As I hear more voices join the chorus against counterinsurgency, both its theory and its practice, I get the sense that the ‘counterinsurgency era’ that began some time after the invasion of Iraq is now reaching its end. Yes, NATO will retain a presence in Afghanistan for years to come, but there is little enthusiasm for the idea of counterinsurgency or hope that the lessons of FM 3-24 might help, either in Afghanistan or elsewhere. In fact, mentions of FM 3-24 and of counterinsurgency are increasingly likely to invite sniggers, tired sighs or outright hostility (‘how dare you theorise about hearts and minds when there’s a war going on?’).
It might be interesting to trace how an idea so welcome less than four years ago has since fallen from grace. Was it the perceived confidence with which the concept was rolled out? Was it the perceived automacity of its widespread acceptance? Is it anger at the arguably simplistic explanation that counterinsurgency, and counterinsurgency alone, won the day in Iraq? Or is it due to a perception of counterinsurgency experts gaining power and prestige in DC by peddling a theory that is not working so well in Afghanistan?
What follows is an attempt to address some of these issues: how did we get here, are the critics right, and is there anything in this bathwater that should be saved? This is hardly an exhaustive take on the topic, which would require much more than a blog post, but just a few thoughts.
Theory and Practice
This blog has previously touched upon the distinction between counterinsurgency as practiced, particularly in Afghanistan, and as elaborated in theory. It is, to my mind, unfair to conflate these two, yet this tendency lies at the heart of counterinsurgency’s decline.
Attempts to disaggregate theory and practice has in turn engendered the accusation that counterinsurgency is like Marxism, in that its supporters insist on the doctrine’s infallibility and claim it simply hasn’t been implemented properly. It is a powerful analogy: a concept that survives only on paper has very limited worth.
But counterinsurgency principles have shown practical value, not just in ‘counterinsurgency campaigns’, but also in other campaigns concerned with stabilisation, pacification, peacebuilding – call it what you want. This is not wholly surprising, as many of these principles are quite banal, even commonsensical:
- Effective strike operations requires good intelligence;
- Defeating an armed group requires co-option as well as coercion;
- Understanding your environment, its people and structures, will provide for more and better options.
- Effective control begins with a monopoly on the use of force;
- Legitimacy and trust are important when asking people to follow your lead.
- The relationships built with local leaders and populations help determine their level of support for your cause — and so on…
A quick survey of past operations and campaigns reveals the general validity of these broad principles, even if the campaigns they have been associated with were not always successful. Which brings us to Afghanistan…
Operational or Strategic?
A powerful reason why counterinsurgency today is so unpopular is because its principles are looked upon as strategy in their own right. As should be clear, the principles and theory of counterinsurgency are only relevant as a means toward a strategic end, which itself may be more or less realistic: to help a country recover from protracted conflict; to bolster the legitimacy and reach of a government, etc. Even then, the theory is not a silver bullet but mere guidance – a collection of lessons learned – that may help in the design and implementation of an effective campaign plan, a plan that must, as counterinsurgency theory clearly stipulates, be adapted for specific environments.
Afghanistan muddies the water here, because the link between the stated strategic goal (to ‘disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda’) and the operational tenets of counterinsurgency is difficult to discern, not just because of the practical difficulties of ‘state-building’ in Afghanistan, but also because al-Qaeda is not limited to Afghanistan, or even to Pakistan, but would subsist even if the region turns into Central Asia’s answer to Switzerland (there are some parallels).
More generally, however, counterinsurgency theory would be relevant to attempts at stabilising a war-torn country or to defeat an incipient armed threat to an established government, though importantly, counterinsurgency theory says nothing about the wisdom of embarking on such campaigns (if anything, a note of caution can be parsed from the field manuals and main texts).
Both Antithesis and Thesis
But if counterinsurgency theory is just ‘useful guidance’ or ‘some ideas’, what good is it? I think our own Faceless Bureaucrat hit the nail on the head in a previous post: ‘I have suspected for a long time that COIN itself is merely the knee-jerk answer to a previous question, “Do kinetic/conventional/body-count campaigns work?”’. I’m currently reading Keith L. Shimko’s The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution, which provides a bitter reminder of the muddy RMA-type thinking on war within the Pentagon as it invaded Iraq. The discovery of counterinsurgency as a body of theory and lessons was definitely a step forward, but today it is no longer the antithesis, but itself the thesis. Its function as a reaction to muddy thinking is still being served, but it is also being held up in its own right and subjected to critical scrutiny.
That is good: the assumptions, the historical cases leaned upon, and the modern relevance of counterinsurgency theory are all areas that scream out for further research. More generally, much of the scholarship on counterinsurgency can be faulted: as mentioned previously on this blog, the discussion is often vague and analytically unsatisfying, not least because there is no agreed definition of what ‘counterinsurgency’ truly is. Furthermore, despite the growing chorus of discontent, counterinsurgency is still the next big thing to many analysts, and there is a tendency to want to be the one to crack the code, find that particularly nifty acronym that explains it all, or show why everyone else has gotten it wrong. Within the ensuing deluge of counterinsurgency-related articles and books, there will be wheat as well as chaff.
So there is definitely a need for criticism, but the aim of such a debate should be to improve on rather than kill the scholarship. There seems to be a desire to resign the whole ‘counterinsurgency’ concept to the intellectual wastebasket, which risks sacrificing what the concept has provided: a useful starting point to understand and discuss armed conflict and political violence, issues that today need to be discussed, whether in terms of ‘counterinsurgency’ or not.
A Matter of Expectations
Perhaps by scaling back on what is meant and promised by the concept of ‘counterinsurgency’, it may be possible to enter into a more constructive debate about the nature of political violence, the requirements for effective intervention, and the wisdom of such intervention in specific cases. What does it mean, and what does it not mean, to see value in counterinsurgency as a concept? To me, counterinsurgency retains value because it:
- reaffirms the need to understand the social, cultural and political dimensions of the operating environment;
- reaffirms the significant requirements of effective intervention in foreign polities;
- emphasises the political essence of armed conflict;
- recognises the local population as a significant player, rather than as an obstacle to circumvent;
- recommends a more-than-military approach to the problem of political violence.
What counterinsurgency does not do is:
- suggest the facility of foreign intervention so long as you’ve read Galula;
- provide a formula or scientific model to the problem of political violence;
- provide an answer to ‘the War on Terror’, or al-Qaeda writ large;
- provide an answer to what the US should do in Afghanistan;
- suggest that the use of force is irrelevant in modern conflicts.
It is on this basis that I would regret the disappearance, once more, of counterinsurgency. The one good reason to get rid of the term is precisely because of its divisive and distorting connotations; the aim then would be to talk more plainly about the requirements of war-to-peace transitions. But this presumes that the lessons of counterinsurgency have been sufficiently internalised that the concept has lost its utility as an important antithesis. And I fear that we are not quite there yet.
April 2011 Update: for more on this topic, please see the SWP study: ‘Counterinsurgency and its Discontents: Assessing the Value of a Divisive Concept’.