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Wars Past and Wars to Come

John Newsinger is Professor of Modern History at Bath Spa University. His books include The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, Fighting Back: The American Working Class in the 1930s, and most recently a new, revised, and expanded edition of his British Counterinsurgency.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, elements within the U.S. ruling class came to believe that their country was militarily invincible. Indeed, they believed this newfound military superiority over any potential rival was something new in human history. So great was its technological advantage, the United States could destroy its enemies with complete impunity. A long-heralded Revolution in Military Affairs was taking place, enabling the United States to reshape the world. New smart technologies would disperse the “fog of war,” making it possible for the United States to kill its enemies without their being able to strike back, and the “Vietnam syndrome” could be overcome once and for all. The first Gulf War was a good demonstration of U.S. military superiority. According to military historian Keith Shimko, the U.S. casualty rate in the war was so low that male soldiers were statistically safer in the Gulf War zone than back in the States.1 Although he does not make the point, presumably black American men would have been considerably safer.

Even so, at this point in time, the U.S. government proceeded with considerable caution. The then-secretary of defense, Dick Cheney no less, made clear that the United States did not invade and occupy Iraq at this time because of the danger of finding itself in a “quagmire” where it would be taking casualties while the Kurds, the Shia, and the Sunnis fought it out. The administration decided not to involve itself in “that civil war.” Such a commitment would have had to involve the use of “overwhelming force” for an extended period if it was to have any chance of success.2 This was in 1991. Ten years later such caution had been replaced by an overweening self-confidence, by a belief that the United States could completely reshape the Middle East, starting with Iraq, and then moving on to Syria and Iran. And, moreover, this could all be achieved with a comparatively small invading and occupying army.

The pretext for invading Iraq was, of course, provided by the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration’s immediate response was to take down the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but this was always a sideshow compared to the real objective which was to reshape the Middle East. The Taliban were overthrown by the use of special forces and CIA operatives together with U.S. air power supporting a proxy army provided by the Northern Alliance. In many respects this was a very traditional intervention with the United States supporting an alliance of drug traffickers and warlords. It was as if the United States had invaded Columbia to install the drug cartels in power. One thing that was or should have been clear was that the Northern Alliance was only able to overthrow the Taliban with U.S. support and consequently would require continued U.S. support to hold power. Instead, U.S. attention switched to the Middle East, leaving a brutal, corrupt gangster government in power in Afghanistan, making a Taliban revival inevitable.3

When it came to the invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi Army was indeed destroyed with relative ease, falling victim to U.S. technological supremacy, but, as was generally predicted, the forces that accomplished this task were completely inadequate to effectively occupy the country. Resistance to the U.S. occupation was inevitable, but the situation was made considerably worse, first by the lack of troops, but second by the policies implemented by the U.S. occupiers. George Tenet, the CIA director, was to later claim that his organization had an accurate assessment of the dangers present in Iraq, but, “where we ran into trouble was in our inability to foresee some of the actions of our own government.”4 The decision to ban senior Baath members from employment and to disband the Iraqi Army and the national police were guaranteed to ensure that the insurgents had a mass base. Colonel John Agoglia, military liaison with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), described May 23, 2003, the day the Iraqi Army and police were disbanded, as the day “we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and created an insurgency.”5 According to another U.S. officer, John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert, the CPA’s policies provided “a perfect recipe for an insurgency.”6 Certainly, the U.S. occupation of Iraq has earned itself a place in military history as the great example of how not to conduct an occupation!

The Turn to Counterinsurgency

The scale of the insurgency in Iraq, where the CPA had succeeded in provoking simultaneous Sunni and Shia insurrections, a truly remarkable achievement, confronted the United States with the very real prospect of military defeat. Confronted with this deteriorating situation, attention turned to counterinsurgency (COIN) as a solution. This turn is most closely associated with General David Petraeus, but it involved a number of Army and Marine Corps officers. One key figure was Nagl, who in his memoirs described his own experience in Iraq: “We’d controlled the streets as long as we stood on them, but after we left, it was as if we’d never been there. It was like pulling your hand out of a bucket of water and hoping you’d made a lasting impression.”7 He was the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, a comparative study of the British experience in Malaya with the U.S. experience in Vietnam, and urged the U.S. Army to learn the lessons of the British experience in order to succeed in Iraq.8 His book was taken up by Newt Gingrich, who used his influence to ensure it appeared in a paperback edition, and pressed it on senior officers as showing the way forward.

The advocates of counterinsurgency characterized themselves as the COINdinistas, insurgent rebels within the U.S. military, attempting to overthrow a conservative status quo. This was really part of Petraeus’s strategy for getting the media onside. He was always very much aware of the need to cultivate good relations with the media. Under his tutelage, the new 282-page field manual Counterinsurgency (FM 3-24) was produced. It was, as one commentator observed, “a work of extraordinary influence, discussed on television and in newspapers and bought in quantities normally reserved for airport thrillers.”9 Quite unprecedentedly, it was published by a university press in paperback in December 2006, a nice demonstration of the military-industrial-academic complex at work.10 As well as being a print bestseller, it was, Nagl proudly tells us, “downloaded more than a million times in the first month after it had been published.” Even more impressive, “copies were found in Taliban training camps in Pakistan, and it was translated and critiqued on jihadi websites.”11 For a time, counterinsurgency was “the new religion” and FM 3-24 was “its sacred text.”12

The British Experience

One compelling irony about the British experience in Malaya being mined for lessons by the U.S. military is that, at exactly the same time, the British Army was suffering a humiliating defeat in Basra. The British Army’s reputation for expertise in defeating insurgencies had always been largely fraudulent. In Malaya, it had taken a twelve-year emergency to encompass the defeat of poorly armed Communist guerrillas who were cut off from outside help and who faced opposition from most of the local population. In Northern Ireland, it had taken thirty years to bring the Provisional Republican movement to the negotiating table, once again, even though a majority of the province’s population were militantly hostile to the insurgency. Elsewhere the British had suffered humiliating defeats in Palestine and South Arabia (South Yemen). Nevertheless, the British had convinced both themselves and others that counterinsurgency was something they excelled in. Indeed, the U.S. military in Iraq for many months had British officers lecturing them on what they were doing wrong and on how much they could learn from the British experience. This all turned to dust as it became clear that the British were losing control of Basra and the south of the country.

The problem for the British was that Tony Blair’s New Labour government was absolutely determined to prove itself the United States’ most faithful and reliable ally, although satellite seems a more appropriate term, but was not prepared to commit the necessary resources to the military effort. This was, at least, partly because the politicians had been wilfully misled by the generals who had volunteered the British Army for duties beyond its capacity. What prevented the Blair government from committing the necessary resources was that the war was unpopular in Britain. It had been opposed by a Stop the War movement of unprecedented strength (in one London demonstration alone, well over a million people were on the streets), and British involvement was regarded as based on lies and deception. British soldiers were dying on behalf of a U.S. President who was generally regarded as a joke in Britain and Blair’s courting of him almost amounted to a national humiliation. The Iraq War seriously damaged both the Labour Party, which lost thousands of members, and Blair himself, who became widely known as “Bliar.”13

With too few troops, and those few being continually reduced in number, the British were first of all forced out of the southern provinces that they had taken responsibility for, and then effectively driven out of Basra itself. Where New Labour was successful was in keeping the scale of the defeat from the British people. What is remarkable is that even as the disaster in Basra was unfolding, the British volunteered to take responsibility for Helmand province in Afghanistan, where the Taliban had revived and were mounting an increasingly serious insurgent challenge. The thinking behind this quixotic decision seems to have been that war in Afghanistan in support of Karzai’s regime of drug-trafficking gangsters could be successfully portrayed as a war for women’s rights and against drug trafficking! This might be made into a popular war. The outcome was to be another debacle with the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband eventually having to privately ask the United States to relieve Britain of responsibility for Helmand before the rising level of casualties precipitated a crisis back home.14

Privatizing War

One feature of the Iraq War that marks it out as a turning point in military affairs is the extent to which the United States and British privatized the conflict. Whereas at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991 there had been one private contractor for every hundred soldiers, by the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq there was one contractor for every ten soldiers, and by 2008, there was at least one contractor for every soldier. Most of this privatization involved the contracting out of logistics, maintenance, and training to such an extent that both the U.S. and British armies were dependent on private contractors. By 2008 there were more than 30,000 armed contractors and mercenaries operating in Iraq, providing security for individuals, installations, and supply lines, working for both the U.S. and British governments as well as for private companies. Private contractors were even involved in the torture at Abu Ghraib! This is a “military revolution” of considerable significance. Indeed, the implications of a partly privatized military for the institutions of bourgeois democracy have not as of yet been seriously explored.

The most notorious mercenary outfit involved in Iraq was, of course, Blackwater, at the time headed up by Erik Prince, a right-wing Christian fundamentalist and son of a billionaire businessman. The firm got its first security contract in 2002, protecting the CIA headquarters in Kabul. By 2006, its security contracts were worth $593 million. Blackwater provided security for CPA head Paul Bremer and, on at least one occasion, for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. They did not provide conventional body guards but rather military escorts made up of heavily armed men, armored vehicles, and helicopter escorts. They routinely fired on Iraqi vehicles that came too close, rammed them and forced them off the road, set up road blocks, and generally behaved without any concern for the safety of Iraqi civilians. This conduct was ignored, indeed condoned, up until the Nisour Square massacre of September 16, 2007 when Blackwater gunmen, fearing attack, opened fire and killed seventeen unarmed Iraqi men, women, and children.

Since this public relations disaster, Blackwater has cunningly changed its name a number of times, from Xe Services to Academi and, most recently, to Constellis Holdings. It still has security contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including for the protection of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which was awarded by the Obama administration.15

Holding Operation

Under the command of Petraeus, and equipped with the new counterinsurgency strategy, the U.S. military was apparently able to turn the tide in Iraq. The Surge, together with the Sunni Awakening, supposedly laid the basis for victory. Iraq was to be no Vietnam. This was more a testimony to Petraeus’s media handling skills than anything else. The reality was somewhat different. A serious counterinsurgency strategy would have involved a large-scale U.S. military commitment in Iraq that lasted another decade or longer and even then there was no guarantee of success. This was not politically possible. Indeed, by now it was becoming clear that the United States was in fact caught in the middle of a proxy war being waged between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In these circumstances, the Surge was little more than a “holding operation,” designed to get the situation under control, at least temporarily, so that U.S. forces could be pulled out without suffering any great public humiliation. From that point of view, the exercise was a success because when disaster inevitably came, the United States had already withdrawn.

One of the pretexts for invading Iraq had been Saddam Hussein’s supposed links with al-Qaeda. It was purportedly part of the War on Terror. This was pure fiction of course. The War on Terror was from the beginning nothing more than an ideological construct intended to provide popular justification for the U.S. attempt to reassert itself in the Middle East, rather than an attempt to deal with what was only a marginal security problem posed by terrorism. The only way to justify an unprovoked attack on Iraq was to somehow implicate Saddam Hussein in the 9/11 attacks. He was certainly guilty of terrible crimes, all of which the United States had condoned, but had no involvement in 9/11. But now his non-existent arsenal of weapons of mass destruction had to be destroyed or the next terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland would be chemical, biological, or even nuclear. Instead of eliminating a terrorist threat from a terrorist state, the Iraq invasion successfully created a terrorist threat from a terrorist state. At the time, many people had pointed out that the invasion would create a terrorist problem where one did not already exist. This quickly proved to be the case, although no one foresaw the unprecedented scale that the phenomenon was to eventually assume with the rise of the Islamic State.16

A similar “holding operation” was mounted in Afghanistan with a temporary “surge” stabilizing the situation so that U.S. forces could be withdrawn. How successful this will be remains to be seen with fighting still continuing.

Wars to Come

Already there are those constructing a “stab in the back” myth to explain away the U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In their story, the military had gotten on top of the insurgency in Iraq and the Surge was working, but the Obama administration threw it all away with a premature withdrawal. Similarly in Afghanistan, a counterinsurgency strategy was producing results, but was cut short by political expediency with consequences that still remain to be seen. The soldiers were “stabbed in the back” by the politicians just like they were when they lost the Vietnam War. The politicians threw victory away.17 The reality is somewhat different. What we have seen is a significant shift in U.S. strategy, from full-scale invasion and occupation—which proved too costly, too unpopular, and positively counter-productive—to going back to more traditional methods of intervention. The counterinsurgency turn has proven to be remarkably short-lived, an intellectual revolution that crashed and burned almost as soon as it took flight. Instead of committing large numbers of troops on the ground, the United States is waging war across the world by means of special forces and aerial bombardment, whether carried out by drones and conventional aircraft, or by supporting proxy armies in the fight against U.S. enemies. This is more cost-effective and invites less political fallout. These are the wars to come.18


  1. Keith Shimko, The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010), 77.
  2. Adam Cobb, “A Strategic Assessment of Iraq,” Civil Wars 9, no 1 (2007): 55.
  3. The installation of Hamid Karzai as President provided this gangster regime with a presentable figurehead, but no more than that. Sarah Chayes describes how on one occasion, Karzai announced his intention to root out corruption at a press conference, but made clear the emptiness of the promise by having his two notoriously corrupt warlord Vice Presidents, both “war criminals” according to her, standing alongside him. According to Chayes, even David Petraeus on one occasion described the Karzai government as a “criminal syndicate.” But it was, of course, America’s criminal syndicate; indeed, many of its personnel—including Karzai himself—were on the CIA payroll. See Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015), 61, 135.
  4. George Tenet, At the Centre of the Storm: My Years in the CIA (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 426.
  5. Thomas Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin 2006), 163.
  6. John Nagl, Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice (New York: Penguin, 2014), 65.
  7. Ibid, 80.
  8. John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  9. Jason Burke, The 9/11 Wars (London: Allen Lane, 2011), 265.
  10. The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication no. 3-33.5 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  11. Nagl, Knife Fights, 156–57.
  12. Emma Sky, The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (London: Atlantic Books, 2015), 160.
  13. Blair’s vaunted electoral successes were in fact predicated on the weakness of the Conservative opposition and the cultivation of the right wing press, in particular of the Murdoch press.
  14. David Miliband is the son of the eminent Marxist academic, the late Ralph Miliband, author of one of the best books on the British Labour Party, Parliamentary Socialism, first published as long ago as 1961. His eldest son seems to have embraced every one of his father’s most damaging criticisms of the Labour Party as positive virtues. He was the Blairite candidate for the Labour Party leadership in 2010 and after his defeat moved to the United States to head up the International Rescue Committee, a charity supported by a cross section of the U.S. ruling class and with strong State Department and CIA links. Its committee of Overseers includes such well-known humanitarians as Madelaine Albright, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and Henry Kissinger.
  15. For Blackwater see Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2008). Erik Prince has recently urged that private contractors be used to overthrow the Islamic State.
  16. The U.S. fight against Islamic State is compromised by the covert support that America’s allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, continue to provide for that regime. When considering IS it is worth adopting the old adage of following the money. Who is helping produce, sell and distribute the Islamic State’s oil? It is certain that Western intelligence agencies know the answer to this question, but obviously those assisting IS are too important to be named, let alone be sanctioned for their actions.
  17. Leading the way is Mark Moyer. See his Strategic Failure: How President Obama’s Drone Warfare, Defense Cuts and Military Amateurism Have Imperiled America (New York: Threshold Editions, 2015).
  18. See Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (London: Serpent’s Tale, 2014).
2015, Volume 67, Number 6 (November)
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