Countering the Military's Latest Fad: Counterinsurgency


May 17, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post on May 17, 2009.

When Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced Monday that he was dismissing Gen. David McKiernan as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and replacing him with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, he signaled his support for an intellectual movement that in a few short years has come to dominate military thinking in Washington. Both McChrystal and his new No. 2, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, Gates emphasized, have a "unique skill set in counterinsurgency."

Counterinsurgency is king. Once the province of graduate students and historians of the conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria, this resurgent doctrine of how to wage a type of unconventional war has become the lens through which the American defense establishment analyzes what happened in Iraq, what to do now in Afghanistan, and the very future of warfare.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command and the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is the inspiration and leading light of this movement. In 2006, he coauthored the Army field manual on how to conduct counterinsurgency operations, stressing the need to provide security for the local population and support the host government, among other imperatives. A vocal cohort of students and adherents of counterinsurgency — now given the inevitable military acronym "COIN" — has emerged to advance the cause. New think tanks and blogs propagate and debate counterinsurgency research, and tomes exploring insurgencies past, present and future are on every cognoscente's reading list. Even the State Department has embraced the concept, composing its own counterinsurgency manual for U.S. civilian agencies.

Counterinsurgency doctrine is on the verge of becoming an unquestioned orthodoxy, a far-reaching remedy for America's security challenges. But this would be a serious mistake. Not all future wars will involve insurgencies. Not even all internal conflicts in unstable states — which can feature civil wars, resource battles or simple lawlessness — include insurgencies. Yet COIN is the new coin of the realm, often considered the inevitable approach to fighting instability in foreign lands. Now the Pentagon is shifting its budget and seeking to "rebalance" U.S. military power in order to institutionalize counterinsurgency doctrine. Clearly some of these capabilities are needed, but like many useful concepts that gain currency in Washington, counterinsurgency risks being taken too far, distracting us from other threats, challenges and strategic debates.

It is unclear whether McKiernan was fired for lacking commitment to counterinsurgency, but COIN advocates have already reached that conclusion. "Many of the people with whom I have spoken do not think that McKiernan 'gets' the war in Afghanistan — or counterinsurgency warfare in general," Andrew Exum wrote last week on, while others have condemned McKiernan as "conventional" and "uninspired."

Exhibit A of the counterinsurgency movement is the "surge" — the catch-all term used to describe the increase in American troops and the new approach the United States took to the Iraq war beginning in early 2007 — which supporters portray as the clearest example of counterinsurgency in action. The story of the surge has developed into a tidy narrative — bordering on mythology — that overlooks several critical factors. Many questions remain about what really happened in Iraq. To be sure, violence rose and then ebbed significantly following the arrival of surge forces in 2007. But why?

I spent 20 months in Iraq, including 2006 as the political adviser to Gen. Peter Chiarelli, then operational commander of U.S. forces in the country. I traveled to nearly every outpost, talked to commanders at every level, from Tal Afar to Baghdad to Fallujah. Upon returning to the Pentagon in 2007, I grew increasingly uneasy with the disconnect between what I saw and knew of U.S. strategy in Iraq, and the way it was characterized and interpreted back in Washington.

It still isn't clear to me that what we faced in Iraq was an insurgency. There were many different conflicts raging simultaneously: anti-occupation movements, struggles among and between ethno-sectarian groups, the presence of foreign terrorists and interference by outside powers. These overlapping conflicts existed both within and outside the government and crossed Iraq's borders. This chaotic scrum cannot be summed up neatly by the military's official definition of insurgency: "an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of government through the use of subversion and armed conflict."

A key tenet of counterinsurgency doctrine is to empower the host government to fight the forces trying to topple it. But in Iraq the government itself was for years little more than a microcosm of the complex mix of conflicts in the country. Attempts to strengthen the government embroiled the United States in a nettlesome political balancing act. The Americans were frequently in the awkward position of picking winners and losers, and often manipulated by one faction to gain advantage over its rivals. The very state forces the United States helped to establish and train were implicated on numerous occasions in systematic sectarian violence.

So why did the Iraqis stop the carnage and start deal-making by 2007? We don't fully know. A number of accounts give a nod to the Sunni Awakening and the cease-fire by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Nonetheless, the prevailing interpretations of the surge narrative — even competing ones, which tend to differ mostly over claims of paternity — put the Americans in the driver's seat of history. The assumption seems to be that the United States, its leaders and the tactics it employed are primarily responsible for the events on the ground.

But the decisions of the Iraqis themselves surely made a material difference. They stopped fighting, whether due to political calculations, fear or exhaustion. The full story of Iraqi motivations and perceptions has yet to be told. Meanwhile, sectarian maps of Baghdad show a clear pattern over time: Sunnis and Shiites progressively moved into separate enclaves, by choice or by force. By the time of the surge in 2007, mixed neighborhoods in the city had nearly disappeared, as the respective sects moved into areas populated by their own. The conflagration of sectarian violence might have been poised to burn itself out anyway.

Many people have come to believe that the 2007 surge marked the first time the U.S. military began focusing on the needs of the population: providing essential services, living among the people, minimizing use of force and developing greater cultural understanding. But this is a misreading of the facts.

Gen. Chiarelli, the operational commander in Iraq before the surge and the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad in 2004-2005, was known for his emphasis on assisting the population. In a Military Review article nearly two years before surge began, Chiarelli argued that the 1st Cavalry Division had significantly reduced violence in Sadr City — the densely populated Shiite slum and stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr — by cleaning up sewage and providing electricity and running water.

Innovative, smart and energetic commanders all over Iraq had already been building schools, water treatment facilities, sewage lines, electricity infrastructure and other essentials, all the while conducting operations against belligerents. The list of commanders who combined military operations with measures to assist the population is a long one: Robert Abrams in Sadr City in 2004-2005, Sean MacFarland in Tal Afar and later Ramadi, and Michael Beech in Baghdad in 2006, to name but a few. Marine commanders and units had quietly been working with the Sunnis in Anbar to gain their trust and cooperation since at least 2005, their efforts finally coming to fruition during the surge.

Petraeus, then-operational commander Gen. Raymond Odierno and their team deserve great credit for adjusting the focus of the Iraq campaign during the surge and for masterfully leveraging the opportunities that came their way. Their innovation and industry no doubt played an important role, as did the mere fact of the surge, which likely had a powerful psychological impact on Iraqis and Americans alike. But the overall story is more complicated and confounding than most accounts have allowed thus far.

The complexities and uncertainties of the Iraq war should give us pause about applying Iraq's presumed lessons to Afghanistan. Yet the similarities between the particulars of the surge in Iraq and the new strategy in Afghanistan are hard to ignore. McChrystal has already been dubbed "Afghanistan's Petraeus." U.S. forces are being increased, top aides to President Obama are said to be advocating a "civilian surge," just as in Iraq, and counterinsurgency doctrine is again the proposed answer.

But to what question? Washington's ultimate objectives in Afghanistan remain unclear. The United States has spent six years, more than 4,000 American lives, mass quantities of psychic and political energy, and untold billions on the effort in Iraq — a project that has to date yielded little in a strategic sense. Iraq had an urban, educated population, infrastructure and bountiful natural resources, whereas Afghanistan has none of these. If "counterinsurgency" is merely a more palatable stand-in for "nation-building," that politically freighted but strategically more illuminating term, then our terminology may be obscuring the true extent of our predicament.

The U.S. military can be notoriously resistant to change, so the rapid ascent of counterinsurgency thinking is an impressive triumph of intellectual entrepreneurship in a normally parochial institution. But while counterinsurgency theory and doctrine are vital and have a role to play, their applicability is bounded. Too often in Washington the discovery of a hammer makes everything look like a nail. The question is not whether counterinsurgency works, but where, when and to what ends it is wise to commit U.S. power and resources.

Celeste Ward, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, was political adviser to the operational commander of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2006 and deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations capabilities in 2007-08.

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