, by the way.

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

"if we can get Afghanistan..."

Desidiosus's picture

I want to own a dwarf mammoth who has the ability to caress me to orgasm with its limber trunk.

I have better odds than you do.

"Assent, and you are sane."