Sunday, April 29, 2007


There's an article in today's New York Times about the armies of child soldiers that have fought in African wars in recent years. A scholar notes something odd about them:

Neil Boothby, a Columbia University professor who has worked with child soldiers across the world, said this new crop of movements lacked the features associated with the winning insurgencies of yesteryear -- a charming, intelligent leader, persuasive vocabulary, the goal of taking cities.

The typical rebel leader emerging today wants most of all to run his criminal enterprise deep in the bush. "These are brutally thuggy people who don't want to rule politically and have no strategy for winning a war," Dr. Boothby said.

They have "no strategy for winning a war" -- that sounds awfully close to "They can't possibly win," which is what supporters of the Iraq war are always telling us about the Sunni insurgents.

But what if you're fighting an insurgent group whose leaders know (at least on some level) that they can't win? What if the group you're fighting isn't looking ahead to victory and just wants to keep fighting?

Supporters of the Iraq War would tell you that if the other guys can't win, then victory over them is inevitable, if not imminent. But that's not how it seems to work in Africa:

In Somalia, within the last month, more than 1,000 people have been killed in Mogadishu, the capital, in a complex civil war compounded by warlords who command armies of teenagers. The war traces to 1991, when the central government was brought down by clans fighting over old grievances. But soon it became a contest among the warlords for control of airports, seaports and access to international aid. Sixteen years later, they are still blasting away.

The leaders of the child armies in Africa tend to be messianic and half mad. But what if there's a logic to what they're doing? What if their goal is merely not to lose? What if surviving and fighting for as long as possible and never having to capitulate, while denying their enemies peace and stability, is victory enough for them?

And what if that's also what's going on with the Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq?

Do we misunderstand the groups we're fighting because we think their goal is victory rather than staving off surrender? And is that one more way we've botched the fight against them?


ALSO: It occurs to me that that description -- "thuggy" leaders "deep in the bush" who are "don't want to rule politically and have no strategy for winning a war" -- could be applied to al-Qaeda. Think of the worst AQ attack anyone imagines: say, nuclear devices detonated in several Western cities simultaneously. That would be unspeakable, but the West would still be much, much stronger than al-Qaeda; governments would be intact, armies would still be standing, retaliatory missiles would still be ready to be launched. Maybe we need to see al-Qaeda as just the Lord's Resistance Army on a global scale -- able to brutalize, but never able to win, and quite possibly not even trying to win, but only to survive and to destabilize.

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