Counterinsurgency Back In Vogue?

As the U.S. prepares to reduce its military presence in Iraq while intensifying its war effort in Afghanistan, hawks within both the Republican and Democratic parties have come increasingly to believe that counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine offers a solution to the central security challenges Washington will face in the 21st century.

Drawing on the perceived, if still uncertain, success of the U.S. "surge" in Iraq, many prominent opinion-makers – notably neoconservatives and "liberal hawks" – have joined COIN advocates within the military itself to argue that "small wars" theory should be the cornerstone of U.S. military strategy going forward, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But COIN’s current ascendancy masks several lingering points of contention.

For critics, the current enthusiasm reflects a fundamental overestimation of the efficacy of military force, and a desire for technocratic solutions to strategic problems that presume a neo-imperial nation-building role for the U.S.

Even among hawks, COIN has drawn fire from those who dispute the supposed "lessons" drawn from the surge in Iraq, and from those who argue that conventional warfare against potential rivals like China and Russia should remain a much higher priority than irregular warfare against non-state actors.

COIN is a fundamentally broad-ranging concept, encompassing all "military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions" used to defeat insurgency, according to the 2006 Army Counter-Insurgency Field Manual.

It emphasizes protecting and winning the "hearts and minds" of civilian populations – summed up in the mantra "clear, hold, and build" – meaning in practice COIN can often shade into "nation-building."

A team led by Gen. David Petraeus, the most prominent COIN advocate within the military, authored the Army field manual. Now head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) overseeing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Petraeus has become an icon among hawks due to his perceived success in pacifying Iraq.

In the wake of Iraq, many commentators across the political spectrum have called for the principles of the COIN doctrine used in the Iraq surge to be institutionalized as the guide for future campaigns in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the hawkish independent Democrat, for example, called in January for an enhanced effort in Afghanistan built around six linked "surges" – in troop strength, strategic coherence, civilian resources, "native" support, regional integration, and political commitment.

While conventional warfare remains the centerpiece of military spending – Defense Secretary Robert Gates estimated this week that "irregular warfare" accounts for only ten percent of the new defense budget – COIN has come to dominate conversation in Washington foreign-policy circles, and many argue that "small wars" will characterize the 21st century.

"In a multipolar world where small wars proliferate, there is reason to believe that [COIN] doctrine will shape not only the next phase of the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the future of the U.S. Military," according to John Nagl, a former Army officer who contributed to the COIN manual and now heads the influential think-tank, Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

CNAS, which was founded in 2007 and has served as something of a pipeline to senior ranks in the Obama administration, appears to embody the new bipartisan conventional wisdom in Washington. Its "mediagenic" Rhodes Scholar president has become a poster boy for COIN enthusiasts, including influential neoconservatives who two weeks ago featured Nagl at the kick-off of their newest think-tank, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI).

COIN is especially attractive to many liberal hawks, however, because it emphasizes civilian protection and knowledge of local cultures, in contrast to the "shoot-first" style that often characterized U.S. Military policy in the early Bush years.

But although advocates portray COIN as a purely pragmatic and non-ideological response to the security challenges of the twenty-first century, critics charge that its focus on "small wars" and nation-building simply assumes that the main goal of the U.S. Military should be subduing local populations of far-flung but strategically important countries. In that respect, they argue, COIN can serve as a smokescreen for maintaining U.S. imperial posture.

"Great powers wage ‘small wars’ not to defend themselves but to assert control over foreign populations," wrote Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and Boston University professor, in his 2008 book The Limits of Power. "Historically, that is, ‘small wars’ are imperial wars."

"[T]o assume that wars like Iraq define the military’s future evades a larger question. Given what the pursuit of American imperial ambitions in the Greater Middle East has actually produced…why would the United States persist in such a strategy? Instead of changing the military, why not change the policy?" asked Bacevich.

The history of COIN in the U.S. is in fact intimately tied to the history of imperialism, dating back to the "Indian wars" and the suppression of insurgencies in Cuba and the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century.

Many of the classics of COIN literature, such as David Galula’s "Counterinsurgency Warfare," came out of the French colonial experience in Algeria. The heyday of COIN in the U.S. came in the 1960s, when the U.S. supplemented its military forces in Vietnam with tens of thousands of civilian advisers applying the latest social-science findings to everything from police training to land reform.

The U.S. defeat in Indochina made COIN anathema to a generation of military officers who demanded an end to murky and open-ended nation-building engagements. The "Powell doctrine," which demanded overwhelming force in the pursuit of clearly defined goals, was emblematic of U.S. Military thinking post-Vietnam.

While the immediate post-Cold War period saw the U.S. intervene in ‘small wars’ in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans, the George W. Bush administration came to office promising an end to such commitments. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought to transform the military into a technology-heavy force designed to defeat rival states quickly and with as few "boots on the ground" as possible.

It was Rumsfeld’s failure to anticipate the challenges of post-invasion Iraq that sent the U.S. officer corps scrambling back to the archives in search of their predecessors’ wisdom about how to conduct counter-insurgency.

Ironically, many of the same neoconservatives and liberal hawks who now tout the virtues of COIN were previously firm believers in the high-tech Rumsfeld military. This has led critics to charge that these new COIN enthusiasts simply aim to foster a belief in the efficacy of military force and interventionist foreign policy.

Bacevich and other critics caution against falling back into the same illusions about military efficacy that drew the U.S. into Iraq in the first place.

"U.S. leaders should… be wary of the potential moral hazard represented by the COIN [field manual]: thinking they have figured out the journey, they may be tempted to go down the road more often," Colin Kahl, a CNAS fellow who will head Middle East affairs in the Pentagon under Obama, warned in Foreign Affairs in 2007.

Others dispute the notion that the drop in violence in Iraq was due to the surge and the use of COIN doctrine. Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, now a professor at West Point, has been foremost among these critics, arguing that success was due primarily to other factors – notably the decision to begin paying former Sunni insurgents to stop attacking U.S. forces.

Even among neoconservatives and other hawks, it remains to be seen whether the current enthusiasm for COIN will outlast the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some, such as influential columnist Robert Kagan, have already begun to argue that state powers such as China and Russia pose a greater long-term threat than terrorism and other non-state actors, which would once again push conventional capabilities to the forefront of Washington’s military priorities.

This focus on conventional warfare would dovetail with the inclinations of many within the military itself, where the newly influential COIN advocates appear to remain in the minority.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban writes for Inter Press Service.