I missed this op-ed earlier in the week at WaPo, but it’s definitely a should-read. Former DOD official and current RAND analyst Celeste Ward is subtly pushing back against the full-scale embrace of counterinsurgency by the U.S. military. (Readers of this blog will note that this topic is an obsession of mine.)
Counterinsurgency is king. Once the province of graduate students and historians of the conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria, this resurgent doctrine of how to wage a type of unconventional war has become the lens through which the American defense establishment analyzes what happened in Iraq, what to do now in Afghanistan, and the very future of warfare.
Ward doesn’t think this is too swell.
Counterinsurgency doctrine is on the verge of becoming an unquestioned orthodoxy, a far-reaching remedy for America’s security challenges. But this would be a serious mistake. Not all future wars will involve insurgencies. Not even all internal conflicts in unstable states — which can feature civil wars, resource battles or simple lawlessness — include insurgencies. Yet COIN is the new coin of the realm, often considered the inevitable approach to fighting instability in foreign lands. Now the Pentagon is shifting its budget and seeking to “rebalance” U.S. military power in order to institutionalize counterinsurgency doctrine. Clearly some of these capabilities are needed, but like many useful concepts that gain currency in Washington, counterinsurgency risks being taken too far, distracting us from other threats, challenges and strategic debates.
COIN has gained so much currency in foreign policy circles because of General Petraeus’s “Surge” in Iraq. The narrative of its success is now the Conventional Wisdom: a bunch of in-the-box old timers had been running the show in Iraq, and then General Petraeus came in with his brain trust and fresh ideas and turned things around.
But, as is the tendency of most myth making narratives, it’s far too simple. There had been alot of COIN stuff going on around Iraq before General P. took over. Ward, as an advisor to General Peter Chiarelli in 2006, was able to observe this first hand.
Gen. Chiarelli, the operational commander in Iraq before the surge and the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad in 2004-2005, was known for his emphasis on assisting the population. In a Military Review article nearly two years before surge began, Chiarelli argued that the 1st Cavalry Division had significantly reduced violence in Sadr City — the densely populated Shiite slum and stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr — by cleaning up sewage and providing electricity and running water.
Innovative, smart and energetic commanders all over Iraq had already been building schools, water treatment facilities, sewage lines, electricity infrastructure and other essentials, all the while conducting operations against belligerents. The list of commanders who combined military operations with measures to assist the population is a long one: Robert Abrams in Sadr City in 2004-2005, Sean MacFarland in Tal Afar and later Ramadi, and Michael Beech in Baghdad in 2006, to name but a few. Marine commanders and units had quietly been working with the Sunnis in Anbar to gain their trust and cooperation since at least 2005, their efforts finally coming to fruition during the surge.
This isn’t to say that Petraeus’s focus on COIN didn’t help reduce violence. But there were other factors as well. Sectarian cleansing had already taken place, we started to pay off the formerly bad guys, and Sadr decided(was coerced?) into a (temporary?) cease-fire.
And then Ward asks the larger question–the Surge worked, but so what?
The United States has spent six years, more than 4,000 American lives, mass quantities of psychic and political energy, and untold billions on the effort in Iraq — a project that has to date yielded little in a strategic sense.
Employing tactics and nifty plans that don’t, in the end, add to up to “strategic sense” seems to be bad overall strategy. (Or, you could say, the surge was a decent strategy in the context of an overarching bad policy, ie, invading/occupying Iraq.)
Ward concludes with an observation worth attention. Just because the surge and COIN seemed to work in Iraq, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in Afghanistan. Says Ward: “But while counterinsurgency theory and doctrine are vital and have a role to play, their applicability is bounded. Too often in Washington the discovery of a hammer makes everything look like a nail. The question is not whether counterinsurgency works, but where, when and to what ends it is wise to commit U.S. power and resources. ”