9 December 2003

Building a Better Occupation

This is bad business on two counts. First, it reinforces the myth, propagated by radical groups in the region, that the United States is waging a war against Islam. American officials showed they understood this danger earlier in the year - and during the first Gulf War in 1991 - by going out of their way to keep Israel out of the conflict. Why are they so openly aligning with Israel - and emulating its methods - during the equally sensitive post-battlefield phase of this war?

Second, Israel is a poor model on substantive grounds. Even when such a heavy hand has succeeded at swatting foes in the short run, it has tended to alienate more Palestinians in the medium-to-long run. The idea is to isolate the guerrillas from the population, but the result is often to turn the population into guerrillas.

The U.S. Army has had its own woeful experiences with attempts at this strategy. In Vietnam, it was called the 'hamlet' strategy. It didn't work. In early 20th-century Philippines, the cordoned-off villages were called 'concentration camps.' It did work in the Philippines, but only after two years of savage brutality, followed by 40 years of occupation - more time, at either task, than anyone wants to spend in Iraq.

The current phase of the Iraqi war is complicated. It requires American soldiers to kill a band of insurgents while, at the same time, a half-mile down the road, other American soldiers are fixing a water pump or painting a schoolhouse. In this sort of warfare, such strange anomalies are not just inevitable but appropriate.

However, the two activities shouldn't work against each other. The soldiers shouldn't blow up the water pump - or, to put it more concretely, shouldn't tick off the same people that the new water pump is meant to please. It's one thing for the left hand and the right hand to be doing different things. It's another for the left hand to mangle the right hand's fingers in the process. That's what seems to be going on in Iraq now.

Back in February and March the war party was asked why this war and this occupation would be nay different from previous colonial adventures. There was never any answer. There is even less of an answer now.

The spreading meme that we should declare martial law or institute some dramatically repressive policy does not answer the question. Why should what failed for the Russians in Afghanistan or the French in Algeria work for the coalition in Iraq? Why is the enterprise of Iraq different?

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