The Counterinsurgency Fight: Think Globally, Lose Locally


Apr 27, 2007

This commentary originally appeared on on April 27, 2007.

For nearly 50 years, many Americans saw the communist states as a vast monolith, able to act as one in the service of a single unified doctrine. Because that monolith was able to reach anywhere in its attack on democracy, America's leaders believed it needed to be confronted everywhere. As a result, the United States tried to confront the monolith around the globe at immense expense in blood and treasure.

In retrospect, that view and the policies it led to were mistaken in many ways. Beneath the flag of international communism marched a motley array of nations, parties and personalities with a welter of conflicting beliefs, interests and loyalties, most united only in their dependence on the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China. Sometimes — very occasionally — they could act in concert. More often, they could lend empty rhetorical support to political causes as a coalition of those wanting to appear willing while not acting.

The United States was least successful in dealing with Global Communism when America approached it as a monolithic opponent. The U.S. was most successful when it developed a sense of the nuances that differentiated the interests of the communist states and worked to exploit those differences by dealing with the special features and needs of each country individually.

Having learned to exploit the different situations of a seemingly united opponent to win the Cold War, the United States now seems poised to start at the wrong end of the learning curve in facing a new challenge.

Confronted with insurgents in some countries and a true global terror network operating in others, some people want to view these opponents as a monolithic force, waging a global insurgency to conquer the Middle East, bring the world to its knees and destroy freedom. This view argues for a global counterinsurgency —? a relentless attack against Islamic insurgents wherever they surface. The view is as seemingly logical as the Cold War belief in a worldwide communist conspiracy for global domination — and just as wrong. The belief is also harmful, for four major reasons.

First, as in the Cold War, the belief in a global insurgency can lead the United States to make local commitments on the basis of vague overarching global principles. This commits America to send more troops, sustain greater military casualties, and spend more money than it possibly could in multiple conflicts at times and place of the insurgents' choosing. The United States needlessly opens itself up to unlimited claims for assistance from regimes around the world, and equally unlimited accusations of hypocrisy when it fails to provide such assistance.

Second, a U.S.-led global counterinsurgency makes it more difficult for the United States to defeat insurgencies. Successful counterinsurgents fight as patriots in the service of their own country — not as United States clients. Their legitimacy in the eyes of their countrymen springs from their own actions and not their association with the United States and its views. When America demands that governments it helps to wage counterinsurgencies embrace American values and remake their nations in the American mold, those governments are often seen as U.S. puppets handing over their sovereignty and independence to American neo-colonialists. The insurgents are then viewed as patriots resisting foreign domination, and they are strengthened.

Third, equipping Americans with a mindset that places prominence on the global common features of insurgencies at the expense of fine-textured local features makes the U.S. military less effective in combating insurgencies. In contrast, viewing each insurgency as local and different from others emphasizes the importance of the particular complexities and nuances of each insurgency. These include local history, terrain, demographics, culture, religion, power-sharing arrangements, leadership personalities and a host of subtle but critical idiosyncrasies not collected by intelligence satellites.

Fourth, belief in a global counterinsurgency leads to mismanagement of counterinsurgency campaigns because it undercuts the leadership of governments allied with the United States and of American military commanders battling an insurgency. Instead of allowing those on the ground to determine how to come up with an custom-tailored plan to battle a local insurgency, the global counterinsurgency theory leads to each individual insurgency being viewed as part of a hugely complicated mosaic that can only be understood by the high-level U.S. officials with access to a vast array of exotic and often top-secret intelligence resources.

As we are seeing today in Iraq and Afghanistan, America has been unable to defeat insurgencies with the sheer power of the U.S. military. While the presence of al Qaeda and its jihadist affiliates is a common feature in both countries, ultimately it will be the local conditions, population, unique features and personalities of each nation that will determine the outcome of the insurgencies against the U.S.-backed governments. The larger lesson is to retain the clarity of a "local" versus "global" perspective in dealing with the future insurgency challenge.

James T. Quinlivan and Bruce R. Nardulli are military analysts at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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