Just as in Southeast Asia in 1975, today in the Middle East, America reaps the mistakes it sowed by intervening brutally and ineffectively, by tearing countries apart, and by backing off with as much dissembling or confusion as possible, to cover up the mess. When Francisco de Goya y Lucientes recorded and painted the magnificent images in the series The disasters of war (1812), he intended to leave a record for posterity of the war of occupation’s futility and brutality in XIX century Spain. In the XXI century once again we have experienced the futility and brutality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two hundred years have gone by since the French troops’ retreat in Spain. Now we witness the retreat of the American and allied troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. The resemblance is remarkable. In both cases a superior force from the greatest army in the world (Napoleon’s was and so is the United States’) suffered an unexpected and unconventional defeat, in hands of a polymorphous uprising with a strong religious component. Bonaparte could not understand how a guerrilla of common people, often led by fanatic priests, managed to dissolve his best strategic calculations and bleed the troops of his brother José (known as Pepe Bottles because of his drinking habits). In the XX century, the first one to understand the logic of the asymmetrical war was the ultraconservative German scholar Carl Schmitt, in his book entitled Theory of the partisan. The term partisan is a synonym of legionnaire, revolutionary, and emerges after that occupation in Spain conducted by Napoleon between 1808 and 1813. The partisan is a soldier, an armed individual who unlike the common soldier has the following characteristics:
– Irregularity: he may or may not carry weapons, has not done a professional career, does not wear a uniform, has no definite rank.
– Attachment to the land: he is bound to a certain place, does not need the logistics of regular battle, and usually acts within his own crew who helps him.
– Extreme mobility: he has a great skill to move in the battle field, he has no established tactics.
– Intense political commitment: he is strongly committed to his place of birth, which means he can tell the difference between friends and the real enemy.
Despite this bizarre example, war theorists –particularly von Clausewitz- decided to ignore the anomalous case and in turn explain the military exchange between similar armed forces, with identical chains of command, emblems and strategies. This situation endured until the Second World War, which, although generalized and total, maintained the symmetrical architecture of conventional war between forces of similar organization.
It is due to the wars of national liberation, after WWII, that the situation changed and forced people to think about a different kind of warfare: the people’s war, the war of guerrillas, and the uprising against an occupational force. From Mao Zedong’s texts, to the teachings of General Giap, and Algeria’s counterinsurgency manual by Col. Trinquier, up to the diverse revolutionary doctrines culminating in the nineteen seventies, one can sense an unsettling scenario for the so called ‘forces of order’, and the pax first colonial (France, England) and then American utterly failed. In most cases, these wars were a disaster for the dominant powers, giving way to victorious revolutions (China, Cuba, Vietnam), or civil wars sine die, from which the military powers had to retreat, with greater or lesser humiliation. Only in isolated cases, the counterinsurgent power (especially England) managed to prevail (Malaysia, Ireland). In short, there is not a single example of a practical counterinsurgency manual or an asymmetrical war theory that will lead to the conventional forces’ triumph; regardless of how powerful they might be (the case of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan is sobering). In schools of war and universities, today there are shelves packed with books on the subject. All of them, or nearly all of them, are practically useless since they have been written by the losers. It is in fact an unusual case in which history is not written by the victorious but by the defeated instead.
Actually, ‘triumph’ and ‘defeat’ have become obsolete terms in the conceptual arsenal nowadays. It would be better to replace them with the more accurate terms of ‘intervention’ and ‘failure’.
When the United States invaded Iraq, we warned against the deluded and disastrous nature of such enterprise in the pages of Opinion Sur. It was a devastating conventional attack against a weak regime, lacking a follow-up strategy that could qualify as sustainable. And that’s how it went: the true war (asymmetrical) started the day after the alleged swift and conventional ‘triumph’, that never even produced a Declaration of Surrender from Iraq. It did unleash a large uprising and a civil war of ethnic and religious nature, in the midst of which the occupational forces were cornered and sieged by partisans. It was all covered up with lies and fantasies about ‘nation-building’ and ‘democratization’. Finally, after ten inglorious years during which thousands of lives were lost by the allies and many more by the country’s natives, in which more than a trillion dollars were spent, the American government and its allies decided to put an end to the suffering, announcing that the zone has returned to a relative (and deceitful) normality.
The American people’s position as well as the official government’s line is not one of learning from the enormous strategic mistake made, to draw useful conclusions, look deeply within, and accepting there are things even the most powerful cannot do. The position is saying ‘we are tired’ and ‘let’s move on’. In short, instead of learning they deny, and instead of remembering, they would rather forget. On the surface today the United States are nationalists and patriots but, seen from twenty thousand feet high, they are losing strategic positions on every front. Neither oblivion nor denial, nor singing the national anthem in every sports event will erase the fact that in these wars what was lost is moral legitimacy, the many lives of those who fought for nothing, and the copious funds that were spent just for the sake of it. In the United States there are two governments responsible for the disaster they are eager to forget: the administration of President George W. Bush for having initiated an overbearing, unnecessary, and deep down unjustifiable war (whose only clear geopolitical outcome is the reinforcement of Iran), and the government of President Barak Obama for wanting to get away with it and leave pretending the situation is stable and the outcome salvageable. Just like the initial justification was a fairy tale, the retreat is masked under a similar story (the fantasy that the governments they are leaving in those two countries will be able to continue). The declining superpower has developed a vested interest in confusion.
In every war theory it is stated, rightfully, that a good general must prepare for victory, but in case he is not successful, he must have a clever retreat planned. It is not the current case, in which the goal is only to forget. Despite his advanced age, Dr. Henry Kissinger is still very perceptive. Recently he was right on point when he was asked to comment on the exit strategy of the current American government: ‘it is all exit and no strategy.’ Let us remember that in this order of things, as in so many others, denial and oblivion are causes of repetition of the same disaster and the same mistake. The syndrome is less personal than systemic and we must wait until a new administration takes responsibility for the true lessons of failure and that it will not disguise it with the strategy of oblivion.