McChrystal, Tocqueville, and the Koran: The Postmodern ‘COINage’ of a Failed Policy
References to the Koran are all-but-missing from "COIN," our counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. In contrast, 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville knew better.
June 29, 2010 - 12:00 am
Just over nine months ago, on September 20, 2009, the Department of Defense released a declassified version of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s assessment of the war in Afghanistan. The Washington Post published a version of this report with minor deletions of material that officials maintained could compromise future operations, rather than a copy of the document marked “confidential.” Although Gen. McChrystal’s counterinsurgency (COIN)-based analysis, “updated” for the Afghanistan theater, at least mentioned the “Koran” (a word omitted entirely from the December 2006 COIN manual co-authored by Gen. David Petraeus), the Koran’s motivational relevance — consistent with a over a millennium of jihadism within Afghanistan (or “Ghazni”) — was completely misrepresented. Negating doctrinal and historical realities, past and present, McChrystal’s uninformed, panglossian Koranic gloss rationalized an ostensibly “more forceful” strategy:
whereby INS [insurgents] are exposed continually for their cultural and religious violations, anti-Islamic and indiscriminate use of violence and terror, and by concentrating on their vulnerabilities. These include their causing of the majority of civilian casualties, attacks on education, development projects, and government institutions, and flagrant contravention of the principles of the Koran. These vulnerabilities must be expressed in a manner that exploits the cultural and ideological separation of the INS from the vast majority of the Afghan population. (emphasis added)
McChrystal’s superficial, bowdlerized pieties on the Koran, and Petraeus’ complete neglect of this foundational Islamic text, contrast starkly with the contemplative, firsthand observations on the Koran (and Islam) made by Alexis de Tocqueville. Shortly after his return from America, Tocqueville studied North African Islamic culture and history — which included an analysis of the Koran (“Notes on the Koran,” March, 1838) — and made two visits to Algeria (in 1841, and 1846), becoming one of the foremost experts on these matters, while serving as a French parliamentarian.
Before visiting Algeria, Tocqueville studied the Koran, writing an analysis of the first 18 suras (chapters) in careful, if succinct notes, and elaborating his summary conclusions during additional private observations and correspondence recorded through his voyage to North Africa in 1841. Tocqueville opens his March 1838 “Notes on the Koran” with these two observations:
Encouragement, commandments for holy war.
Necessity of obeying the Prophet, of obeying him as one does God.
He accurately documents the Koran’s repeated references to jihad warfare, noting,
Sanctity of holy war encouraged with both energy and violence. … Permission and commandment to kill infidels. Prohibition against killing believers. … Cut off the hands and feet of those who fight God and his prophet.
This discussion culminates, appropriately, in Tocqueville’s more extended assessment of suras 8 and 9, which are redolent with eternal proclamations justifying and describing the conduct of jihad war against the non-Muslim infidel:
Spoils taken from the enemy belong to God and to his envoy. Fear the Lord. Whoever turns his back on the day of combat shall remain in hell. Fight infidels until the point when there is no more schism and when holy religion is universally triumphant. O believers! when you march on the enemy, be resolute, obey God and the prophet, fear the discord that extinguishes the fire of courage. Be firm. The incredulous who refuses to believe in Islam is more abject than a brute in the eyes of the Eternal. If the fortune of battle causes those who violate the pact they have made with you to fall into your hands, use torture to terrify their followers. God will ease your task: 20 brave believers will crush 200 infidels, 100 will put 1,000 to flight. No prophet has taken prisoners without spilling the blood of a great number of enemies. Feed on what you have taken from the enemy. You shall have no society with believers who have remained at home, until they have marched into combat. Believers who have left their country to fight under the standard of faith and those who have given aid to the prophet are the truly faithful ones. Paradise is their portion.
Believers who tear themselves from the bosom of their family to follow [God's] standard, sacrificing their property and their lives, shall have the first places in the realm of the heavens. They shall be the object of God’s kindness; they shall live in gardens of delights and taste eternal pleasures. Cease loving your fathers, your brothers, if they prefer incredulity to faith. … Young and old, enter combat, sacrifice your wealth and your lives for the defense of the faith, [for] there is no more glorious advantage for you. Some believers have let the prophet go, they have said, “Let us not fight during the heat!” The fire of hell shall be much more terrible than that heat. … O Believers! Fight your unfaithful neighbors. May they find implacable enemies.
Tocqueville concludes his Koranic analysis in the March 1838 “Notes” with these additional observations:
Everything that relates to war is precise; everything that relates to morals … is general and confused. … As in practically all of the Alcoran [Koran], Muhammad concerns himself far more with making himself believed than with giving rules of morality. And he employs terror much more than any other motive.
Prior to visiting Algeria, Tocqueville supplemented his initial reflections on the Koran with further meditations on both this defining Muslim text and Islam:
Reading the latter [Koran] is one of the most … instructive things imaginable because the eye easily discovers there, by very closely observing, all the threads by which the prophet held and still holds the members of his sect. … [T]hat the first of all religious duties is to blindly obey the prophet, that holy war is the first of all good deeds … all these doctrines of which the practical outcome is obvious are found on every page and in almost every word of the Koran are so striking that I cannot understand how any man with good sense could miss them.
Jihad: Holy war, is an obligation for all believers. … The state of war is the natural state with regard to infidels. Only truces can be made [meaning...can only be interrupted by a truce, not ended]. … After the victory, 4/5 of the booty — land, buildings, and other property — of the defeated I shared out. Two motives: fanaticism, cupidity.
Muhammadanism is the religion that most thoroughly conflated and intermixed the powers in such a way that the high priest is necessarily the prince, and the prince the high priest, and all acts of civil and political life are more or less governed by religious law. … [T]his concentration and this conflation of power established by Muhammad between the two powers … was the primary cause of despotism and particularly of social immobility that has almost always characterized Muslim nations.
And following his first sojourn in Algeria, Tocqueville compared Islam’s lasting impact with that of Christianity (and the latter’s possible disappearance), in an October 1843 letter to Arthur de Gobineau:
If Christianity should in fact disappear, as so many hasten to predict, it would befall us, as already happened to the ancients before its advent, a long moral decrepitude, a poisoned old age, that will end up bringing I know not where nor how a new renovation. … I closely studied the Koran especially because of our position with regard to the Muslim populations in Algeria and throughout the Orient. I admit that I came out of that study with the conviction that, all things considered, there had been few religions in the world so dreadful for men as that of Muhammad. It is, I believe, the major cause of the decadence today so visible in the Muslim world and though it is less absurd than ancient polytheism, it’s social and political tendencies, in my opinion much more to be feared. I see it relative to paganism itself as a decadence rather than an advance.
Nearly 170 years later, it is a bitter, tragic irony that the harshest and most valid critiques of Stanley McChrystal — leveled by military officers in Michael Hastings’ now infamous Rolling Stone essay (“The Runaway General“) — hinge upon the general’s ignorant and willfully misconceived formulation of the same timeless Islamic doctrines so plainly elucidated by Tocqueville.