Beware simple acronyms that people think will “solve” Iraq, Syria or any place

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

I saw a discussion online where one man discusses the situation in Raqqa in 2018 and why it might be improving as the US continues its role in eastern Syria. “If we can’t win the SWEAT* fight, we’ll lose Raqqa just as we lost Iraq. Most of our foreign policy failures boil down to the failure to win SWEAT. *Sewage Water Electricity Academics Trash,” he writes.

Another responds on Twitter. “I’m not sure if you listened to The Caliphate podcast from NYT, but time & again, people liberated from ISIS rule remarked on how ISIS was supremely better at providing these basic infrastructure services and in effect gained some semblance of support.”

People like quick-fix fancy acronyms. The US army still talks about this from time to time. “Standing for sewage, water, electricity, academics, trash, medical, safety and other, a SWEAT-MSO assessment is a mission performed by U.S. forces in areas of operation worldwide, to assess the needs of a local population by meeting with local leaders. The result is a list of plausible projects for local communities to choose from through the command emergency response program.” It’s an easy trap, a deceptive illusion. Give someone some drinking water and they will support you. But we know throughout history that many rebellions were led by people who had drinking water and such goodies, and who went into the jungles or the hills to fight, not for drinking water, but for rights. Whether it was Kurds fighting Saddam, or Castro on the Granma or even the American revolutionaries in 1776, who would have been hung for their actions and gave up lots of privileges to fight, the SWEAT acronym and others don’t explain why they sacrificed all for freedom.

This is why you have to be careful of jargon and nonsense. it’s easy to come up with an acronym about “winning hearts and minds,” surely people had one during the colonial era and in Vietnam and now we can see this nonsense being bandied about regarding Raqqa and even as an excuse for why ISIS was acceptable.

But it is, at its heart, nonsense. The nonsense is that if you just give people good street lights and clean water, they will just accept things. But you know what? It’s not true. Most anti-colonial struggles took place and were led by people who had received many of these apparent “basic” and “good services.” Gandhi had gone to study. Mao had a decent life. Ho Chi Minh, if he had just consented, probably could have seen Vietnam flourish under rule from Paris. Mandela could have just accepted minority rule and asked for better roads so people could get to the mines.

But that’s not what people want, really. Yes, it is true that the majority, the privileged, the powerful group, will want these things. So that explains why some people did support ISIS or Nazism. But the victims of ISIS don’t benefit from this acronym or the extremists taking out the trash better. So you can indeed run a fascist regime in which some group benefits and accepts it. But you cannot run such a regime successfully when you are suppressing people. It doesn’t matter how good the economy is. When they are denied things, the better the economy, the more they will demand because they want equality. In fact, equality is most in need when people have economic benefit. An extremely poor person who *also* lacks equality will demand his economic basics first, perhaps. But a middle class person who is *also* denied basic rights, will demand equality. That is why the First Intifada began in 1987 after 20 years of Israel ignoring the local people.

And that is why the acronyms of nonsense about “just give them drinking water” doesn’t work. You have to satisfy people’s desires and goals. The US in Iraq thinks that telling Kurds to “support Baghdad” will work so long as the KRG gets some scraps at the table. No, that won’t work.

You can call it COIN or SWEAT or any acronym, like Vietnamization or whatever, but you will not win with this mentality. Either partner with the people, or you will lose them.

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