Tag: small wars

Fred Kaplan on David Petraeus and Counterinsurgency

I have a new blog post up at US News and World Report discussing Fred Kaplan’s latest book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, a terrific book about a very important subject. 

I’m thrilled to be hosting Fred at Cato in a few weeks. I’ve been a Kaplan fan for nearly two decades, since I first read his classic, The Wizards of Armageddon. I also thoroughly enjoyed Daydream Believers, about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. It is an honor to be able to personally welcome him to Cato.

I’m particularly interested in the subject of his latest book: counterinsurgency (COIN). The discussion at Cato, which will also feature comments by Janine Davidson and Spencer Ackerman, hearkens back to several others that I’ve hosted or participated in. 

One in particular sticks out. Back in 2006, Cato published a paper on the American way of war by Jeffrey Record of the Air War College. I thought the paper was outstanding at the time, and, upon rereading it this week, I was struck by how much of what Jeff observed overlaps with a discussion about COIN that Petraeus hosted at Fort Leavenworth in February 2006 (the focus of my blog post at US News). He couldn’t know this at the time he was writing, of course, but it just so happens that many of Jeff’s questions and concerns about COIN were shared by many others within the national security establishment, including those who Gen. Petraeus invited to vet the COIN manual. (Those interested in the subject might also want to watch or listen to the event that we hosted with Jeff, Tom Ricks, and Conrad Crane, one of the principle authors of the COIN manual, FM 3-24.) 

Here are a few excerpts from the paper: 

Barring profound change in America’s political and military cultures, the United States runs a significant risk of failure in entering small wars of choice, and great power intervention in small wars is almost always a matter of choice. Most such wars…do not engage core U.S. security interests other than placing the limits of American military power on embarrassing display. Indeed, the very act of intervention in small wars risks gratuitous damage to America’s military reputation…. 

If this analysis is correct, the policy choice is obvious: avoidance of direct military involvement in foreign internal wars unless vital national security interests are at stake…. 

Avoidance of such conflicts means abandonment of regime-change wars that saddle the United States with responsibility for establishing political stability and state building, tasks that have rarely commanded public or congressional enthusiasm. 

Other elements of the discussion re: COIN were echoed in a paper that I coauthored with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky in 2008: 

The problem with counterinsurgency warfare is not that its theory of victory is illogical. If you understand the culture, if you avoid counterproductive violence, if you integrate civilians and make reconstruction operations a reward for cooperation, if you train the local forces well, if you pick your allies wisely, if you protect enough civilians and win their loyalty and more, you might succeed. But even avoiding a few of these ifs is too much competence to expect of foreign powers. That is why insurgencies in the last century generally lasted for decades and why the track record of democratic powers pacifying uprisings in foreign lands is abysmal…. 

Another reason Americans will struggle to master counterinsurgency doctrine is that it requires a foreign policy at odds with our national character… 

Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense. 

In The Insurgents, Fred Kaplan, summarizing a set of questions and comments from those who reviewed the COIN manual before it was published, asks “whether counterinsurgency was even possible? The question,” Kaplan writes, “had two parts. Was the U.S. Army up to the task? And, at least as uncertain, were the American people?” 

I think we know the answer now, and we could have known it in 2006, before the Iraq surge, or in 2008, well before the Afghan surge. Instead, we chose to believe the opposite of what history and logic taught us. 

What do we have to show for it?