It is ironic that my article, which lamented the ‘heated and overly personalized polemic’ about counterinsurgency, has now dragged me deep into it. I say ‘dragged’ because it is with reluctance that I reply to Carl Prine’s latest broadside against the article and my subsequent defence of it (following his initial assault). The reason I do so is Prine’s renewed attempt to undermine my integrity as a researcher – something I take seriously. Sure, my analysis can be wrong, but to accuse me of ‘cherry-picking the evidence’ is quite low. Prine, where I am wrong, kindly assume cock-up rather than conspiracy.
But that is exactly the point: Prine’s pre-existing bias about my work produces an almost ideological response. Prine refutes my suggestion that, having coined the terms ‘COINdinista’ and ‘COINtra’, he has come to view the counterinsurgency debate through this reductive lens. The terms were mere jest, he says; or perhaps he was ‘before the COINdinista and COINtra stuff before he was against it’. Regardless, Prine’s insistence in gluing his caricature of me to his caricatures of Nagl, Kilcullen and McMaster belies an undifferentiated understanding of our respective scholarship and an insistence on rejecting his prime ‘adversaries’ as an indistinguishable whole – as COINdinistas.
My crime, apparently, is writing a book on counterinsurgency that included a two-page foreword written by arch-nemesis John Nagl. This is sufficient for Prine to misinterpret the rest of my work as surge propaganda, even when my position is not so far removed from his own. For example, Prine seems to concede that local factors along with US inputs accounted for the decline in Iraqi casualties in 2006-2008, but when I say the same, he reads it as ‘COIN porn’. Prine notes that ‘tactical innovations likely helped matters’ and I write that ‘U.S. inputs were not the only or the main factor’ but nonetheless an important one. Prine, however, interprets my words as meaning ‘it was the “Surge” all along’. Clearly that is not what I said.
Why the distortion? It has to do with perspective. Prine is upset about those who glorified US inputs during the surge and overlooked local factors. I am concerned about those who consider only local factors and overlook US inputs – because I fear this will result in valuable lessons being lost and because I believe the two to be inextricably intertwined. Given our differing starting points, he approaches my scholarship with suspicion and a lot of sneer, even more so because he is convinced I am a card-carrying COINdinista with an agenda to sell.
Yet despite his suspicions and misgivings, his analysis must in the end base itself on what I actually wrote and it is here that he gets himself into trouble. The article in question is far more balanced and nuanced that he realises and if he just gave me the benefit of doubt, I suspect he would find many of my views not so far removed from his own. Anyone who reads my article carefully (please do) and then reads Prine’s tearing apart of it will notice his many factual mistakes and somewhat febrile (I used the word once, Carl, not twice so here is another one to make up the difference) interpretation of the subject-matter. Again, this is all part of this problem of polarization that stunts this conversation, not just between Prine and I, but in general.
IDPs, Surge and Security
That is not to say there are no substantive differences. One relates to the significance of IDP and refugee returns for the surge. In the article, I pointed to the 34,000 Baghdadis who had returned to the city by 2009 to challenge the notion that Baghdad had been stabilized through ethnic cleansing. If this were the case, these returning Baghdadis would probably not want to return and, if they did, they would again face their cleansers and violence would continue. To my mind, a better explanation lies in the security gains that occurred during the time of the surge. In other words, it wasn’t simply that ethnic cleansing had divided the two communities and thereby created a peaceful ‘separation of forces’.
Prine takes me to task for focusing on these 34,000 instead of the three million Iraqis still displaced by the fighting. Prine argues that the return rate is puny and therefore not indicative of anything. Worse, he argues that by focusing on the 34k I am ‘cherry-picking the evidence’.
First, I will concede I made a mistake: I wrote 34,000 ‘Baghdadis’ when in fact the statistics from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) spoke of 33,196 families, that is to say nearly 160,000 individuals. Prine might argue that this number is still too small to say anything about why these people left and subsequently returned to the city. Yet the IOM study also notes that in 2009, more than 78% of the ‘nearly 140,000 IDP families still displaced from Baghdad’ intended to return to the city. That accounts for another 700,000 returnees, excluding the 160,000 already mentioned (i.e. a total of 860,000 people). Suddenly we are no longer talking about ‘nearly 34,000 IDPs’.
On the basis of interviews with displaced Iraqis, the IOM also shows that most of those who returned to Baghdad did so because of ‘improved security’ (and IOM isn’t even a COINdinista organization!). So, as in the article, if Baghdad was stabilized through ethnic cleansing in 2006-2007, why did 860,000 Baghdadis feel safe to return or intend to return by 2009, citing ‘improved security’? Furthermore, 87.1%’ of the returnees said they would like to ‘return to their original homes within Baghdad governorate’. Maybe it is because security had actually improved, not through ethnic cleansing, but because the surge and other local factors, from late 2006 onwards, had stopped the cycle of violence.
Now, Prine will still compare the number of actual and future returnees to the millions of Iraqis still displaced. But Prine is talking about displaced people from Iraq as a whole, whereas I was talking specifically about Baghdad. Why? Not because I was cherry-picking, but because this was an article about the surge and the surge occurred mostly in Baghdad. The broader problem of Iraqi refugees and IDPs is serious and any pretense that all was milk and honey in post-surge Iraq would truly be obscene. But I never made that case and this was not my focus.
(Even then, there are some interesting commonalities: the UNHCR in 2011 found that ‘the majority of Refugees Returnees site [sic] the improved security/ political situation in their area of return as the primary reason for permanent return to Iraq’. Again this challenges the notion that the completion of ethnic cleansing caused violence to drop: if security was merely a product of combatants having been separated, conflict would naturally ensue as soon as this separation ceases to be. But I digress).
Prine also criticizes me for not responding to some of his other charges, so I will do so now.
DC Politics and the Surge
Prine says that I do not get DC politics. What I wrote was that ‘parochial concerns… within the American political scene’ colour the prevalent understanding of the surge, as it was an idea promoted by the Bush administration and resisted by Democrat lawmakers. Prine counters and suggests these Democrats eventually went along with it, lending their support to the military rather than to George Bush. I agree, though the noisy grandstanding by Democrats during the spring and autumn 2007 Petraeus hearings should not be forgotten. Even so, nothing here challenges the original point, namely that Democrats are less likely and Republicans more likely to view the surge favorably, even today, because of domestic party-political reasons. Views on the surge are therefore influenced not only by what happened in Iraq but by, as I put it, more ‘parochial concerns’. This, as I argued, makes it more difficult to have an honest discussion of the surge. Apologies, if this was not clear in the text.
The ‘old COIN bromides’
I do not actually mention the Malayan Emergency in my article yet both Col Gian Gentile and Carl Prine react to it by attacking my previous scholarship on this campaign. Very odd. Prine says I present a ‘fairytale’ version of the campaign. Gentile makes all sorts of outlandish assertions as to what I do and do not say about it. Neither of them appears to have read anything I have written on the topic. Until their allegations are more specifically based on what I actually say – and not their interpretation of it – I do not know how to respond. Certainly I have never denied, as Prine seems to suggest, that the British used violence in its campaign against the rebels, even a lot of violence at times. I do not know where Prine gets this idea from.
As to the ‘verities’ derived from this and other campaigns, substitute ‘minimal use of force’ for the ‘appropriate use of force to meet mission objectives’ and the increase in violence during the surge becomes more consistent with the counterinsurgency principles. This also goes some way toward explaining my view on the use of force in most of the Malaya campaign. Still, I will concede I should have made that substitution from the outset.
The rest of Prine’s latest text repeats accusations I feel I dealt with adequately in my last post.
That leaves just one last, last word on this issue
Prine accuses me of including a ‘nasty slur’ and the ‘cheapest ad hominem attack imaginable’ in my last post. Frankly, I do not know what he is talking about. For those of you who read the post, where is this attack? Help me out… This is actually important to me, because ad hominem attacks are not my style. To the contrary, I wanted to make it clear in my last post that ‘I still like Prine’.
On this topic, though, Prine is at his best when he attacks the arguments I and others make, not when he targets my earnestness and integrity as a researcher. I enjoy discussing my research, fiercely even, and am not married to any of my preconceptions or findings. But I find it less fun to be accused of cooking the books, purposefully manipulating information and deceiving my readers. It does not provide for a constructive discussion but entrenches pre-existing positions and creates enmities. It follows that whatever ‘slur’ Prine divined from my text was certainly not intended and I would greatly appreciate it if, in any follow-up to this post, my integrity as a researcher is not once again dragged through the mud.