Exhausting the Enemy

by David French

From my first days in Iraq during the Surge, I heard the saying, “COIN sucks, but it works.” COIN — counterinsurgency warfare — “sucks” because it represents truly relentless war. Phrases like “clear, hold, and build” or “protecting the population” don’t convey the extreme and sustained violence we inflict on the enemy, much less the sustained danger of continual combat. But it works. It worked in Iraq, and there are signs it is working in Afghanistan.

Two pieces in the New York Times vividly demonstrate the damage we’re inflicting on the Taliban. The first, by Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl, argues that our military campaign is inflicting serious losses on the enemy and that we may, in fact, be on track to reducing our military footprint in Afghanistan much like we have in Iraq. The second, which actually quotes Taliban commanders, indicates that some Taliban are growing increasingly reluctant to leave their sanctuaries and rejoin the fight.

Fick and Nagl are correct that we can’t just kill our way to victory, but many casual observers of the war don’t comprehend the psychology of warfare. Fick and Nagl do. They understand the profound impact of continual losses on the human psyche and the emotional devastation of death without victory. If there’s one thing that I learned while in Iraq, it’s that our enemy is every bit as human as we are, and even their religious fanaticism does not make them immune to exhaustion or despair.

If there was one moment that told me we were winning our small slice of the war in Diyala Province, it was when the first al-Qaeda leader surrendered. He told me, in perfect English, “I’m here because I’m tired.” He was tired because when we “protect the population,” we drive the enemy out of his house and put him on the run. Our troops cycle in and out, year by year; they don’t. And if they don’t have a home to return to, the war can strain them beyond the breaking point.

A final anecdote illustrates how protecting the population breaks the enemy. One day, some months after we’d liberated an Iraqi village from al-Qaeda control (where they’d imposed the most brutal form of sharia imaginable) and well after we’d established a strong Iraqi police presence, an al-Qaeda commander snuck back to the house he’d vacated months before. Why? He wanted to sleep in his own home. A local woman saw him climb in his window. She alerted the Iraqi police, and they stormed in, took him by surprise, and killed him. He died for a nap.

The lessons? Our enemies are human, they can be beaten, and hell hath no fury like a woman sick of sharia.

David French is senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom.