March 4, 2009 1:13PM

Will the ‘Rise of the Counterinsurgents’ Lead to Fewer Counterinsurgency Wars?

Matt Yglesias picks up on the Bacevich review I referenced below and points to a post from counterinsurgency (COIN) scholar Andrew Exum in which Exum argues that learning to do counterinsurgency better will lead to our doing less of it:

No one who really understands COIN wants to do it. Liberal interventionalists and neo‐​conservatives are likely to be much more enthusiastic than the practitioners themselves. Counter‐​insurgents, often knowing something of what they speak through practical and hard‐​won experience, realize all too well just how difficult and costly big schemes drawn up in Washington become when they have to be operationalized. Counter‐​insurgency is hard. Best to avoid it, actually.

This doesn’t make much sense. Exum has previously excoriated COIN skeptic Gian Gentile for pursuing an “anti‐​COIN crusade.” But by Exum’s reasoning above, it is Exum who should be on an anti‐​COIN crusade. Instead, Exum thinks that DOD needs to allocate more resources to doing COIN.

Academically, Exum is interested in insurgencies. And indeed — they’re interesting. But for the COIN clique to think that their realistic appreciation of the difficulties of COIN and their private reticence to do it is going to outweigh their technocratic advice and willingness to obey orders in the minds of policymakers, I think they’re gravely mistaken. The work of the COIN crowd is going to create the impression in the minds of policymakers that the military knows how to win counterinsurgencies and therefore we don’t need an “Iraq syndrome.” But we do need an Iraq syndrome.

Take, for one example of my argument, the thinking of Bush NSC official Peter Feaver.* He thinks, as I do, that making COIN doctrine central to American foreign policy thought is going to create a future in which US foreign policy will continue to look like that of President Bush. Except for Feaver, that’s a feature, not a bug:

The problem with Chris’s post on COIN is that it takes the existing debate at face value, as if it really were a debate about the best way to do COIN or its place in American national security. I don’t think it is.

Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that all of the COIN critics Chris cites are sincere patriots who honestly believe what they have written and have no deeper agenda. Setting them aside, the larger debate seems driven by one of three deeper considerations. First, anti‐​COIN is a convenient way to argue against American military involvement in any fashion because the most urgent near‐​term threats requiring military operations involve COIN. So if your ideology tells you that the dominant problem in the world is American militarism; if you look at recent history and can only find cases where we did use military force and shouldn’t have and can find no cases where we did not use military force and should have; if you think that getting defeated in Iraq (or Afghanistan) would have a salutary chastening effect on American adventurism; if any or all of that applies, then it makes sense to argue against Gates’ emphasis on COIN now. If the U.S. military cannot or will not do COIN, then the U.S. military cannot and will not be operational.

Does Exum think this policymaker’s view is wrong? Aberrant? I think its descriptive content is exactly accurate and characteristic. Orienting planning and resources more toward COIN is likely to lead to more counterinsurgency wars. I’m pretty confident in this prediction. If somebody disagrees, I’d like to hear a better fleshed out argument behind the idea that telling policymakers “we now know how to do COIN pretty well” will lead to those policymakers to decide we ought to do it less.

* One really ought to note how sad it is to see this sort of mendacious, straw‐​man writing coming from an academic, intimating as Feaver does that anti‐​COIN scholars aren’t “sincere patriots” and that they have some “deeper agenda.” Both Bacevich and Gentile, to whom Feaver is referring in particular, are military veterans, and Bacevich’s son was killed in the sands of Iraq while Mr. Feaver was working at the Bush NSC, trying to come up with innovative ways to convince Americans that the war was going well.
UPDATE: Professor Feaver writes in to say that by “Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that all of the COIN critics Chris cites are sincere patriots who honestly believe what they have written and have no deeper agenda” he meant to make the positive statement that these people are patriots with noble intentions and didn’t mean to intimate they could be insincere patriots of questionable honesty with deeper agendas. He also disputes the factual accuracy of the Times article linked above and points to this Commentary piece as the definitive account of his work at the Bush NSC.