Stephen Walt questions our love for counterinsurgency, and the Battle of Algiers

Just wanted to flag this graf from Stephen Walt’s post on the suspect merits of COIN. Makes a few good points, I think. COIN is the best answer if one wants to continue the bad policies and decisions we’ve made over the past eight years. We can do COIN effectively now, but just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

In short, the current obsession with counterinsurgency is the direct result of two fateful errors. We didn’t get Bin Laden when we should have, and we invaded Iraq when we shouldn’t. Had the United States not made those two blunders, we wouldn’t have been fighting costly counterinsurgencies and we wouldn’t be contemplating a far-reaching revision of U.S. defense priorities and military doctrine.

The obvious question is: Does the United States really want to base its military strategy on two enormous blunders?

Read the whole thing here.

On a slightly related note, I watched The Battle of Algiers last night. I think the last time I saw it was in the pre-9-11 days when my brother was at film school.

Now, those who’ve been following the COIN debate will know that one of the great COIN thinkers is Frenchman David Galula, who developed his influential theories during that war. I’ve always wondered how his lessons can be taken in isolation from the larger context without raising red flags–ie, sure, he was tactically successful, but he was using tactics required to maintain a seemingly unjust colonial enterprise. Shouldn’t we, as Americans, stop and think: hey, if we’re using his tactics, maybe there’s a chance we might be involved in something slightly unjust and colonial ourselves? Or at least shouldn’t that possibility be considered?

Watching Battle of Algiers and deciding to adopt the French’s tactics is akin to watching Star Wars and deciding to study the formations of the Storm Troopers, no? (I’m probably being unfair here, as the film is much more complex than that, but I stand by my point for the time being.) But watch the trailer–and if you’ve ever been to a military briefing in Iraq or Afghanistan, Colonel Mathieu’s presentation will seem quite familiar. 

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About michaelhastings

Journalist
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2 Responses to Stephen Walt questions our love for counterinsurgency, and the Battle of Algiers

  1. Mr. Hastings,

    I believe that Mr. Walt has asked the wrong question, i.e. “Does the United States really want to base its military strategy on two enormous blunders?” The current and proposed military strategy is not based on those two blunders. Rather it same strategy as was used in Vietnam, attack and destroy the enemies political and military infrastructure. The problem is that the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami, the Haqqani network, and al Qaeda and the various drug gangs do not have much in the way of infrastructure. What they do have can be attacked, destroyed, and rebuild in a matter of days. Some of it does not even belong to those forces. Highway 4 in Kandahar Province is widely used route to move supplies between Afghanistan and Pakistan by many forces. It cannot be attacked and destroyed, it is owned and maintained by the Kabul Government. Some of the infrastructure comes from the Frontier Corps and the ISI of Pakistan.

    As always, we have to return to Von Clausewitz, military strategy has to be based on the political objective that is to be achieved. The political objective is to eliminate the insurgency from Afghanistan to prevent the insurgent forces from seizing power and allowing al-Qaeda from using Afganistan as a base for more 9-11 type attacks on the US. Can that objective be achieved through solely military means?

    Imagine tomorrow the entire opium trade vanished and every Afghan insurgent was killed by predator drones. Within a few years, the same, or very similar problem would exist. The people of southwest Asia see their world as being exploited and under attack by forces of western Europe and the United States (“the faranji”). So long as that condition exists, there will be a constant demand for some sort of resistance and someone will rise to answer that demand. Iran would be more than happy to fill the gap left by the destruction of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, &c.

  2. jwhastings says:

    Your line about STAR WARS is, I think, telling:

    One of George Lucas’ first projects as a director was going to be filiming the John Milius script that became APOCALYPSE NOW (Coppola was just going to produce – and, note that this was going to happen while the war was still going on). Milius and Lucas worked on it intermittently, but other projects pushed it to the back burner: first, AMERICAN GRAFFITI and then STAR WARS. Lucas ended up folding some of his and Milius’ ideas from the Vietnam project into STAR WARS, and, after he finished it, realized he had “said” all he needed to say on the subject. But in Lucas’ reading of his film, the Empire/Stormtroopers represented the Americans, and the Rebels were the North Vietnamese.

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