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.
The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people. The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.
MacGregor’s plaintive statement reiterated the essence of Marine Corps Sergeant Major (Ret.) James Sauer’s criticisms elaborated with meticulous detail — doctrinal, historical, and hands-on experiential — in an October 2009 essay. But perhaps even more revealing — and damning — was the impassioned comment about the prohibitively restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) McChrystal has imposed upon U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan. A Special Forces soldier with years of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan opined:
Bottom line? I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.
With a combined wisdom and intellectual honesty almost absent in journalism today, Diana West has been chronicling, tirelessly, the dangerous absurdities of our “See-No-Islam” COIN strategy, pitted against the menace of global Islamic jihadism. Following McChrystal’s resignation, West, in her singular clarity, further identified the Gordian knot intertwining COIN doctrine and our troops’ hideously self-destructive ROEs — which she aptly termed “a post-modern form of human sacrifice” — in Afghanistan.
It is this COIN theory that is directly responsible for the unconscionably restrictive ROEs that have been attracting media attention, a postmodern form of human sacrifice staged to appease the endlessly demanding requirements of political correctness regarding Islam. There is no separating the two. If we have COIN, we have these same heinous ROEs.
And there is no sign of the COIN nightmare ending anytime soon. Alas, the new commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, is the man who literally wrote the COIN book.
Subsequently, Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman concurred with West’s assessment, noting:
Gen. Petraeus has been in the loop during the formulation of these [ROEs], has been sitting in on weekly satellite conferences, has been part of most of the major monthly and quarterly reviews. So this is not somebody coming to this with a new set of attitudes.
Moreover, while he commanded U.S. troops in Iraq, Petraeus (re-)stated during a 2007 interview with National Public Radio the standard mantra of COIN enthusiasts: that this mode of warfare featured “protecting the Iraqi population,” ostensibly to avoid actions which “create more enemies than you take off the streets.”
Past, both distant and recent, as prologue, Afghanistan’s present manifestations of Islamic irredentism — jihadism and dehumanizing, often lethal persecution of non-Muslims, especially “apostates” from Islam and Muslim women — reflect a readily discernible continuum also ignored by the avatars of COIN. Indiana University Professor Nick Cullather (noted here by Diana West), for example, described in a 2002 essay how during more than three decades, between 1946 and 1979, the U.S. engaged in precisely the kind of sustained, non-military “hearts and minds-winning” utopian efforts advocated by today’s COIN doctrinaires, to no avail. This doomed “Helmand Valley Project” — Helmand being a present day Taliban stronghold — even featured a massive dam designed by the builder of the Hoover Dam (in addition to Cape Canaveral, and the Golden Gate Bridge), Morris Knudsen. As Cullather observed, instructively, the Helmand Valley Project:
…was lavishly funded by U.S. foreign aid, multilateral loans, and the Afghan government, and it was the opposite of piecemeal. It was an “integrated” development scheme, with education, industry, agriculture, medicine, and marketing under a single controlling authority. Nation-building did not fail in Afghanistan for want of money, time, or imagination. In the Helmand Valley, the engines and dreams of modernization had run their full course, spooling out across the desert until they hit limits of physics, culture, and history. … Proponents of a fresh nation-building venture in Afghanistan, unaware of the results of the last one, have resurrected its imaginings.
Some 25 years after the Helmand Valley Project terminated in 1979, between October 2005 and October 2006, Holly Barnes Higgins worked as a public information specialist for a U.S.-funded aid project, also in Helmand, seeking to inspire local citizens to commit themselves to economic progress, including the “repudiation” of poppy cultivation. Higgins left embittered by the project’s failure, which she attributed in large measure to the region’s Islamic irredentism:
Aside from a lack of security arising from the informal local poppy alliance, the barriers to shifting the local economy toward licit crops also included the absence of the rule of law, widespread illiteracy, corruption and fiercely conservative interpretations of Islam that seemed to oppose all change, especially change introduced by foreigners.
The 16-year experiences of Dr. Theodore Leighton-Pennell (1867-1912), originally published in 1909, provide sobering, if disquieting evidence that Islamic religious fanaticism has been a continuous phenomenon among a defining element of the Afghan Muslim population — its frontier tribal peoples spanning the present day border with northwestern Pakistan — since at least the latter half of the 19th century. Pennell was a noble physician and Christian missionary who founded the Bannu hospital, and died (of septicemia, likely contracted from a patient) serving the region’s indigenous Afghan Muslim population. Although devoted to his patients, and sympathetic to their culture, Pennell objectively documented the anti-infidel jihadism and brutal misogyny he witnessed firsthand more than a century ago. Pennell’s references to the profound societal influence of Afghan “mullahs,” and the sway they held over their “talibs,” or students (and in contemporary parlance, “Taliban”), remain depressingly relevant in our era.
There is no section of the people of Afghanistan which has a greater influence on the life of the people than the Mullahs, yet it has been truly said that there is no priesthood in Islam. According to the tenets of Islam, there is no act of worship and no religious rite which may not, in the absence of a Mullah, be equally well performed by any pious layman; yet, on the other hand, circumstances have enabled the Mullahs of Afghanistan to wield a power over the populations which is sometimes, it appears, greater than the power of the throne itself. For one thing, knowledge has been almost limited to the priestly class, and in a village where the Mullahs are almost the only men who can lay claim to anything more than the most rudimentary learning it is only natural that they should have the people of the village entirely in their own control. Then, the Afghan is a Muhammadan to the backbone, and prides himself on his religious zeal, so that the Mullah becomes to him the embodiment of what is most national and sacred. The Mullahs are, too, the ultimate dispensers of justice, for there are only two legal appeals in Afghanistan — one to the theological law, as laid down by Muhammad and interpreted by the Mullahs; the other to the autocracy of the throne — and even the absolute Amir would hesitate to give an order at variance with Muhammadan law, as laid down by the leading Mullahs. His religion enters into the minutest detail of an Afghan’s everyday life, so that there is no affair, however trivial, in which it may not become necessary to make an appeal to the Mullah.
Frequently the object of the mullah is to egg the people on to acts of open violence:
The more fanatical of these Mullahs do not hesitate to incite their pupil ["talibs"] to acts of religious fanaticism, or ghaza,[jihad operation] as it is called. The ghazi [jihadist] is a man who has taken an oath to kill some non-Muhammadan, preferably a European, as representing the ruling race; but, failing that, a Hindu or a Sikh is a lawful object of his fanaticism. The Mullah instills into him the idea that if in so doing he loses his own life, he goes at once to and enjoys the special delights of the houris and the gardens which are set apart for religious martyrs. When such a disciple has been worked up to the degree of religious excitement, he is usually further fortified by copious draughts of bhang, or Indian hemp, which produces a kind of intoxication in which one sees everything red, and the bullet and the bayonet have no longer any terror for him. Not a year passes on the frontier but some young officer falls a victim to one of these ghazi fanatics. Probably the ghazi has never seen him his life, and can have no grudge against him as a man; but he is a “dog and a heretic,”and his death a sure road to Paradise.
The Afghan noblemen maintain the strictest parda, or seclusion, of their women, who pass their days monotonously behind the curtains and lattices of their palace prison-houses, with little to do except criticize their clothes and jewels and retail slander; and. …The poorer classes cannot afford to seclude their women, so they try to safeguard their virtue by the most barbarous punishments, not only for actual immorality, but for any fancied breach of decorum. A certain trans-frontier chief that I know, on coming to his house unexpectedly one day, saw his wife speaking to a neighbour over the wall of his compound. Drawing his sword in a fit of jealousy, he struck off her head and threw it over the wall, and said to the man: “There! you are so enamoured of her, you can have her.” The man concerned discreetly moved house to a neighbouring village….The recognized punishment in such a case of undue familiarity would have been to have cut off the nose of the woman and, if possible, of the man too. This chief, in his anger, exceeded his right, and if he had been a lesser man and the woman had had powerful relations, he might have been brought to regret it. But as a rule a woman has no redress; she is the man’s property, and a man can do what he likes with his own. This is the general feeling, and no one would take the trouble or run the risk of interfering in another man’s domestic arrangements. A man practically buys his wife, bargaining with her father, or, if he is dead, with her brother; and so she becomes his property, and the father has little power of interfering for her protection afterwards, seeing he has received her price.
…The two greatest social evils from which the Afghan women suffer are the purchase of wives and the facility of divorce. I might add a third — namely, plurality of wives; but though admittedly an evil where it exists, it is not universally prevalent, like the other two — in fact, only men who are well-to-do can afford to have more than one wife.
Consistent with Tocqueville’s learned approach to understanding Islam — based upon actually studying the creed’s foundational texts, and living history of jihad — Major Stephen Coughlin, a trained lawyer and the Pentagon’s only expert on Islamic law, wrote a magisterial thesis on the contemporary jihadist enemy’s threat doctrine. Coughlin concluded his analysis, published in July 2007, with this warning — and challenge — to the advocates of COIN:
Islam is not just a religion but a way of life. As a way of life for all Muslims at both the individual and community level, [they] are bound by Islamic law. Islamic law understands jihad exclusively as warfare to establish the religion. In the doctrinal trenches of jihad, while Current Approach advocates and the national security community consistently message adoctrinal notions of Islam and jihad, the “extremists” will always be able to counter with the requirements of jihad that are grounded in Sacred Islamic law emanating directly from Allah and His Prophet.
Finally, the juxtaposition of COIN-based Islamic negationism to Tocqueville’s writings — both on Islam, and his renowned two-volume Democracy in America — also reveals the post-modern immoral equivalence between Islamic and uniquely Western values promoted by the avatars of COIN.
(The discussion of Tocqueville relies upon Professor Michael Curtis’ insightful analysis, “Orientalism and Islam — European Thinkers on Oriental Despotism in the Middle East and India,” chapter 6, “Alexis de Tocqueville and Colonization,” Cambridge, 2009. Translated extracts of Tocqueville’s letters and observations from his “Oeuvres Completes,” Paris, 1952-1995, were kindly provided by Nidra Poller, or reproduced from Professor Jennifer Pitts’ “Alexis de Tocqueville — Writings on Empire and Slavery,” Baltimore, 2001.)
A friend asked that I write a post-script to this essay, listing strategic aims for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. has these two main, legitimate strategic interests in so-called “Af-Pak”:
- First and foremost, seizing and destroying or removing Pakistan’s nukes.
- Second, destroying Afghanistan’s — and the Taliban’s — odious “cash crop” – opium.
If the U.S. is unwilling to pursue these two basic strategic aims, we should withdraw, lest our brave combat soldiers — subjected as they are to our heinous, COIN-based ROEs — become victim to the hopeless malaise characterized so aptly by Rudyard Kipling in his “The Young British Soldier.”
Kipling wrote, “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.”