James Kitfield, author of the classic text Prodigal Soldiers, has penned an interesting ‘five takeaways’ article about the two US Special Operations raids in Somalia and Libya last week. One of his observations is that the raids vindicate the advocates of CT – or counter-terrorism – in their ‘heated debate’ with the advocates of counterinsurgency. He concludes that ‘the news of the nearly simultaneous U.S. commando raids this past weekend drives home just how decisively advocates for a limited counter-terrorism strategy have won the argument’.
I have no doubts that we are or will soon be leaving this particular ‘counterinsurgency era’, a period defined by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Kitfield is also correct in noting the US administration’s and the public’s aversion to protracted, costly and ambiguous state-building operations. Still, there is something a little troubling about the interpretation of this shift, from COIN to CT, as a ‘winning argument’.
1) The notion that the ‘limited counter-terrorism strategy’ has ‘won the argument’ makes it seem as if proponents of counterinsurgency would rather the US conduct counterinsurgencies in Somalia and Libya, and in every other state where al-Qaeda operatives may be present. This is not quite accurate, and is obviously a losing argument, particularly when counterinsurgency is equated with what we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan (not, say, the Philippines and Colombia). There was a CT versus COIN debate in 2009 and 2010, but it concerned only Afghanistan and the Obama’s administration attempts to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat. More broadly – as a global strategy against al-Qaeda – the advocacy of counterinsurgency suggested merely that narrow counter-terrorism operations be complemented by various political, economic and other non-military lines of effort, so as to give the strikes and arrests strategic meaning.
2) This brings us to a second point: there is really no good reason to counterpose counterterrorism and counterinsurgency so that you have a winner and a loser. Much depends on context, strategic objectives, what is needed and what can be done. What is interesting, however, and which John Amble points out over at War on the Rocks, is that our capability to conduct counterterrorism against al-Qaeda is so much more advanced than our capability to engage in the non-military aspects of ‘global counterinsurgency’:
Engaging vulnerable populations in order to degrade popular support for al-Qaeda remains a strategic necessity. But even an extremely generous accounting of our efforts along these lines over more than a decade would deem them a middling success. Compared to this, our ability to employ SOF’s kinetic capabilities in a discerning, targeted fashion has been remarkably effective, and remains the best tool available to defeat al-Qaeda and the global network of jihadist groups atop which it symbolically sits.
This imbalance is critical and unfortunate, but we should not confuse our failures to ‘engage vulnerable populations’ with the futility of doing so.
3) Dave Maxwell of Georgetown University is cited in the article as arguing that ‘we’ll eventually look back on Iraq and Afghanistan as anomalies and the debates over counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism as largely unhelpful’. Within the context of the article he is absolutely right, and the second point in particular is alluded to above. But there is a danger of misinterpretation here. Iraq and Afghanistan will hopefully be regarded as anomalies because the uniquely inauspicious manner in which they were planned, launched and prosecuted. In the future (again, one may hope), interventions will be approached more strategically and with greater awareness of the political context in which they are to unfold. This may go some way toward obviating the desperate measures taken in both campaigns to attempt extrication.
But in important respects, as we now exit the counterinsurgency era, Iraq and Afghanistan must not be seen as anomalous, but as typical. This is a point that Robert Egnell and I tried to make in our recent interview with Octavian Manea over at Small Wars Journal:
Robert Egnell: …So long as the operating environment looks as it does today, so long as the character of conflict looks as it does today, the lessons at the tactical level of the last ten years remain highly relevant. Even if we can debate the concept of counterinsurgency and its application today and tomorrow, the lessons of operating in urban environments, foreign languages and foreign cultures will be relevant also in the future. Expeditionary powers cannot escape these challenges. It is not going to get easier: how to engage with a civilian population, how to establish and maintain civil order, how to collect and process human intelligence, how to operate in a foreign environment, how to provide basic services. These are challenges that are here to stay with us as we move forward.
David Ucko: Beyond these common operational challenges, one of the most pressing lessons from the cases discussed in the book [Iraq and Afghanistan] is the need for greater strategic thinking. This sounds like a cliché these days, and becomes a catchall explanation with little substance. But despite great talk about the need for strategy, I don’t think the term or the art is widely understood. Looking at what happened in the last ten to fifteen years – whether we call it counterinsurgency, war, contingency operations, it doesn’t really matter – the ability to craft and implement a viable strategy is absolute, for any power involved in any kind of expeditionary operations. … There are great lessons from these campaigns and we would be absolutely foolish to dismiss them as aberrations just because we don’t like the word “counterinsurgency.”
In other words, what about Afghanistan and Iraq is truly anomalous? The scale of the US role? Yes, for some time such large-scale interventions are unlikely to be repeated. The cack-handedness with which both operations were launched? Hopefully so. But the strategic and operational challenges, they are always going to be there, whether we choose to ‘own’ them or not. Doing so risks ‘another Afghanistan’, but shirking them – as was attempted in Libya – carries risks all of its own.