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COIN and CJR

Posted By Grim • [February 07, 2008]

The Columbia Journalism Review is the flagship of the Columbia School of Journalism, which may be the most important producer of card-carrying journalists in the world.  CJR itself tries to serve as a "watchdog" for the journalist community, to uphold what they see as best traditions of their trade.

I mention this today because they have done something remarkable:  dispatched one of their writers to embed in Iraq.  More, he's going out and living at patrol bases, not just sticking around Baghdad.  His name is Paul McLeary, and he's writing at their site.

I would like you good people to be nice to him, because I'm about to take him to task for something he said; but remember that he is a Columbia journalist, not a military man.  The point of his trip is to learn about counterinsurgency, in order to improve CJR's capacity as a watchdog over media reporting on COIN operations.  Certainly the lack of journalistic understanding of that subject has been an enduring problem, and I'm glad to see that they recognize the fact and want to fix it.  Let us, then, be patient teachers.

He has filed two pieces from Iraq so far.  The first piece is quite good except for the first  paragraph, which does not provide context for the negative information, and the second good except for the last paragraph, as I will explain.  That is to say, the frame he puts things into is the problem, not his reporting.  He's getting the facts right, he just doesn't yet know what to do with them.

So here is his second piece, on the name-change from "Concerned Local Citizens" to "Sons of Iraq," and its last sentence:

So now, when reporters refer to armed groups of civilians manning checkpoints and doing the work that the Iraqi police and Army either will not or cannot do, know that they are the “Sons of Iraq.”

Emphasis added.

Here is a chance to learn something about COIN operations:  it is not that the Iraqi Army or Coalition Forces "cannot" run checkpoints, and it is not that they "will not," as they both can and do run quite a few.  Rather, it is the lesson of Lawrence of Arabia:

It is better to let them do it themselves imperfectly, than do it yourself perfectly. It is their country, their way and our time is short.

The insight here is not that it is better that "Arabs" should do "it" -- but that the people whose country it is should learn how to guard and protect it.  This applies not merely to large-scale groups like "Arabs," but applies in any case where there is a felt division between types of people.  In Iraq, the man who is guarding his family will guard them better than the man who is guarding his tribe; he will guard his tribe better than he will guard his other neighbors; and his neighbors better than strangers. 

Empowering the local citizens to defend their communities is about putting the best possible people on the wall.  These are the people who really care if a killer slips behind them, because their children are the ones they are defending.

Just yesterday we were talking about how giving people a way to eat without depending on government reduces the number of potential fighters in an area.  If you ask people in unstable areas of the Third World what matters to them, they will name three things:  security, prosperity, education.  If you are fighting a counterinsurgency, where you want to disaggregate the population from the guerilla, you can do it by giving them the strength to stand on their own.  If they want security, help them provide their own security, and work with them so they feel you're an ally in it rather than a provider of it.  If they want prosperity, help them raise healthier animals, but their own animals.  Then help them rebuild their schools.

Now you have a free people, who cannot be intimidated into supporting the guerrillas because they themselves are strong enough to resist it.  They are the only ones who are always there when the guerrilla comes around in the night -- so they must be the ones who are trained to resist. 

You have a free people, who do not need the government to provide them with a living -- so they will have less of a stake in fighting wars for control of that government.

You have a free people, who will begin to have a chance to compete in the world economy, and so become tied in to greater wealth and ever greater education -- moving, as Thomas Barnett puts it, out of the "Gap."

You have a people with something to lose if they wage a war they no longer have to fight.  Being free, they may still choose to fight; but now they also have a stake in peace.  Most people, being free and strong and having hope, and having all that to lose by choosing war, will join you instead.

That's counterinsurgency, and that's why the SoI/CLC model works so very well.  It's the enactment of the motto of the US Special Forces:  De Oppresso Liber.  It's not a question of "can't" or "won't" -- it's a question of who ought, of who best.


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