Why Are We Trying to Get Better at Counterinsurgency?

Chris Preble and I have long wondered why American foreign-policy experts believe that “fixing failed states” is important for U.S. national security.  History (and the literature on “state failure”) is replete with dozens of poorly- or ungoverned places that present no threat whatsoever to U.S. national security.  “Failedness” and “threatening” generally are not correlated.

Afghanistan, the one failed state which indeed posed a threat to us, was a problem not because of its educational programs or its agricultural methods, but rather because its government was cooperating with a terrorist group that was planning to attack us.  In order to head off that threat, we didn’t need girls to be in school, a strong national government, or to crack down on poppy production, although if the Afghans want my opinion I think it’s obviously wiser to have girls in school.  (Nay on the other two.)  What would have prevented that threat was killing or capturing the people planning it–a result that would have left Afghanistan just as “failed,” but non-threatening.  So why, if what we’re trying to do is fight terrorism, have we suddenly gotten so gung-ho about nation building and counterinsurgency?

It’s a puzzle that Andrew Bacevich is scratching his head over in reading COIN guru David Kilcullen’s memoir.  It’s worth a read.  (Your only known alternative for insights like these and projections as to what the future holds for U.S. foreign policy in this regard is to come to Chicago to attend Chris’s and my talk at the Midwest Political Science Association convention April 2.)  In lieu of that, give Bacevich a read:

According to a currently fashionable view, the chief operative lesson of the Iraq War is that counterinsurgency works, with U.S. forces having now mastered the best practices required to prevail in conflicts of this nature. Those who adhere to this view expect the Long War to bring more such challenges, with the neglected Afghan conflict even now presenting itself as next in line. Given this prospect, they want the Pentagon to gear itself up for a succession of such trials, enshrining counterinsurgency as the preferred American way of war in place of discredited concepts like “shock and awe.” Doing so will have large implications for how defense dollars are distributed among the various armed services and for how U.S. forces are trained, equipped and configured. Ask yourself how many fighter-bombers or nuclear submarines it takes to establish an effective government presence in each of Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages and you get the gist of what this might imply.

Yet given the costs of Iraq—now second only to World War II as the most expensive war in all U.S. history—and given the way previous efforts to pacify the Afghan countryside have fared, how much should we expect to spend in redeeming Afghanistan’s forty thousand villages? Having completed that task five or ten years hence, how many other villages in Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Egypt will require similar ministrations? And how many more accidental guerrillas will we inadvertently create along the way?

Kilcullen the apostate knows full well that an approach that hinges on wholesale societal transformation makes no sense. The consummate counterinsurgency professional understands that the application of technique, however skillful, will not suffice to salvage the Long War. Yet as someone deeply invested in that conflict, he cannot bring himself to acknowledge the conclusion to which his own analysis points: the very concept of waging a Long War as the antidote to Islamism is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed.

If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?

When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy. Ours is the far stronger hand. The jihadist project is entirely negative. Apart from offering an outlet for anger and resentment, Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk have nothing on offer. Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die—unless through our own folly we choose to destroy ourselves first.