Tuesday, November 07, 2006

It was also a good week for Counterinsurgency


Counterinsurgency was the coin of the realm at the Cato Institute, in a panel discussion of where the military is on The U.S. Military and Counterinsurgency: What We Have Learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current state of the aggregate knowledge about counterinsurgency matters more in prospect than does the retrospect, and focusing only on retrospect would likely require re-titling the panel, "What we wished we might have inculcated sooner" and, to some extent, "How the costs were mis-estimated by this generations' best and brightest" (somewhere in the room was the ghost of Robert McNamara, it seems).

Now that the Army is closer to sure footing, there is a chance that they can be more rigorous about self-evaluation. One potential issue, not explored, is the impact that thin troop levels may have had on willingness to be self-critical, in certain ways.

The hard question about whether anything much now is too little too late is probably too hard to answer, from afar. The ultimate question about whether the Iraqi populace's increasing anxiety - fears are rising as fast as hopes, it seems to me - hangs in the balance, with new Iraqi governments willingness to cooperate sufficiently on all aspects of counterinsurgency dangling in a way that could tip the scales.


In a crafty piece of writing, The American Way of War: Cultural Barriers to Successful Counterinsurgency, Jeffrey Record of the Air War College (Alabama) fleshes out a nuanced version of why wars of attrition are not hard in general for liberal democracies, but hard in particular for America. Among the points:

"The American way of war is, as British strategist Colin S. Gray observes

  • apolitical - not focused on warfare or counterinsurgency as an extension of policy (or ideology).
  • impatient
  • ahistorical - unwilling to take serious or learn the lessons of the past (unlike Fawaz Gerges who puts a brilliant tenor on unable to understand how history is important and culturally important to non-Americans)
  • culturally ignorant
  • technology-infatuated - mostly in regard to arms
  • firepower-focused - a version of "cowboys with guns", rather than diplomats with a range of tools
  • profoundly conventional - the bureaucracy (and its personnel policies)
  • sensitive to casualties - (debated during the Q&A)"


The question is roundaboutly raised about what we can conclude so far about "military transformation", based on new data.

In the old world, if one "really read the Weinberger-Powell doctrine, you wouldn't never use force unless our shores were being attacked."

Of course, the newer formulation is that the status-quo is more risky than action. But there is a twist to that: The strategic choice to try to get by with as small an army and effort as you possibly can. It seems to me that any strong empirical conclusions about pre-emptive war, or wars against the status quo, are not possible without reference to that Bush-43 choice.

That choice, in turn, brings up the issue of cost, as Preble points out, or, more precisely cost-benefit. How it came to pass that President Bush (and the U.S. Congress and the US Press) put so little thought into how it might go wrong and end up with costs perhaps outreaching benefits is the key institutional failure, in my humble opinion. When there is little or no margin for error, when it is clear that there is going to be a race for control on the ground by forces seeking their own political autonomy (legitimately or illegitimately), the Rumsfeldian "known-unknowns" have to take a much higher priority than they were given.


Last, mission objectives, like 'set the conditions for democracy to emerge', come into debate as the incompletely specified set that I suspect that they were intended to be all along.

Ricks questions how much specific actions are more "revolutionary" (deep change from the status quo) in character than "stability operations" (which require a reference to 'something politically stable' to be meaningful, i.e. a "thing" that may not exist or, if it does, may be inimical to institutionalization).

And the jury is still out whether throwing a nation into a quasi-Hobsian state-of-nature and then expecting the military to pull a liberal democratic rabbit out of the hat using counterinsurgency methods and largely military staffing can be done.

Given that, is a scaled back objective of a democratic Iraq that is self-sustaining and an ally in the war on terror more reasonable (or a comedown from hubris?)? Perhaps. The only question is, over the mid-term, who is going to guarantee the sanctity of the ballot box? A standing US army in Iraq?

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