How We Lost in Iraq
In a recent article entitled, “How We Won in Iraq,” David Petraeus laments the impending failure of the US’s long-term strategy in the region. Of course, for Petraeus, this failure does not come as a result of the Counterinsurgency (COIN) formulas that he innovated and implemented during the troop surge of the mid-late 2000s. Instead, it comes as a result of the attempted transfer of power from US operations to local governance, which has left the nation of Iraq in desperate confusion. However, the transfer of power back to local governance, via the legitimization of the latter, was implicit within the logic of COIN. Thus, Petraeus’s argument for indeterminate troop deployments in Iraq, or a permanent COIN presence in Iraq, appears to put “security” above self-determination.
Petraeus’s philosophy of “clear, hold, and build,” he argues, stemmed from “explicit recognition that the most important terrain in the campaign in Iraq was the human terrain—the people—and our most important mission was to improve their security.” Human terrain systems, understood as winning the “hearts and minds” of the population by reaching out to them on their level, provided the base into which the army inserted the troop surge. “[O]ur most important mission was to improve their security,” Petraeus continues. “[W]e had to ‘live with the people’ in order to secure them.”
The cuddly notion that the superiority of force enabled the US to “live with the people,” and turn them towards the legitimacy of the Iraqi state is, however, weakened by Petraeus’s aside on the actual military policing of Iraq. While Petraeus commends the focus on “increased attention to various aspects of the rule of law, improvements to infrastructure and basic services, and support for various political actions that helped bridge ethno-sectarian divides,” he admits that US detainee camps became “terrorist universities.” “We were, to be sure, providing humane treatment,” Petraeus insists (against all evidence to the contrary); “however, we had not identified and segregated from the general detainee population the hardcore extremists.” If by “living with the people,” Petraeus was referring to the system of mass detention of Iraqis without habeas corpus and in direct violation of international law, he would be right about one thing: it has had a powerfully radicalizing impact on the population not only of Iraq, but of the US as well.
Here, we obtain some insight into what actually went wrong in Iraq. The COIN dogma applying superiority of force to the political field was never anything more or less innovative than an obtrusive and coercive presence of an occupying power—one which can never gain legitimacy with the base of an occupied country. Identified by Fernand Braudel as “the stratum of the non-economy, the soil into which capitalism thrusts its roots but which it can never really penetrate,” this base is composed not of nationalism, but of the very “people” that human terrain targets (ie, the population). It is this human terrain that presents the battleground of an attempted new economic revolution by the US and NATO powers—an imposed revolution that has failed in every respect.
The Economy of COIN
In Life During Wartime: Resistance Against Counterinsurgency, editor Kristian Williams poses an important problematic: “Is the role of counterinsurgency to clean up the mess that neoliberalism makes? Or is COIN used to carve out the space in which market conditions can be imposed, to create the requisite stability for neoliberal reforms?”
Williams notes that by applying COIN to prepare the field for neo-liberalism, the latter is transformed by the former, creating an insoluble tension. Neo-liberalism requires a coercive state, yet calls for no government intervention; COIN calls for government intervention, seeking to disguise (or legitimize) the coercive state. The necessity for COIN, brought by enhanced dissent from civil society, causes a necessary transformation of neo-liberalism, itself.
One way of addressing the crux of the issue lies within the logic of capital, itself. Recalling Adam Smith’s excoriating comments against colonialism at length, we might see how the forces necessary to instill capital create the conditions for the collapse of empires: “At the particular time when these discoveries [of the “New World”] were made, the superiority of force happened to be so great on the side of the Europeans, that they were enabled to commit with impunity every sort of injustice in those remote countries. Hereafter, perhaps, the natives of those countries may grow stronger, or those of Europe may grow weaker, and the inhabitants of all the different quarters of the world may arrive at that equality of courage and force which, by inspiring mutual fear, can alone overawe the injustice of independent nations into some sort of respect for the rights of one another. But nothing seems more likely to establish this equality of force than that mutual communication of knowledge and of all sorts of improvements which an extensive commerce from all countries to all countries naturally, or rather necessarily, carries along with it.”
The “communication of knowledge” lies at root of the human terrain synthesis between the notion of surgical, stealth military operation, known as “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA), and large-scale political military operations, or COIN. It is here where the convergence of technology and theory is supposed to provide an “organizational revolution” that enhances security for economic cooperation. But the synthesis of military power and communication technology cannot and will not hold.
Above all else, the communication of knowledge is a two-way street, and attempts at domination by whatever means will produce counter-powers. Moreover, the claim that the objectives of COIN stop at security is disingenuous. Security becomes a means to attain a basic level of economic cooperation, and at this stage, international economic competition has manifested an almost ubiquitous rejection of the US’s security complex throughout the world. As Giovanni Arrighi would later comment, Smith’s thesis implies a “corrosive impact of processes of world market formation on the superiority of force of the West.” This impact, where international competition corrodes political domination, is beginning to be felt with the implications of China’s increased presence in the global marketplace.
China’s Impact on Security
Over the past several years, the insertion of the BRICS countries—particularly China—into the rarified air of finance capital has transformed the world economy. In Iraq, where according to Michael Knights, “security strategy currently consists of a lot of flailing around in an effort to create the facsimile of progress,” Chinese capital flows through the reconstruction of infrastructure and builds new systems of power.
China is seeking to purchase 30 percent of Iraq’s estimated oil exports next year—a move that follows the forgiveness of Iraq’s massive debt to China. One crucial aspect of the current political arena in the area is Iran. The US has worked strenuously to upset Iran’s hegemony in West Asia, in part by funding Sunni powers through COIN but also by leveraging its oil supply to levy sanctions against Iran. China, however, is heavily in debt to Iran’s oil and gas industry, as Iran has become China’s number one oil supplier. China’s involvement in Iraq, then, brings a new level of power relations to the region, even as Iraq’s oil flow to China lessens Iran’s hegemony. Meanwhile, as indicated by the US-led sanctions, OPEC is already being undermined by what the New York Times has called the US’s “oil shale revolution,” and the expansion of US oil companies abroad—for instance, Chevron’s controversial expansion into Argentina. According to analysts, the US wants to keep oil flowing to China, but not at the expense of its own global hegemony. Yet as the crisis spilling over from Syria continues to grievously threaten security in Iraq, many are looking to China, not the US, to begin picking up the pieces.
Chen Weidong, head of energy strategy research at Chinese oil giant CNOOC, credits the economic success of China not with political maneuvers, but with simplicity: “There is little political thinking behind it.” One official with Iraq’s South Oil Co explains, “The Chinese work cheaply and silently—worrying less about security compared to other foreign firms. They use a larger number of workers, so they always complete the job on time, if not before.” By contrast, the US performance in Iraq has been underwritten by the COIN mantra of “four-fifths political, one-fifth military.”
China has made political moves in West Asia, such as bringing Turkey under its missile shield defense system, but the key to China’s power is the ability to separate and disassociate its political and economic interests (or at least conceal the former in the latter). While the state of Iraq today is a testament not only to the failure of the transfer of power, but the COIN regime that presupposed it, China’s success has come about through a contrary and competitive stance. If COIN was in fact implemented by the US to create systemic security for economic cooperation, it has succeeded through failure; it has dissolved US hegemony in the international tides of finance capital.
Debt and Power
The hegemonic rivalry between China and the US clearly takes place on multiple economic levels, but the tactics deployed by China’s economic powers where politics and economy collide—namely debt—are particularly worth noting. As Marx noted, the creation and savvy manipulation of debt opens an international economic hierarchy by disguising the roots of land grabbing and resource extraction: “With the national debt arose an international credit system, which often conceals one of the sources of primitive accumulation in this or that people.” China identifies itself with the Global South, and uses debt not as a crushing tool against nation-states, but as a primary ballast of the present international system at the expense of dissenters (even the nationalists!).
By leveraging debt to purchase gigantic swaths of politically and ecologically sensitive land for resource extraction, China can work with world leaders to overcome the objections of their populations and build a more diversified (read: “de-Americanized”) world economy. The example of the Ecuadorian Amazon echoes this problem: China utilized Ecuador’s debt to purchase a third of the Amazon rainforest over and against prior conservationist legislation and indigenous rights. Other examples persist throughout the world. In 2008, for instance, China lent Brazilian oil giant $10 billion in exchange for 10 years of oil, and a Chinese construction bank is in the process of buying Brazil’s BicBanco.
China’s direct investments are also becoming increasingly controversial. More recently, CNOOC and CNPC each secured a 10 percent take of Brazil’s Libra oilfield amidst violent protest from the amalgam of unions, radicals, and nationalists that have come to represent a mounting opposition to the current stage of world-economic competition often referred to as “the Global Land Grab.” In short, Chinese competition is eroding US hegemony throughout the world, and Petraeus is insisting that more intervention through COIN might shore it up in Iraq.
What Is Security?
We have seen how China uses debt and stripped-down economic intervention to outpace the US model that is grounded in COIN and human terrain systems. The Chinese strategy was intimated earlier this month by an intense statement from the Xin-Hua News Agency, which echoed high-level Chinese officials: “The world is still crawling its way out of an economic disaster thanks to the voracious Wall Street elites. Such alarming days when the destinies of others are in the hands of a hypocritical nation have to be terminated.” But while China is seen throughout Latin America as a bastion against debt crisis, which is largely identified with the US, China is accumulating a dangerous amount of debt from other nations. Global finance is beginning to worry that China’s ventures abroad will not balance out with the relentless drive to continue developing internally.
Most analysts agree that China is not facing an “East Asian Crisis” such as was seen in the late 1990s, yet with mounting internal dissent and a precarious balance sheet, China’s future is far from secure. Deeper still, the application of COIN throughout the BRICS nations, as they hover over riotous breakdowns in the streets by nationalists, anarchists, and any manner of coalition protestors, suggests that COIN’s prolonged impact on the world economy is far from over.
To return to Williams’s crucial question: COIN seeks to establish a territorial basis for rule, through which markets might be secured. The Chinese model as we see it taking place in Iraq is currently established as “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics,” and establishes territorial security through market intervention. While COIN can work within the Chinese system, it has become a distinguishing trademark of the US system, such that US policy is typified by the COIN style of human terrain, which essentially pans out to territorial domination. In the simplest terms, these are the positions contending for what might be seen as a global “organizational revolution” taking place vis-à-vis the Global Land Grab: the usage of economy to achieve territorial expansion, or the expansion of raw material holdings to achieve economic gains. In the case of Mali and the Central African Republic, for example, the US and France have been accused of the former, while China everywhere is doing the latter.
COIN is, of course, not just a doctrine of foreign occupation, but of quelling domestic dissent. Who is bringing security to whom, and at the expense of whom, and what kind of security—these are the questions that are forming the contemporary balance of power. In one important example, US Navy patrols currently provide security to China’s ships through the Straits of Hormuz. Analysts have argued that this situation is not ideal, but providing security can imply an extra advantage. As Michael Levi, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Program on Energy Security and Climate Change stated, “We don’t want China patrolling the sea lanes for us.”
COIN does not manifest a step back from neo-liberalism, as such, but an attempt to achieve “security” for such a system to work. If the opening up of markets is the ultimate end of COIN, its necessary ends are international competition, and the forward march of capitalist accumulation under Chinese-US rivalry follow. Thus, COIN remains a crucial part of today’s increasingly tense political field in which the stakes—food security, water, and the day-to-day functioning of everyday life—are far higher (and more volatile) than most are willing to admit.
Alexander Reid Ross is a moderator of the Earth First! Newswire, contributor to Life During Wartime, and the editor of the forthcoming anthology Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab.