Islamic Democracy, Oxymoron?

The Supreme Leader

 “Everybody in the Arab world remembers 2009.”

– Marc Lynch, author of The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolution of the New Middle East, on NPR’s ‘Brian Lehrer Show,’ Monday March 26, 2012

THE REAL POWER IN IRAN

It’s hard to remember a time when Iran wasn’t associated with its current president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. With his provocative anti-Zionist declarations to the world and his U.N. Assembly appearances decrying the evils of the U.S., he has become a Western media pariah. His photo adorns most articles about Iran and its defiant nuclear program. I am guilty of this as well.

But more and more Ahmadinejad, both inside and outside of Iran, should be seen as a nuisance who is fading from the scene. The parliamentary elections of March 1, 2012, weakened him. The majles immediately called him out for reckless economic policies and other questionable actions. Now there is gossip about impeachment in Tehran.

Would the Islamic Consultative Assembly, as the legislature is known, go after a president without the consent of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei? Unlikely. Since Ahmadinejad’s latest perceived insubordination—sacking an intelligence chief close to the Supreme Leader—Khamenei has made a public statement about eliminating the office of the president in 2013. Apparently he hasn’t been a big fan of the last few chief executives.

While President Ahmadinejad is no paean to justice and liberty for all, Ayatollah Khamenei, who took over from revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini upon his death in 1989, and the conservative clerics of the Islamic Republic are the true enemy of any Islamic democracy. This was made clear by the rigged presidential election of June 2009 and confirmed by the brutal and immediate reaction to the Arab-inspired Green Movement surge in February 2011.

These Mideast revolts for an Islamic democracy are linked. After the uprisings began in late January, Iran’s 2009 reform candidate Mir Houssein Mousavi claimed on his website: “What we are witnessing in the streets of Tunis, Sana, Cairo, Alexandria and Suez take their origins from the millions-strong protests in Tehran in 2009.” In those mass Arab demonstrations aided by laptop and cellphone, Facebook and Twitter, Iran’s student activist Daneshjoo News saw what they had started, adding a high-tech angle to civil disobedience. The Internet guru of the Egyptian revolution, Wael Ghonim, gave a speech calling for Iranian support of the Arab uprising. He told the people of the Islamic Republic “We learned from you.”

Heeding these calls for solidarity, a reinvigorated Green Movement planned giant rallies in mid-February 2011. But they would be shutdown.

“On the streets of Tehran, a new slogan is being sprayed: ‘Seyed Ali go be with Ben Ali'” says the Wall Street Journal. A sentiment that Khamenei should go the way of ousted Tunisian president Zine Abidine Ben Ali. This would not stand.

Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad found a strategy they agreed upon: Co-opt the Arab uprisings as pro-Islamic, anti-Western phenomena and crush any revitalized movement before it starts at home. The crackdown on protests was comprehensive and included cutting Internet and cellphone reception. Opposition candidates, such as Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi, were placed under house arrest. Revolutionary Guards and police used tear gas, live rounds and beatings—but were careful not to be caught on video killing protestors this time.

As the Arab Awakening continues in different forms in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries—with everything from massacres to progress—one can argue that the liberal movement in Iran is neutralized. One might conclude that the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and their armed forces are solely concerned with the preservation of their regime.

FLIRTING WITH DEMOCRACY

It wasn’t always this way in Iran, but how would Westerners know? Back in the late nineties, the American media wasn’t covering President Khatami encouraging a free press to flourish in Iran. The U.S. focus during the liberal Seyed Hussein Khatami’s eight years as president was first Saddam Hussein, then al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then Saddam again.

Khatami allied with the centrist political parties and tried to implement democratic changes at home, while curbing the Islamic Republic’s practice of sponsoring terrorism abroad. When he started reaching a hand toward America, Ayatollah Khamenei slapped it back, re-emphasizing that the U.S. is always a virulent foe. Led by the Supreme Leader, conservatives in the Guardian Council, the body that passes bills from parliament, blocked attempts at legal reforms. Sometimes the Revolutionary Guards went further:

“In July 1999 [the Guards] closed a popular reformist newspaper, triggering six days of severe rioting that shook the foundations of the Islamic regime.”

Indeed, Iranians are no strangers to protest. But they were still under the impression they could speak with their votes, and maybe a movement wasn’t deemed necessary yet. The reform parties continued to win seats in parliament in mid-term elections and Khatami easily became a two-termer in 2001.

THE MOVEMENT’S ROOTS

Having effectively shut down Khatami’s liberal agenda, the conservatives took full control in 2005. The Guardian Council disqualified serious liberal contenders, so after Khatami’s two-term limit, the reformers were forced to run a somewhat weak platform of unknowns. The women and younger voters who turned out in 1997 and 2001 became disillusioned and didn’t vote en masse. The Bush Administration gave the conservatives a boost by including Iran in the Axis of Evil, therefore reinforcing right-wing aggressive stances. Voting results point to the long-time centrist and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani splitting the liberals. But skeptical Iranians would say the Supreme Leader and the conservatives helped hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a surprising victory in a low-turnout affair.

Often seen as an uneducated religious zealot, whether for real or as a tactic, Ahmadinejad awakened the opposition. His nepotism, brashness and ego, which put off even Ayatollah Khamenei, gave disparate liberal groups something to galvanize them. Protests against Ahmadinejad during the December 2006 parliamentary elections helped reformists secure a partnership with Rafsanjani’s centrists. By 2008, according to Iranian journalist Hooman Majd, even conservatives were split over the unpopular president.

For Iranian dissenters, as for the Arab revolutionaries, frustration was like seeping gas filling a room for years. And as the cliché goes, it just needed the spark to spread like wildfire.

JUNE 2009

Was there any way the embattled, unpopular president could have been re-elected with 64 percent of the vote? In his book The Ayatollah’s Democracy, Hooman Majd notes:

“While it would have been impossible to prove that Mousavi was more popular than the president, it is also a virtual impossibility that Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Parliament and liberal cleric, could have received only one-twentieth the votes he did four years ago, and less votes than there were card-carrying members of his own political party.”

Clearly supporters of Mousavi didn’t accept it. According to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper:

“As the official results were announced, baton-wielding riot police clashed with angry Mousavi supporters in some of the most serious unrest Tehran has seen in years.”

“Riot police on motorbikes used batons to disperse Mousavi supporters who staged a sit-in near the interior ministry, where the results were announced. Up to 2,000 Mousavi supporters erected barricades of burning tyres and chanted “Mousavi take back our vote! What happened to our vote?”

The results according to Wikipedia’s ‘Iranian Presidential Election, 2009’:

“On the night of 14 June the pro-Ahmadinejad Basij paramilitary group raided Tehran University, injuring many.”

“On 15 June millions of protesters marched on Azadi street and Mousavi made his first post-election appearance.”

The mass demonstrations were met with violence by the Basij (security forces) and Revolutionary Guards, just as Khamenei had promised in a speech warning protesters. It took a viral video of a young, attractive woman named Neda shot dead in the street to drive home what was happening. With the help of instant, mobile technology, cyber witnesses around the world experienced a movement creating itself with more immediacy and truth than ever before.

That a web-connected Arab generation wouldn’t be paying very close attention to the 2009 protests in Iran is unlikely. The Heritage Foundation in their “Index of Economic Freedom 2012” cited a correlation between Iran mid-2009 and North Africa in early 2011:

“Facebook and Twitter feeds during Iran’s Green Movement include messages from young Egyptians blaming themselves for not following the Iranian lead.”

“Both the Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Movement were organized by groups of youngsters frustrated with their gloomy economic prospects. Importantly, they had no ties to extremist fundamentalism; they were “non-ideological,” and their solidarity and integrity were unprecedented.”

“The Iranian government’s violent and deadly response to protests … sparked outrage and antagonism against the regime and sowed seeds of discontent against dictatorship and repression that spilled throughout the region, inflaming aspirations for economic and political freedom.

In twenty years, historians and writers will tie the Green Movement to the Arab Awakening (they are only eighteen months apart) as they analyze how technology gave a new era of revolutionaries instant global exposure.

THE FUTURE

Though the liberal movement in Iran has gone underground, the Greens always had a serious disadvantage when compared to the Arab countries with more secular rulers, as the Heritage study observes:

“Iranian protesters faced a regime with strong fundamentalist ideology, wielding a weapon—“religious authenticity”—that other authoritarian regimes in the region lacked, observes Nader Hashemi, a teacher of Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.”

Messianic righteousness has historically been used to justify brutal repression, and it has been used to do this in Iran since the 1979 revolution, even though much of Iran’s privileged class is secular. In contrast, the Arab uprisings, awash in speeches of freedom and democratic reform, has resulted in a turn away from secularism and given Islamic parties more power. Thus a fundamental question is brought to the forefront again for Muslims societies in the Middle East: Is Islam compatible with democracy?

There was certainly a pretense of “one person, one vote” and other civil liberties before 2005 in Iran. As Majd writes:

“Years ago, President Seyed Mohammad Khatami had told me elections in Iran were generally fair—fair, that is, if the winner of any election won by more than three or four hundred thousand votes.”

While detailing the conservative conspiracy to rig the election in June 2009, Majd also cites revolutionary leader Knomeini’s promise of an “Islamic democracy” and the seeds it planted in those hopeful of its truth:

“But there are still many believers in the possibility of an Islamic democracy, including leaders of the opposition, backed by some of the senior Ayatollahs, such as Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei.

Sanei and his fellow reform-minded partners, ex-president Khatami and Green Party candidate Mehdi Karroubi, seem to believe a theocracy and a democracy can coexist. But Turkey, the supposed model, still jails those critical of the regime and refuses to recognize the Kurdish minority. But perhaps if the will of the people can bring about open, peaceful transfers of Islamic leadership, the Western powers and Israel can stop inadvertently radicalizing Muslim populations.

Massacre of the Week: Syria Death Machine

The Best We Can Do in Syria is Stay Out

Hundreds of innocent people are being killed. Grandmothers felled by mortars. Mothers and children murdered by thugs. Snipers dropping teenagers. A bloody revolution is taking place. The revolutionaries are the underdogs at the moment, but sticking it out through more than 5,000 casualties since April 2011 shows their dedication.

The government of Bashar Assad, whose father had ruled Syria with an iron fist for thirty years, is telling the military to fire rockets into the city of Homs, where rebel fighters lie among the once-million-strong population. Homs is called the rebel “stronghold” because Assad’s forces won’t go in, lest they be target practice on the streets. These “cowards” are afraid to enter the city so they sit back and fire rockets, says a Homs rebel.

Meanwhile, the insurgents—some say terrorists, gangs, rednecks—are not unified. The idea of America arming them, while tempting, is not prudent at this juncture

Al Qaeda may be on site bombing public places in Homs and Aleppo. Even umbrella groups like the Syrian National Council and the Free Syria Army (FSA) are neither tight-knit nor allied with one another. This complicates a burgeoning quagmire. Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Arab states, Israel, Western Europe and the U.S. all have an opportunity to play this game of Risk. The Pentagon is preparing for all contingencies and members of Congress and media pundits are calling for action, mainly arming the rebels

The Kremlin backs Assad, who hosts a Russian naval base and purchases old Soviet weaponry. The Obama administration calls for him to cede power (not bloody likely), and that’s all America should do at this point. The one thing the Left and Right can agree on: messy Middle East intervention is so six years ago. Of course CIA is on the scene, as they should be.

But no matter who wins the civil war, the U.S. has relatively little to lose or gain. The only way America can screw this up is if we get involved with taking out Assad and sectarian violence erupts, creating a thousand more destitute Muslims looking to commit jihad against the West.

Turkey’s Islamic-lite leader Tayyip Erdogan stands firm against Assad, as most Sunni governments do, even protecting the FSA inside their borders. Turkey wants EU status and to be an independent regional force. Assad’s fall means Iran loses an ally—maybe Turkey gains a friendlier neighbor. Again, geopolitics masks the gruesome, tragic facts on the ground.

To be clear, pundits agree this is not Libya, bombstrikes plus NATO/US intelligence plus local, well-armed guides plus luck equals a brisk, five-month victory. Assad has a bigger army than Qaddafi’s, Russia backs him and his friends, family and security forces will avoid regime change at all costs.

Adding to this catastrophe is Muslim sectarianism between Assad’s Shia Allawite government and the majority Sunni citizenry that is flaring up with help from instigators such as Al Qaeda. Horrific home-invasion murders are popping up in an increasingly lawless land. An Iraq-style civil war is one lit cigarette and gasoline spill away. Pray to Allah for the people of Homs, and thank Chebus you don’t live there.

Potential War of the Week: Israel vs. Iran

Please excuse this rapidly written rant. There’s been tons of talk in the major media outlets about what America should and shouldn’t do when Israel attacks Iran. Some say this will be between April and June 2012.

The Obama administration should make it crystal clear to Israel’s right-wing Likud party that the U.S. will not back it up when Iran retaliates.

As I wrote last year when the media was speculating about when the attack would happen: Neither Israel nor the U.S. should ever pre-emptively strike Iran. Even top Israeli military officials agree. Not even if Iran is on the cusp of getting nukes, not even if Iran gets them.

A nuclear-armed Iran will have some negative repercussions in the Middle East but Iran is never going to use nuclear weapons; neither will the Islamic Republic let a proxy terror group have them.

Case in point: Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is far less stable than Iran. Indeed, Pakistan’s military, judiciary and executive branch are in a major kerfuffle. A good chunk of Pakistan is controlled by various terrorist networks, the Haqqanis, Terik-e Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e Taiba, the list goes on, and the Pakistani military wages only a half-hearted campaign against them (and only at America’s behest).

Even though America frequently pisses off the Pakistanis, the military and spy agency still won’t let its terror networks near its nukes because India (and the rest of the world) would retaliate should bombs end up in non-state hands. U.S. drone strikes could fall like rain.

Iran, with a balanced and relatively unified governmental body and military, is not nearly as unstable. And Iran would appear much less hostile and volatile if Israel and the U.S. stopped antagonizing it using terrorist-list groups (Jundallah; the MEK) and severe sanctions. If the Iranian regime had fewer outside enemies to unite its hard-liners, democracy would have more of a chance, as it did under President Khatami in the early 2000s. And eventually Iran might move toward Turkey’s model of a Muslim democracy.

The bottom line is that, in this situation, whoever attacks first loses. If he attacks Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his state and neighborhood a hellish war zone, and the world a much more dangerous and economically unhinged place. When the U.S. defends Israel, America will again achieve the infamy it earn by invading Iraq and expend resources and capital it can’t afford to.

Not to mention that the chances a strike would end the Iranian nuclear program, as oppose to just delay it, are very slim.

Iran has never started a war with another sovereign nation (Saddam Hussein started the Iran-Iraq War). That’s not to say current and former Iranian leaders haven’t sponsored terrorism. And it’s not to categorize “pre-emptive strikes” as never appropriate. But Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s calculated ravings about wiping Israel off the map should only elicit one response: A promise from Israel, the U.S. and their allies that they will finish whatever Iran starts.

Mao Zedong was a World-class Mofo: a review of Mao’s Great Famine

Mao Zedong wrote the book on guerilla warfare, literally, and was the godfather of Communist China. But thanks to scholarship like Frank Dikotter’s 2010 book, based on the latest archives out of Beijing, there’s more hope that Chairman Mao will be solely remembered as an asshole of the first order—even before he unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Why isn’t Mao, responsible for the deaths of at least 25 million people within four years, a supervillain in the vain of Stalin or even Pol Pot? (Ho Chi Minh is more of a household bad-guy name.) A couple big factors inform Mao’s lack of mainstream infamy. Most notably, the slow death of neglected peasants isn’t compelling Middle-American entertainment. It lacks cinematic drama. Unlike WWII, there’s no happy ending and there are no heroes. Another notoriety tamer: Mao didn’t specifically order Stalin-style show trials, executions and massacres. Nor did his henchmen dress in stylish black leather or shoot people, like the Nazis. Cable channels, like National Geographic and History, have never given Mao’s China its due.

The title Mao’s Great Famine puts the blame squarely on the Chairman. This specific ‘Fuck You’ is necessary to drive home his complicity because Mao is rather far from the actual carnage. As such, he is conspicuously absent from the second half of the book, especially in the long section called ‘Ways of Dying.’ It almost seems as though he has plausible deniability. He does not. The subtle evil of the Chairman is that he caused a famine then neglected to save his subjects. And it would have been so easy. Mao’s advisers, his planners and his enemies in the party whole-heartedly—yet silently—welcomed an end to his counterproductive policies.

The author takes care not to romanticize Mao and his cult of personality. Mao comes off as a flat character: impetuous, spoiled and often moronic, he seems to lack any skepticism. He’s described thusly:

“Mao spewed disdain”  “Mao now demanded full allegiance” “left Mao seething with resentment”

But Mao had seen his share of hardship, leading his communist guerillas on the Long March of retreat in the  Chinese Civil War. That Mao was desensitized to the suffering of others is not explored in the book—and it’s to his credit that Dikotter won’t allow Mao to escape responsibility via diagnosis.

The word ‘Great’ in the title is a reference to Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1958-1962. Irony doesn’t come much more blatant than this name: The Leap was one of the most insane self-inflicted steps backward in world history.

SOME CONTEXT

After WWII, Joseph Stalin was world communist No. 1—the most powerful soul in the eastern hemisphere. He bankrolled Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War against General Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists in 1947-48. But Stalin treated Mao like an illegitimate child.

“For thirty years Mao had suffered humiliation at the hands of Stalin, willingly subordinating himself to Moscow out of sheer strategic necessity.”

Mao’s accomplishments were nothing to sneer at. He was a pioneer of guerilla warfare and fought off Imperial Japan before driving the Nationalist army to the sea. As a fierce-willed proproganda-spewing prophet, he then cemented Communist China.

Mao had once respected Stalin’s vision but by the early ’50s he was plotting China’s course to match Soviet power. When Stalin died in 1953 of a brain hemorrhage, the Chairman saw no reason he couldn’t become the one true god of communism. Soviet successor Nikita Khrushchev, a loyal Stalinist thug, was not particularly respected inside or outside Moscow—which is why he survived Stalin’s frequent purges.

In 1957, the Sputnik satellite orbited the earth and earned the Soviets the superpower championship belt. Khrushchev boasted loudly about the advances of the industrial wonderland communism built. He proclaimed the USSR would overtake America in everything from color TVs to steel production. Mao began to echo these boasts and assured the world that China would soon outproduce Britain in steel. Soviet communism flourished, so surely China could achieve a Great Leap Forward to industrialization, a la Stalin’s Five-Year Plans.

THE LEAP IS ON

Mao solidified top-level party support through fear and sold the Great Leap Forward as a way to both cure poverty and industrialize the countryside. But the phrase was first used “in the context of a water-conservancy drive” for which 30 million people had been recruited in 1957.

The Leap was China’s second get-power-quick scheme—Mao’s mid-50s Socialist High Tide faltered and drew heavy criticism. But Mao soon purged non-believers and continued collectivizing the vast rural population—seizing its property and forcing it into hard labor—as the People’s Republic sought an edge in prestige, goods and geopolitics. Ideology was a key method of oppression as Mao and his central committee instituted a military-based society: ‘villagers were “footsoldiers” who had to “fight battles” on the “front line” … while “shock brigades” might “stage a march.”‘ Beijing corralled peasants into the continuous revolution, the People’s communes.

Dikotter quotes Mao: “If we can provide food without cost, that would be a great transformation. I guess that in about ten years time commodities will be abundant, moral standards will be high. We can start communism with food, clothes and housing. Collective canteens, free food, that’s communism!”

Like five-star generals, Beijing’s economic planners gave orders that ran down the totem pole of party officials, from province to region to county to brigade and finally to individual cadre. Wielding authority and clubs, cadres stripped millions of poor villagers of their land, herded them into communes or collective farms, and put them to backbreaking work.

Not that the cadres were necessarily evil, they were simply under a lot of pressure to produce tons of steel and grain and other commodities. Cadres were responsible for getting giant damns built, irrigation systems dug and iron ore mined. To motivate workers, they threatened to withhold food.

County chiefs—who wanted to gain favor with the province boss, who wanted to gain favor with Mao—demanded production targets be met and projects be completed quickly. From cadres on up, everyone had to stay on the party’s good side.

Competition was fierce among counties to earn a coveted Red Flag, like a gold star, from Beijing. The state assigned ill-conceived projects and demanded high yields of crops, then provided no oversight, no quality control and no incentive to work effectively. Cutting corners became policy down the line. Tried and true farming methods were scrapped, so attempts to develop more foodstuffs directly resulted in serious food shortages. Entire villages were razed for steel and fertilizer in probably the most prolific residential destruction of all time. Quickie dams collapsed and reservoirs leaked dry. Irrigation schemes salinized—or salted—millions of hectares of soil, making it less fertile. Half-assed industrialization was rampant.

“One chemical workshop in Nanjing, put together in a residential dwelling, had a bamboo roof and paint peeling from mud walls…. Radioactive waste permeated nooks and crannies…. Some of the women had the cartilage separating their nostrils eaten away by constant inhalation of chemicals.”

Indeed, no examples were spared in Dikotter’s comprehensive exposé of dangerously shoddy Great Leap Forward campaigns. Brigades worked the malnourished villagers longer hours but it only wore them out or made them lazy with spite.

As pieces of the sky fell, local leaders buried them, hiding the horrors.

Though the last two-thirds of the book isn’t much fun to read, a relatively enjoyable part of Mao’s Great Famine comes in the ‘Survival’ section. In chapters such as ‘On the Sly’ and ‘Wheeling and Dealing,’ Dikotter concentrates on how regular people defied the party and managed to squeak out an existence. In a society where the lowliest bureaucratic functionaries held life and death in their hands —in the form of ration cards—smart folks learned fast to barter, bribe and network. Savvy businessmen found ways to outwit the state, bypassing the ‘planned economy’ with creative accounting and developing a ‘shadow economy,’ a vast black market.

“Li Ke, a cadre from Jianguomen commune to the east of Beijing, wrote himself a certificate for sick leave for nine months and started trading in sewing machines, bicycles and radios, investing the profit in a bulk acquisition of electric bulbs and cables. These he sold in Tianjin, purchsing in turn furniture which he unloaded in the suburbs precisely when the market contracted…”

Dikotter’s unromantic anecdotes, when they finally arrive, feel like tall tales of capitalist cowboys sticking it to the communist empire.

Cadres and county officials regularly stole from the state, smuggled goods and ran under-the-radar factories and even complex trading operations. What might be considered unconscionable corruption in a socialist democracy became survival in a totalitarian kleptocracy.

Other sections of the book, such as ‘Destruction’ and ‘The Vulnerable,’ detail the wide range of awfulness. The chapters therein, while fascinating in scope, offer up repetitive, depressing statistics for scholarship. One titled “Nature” reveals how Mao’s vainglorious delusions led him to declare war on the physical land.

THE FAMINE

The famine mentioned in the title is presented mostly as a sequence of brief images or as reams of statistics.

“In a hamlet once humming with activity, two children with drumbstick limbs and skeletal heads, lying by their cadaverous grandmother, were the only survivors. One in four people in a local population of half a million had perished in Guangshan.”

Though he’s wise to avoid drawn-out scenes of family’s cannibalizing one another, Dikotter could have found more room for peasants with names and character traits. Instead the reader sometimes sees the rural Chinese as Mao saw them: numbers.

The most sympathetic character, whose story would make fine historical fiction, is Liu Shaoqi’s, Mao’s head of state. He finally returns to his hometown in Huaminglou, Hunan, after 40 years, to investigate the results of 18 months of the Great Leap Forward.

One passage from Liu’s journey sums up how the Leap begat the famine.

‘He [Liu Shaoqi] tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959. Duan Sucheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a Red Flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meager crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions [taken by the state], villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.’

In short, Beijing took more and more food from the counties as they produced less and less.

Those who criticized the Leap were labeled ‘rightist’—like ‘commie’ during 1950s America’s Red Scare, a derogatory term that meant you could be blacklisted or worse. The scrutiny by cadres tasked with finding rightists led to the discovery that farmers had been hiding grain.

After a report was issued to Beijing, a furious Mao sent the orders that translated into brigades rampaging through small towns and villages, beating, looting and terrorizing peasants. As tons of hidden grain were violently confiscated, starvation increased exponentially.

When Liu Shaoqi returned home it was April 1961, after several rounds of rightist purges and grain confiscation, and the results of a famine, which had been severe since 1959, were hard to hide. Liu saw with his own eyes the obvious destitution and ‘clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer [Liu’s] team from speaking with villagers.’ Liu called the provincial Bureau of Security ‘completely rotten’ and immediately shut down the wretched canteen in his native village of Tanzichong.

Liu, clearly shocked with the conditions on the ground, was also disturbed that he had stopped getting mail. Dikotter quotes Liu: ‘My home town is such a mess but nobody has sent me a report…. I am afraid they were simply not allowed to write, or they did write and their letters were inspected and confiscated.”

Liu Shaoqi spoke truth to power a month later at a gathering of leaders and called on the party to accept blame for their errors, revealing: ‘in Hunan the peasants have a saying, “30 percent is due to natural calamities, 70 percent to man-made disasters.”‘

For his challenges to Mao and criticism of the Great Leap Forward, Liu’s stock tumbled until he was officially purged in the Cultural Revolution of 1966.

THE END

As early as 1959, Mao had to admit that mistakes were made, but he didn’t change the policies of the Great Leap Forward. A phrase he often used to explain it away was, ‘Out of ten fingers, only one fails, where nine succeed.’ And Zhou Enlai, the senior economic planner, routinely insisted on taking the heat for Mao.

When it was to his advantage, Mao did pretend to care about the rural population. By October 1960, as reports of mass starvation finally made it to Beijing, ‘Mao was visibly shaken’ and party leaders (such as Liu Shaoqi) were finally dispatched to the countryside on fact-finding missions into 1961. The state rounded up, imprisoned and/or purged the most abusive and neglectful county leaders and cadres. Mao called those offenders ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and ‘rightists’ who were taking revenge against the communist vision. But “at no point did the Chairman acknowledge that the regime of terror he modeled at the top was being mirrored at every level down the party hierarchy.”

By the end of 1960, Zhou Enlai and members of the central committee made subtle adjustments in economic policy to slowly reverse the catastrophic death and destruction. A year later, they even convinced Mao that imports of grain were needed to heal the countryside. Most of the famine-fueling elements had been rooted out, and conditions, which had nowhere to go but up, improved considerably by late 1962.

As Dikotter continually points out, a final damage assessment is hard to verify, given all the fraudulent information passed up and down the chain of command. An estimate of 25 million avoidable deaths is the low end of the spectrum—45 million the high. And he argues convincingly that Mao, who expelled experts overseeing an irrigation project for reporting that hundreds had died, knew what was up from the getgo.

Positive Spin on the U.S. Wars (my cynical id)

The Taliban and their friends in Pakistan safe havens have gotten a rude awakening. It’s about time we took the battle to its true center, North Waziristan and over the Pakistan border in general.

Helicopter attacks and increased drone strikes on insurgents who fire on coalition forces in Afghanistan and then retreat over the border to Pakistan are finally being accepted (with limits) by the Pakistani powers that be. In September alone there were 20 drone bombings and a copter raid killed at least 40 retreating Taliban. The CIA has a network of Pashtun informants and spies that allow these attacks to be accurate. And the Haqqani Network and the Taliban are murdering their own people in numbers over who might be informants.

It’s just about the coolest thing I’ve heard with regard to the Afghanistan(/Pakistan) war since the CIA, with the Northern Alliance, ousted the Taliban back in 2001 (without the U.S. military).

We have to put it to Pakistan or we have to go home. We’ve given them billions so they can play both sides and enough is enough.

THE TAKEAWAY FROM IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN

Sure we went to war with countries that posed little or no threat to us, compared to Iran and Pakistan. (The Iranian leadership hates America and Israel and is desperate to acquire nukes. Pakistan has nukes and both countries have and support various terrorist/extremist groups that could snag those nukes.) Sure, instead of just toppling oppressive regimes we saw as hostile, we decided we had to stick around and pretend we could make those nations democracies. Sure, we played right into Osama bin Laden’s hands and spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to make the world think we’re brutal imperialists and to turn a new generation of potential terrorists against us.

But what have we learned? And more importantly, what have we relearned that has been stripped of ambiguity going forward?

1. There will always be war. The sooner we accept this, the better.

a) Fighting has been humankind’s defining trait since the dawn of time and the century that brought the world the most progress also brought by far the most devastating war and destruction.

b) 9/11 and our response to 9/11 have assured perpetual war. Now not just the hawks and the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about know this, the public knows it. That knowledge has been stripped of all ambiguity.

c) The invasion and occupation  of Iraq and Afghanistan will be seen as U.S. failures. But instead of promoting caution in further overseas adventures, it will only fuel our need to not be perceived as weak. Already prognosticators see no other option but military action if Iran continues to strive for nuclear weapons.

d) But even if the status quo remains with Iran for years, non-state actors will provoke the U.S. to attack other countries at some point. The sooner we accept this, the better.

2. We’ve relearned our allies are our enemies.

a) We can assassinate our enemies from the sky, and this is acceptable in Pakistan, a country we’re not at war with (it’s acceptable to the American people as well!). Pakistan works with the U.S. and against U.S. interests at the same time. We used the threat of a massive terrorist attack in Europe to finally go into Pakistan, where it was said to be planned. This has blowback potential.

b) We once supported Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

3. We’ve learned that politics makes bad military strategy.

a) Bush and Rumsfeld’s light-footprint strategy to limit U.S. casualties was a disaster.

b) Obama should have either pulled out or sent in more troops for the long haul. Instead he split the difference and prolonged our withdrawal for a year, actually doing himself no favors politically and learning nothing from the light-footprint Iraq fiasco. Obama will pull out before the 2012 elections.

c) The U.S. obtained its immediate objectives (removal of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban) easily. Did we really believe we could start a stable, democratic government (Bush’s political goal) in Iraq or keep amorphous, splintered groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban out of power forever (Obama’s stated goal in the campaign)?

4. We learned that the more we fight the better at fighting we get.

a) The military learned a new kind of war: counterinsurgency (COIN) for the 21st century. Our military is much smarter than it was 6 or 7 years ago, and has adapted impressively. (Too bad COIN is the most costly of all war strategies.)

5. We’ve relearned that our adventures and interference in the world can backfire and that, as the most powerful nation, we have serious limits. However, we’ve learned that we can still protect the American public (especially our non-Muslim citizens) by destabilizing other nations. Iraq self-destructed because its citizens lived in sectarian fear and had to join violent extremists to survive a civil war (spurred on by U.S. de-Baathification and the like). They spend so much time and energy killing one another that they do not pose a threat to the U.S. in the near future. Even al-Qaeda spent most of its resources inciting sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 instead of focusing on the U.S.

6. We have relearned that the United States is not concerned with civilian casualties in developing and Muslim countries, or in countries that commit mass sectarian violence within themselves.

The United States of America became (by WWII) and remains the most powerful nation in the world by engaging in often ridiculous and counterproductive wars and coups. History, the present and the foreseeable future all prove there will be war.

Be glad you’re on the winning team (because even the innocent losers are massacred).

Destabilization was obvious: a brief history of Iraq

Studying Iraq’s modern history for a few days and reading books such as Patrick Cockburn’s Muqtada, it seems obvious that the W. Bush Administration either intended to destabilize—i.e incite civil war in—Iraq or at the very least considered chaos as an acceptable side effect to the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. It’s no secret CIA studies had concluded that a major outbreak of sectarian violence would follow a regime-changing invasion. It’s also been a stated neocon goal in regard to the defense of Israel.

The volatile cross-identification of tens of millions of Middle Easterners—tensions based on religion, region and race, not to mention family bloodline and political party—and the traditions of violence in Iraq have been U.S. news since the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War. The Baath party (Arab nationalists) and its early de facto leader Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni, had ruled Iraq for two generations by 2003. In a society such as Iraq where one either rules or is oppressed, leaving a power vacuum is a recipe for bloodshed—then add a dollop of Islamic martyrdom and stir with unpopular Western forces. The complexity of hatred that America has either witnessed or directly fostered upon the fragmented country for 40-odd years might have tipped off U.S. warmongers (who had taken a day to study Iraqi history) that civil war was likely to erupt.

(In the 1970s, Saddam himself recognized that Iraq’s sectarian rivalries and tribal and religious divisions had to be quashed with a combination of violent repression and rapid modernization.)

Saddam engaged in ethnic cleansing, brutally silenced dissent, murdered countless allies in paranoid fits and instigated an unpopular eight-year war where hundreds of thousands were killed. It certainly wasn’t a hard sell for the Bush Administration to paint Saddam Hussein as the tyrant whose removal would be a cure-all and allow the U.S. to be “welcomed as liberators.” (This war argument was, of course, supplemental to the WMD hoax that Donald Rumsfeld et al force-fed the American public and Congress.)

But, again, a cursory study of Iraq in the second half of the 20th century reveals that the “liberators” prediction was absurd and that anything other than civil war could not have been realistically presumed (at very least in the short term). Here are some warning signs about the largest and most clearly defined potential insurgent group, the Shiites.

1) Without a doubt, studious Shiite Muslims live through their history and pay very close attention to it (chess is still forbidden because Yazid, the Umayyad leader who beat up on Muslims from 680 to 683, was playing it during the Battle of Kerbala). Shiite Muslims, a 70-plus percent majority in Iraq, remember that the U.S. supported secular Saddam and the Baath party, indirectly or directly, from 1963 to 1991.

2) The Shia themselves are separated into several factions along philosophical, familial and economic lines, e.g.: Quietism practicing Marji’iyyah clerics; political parties like al-Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq [ISCI]; millions of poor in what is now Baghdad’s Sadr City. Saddam’s atrocities and the Iran-Iraq war in particular—pitting Shiite against Shiite—resulted in further division (Iran’s Shia theocracy also has a lot to do with the lack of Shia unity).

3) Adding U.S. insult to Shia injury: After Saddam’s army was humiliated by U.S. forces in 1991, George H.W. Bush said it was time for the Iraqi’s to overthrow him themselves. When Shiites rose up and rebelled against the Iraqi president, they assumed they would have U.S. military backing. But the U.S. left, and Saddam crushed the violent Shia uprising with, of course, extreme prejudice. Even if the Shia had misinterpreted H.W.’s dedication, how could the second Bush Administration—a direct descendant not just in name, but in cabinet too, of the offending previous president—assume that Shiites in general would welcome U.S. forces as liberators? Nearly the exact same administration betrayed them to the tune of about 100,000 dead.

Did the Bush Department of Defense (DOD) anticipate the reaction of the divided Shiites—not to mention desperate Arab nationalists and Sunnis, nihilistic al-Qaeda and the emboldened Kurds—to be a unified front once the Americans stepped in to smooth the post-Saddam path? Did the DOD experts expect to only deal with Sunni vs. Shia (both of which only serve as an umbrella for a variety of subset insurgencies)? Did they care?

The U.S.’s 2003 invasion exacerbated Shia schisms, illustrated by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army (now the Sadrists) and its disconnect from both the Shia religious authority (grand ayatollahs such as the current leader al-Sistani) and the Shia politicos. This should not have been a surprise to the administration’s Iraq experts, but they underestimated this Shia insurgency by thinking not many would follow the nonclerical Muqtada—even though his twice-martyred family is a descendant of Muhammad’s cousin Imam Ali (the figure at the heart of the Shia/Sunni split in the 7th century).

The Sadrists, probably one of the easiest threats to be predicted, became arguably the most violent and frustrating force the U.S. occupiers had to deal with from 2004 to 2007. Muqtada al-Sadr still refuses to deal with U.S. now and is certainly not beholden to Shiite prime minister Nur al-Maliki. Muqtada, in exile in Iran, has even recently met with al-Maliki’s rival Ayad Allawi (the Shia ex-Baathist the U.S. installed as prime minister in 2004).

More than six months after the Iraqi elections in March, a government has not been formed. It’s good that the civil war is over. It is too bad nobody won.

As there are countless players and organizations to reference, the following timeline skews toward Sadrist ascendance and U.S.-influenced events. (It’s important to note that the holiest Shia cities, Najaf and Kerbala, are in Iraq near Baghdad, not in Shia-ruled Iran)

TIMELINE
1958 – General (later president) Qassim overthrows the Hashemite Monarchy. In general, secularism, nationalism and even communism are superior to Islam or religion as a governing force at this time.

Late 50s – Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (Muqtada al-Sadr’s cousin and father-in-law), descendant from a line of respected Shia clerics going back to the 7th Imam and Muhammad himself, helps found and lead Shia political activism and the Dawa party. The practiced doctrine of Quietism (separating Islam from politics and the state) had led most Shia cleric elders (i.e. Marji’iyyah, ayatollahs) away from seeking direct political power, even though they were the majority. Sunnis, on the other hand, traditionally did not separate Islam from the state. Many Marji’iyyah saw Baqir al-Sadr and Dawa’s political aspirations as dangerous because they would draw attention.

1959 – The mainly Sunni Baath party (Arab nationalists) and Saddam Hussein in particular try to assassinate the communist leaning President Qassim. The U.S., under the Truman Doctrine auspices of containment, begins to back the Baath party.

Early 60s – 1) Saddam, a student of Stalin, helps create the Baathist secret police. 2) Baqir al-Sadr rallies the urban poor Shia (in what would become Sadr City), providing services and promoting his Dawa party—even drawing many Marji’iyyah to tentatively ally with him.

Feb. 1963 – The Baathists stage a military coup encouraged by the U.S. It is seen as “anti-Shia” by the majority of Iraqis. The U.S. sees the party as an enemy of communism. However, despite Qassim’s death, the Baathists cannot hold on to power.

1967 – The Shah of Iran, a U.S. ally installed by the CIA in a 1953 coup, declares himself a Persian King of Kings, expanding his powers and becoming more repressive and unpopular with Shiites, students and intellectuals.

1968 – The Baathists finally seize control of Iraq. Saddam is made vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, head of security forces.

1974-76 – Saddam consolidates his de facto leadership of Iraq. He has seized Iraq’s oil interests and marched the fractious nation into modernization. After a tentative peace with the northern Iraq Kurds, Saddam sacks the region and deports hundreds in his bid to take over oil interests in Kirkuk (and foster Arabization). Saddam becomes General of Iraq’s armed forces.

1978 – In a fateful move, the Shah of Iran asks Saddam (now vice president) to kick exiled Iranian Grand Ayatollah Khomeini out of Najaf, Iraq. Khomeini, who had been speaking out against the Shah (and against Shia Quietism) for years, moves near Paris where mass media outlets allow him to address the millions of disenfranchised Shiites in Iran much more easily than from Najaf. Khomeini has been reinterpreting Shiite religious authority to not only dove-tail with political power, but to in fact supplant it (Knomeinism).

1978-79 – 1) During the Iranian Revolution, the Shah is deposed and Khomeini assumes supreme leadership. 2) Saddam becomes official president of Iraq and immediately has 22 “disloyal” Baathist party members executed. 3) Al-Dawa and Baqir al-Sadr, tolerated by Saddam to keep the Shia majority in check for the last decade, support the revolution.

1980 – Saddam, to avoid the Shah’s fate, cracks down on Shia militants and sees fit to execute the man whom Shiites see as Iraq’s Khomeini. Grand Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr and his sister are murdered. He becomes the Sadrist’s first martyr. Many Dawa members flee to Iran, including future Iraqi prime minister Nur al-Maliki.

1981-1988 – Iraq goes to war against Iran. Despite being supported by U.S. money and arms (Special envoy Donald Rumseld visits Baghdad to make sure Saddam knows where on his side), the war is a bloody stalemate à la WWI’s trench warfare. Iraqi Shiites are forced to kill their religious brothers in Iran. Captured Iraq Shiite soldiers (betrayers of the faith) are treated far worse than Sunni or secular Arab prisoners.

1987 – Saddam begins a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, using chemical weapons and killing at least 50,000.

1991 – Khomeini has died and the Iran-Iraq War is over. Saddam invades Kuwait for oil control. When the U.S. responds, Saddam’s prized military deserts him.

1992 – With the hopes that the U.S. military will help finish the job, a Shiite rebellion explodes with Baathist’s murdered throughout the south. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (cousin to first martyr Baqir al-Sadr, and father to Muqtada) takes control of the many young militant Shia poor in Sadr City, Baghdad (then called Rebellion Township). Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the most powerful Shia cleric in Iraq today, encourages the uprising with much more subtlety. Both the U.S. and Iran do nothing to support the uprising, leading to further Shiite rifts after Saddam crushes the rebellion. However, the ghetto of Rebellion Township was so Shia- entrenched that Saddam could only contain the area, not control it nor kill Sadeq al-Sadr. In fact, soon after the uprising, Saddam believes he is shrewd by making Sadeq al-Sadr the Marji’ al-Taqlid, the Shiite religious leader of Iraq to appease the Shia after massacring their people.

1998 – After years of targeted U.S. bombings and harsh sanctions (leading countless Iraqi’s to die), Saddam still refuses to comply with U.N. disarmament terms. War with Iraq is discussed but unpopular with the American public. President Bill Clinton signs the Iraq Liberation Act, calling for regime change.

1999 – Openly critical of Saddam while gaining support of millions of Shia poor throughout the 90s, Sadeq al-Sadr and his two eldest sons are finally assassinated. Just as his cousin Baqir al-Sadr did when he became an official target of Saddam in 1980, Sadeq donned the white death shroud before he was killed. He became the second martyr.

2003 – 1) Saddam and his Baathists are quickly eliminated by Coalition forces. The U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority’s Iraq Governing Council (IGC) is set up with Paul Bremer as viceroy and Shia ex-Baathist Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. 2) Muqtada al-Sadr consolidates control of the almost 2 million Shia in Sadr City, providing basic services through his Sadr Bureau and arming his Mehdi Army (he, of course, runs the newspaper Hawza). Muqtada, hero to the Sadrists, opposes the U.S. occupation and speaks to the illegitimacy of the Iraqi Governing Council. He declares a shadow government and is at odds with both the leading Shia cleric, al-Sistani, often seen as the representative of the middle class and wealthy Shitte elite, and the Coalition’s Shia IRC “stooge” Ayad Allawi.

Counterinsurgency Redefined

The COIN Field Manual defines insurgency as an “organized movement aimed at overthrowing a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict” and counterinsurgency as “those political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological and civic actions taken by the government to defeat an insurgency.” Insurgents can be revolutionaries who want to upend the political power structure of a country or secessionists that seek independence. Insurgencies are always internal wars, with one exception, says the manual’s Chapter 1 overview: the “liberation insurgency” where “indigenous elements” seek to overthrow what they perceive as a foreign government’s occupation.

Though Chapter I “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency” is mostly written with an eye toward analytical inclusion of historic insurgency trends and definitions, make no mistake, this manual is about the specific U.S. entanglements of the here and now. As General John Nagel writes in a new introduction: “It is designed both to help the Army and Marine Corps prepare for the next counterinsurgency campaign and to make substantive contributions to the national efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The 2006 manual was a comprehensive update to a shorter, hurried manual written as a response to the explosion of violence in Iraq after 2004’s de-Baathification. Its primary function was to layout the best (if not the most feasible) of all military strategies for the two American wars. It was also seemingly written to get the Pentagon off the hook, as COIN in its most effective form 1) “emphasizes the primary role of traditionally non-military activities and the decisive role of other agencies and organizations” and 2) admitted in the manual, requires an extensive commitment of time and resources that no U.S. politician, nor the general public, would provide nor have much patience for in wars of choice.

Some, like Don Bacon, argue that authors General David Petraeus and General James Mattis, in fact, hijacked the term counterinsurgency to spin the perception of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To avoid calling ourselves an occupational force, which often has a negative connotation, they made COIN the overarching term for U.S. strategy (what has been conflated with our goal and mission as well), and of course insurgentsounds bad. If the bad guys are the “insurgents” (conveniently decreasing the potential for them to be called Iraqis or Afghans or even Sunnis or Shias in the media) then what would that make America as leading the “counterinsurgency”? This argument makes sense because pro-war propaganda is key to help garner support while conducting not just one but two wars of choice.

Whether the manual’s jamming of COIN into the nation’s vernacular was a side effect of media coverage or a sly attempt to reframe the wars to make us look noble and good, the field manual is the ultimate guide to a “just war.” It is not concerned with how or why these wars were started, but how to conduct them now with not only minimal damage to the Host Nation (HN) but a solid commitment to protect the HN civilians, and make the HN more structurally and economically sustainable. It paints our intentions in the best of all lights (though in a much different way than George W. Bush did, even though we haven’t been greeted exactly as liberators).

The field manual’s first chapter implies but never states that counterinsurgency is good and insurgents are evil. The most obvious distinction is that insurgents tend toward terrorism as tactic to “sow chaos and disorder.” There are more subtle tells, such as phrases within the counterinsurgency definition like supporting “constituted government” in “restoring and enforcing the rule of law,” as if the ruling parties of nation-states were inherently benevolent and never to be insurged upon. (Ironically, Mao Tse-Tung, the iron-fisted famine-causing Red China dictator, is cited as the leading insurgency expert.)  The most dubious “just war” implication in the first chapter overview portrays counterinsurgency as defensive—a response to aggression and not the cause. This of course wouldn’t matter at all in terms of public opinion if the field manual were not being sold on Amazon.com.

A very short history of some “counterinsurgency”

In the paper “Effective Leadership in Counter-Insurgency: The North-West Mounted Police in South Africa, 1899-1902,” the author makes a strong, if not obvious, case that having a leader who is respected personally by his men and who has the appropriate experience (in this case, as a veteran mounted North-American Indian killer) is key when fighting insurgents, especially as the fighting is particularly unpredictable and stressful. Though the paper, which opens by discussing the modern-day trend away from traditional warfare to guerilla warfare (a.k.a. irregular warfare), was written in 2008, its title bears no relationship to the COIN manual definitions.

Instead it refers to the Canadian Mounted Police regiment called to South Africa to “fulfill its assigned task of counter-insurgency” against the Boer settlers, who were whipping the British army with snipers, ambushes and the intimate knowledge of their land. And thus throughout the paper, the “counter-insurgency” is simply a group of men with guerilla-combat experience employed to defeat the “insurgents,” who—true to typical underdog definition—used hit-and-run tactics to compensate for their lack of numbers and/or technological disadvantages.

Counterinsurgency came into its modern incarnation as President Kennedy took over the Cold War. He believed one of our biggest threats to be Soviet-sponsored “wars of liberation” in smaller nations around the world. As such he expanded Eisenhower’s CIA-run undercover and paramilitary missions to “overt and covert war against the internal enemies of friendly governments…. ”

Kennedy sought a large increase in Special Forces and increased military authority abroad (over U.S. ambassadors in particular) to go beyond containment of the Soviet threat and provide comprehensive support to countries facing communist insurgencies, though he asserted that “the main burden of local defense against overt attack, subversion and guerilla warfare must rest on local population and forces.” His requisite speeches clarifying the need for billions in military buildup and foreign aid to take on the threat by nonnuclear “forces of subversion, infiltration, intimidation, indirect or non-overt aggression, internal revolution, diplomatic blackmail, guerilla warfare or a series of limited wars [his words]” makes the War on Terror and its Middle Eastern boogiemen seem like cowboys and Indians in scope. (A result of our Hubris of Toughness according to Peter Beinart.)

Cuba and Vietnam, the two biggest concerns of the Kennedy administration and the trial and error of infant COIN, were unmitigated disasters.  After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a broader, comprehensive vision of COIN was needed and a cadre of high-level national-defense officials, called upon by the likes of Robert Kennedy, became Special Group Counterinsurgency. It was created by National Security Action Memorandum 124 to “assure the use of U.S. resources with maximum effectiveness in preventing and resisting subversive insurgency in friendly countries.”

In South Vietnam, the U.S. backed in battle Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem against the North Vietnamese communists and their Vietcong “insurgency” in the South (ostensibly because of the Domino Theory for all of Southeast Asia). But Ho Chi Minh was teaching the Vietcong from the Mao insurgency playbook. Among the major COIN mistakes the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations would make: Camelot allowed Diem, the only effective SV leader, to be killed in a 1963 coup de tat after his corrupt, oppressive regime became national news. Coup after coup followed and, as anyone who knows about COIN today will tell you, it doesn’t work without a legitimate Host Nation. The field manual derives a good portion of its existence from the lessons of Vietnam—where we bombed and murdered the indigenous people as we tried to win their “hearts and minds.”

For Kennedy’s part, his counterinsurgency plan had been based on Diem defeating the Vietcong on his own, and JFK spoke out against putting any boots on the ground (as in Cuba). “Counterinsurgency” in the U.S. in 1963 didn’t even involve soldiers.