Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Somalia and Iraq

The fighters of the Islamic Courts Union have fled over the border to Kenya, or dissolved into the Somali populace, in a significant defeat for Islamists in the tactical and informational realms.

One train of thought I respectfully disagree with is the Ethiopians in Somalia/US in Iraq comparison, though. There has been a tendency by some esteemed writers in the blogosphere to comment that the all business "hard hand of war" tact of the Ethiopian government is the critical element that the U.S. is lacking in the Long War. A recent post at Captain's Quarters captures this sentiment perfectly:

Once again, this [overwhelming victory in Somalia] shows the West how to properly square off against Islamist forces. Only by conducting a true war with massive, overwhelming force will these terrorists be destroyed.

While the Islamic Court Union's rout is a significant occurrence, discussion of Ethoipian versus American tactics against the Islamists is largely irrelevant, and provides marginal use as the nation decides what is next in Iraq (or Afghanistan).

First of all, the Islamic Courts Union fighters had fairly coalesced into a "regular military force" (regulars is used VERY loosely, of course), and were the de facto open law in Mogadishu and much of Somalia.

That force has apparently dissolved into the populace now, or retreated into Kenya.

And then there is the United States military involved in Iraq. Apple, meet orange.

The United States combats loose knot bands of insurgents and armed militias that are hostile to the government on a regular basis in Iraq, and likewise in Afghanistan. Are U.S. forces currently having a severe problem during combat engagements in either theater? Not really. And if insurgents massed into a battalion or regimental-sized force to conduct a sustained operation, would there be serious issues in either theater? A resounding NO there as well.

In fact, one could surmise that the average, run of the mill Brigade Commnader fervently hopes something like the latter scenario would happen on his watch there.

How well or poorly the United States performs in conventional combat operations (ie conducting operations like raids, movements to contact, and the like) at the Battalion level and below are largely irrelevant to achieving strategic objectives in either theater at this point.

Unlike what the Ethiopians faced, American forces in Iraq are dealing with an insurgency, whose forces aren't the law of the land, and who only coalesce to fight when it suits them. They are dealing with lawlessness, and with sectarian strife in a country where decades of near-totalitarian rule kept a lid on the pot.

And neither theater is running out of insurgents, militias, or criminals by the way, despite the fact that U.S. and their military counterparts in either nation units are readily killing them.

In Iraq, a valid argument can be made that Rules of Engagement (ROE) somewhat limit the US' ability to deal with militias that are becoming THE threat to stability there. Less so in Afghanistan. Any shift in Iraq strategy MUST address dealing with the militias.

The violence must be dealt with, along with the insurgents that cause it. But the U.S. needs to focus beyond purely kinetic operations and simultaneously address the tangible, root causes of the insurgency and lawlessness. In fact this is where most of our efforts must be focused.

Yes, we must fight and kill/capture insurgents as part of this war. But victory in Iraq and Afghanistan is going to flow purely out of the barrel of a gun*; no one should discount the effects improving infrastructure would have in either theater, or scoff at the belief that economic improvements would sharply reduce localized violence.

Look at the mass of humanity coexisting peacably in New York City for example; how safe would you feel taking the subway at night there after three years of unemployment hovering over 40%, with rolling blackouts, a garbage strike, corrupt cops, et al? Most people would take to shopping online to avoid their fellow New Yorkers, I would wager!

Improving the environment people live, work, and play in would make many people opt out of crime, insurgencies and militias for the honest life.

There are people who will never disarm at any cost (the military refers to them as "total spoilers" in its Stability Operations Joint Operating Concept), and they will have to be dealt with harshly; many people will opt not to stick their necks out if there are better opportunities, though.

The second issue with the Somalia/Iraq comparison is the early call in thise sort of thing; it would be prudent to wait awhile before calling Ethiopia's military victories THE decisive defeat of Islamists in Somalia. While these are heady days for the transitional government, they must now administer the failed city-state of Mogadishu; those Islamists who slipped into Kenya or simply blended into the populace can and most likely will continue to make mischief, especially if they have some external backing. Already there are fears of an Islamic insurgency. It is unlikely that Ethiopia wants to spend years and limited resources fighting an insurgency in its neighbor's slums, either.

Thus, while radical Islamists suffered a strategic loss in Africa, there are few tactical lessons to be learned and in turn applied in Iraq or Afghanistan. And like the past few years have taught us, the victors' euphoria may prove to be achingly short lived.

* Mao is credited with saying "Power flows from the barrel of a gun".

UPDATE: Ralph Peters lays out an argument that sharply contrasts mine in this article.


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Harrison said...

I, too, would advise some tempering of enthusiasm regarding the Somali conflict. It is simply too early to tell, and such early "victory" against the Islamists may in the short-term vindicate the theories of observers like Ralph Peters and Kagan - I believe that the resilience of the militant infrastructure is well capable of absorbing such shocks, and that the terrorists have a certain advantage in that one never knows when they will regroup and coalesce, especially with foreign funding.

In fact, the media's role in this had better be kept as minimal as possible: we do not want to trumpet our triumphs so vociferously as to give our enemy impetus to turn this into another PR disaster. With the current whitewash painted by the MSM in Iraq about "grim milestones" and "irreversible catastrophe", I do not trust the media to do any sort of a near-decent job.

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