Commentary

Was Counterinsurgency Worth It?

On Feb. 23, 2006, over one hundred invited guests gathered at Fort Leavenworth to discuss the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine, COIN for short.

The need for such a doctrine was becoming more evident by the day. The war that was supposed to have been a “cakewalk” had turned into a brutal, deadly slog. The war’s advocates had sneered at the suggestion that a large-scale U.S. presence would be required in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s ouster. Three years later, more than 140,000 U.S. troops remained in country, and the last quarter of 2005 had been one of the deadliest since the start of the war.

It would get worse. The day before the group convened in Kansas, Sunni terrorists bombed the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite shrines in the world. The attack would plunge Iraq ever deeper into a sectarian war, with U.S. troops stuck in the middle.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan recounts the discussion among the current and former military officers, academics, policy scholars, and journalists in his latest book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. The group was there to share their honest assessments of a draft field manual on COIN with its authors, chiefly John Nagl, whose book on the British experience in Malaya, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife had become a COIN cult classic, and Conrad Crane of the Army War College. According to Kaplan, “No one in the Army had ever gathered such an eclectic crew in one place for any purpose, certainly not to vet a field manual.”

If we aren’t prepared to invest the time and money—and risk the lives of our troops—then it is better not to become involved in the first place.”

But David Petraeus wasn’t just any American general. He wanted, Kaplan explains, “to drive a wedge into mainstream Army thinking, to broaden and overhaul the official definition of war.” He and his fellow COIN true-believers would wage their own insurgency, of sorts, a low-level information operation aided by friendly journalists whom he cultivated with great care.

But the task proved more difficult that even Petraeus might have imagined. The central paradox of COIN was not so much about how to fight, the manual’s primary focus, but rather what to fight for. It was one thing to defend one’s own government against those who challenged its authority (i.e., insurgents); fighting for another government’s legitimacy bordered on oxymoronic.

Today’s media-savvy adversaries are more adept than their colonial era predecessors at magnifying resistance to foreign occupation, making it even more difficult for Western troops to impose order in non-Western cultures. It is equally hard for foreign occupiers to nurture societies on the path toward liberal-= democracy. Iraq is merely the latest example of this phenomenon; it remains to be seen whether Afghanistan will be an exception, but the early indications aren’t promising.

The problem was complicated by the fact that Americans had very different ideas than their Iraqi and Afghan partners, and yet the locals’ desires were supposed to take precedence. Steve Metz, one of Crane’s Army War College colleagues in attendance, picked up on this almost immediately. “[P]eople in other cultures might have different values, a different level of tolerance for corruption, different ideas about what makes a regime worthy of their loyalty—which is to say, what makes it legitimate.”

The manual’s final draft, Kaplan explains, advised troops “to avoid imposing their ideals of normalcy on a foreign cultural problem,” and listed “indicators of legitimacy” that might include “a culturally acceptable level of corruption.”

For most Americans, however, this deference to local mores can be a bridge too far. Examples of “culturally acceptable levels of corruption” on the front pages of the Washington Post—another of Petraeus’s rules—would probably raise eyebrows; the Afghan practice of bacha bazi surely would.

But even if Americans could put aside their attitudes about bribery, extrajudicial killing, and pederasty, that might still not be enough. While a revised COIN manual might succeed in disseminating best practices, even a textbook counterinsurgency campaign, one in which the occupying army commits no egregious errors and goes out of its way to protect civilians, risks engendering hostility and dependency. The goal might be legitimacy, but the presence of foreign troops “is almost always a liability,” explained James Steele, a special forces veteran who had served in El Salvador. Petraeus knew this, too. He warned that “every army of liberation has a half-life before it becomes an army of occupation,” but this conflicted with the field manual’s observation that counterinsurgency requires “a long-term commitment.” How to balance the two?

Huba Wass de Szege wondered whether they couldn’t be. Wass de Czege, the founder of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Leavenworth, and the author of the mid-1980s AirLand Battle field manual, worried that the COIN manual was taking “an engineering approach” to insurgencies. “You’re under representing the difficulty of doing this,” he said.

John Waghelstein, another veteran of El Salvador, put the matter more succinctly. If the COIN manual’s authors thought that they could “produce a document with a road map” to success, he said, then “I think you’re smoking little green cigarettes.”

In short, was counterinsurgency 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?”

Now, more than seven years later, we know the answer. In the future, if Americans commit to overturning the established political order in a given country, we must expect that the losers in this process will fight hard to regain their lost status. The logical form of resistance is insurgency. And, as FM 3-24, the published draft of the COIN manual, says, “counter insurgents should prepare for a long-term commitment,” measured in years, if not decades. Political leaders might be able to rally the American public to such causes, but it is fundamentally dishonest, and ultimately short-sighted, to do so by systematically misrepresenting the costs. And if we aren’t prepared to invest the time and money—and risk the lives of our troops—then it is better not to become involved in the first place.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.