Lawrence of Afghanistan: ‘Eating Soup with a Knife’

September 17, 2010

In Vietnam, so many, many years ago, the US employed a “search and destroy” tactic, but it failed big time: As one marine captain explained: “You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike.” Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As one Marine officer admitted they “were usually counted as enemy dead, under the unwritten rule ‘If he’s dead and Vietnamese, he’s VC’.”

Fast way-forward to Afghanistan of the now and the US again working a doomed-to-fail strategy: Since last year there has not been one serious element of progress and the situation will not improve without a strategic recalculation.

(Illustration found here).

Indeed, the problem encountered by a counter-insurgency operation against the Afghan Taliban is there’s no real way to defeat a vapor.
And Mullah Omar may or may not have ever heard of T.E. Lawrence, but the famed WWI Brit may hold the key to victory over the overpowering, mismanaged US forces, and there’s not a thing a “surge,” or a change in leadership at the top can do about it.

An interesting piece this morning in the UK’s Independent on the development of real-time guerrilla tactics by the so-called Lawrence of Arabia.
A few bits:

“Suppose we were (as we might be),” wrote T E Lawrence, “an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas?
Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed…
Ours should be a war of detachment. We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast, unknown desert …”

And Lawrence formulated 15 principles for waging guerrilla war:

Guerrilla warfare is as old as human conflict, but Lawrence’s treatises represent the first systematic conceptualisation of its strategy.
And this conceptualisation is remarkably comprehensive. Later theorists of guerrilla warfare – notably Mao, Nguyen Giap and Che Guevara – have added little of substance.
Lawrence is the real teacher of the guerrilla fighter.

The exigencies of imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the study of guerrilla warfare a necessity, and officers have been encouraged to read Lawrence’s 1922 treatise Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Leading counterinsurgency specialist Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl echoed Lawrence in the title of a recent book Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2002). His point – “to make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife” – encapsulates the challenge of foreign invaders fighting guerrillas.

(As Lawrence wrote) “It [the rebellion] had a sophisticated alien enemy, disposed as an army of occupation in an area greater than could be dominated effectively from fortified posts… The active rebels had the virtues of secrecy and self-control, and the qualities of speed, endurance, and independence of arteries of supply… The presence of the enemy was secondary.
Final victory seemed certain, if the war lasted long enough for us to work it out.”

King David Petraeus might want to reconsider a quick exit stage left before the real shit hits the fan of history.

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