As discussed in the first post in this series, counterinsurgency is inherently difficult. Victory may be impossible without political and economic changes that are unpalatable to the incumbent elite. Tactical successes can disguise a losing strategy at the theater and operational levels. Meanwhile, the level of violence, both controlled and uncontrolled by both sides, escalates.
Into this tragic mess steps the regime's great power patron—often the United States. If counterinsurgency is difficult for the regime under siege, it is doubly difficult for the United States as an outside party. US officials may be outside the swaying, tottering edifice of the other society shaken by internal war, but they may have even less understanding of what keeps the current structure standing than the people living in that society. They may have great resources to bring to bear, but little idea where to spend them. American military and civilian leaders may also view the conflict from the wrong perspective, imposing American assumptions and timetables for another society's military, political, administrative and economic reforms. As Lyndon Johnson learned, a dam project might buy the support of a senator or a governor, but it couldn't buy the acquiescence of Ho Chi Minh.
Since some degree of societal transformation is normally necessary to win a counterinsurgency war, US policy is simultaneously targeting not just the guerrillas, but also the allied regime, elites, and population. The United States is working on many fronts at the same time, and almost none of them provide opportunities for the United States to use its vast national power. Leverage, not power, is usually the tool required. No carrier battlegroup will persuade influential leaders to end their support for reactionary death squads.
Perhaps the classic example of this principle is Great Britain's experience in Afghanistan, which lay between India, "the jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, and Britain's great rival in the Central Asian "great game," Russia. Fearing what might happen if the Russians gained a foothold in Afghanistan, the British sent an expeditionary force through the Khyber Pass to replace Dost Muhammed with a more solidly pro-British leader.
Unfortunately, after the bulk of the British troops left, the political situation quickly disintegrated, in large part because of the lack of leverage the British had over their new subjects. The British had little to offer the Afghans, other than threats of military reprisals. That threat became less credible as the Afghans learned how easily colonial officials were bamboozled by the mercurial politics among the clans. The one thing the British could clearly "offer," though unwittingly, was a chance to rectify the humiliation the Afghan clans felt as a conquered people. The situation became so dangerous that the British decided to retreat, setting the stage for one of the bloodiest and most humiliating episodes in British colonial history. Rebels assassinated Britain's proxy ruler, Shah Shuja, leaving the British with no allies in Afghanistan. After rescuing some hostages and destroying parts of Kabul, the British reaction force was forced to leave Afghanistan behind. British power vanished from Afghanistan for nearly a decade.
Whether fighting Ghazi raiders or NLF guerrillas, counterinsurgency requires more than just good relations between a great power and a foreign head of state. Instead, there needs to be an intimate relationship at all levels between the two governments and militaries in question. In fact, the network of relationships will spread beyond official circles, a phenomenon that works in both directions. While American representatives teach people how to run a local election, the ambassador from an allied government may appear on Nightline to sway American public opinion. American military trainers work directly with squad, platoon, and company commanders, and depending on the rules of engagement, may accompany these units on missions. American intelligence agents pool and share information with soldiers and civilians in the allied government. Agricultural experts from the Agency for International Development work with farmers and village elites to change they way they grow and harvest crops. Officials from the Department of Labor provide labor unions with advice on effective collective action techniques that don't antagonize the wealthy and powerful.
Based on this description, you might build a mental picture of a massive US effort behind any counterinsurgency war. In practice, not every counterinsurgency campaign requires the mobilization of massive resources or large numbers of personnel. The military advisory group in El Salvador stayed at a Congress-mandated maximum of 55 trainers. In 1915, only 115 US Marines occupied Haiti, trained its military and police, and even handled public finances. While you can easily lose a counterinsurgency war by underfunding it, other factors than sheer numbers can be far more important. All of these other factors contribute to leverage, not power:
- Commitment.. The great power patron of the government under siege has to demonstrate that it's in the fight for the duration. This rule extends from the broad canvas of foreign policy down to the Brueghel-like individual details. For example, American advisors assigned for a long tour to a particular South Vietnamese village or military unit had far better success on average than people assigned for shorter rotations. Not only did American advisors have sufficient time to learn the situation, but they also put a flesh-and-blood face on American commitment to the war. (For an excellent case study of what US forces could accomplish on a longer assignment, see Bing West's The Village.)
- Understanding. Needless to say, anyone ignorant of the situation in a counterinsurgency war might as well pack it in and leave. Not everyone needs to be an expert at everything, but they need to have genuine expertise at what they do and some knowledge of the people with whom they're working. For example, the US Army's Special Forces are trained to be quick studies when they need to learn a particular culture, but in rare cases do they expect to become "country experts" in the same fashion as foreign area officer (FAO).
- Patience. Understanding takes time, a precious commodity when both the US government and its ally are impatient to see results. However, patience is a supreme virtue in counterinsurgency warfare. Guerrillas win by being patient, surviving long enough to wait for the right Maoist or Leninist revolutionary moment. The governments fighting guerrillas have to demonstrate some progress, but they're also waiting for their own counterrevolutionary moment. For example, the US and Salvadoran governments could not defeat the FMLN decisively until several important reforms—the professionalization and expansion of the Salvadoran military and police, the curbing of right-wing paramilitaries (the infamous death squads), and the reduction of governmental corruption—had made significant progress. Even then, the door to "victory," in the qualified sense that is always part of counterinsurgency warfare, wasn't completely open until the FMLN gambled and lost on a Tet-like "final offensive" in 1989.
- Latitude. While it might sound counter-intuitive, successful conventional armies are not the ones where every subordinate unquestionably follows the orders of every subordinate in the chain of command. Militaries that function in this strict top-down fashion, such as the Iraqi army under the Ba'ath Party, usually lose wars. If commanders can't have the freedom of action to respond to "local conditions," the military as a whole will stagger blindly toward disaster. The same principle applies to counterinsurgency wars, only moreso. Given the depth and breadth of understanding needed to assess the military and political situation in a Vietnamese district or an Iraqi province, the people closest to the action—military advisors, intelligence operatives, embassy officials, and the like—are the ones best situated to make the right decision for that particular corner of the war. Just as importantly, for them to have any effectiveness, the people with whom these American officials need to believe that they can deliver the goods when needed. If American civilian and military professionals are reduced to passing messages and reciting policy, their counterparts will ignore them.
Ironically, the more important a counterinsurgency war becomes to the United States, the harder it may be for the United States to fight it. For example, allied governments measure American commitment by the size and regularity of military and economic aid. Once a counterinsurgency war becomes important enough for it to become a national controversy in the United States, the flow of aid can become extremely unpredictable. In the 1980s, the US Congress properly exercised its Constitutional powers when it tied American assistance to El Salvador to that government's demonstrated progress on human rights. While that created one form of leverage, genuinely frightening Salvadoran military commanders that the United States might abandon them, it also made it harder for the 55-man military advisory group (MILGROUP) to do its job. With uncertainty over the size of next year's assistance package, US advisors lost leverage with their Salvadoran counterparts. With the loss of latitude that "baloney-slice funding" implied, American advisors seemed less likely to be able to deliver the goods—or even deny them, when appropriate. (For a good analysis of the US advisory effort in El Salvador, see Bacevich et al., American Military Policy in Small Wars: The Case of El Salvador.)
Similar problems arise when the US government shovels undertrained and underprepared situation into a counterinsurgency effort, just to demonstrate to the American public that it's doing all that it can. Rising political stakes—often the result when progress take longer than American leaders originally promised—can create a collective impatience for results that cannot be realistically achieved in a war that can only be won through the transformation of another government and society. The brighter the spotlight, the harder it will be for nervous superiors in Washington to grant their subordinates in the field the latitude they need.
The great negative example of what happens when counterinsurgency turns into controversy, of course, is the Vietnam War. It took decades for the discussion to become calm enough for people with different perspectives on the war to even see the same facts, such as the progress made against the NLF after the Tet Offensive. In contrast, the United States' support for the Filipino government against the Huks never reached the level of national emergency that Vietnam became. Staying under the radar, but still monitored by decision-makers in Washington, the US mission in the Philippines had the commitment, understanding, patience, and latitude to be successful.
None of these are reasons to retreat from every counterinsurgency war, just because it may be difficult for the United States to win. It does show, however, how important the first months of US commitment to a counterinsurgency war can be. The ground rules that the US President and Congress set have repercussions throughout the rest of the war. The way these leaders explain the war to the American public during these early months is just as important.
Obviously, everything discussed here has immediate and often painful relevance for the US counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather than cover every possible ramification, I'll focus on just one: If you want to know how well US counterinsurgency efforts are going, don't look at the top of the organizations involved. Look lower in the organization chart instead.
Unfortunately, that's not how the Bush Administration—representing the top national security decision-makers—itself operates. Instead, the Administration often focuses on top leaders, among our allies and enemies alike, to the exclusion and detriment of nearly everything else. When the Iraqi occupation turned into a bloody counterinsurgency war, the defects of this political style became painfully obvious. For example:
- The White House put the capture of Saddam Hussein at the top of its list of priorities for the first six months of the occupation. Later, with Hussein's two sons dead, Hussein himself in jail, and most of the Ba'ath Party leadership also in custody, the insurgency continued to rage as if these events had never happened. The hunt for Hussein also distracted US officials from the far more important task at hand, squelching the insurgency in its infancy and helping Iraqi officials rebuild their government and military.
- When Hussein's capture didn't cripple the insurgency as expected, the Bush Administration shifted the blame to the Syrian and Iranian governments were the real culprits behind the insurgency. While there's no question that different insurgent groups have operated across Iraq's borders with other countries, and Iran has a clear strategy for using the Iraqi insurgency against the United States, the cross-border enclave issue is just as much of a red herring as it was during the Vietnam War. It obviously matters whether a particular insurgent group can find training, equipment, and a safe haven across the border. However, you can't defeat an insurgency simply by sealing off the borders. Suicide bombers have changed the tactical equation, as long as willing martyrs can be found. The vast number of looted weapons and munitions in Iraq make foreign support less important for the insurgents. And in the end, the important question isn't whether the US military can stop infiltrators; it's whether Iraqi security forces can police their own borders.
- Whenever Bush Administration officials discuss progress against Iraqi insurgents or Al Qaeda, they continue to cite the killing or capture of enemy leaders as one of the most important measures of progress. However, Al Qaeda has already adapted to the point where the organization that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and others once led no longer exists. The protean, "venture capitalist" model that now defines Al Qaeda doesn't need the same kind of operational leadership that Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi once provided.
If you're still not convinced by this critique of the Bush Administration's leader-centric focus, I'd recommend a review of the Administration's foreign policy before 9/11. Whether the threat was weapons of mass destruction or terrorism, the real source was a rogue regime like the Iraqi Ba'ath Party, the "mullahcracy" in Iran, or the paranoid "hermit kingdom" in North Korea. Terrorists, if they merited any attention at all in this worldview, were mere proxies of leaders in Baghdad, Tehran, or Pyongyang.
If this sounds familiar, it's probably because this worldview is a contemporary echo of the old monolithic view of world communism, circa 1950. It took a decade or more for the average American to understand that China's interests were not those of the Soviet Union, many guerrilla movements were less concerned about solidarity with Moscow and Peking than defeating local governments, and the problems of troubled regions like Latin America and Southeast Asia started long before the Cold War ever began.
The Bush Administration's "leader-centric" view of foreign policy generally and Iraq specifically has more than one source. Undoubtedly, some of it is the byproduct of the subculture of American business, the "C-level" caste in particular. Some of it also springs from Bush's own inexperience with national and international politics, which don't operate quite the same way as the Republican Party or the Texas state government does. The foreign policy advisors around Bush—Wolfowitz, Perle, and Rumsfeld in particular—always emphasized "rogue states" over their local "proxies." Whatever the ultimate source, this leader-centric emphasis works to the detriment of the American counterinsurgency effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even if President Bush and his advisors don't genuinely believe that elections in Afghanistan and Iraq decisively settle these conflicts, their rhetoric certainly suggests that it will. The White House has promised that elections will deliver twin benefits, elected leaders that will be solidly pro-American, and elected governments whose inherent legitimacy will eventually overshadow the insurgents fighting them. Any Americans who believed these promises are in for a grave disappointment. As disappointment increasingly turns into outrage, the commitment, understanding, patience, and latitude that US officials need to win these wars may become even harder to achieve.