The last reason why counterinsurgency is hard, particularly for a foreign patron like the United States, is its political indigestibility. Counterinsurgency wars are long. In the thick of them, it's often hard to determine whether the war effort is going well or poorly. Counterinsurgency wars regularly impale the combatants on the horns of moral dilemmas. "Victory" is often a qualified success, with no climactic moments to celebrate. Counterinsurgency also pushes military professionals into non-military activities, while people not normally involved in warmaking become participants or even leaders in day-to-day military operations. When all parties look to the experts on matters like state-building, governmental legitimacy, and political stability for guidance, the experts often are divided themselves over the proper course of action, or they may have nothing to say that speaks directly to the immediate needs of the professional soldier or civilian official. As noted earlier, the logic of war sometimes dictates counterintuitive choices. For example, as Edward Luttwak notes in Strategy, the most direct road to a geographical objective may be the wrong one to take, simply because the enemy expects you to advance along that road. That particular example may be intellectually surprising, but it isn't morally or politically vexing. Choices in counterinsurgency frequently are. Take the question of political reform, a key tool against the guerrillas. Early in the counterinsurgency campaign, everyone may find it easy to agree on the goals, such as fairness in the courts and a more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. However, the means taken may appear to run contrary to the spirit of the effort. For example, many societies depend on patron-client networks to handle many important political, economic, and even judicial questions. "Clientelism" runs contrary to what most people would see as a "modern" political system, in which all walks of life, including politics, operate under meritocratic rules. Getting your cousin out of prison should depend on the strength of his case, not the favors or familial ties that you have with the local hetman. Getting the police to arrest suspected guerrillas should depend on their training, leadership, or professionalism, not the informal network of ties that the police chief has to the families of the insurgents.
Unfortunately, clientelism may be the only platform on which to build a counterinsurgency strategy, at least in the beginning. In Night Draws Near, Anthony Shadid paints a heart-wrenching portrait of how Iraqis want, as they put it, "to live like other people," a modest goal made thus far impossible by the Ba'ath Party tyranny, multiple wars, the crushing economic effects of the UN sanctions, and the chaos of the current occupation has robbed them. However, the Iraqis whom Shadid interviewed clearly want to end their decades-long national tragedy their own way. Whenever possible, they want to liberate themselves—which means, for many Iraqis, making clan-based clientelism, not American-style political institutions, the mechanism for mobilizing and directing the effort to build a new Iraq and defeat the insurgent groups.
Operationally, this approach depends on many techniques that Iraq's American patron will find distasteful. The cost of doing business may include above-board gifts or under-the-table bribes. The real authorities in a town may not be the elected mayor or council, but the local sheik. The pace of the counterinsurgency war may depend on how long it takes for personal ties of mutual ties of trust and favors to develop between US advisors and local authorities—or, more importantly, between the central government and these local officials. The loyalty of a sheik or qadi may be very conditional and mercurial, but good enough for the time being to evict the insurgents from the region.
Not surprisingly, "victory" in counterinsurgency is almost always qualified, which may make nearly every interested party queasy about the results. If President Karzai manages to "cure" Afghanistan of warlordism, not by eliminating the warlord culture, but by making the Kabul government a new "super-clan" that is primus inter pares among all the others, is that a victory? How much does a country have to reject its political, cultural, and economic past for it to be immunized somehow against future insurgencies? Is the expectation of total immunity to high, or is victory really just bringing about a comfortable level of security in most regions, and an acceptable level of insecurity in others? During the immediate aftermath of the Spanish American War, from 1899 to 1903, the US Marines defeated the Islamic separatists and exile the survivors to the far south. In the 1970s, they reorganized as the Moro National Liberation Front, and more recently as Abu Sayyaf, which has collaborated with Al Qaeda. (Some of the planning for the 9/11 attacks occurred in territory that the Philippine government nominally controls.) Did the Marines really defeat the Moros in 1903? Or is it unfair to expect total victory in this type of warfare?
These are questions that most Americans can ponder at leisure because we're not facing a direct threat from a guerrilla movement within our own borders. While a government under attack by guerrillas may have no choice in the matter, their great power allies do—which is why the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and other countries have, in their imperial history, an on-again, off-again history of involvement in these types of wars. A catastrophe like the Sudan (for Britain) or Vietnam (for France and the United States) can make a great power gun-shy about counterinsurgency. Meanwhile, guerilla movements continue to pose a threat to direct or indirect interests, so it's impossible to swear off counterinsurgency forever. Fourteen years after the rout of General Gordon's troops at Khartoum in 1885, the British army fought the battle of Omdurman to avenge the earlier defeat. Despite its loss of its colonies in Indochina and Algeria, both at a high cost to national prestige and confidence, the French government continues to involve itself in counterinsurgency wars, most recently in the Balkans, the Ivory Coast, and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, between great power interventions, for people living between great power interventions in the Sudan, Afghanistan, Indochina, the Philippines, Colombia, Nicaragua, and many other regions, the fighting never truly stopped.
To summarize the argument I've been making over the course of five major posts, counterinsurgency is hard because…
- Success often hinges on societal transformations that the besieged regime may not be willing to make.
- It confounds anyone who pursues a conventional military response, regardless of how battle-tested that military is in other types of warfare.
- Not only does it have the same unforgiving standard of political success as any form of warfare, but it also requires political action at every level of strategy.
- Leverage, not raw power, is therefore the measure of how well a great power patron can help an allied government defeat its guerrilla enemy. Unfortunately, great powers normally think in terms of power, not leverage.
- Institutions organized, trained, and equipped to fight conventional wars therefore face a form of conflict for which they are normally ill-prepared, and for which they are unwilling to shed their conventional approaches.
- Counterinsurgency has many aspects that are politically distasteful at every level of strategy for great powers accustomed to succeeding at other species of warfare. The moral dilemmas, qualified successes, and frequent unimportance of the embattled country to the great power's strategic interests make it less likely that the patron of the besieged government will see the war through to its conclusion.
- An embattled regime and its great power patron share a common indifference or even hostility to tried-and-true counterinsurgency techniques. The regime may not want to make the concessions needed to win political victories, and its armed forces may reject unconventional approaches as much as the great power ally, who itself may be edging towards the exit.
None of this means that its impossible to defeat an insurgency. Far from it: in the last century, insurgents have failed in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Spain, Greece, Morocco, Malaya, the Philippines, and many other places and times. Sometimes, the guerrillas proved just as prone to stupidity and pig-headedness as the regimes they were fighting. At other times, the government forces genuinely won a victory on their own, without the unwitting support of the guerrillas. The myth of the all-powerful revolutionary movement in arms, propelled forward by either History with a capital H or a groundswell of popular support, is just a myth. The legend should have died with Che Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia, after repeated failures to repeat the Cuban foco strategy in other Latin American countries. But, as we all know, legends die harder than people.
I'll use this occasion of finishing the "counterinsurgency is hard" postings to make a somewhat counterintuitive argument: To win in Iraq, we need fewer Americans there. Between sustaining the current troop levels and withdrawal, the third option isn't necessarily escalating the US presence. It may be necessary to trim and reorganize it, which can prove harder than simply deploying more troops.
Iraq is, in many respects, a replay of the script the US military followed in Afghanistan. The US mobilized enough forces to topple the enemy regime, but not as many as it mustered for Operation DESERT STORM. The regime quickly collapsed, leaving the United States and its allies occupying most of the country. Guerrilla attacks began almost immediately after occupation, confounding expectations that the invasion would decisively defeat the enemies of US interests in the country. Unexpectedly, the US is now engaged in a long, bitter conflict against a tenacious adversary.
There are, of course, many differences between Afghanistan and Iraq, not least of which is the strength of the alliance that the US built before the invasion. However, the other noticeable difference is the size and organization of the US effort. Operation ENDURING FREEDOM began as an almost wholly unconventional effort, with the US Special Forces acting as "the tip of the spear." After the invasion, the various special operations forces (SOFs), CIA operatives and paramilitary units, and other unconventional forces have continued to play a disproportionately large role. However, the "regular military" has escalated its presence and control in Afghanistan, often to the detriment of the counterinsurgency campaign. As Robert Kaplan documents in Imperial Grunts, the regular military's presence has complicated and slowed decision-making, hurting tactical and operational flexibility. Everything from civil affairs operations, such as the visit of a medical team to an Afghan village, to snatch-and-grab raids now take longer to execute. It also takes more persuasion for US commanders to approve risky operations, which has two consequences. First, it makes the lower-level commanders closest to the political realities in the Afghan countryside less capable of taking those risks when they may be merited. Second, American unwillingness to risk casualties makes it harder for US advisors to convince their Afghan partners to take risks themselves.
While not perfect, the ongoing counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan is doing better than its counterpart in Iraq. Again, there are a lot of factors you can invoke other than the one I'm highlighting here, the scale and type of effort. However, what's not automatically true is the contention that more American troops equals more security, or more political progress along the lines that classic counterinsurgency dictates. Large, conventional American units look for the kinds of fights they're best trained and equipped to handle. Therefore, while there may have been a need to respond to the Army of the Mahdi's challenge in Fallujah, the US military did not have to fight that battle the way that it did. In fact, it's not clear whether a battle was merited at all, in the classic Jominian sense of crushing the enemy's military strength in a climactic, military event. Kaplan's book is notably silent on Fallujah, even though he witnessed the first stages of the battle first-hand. US Marines were eager to engage in a "stand-up" fight, but Kaplan's account is missing any sense of whether the battle made any progress in the larger counterinsurgency war. If US decision-makers view Fallujah as the moment when US occupation forces were finally unleashed, they may make all the wrong conclusions about how to win this war.
If a victory in Iraq depends on helping build a viable Iraqi army, Fallujah was either irrelevant or destructive to that effort. Under fire, Iraqi forces froze, and in many cases, retreated. Why, as a soldier, risk your life if American soldiers seem more than willing to risk their own? How, as a commander, do you stop your troops from fleeing the battlefield, particularly the nasty kind of house-to-house fighting that would be required to re-take Fallujah? Once again, the American emphasis on power obscures situations where leverage is far more important. The American advisor in Afghanistan has levers to pull that his colleague in Iraq does not. While the Americans can offer all sorts of incentive for building and fielding a professional Afghan National Army (ANA), American troops will not always take their place.
Truthfully, I think that, to win the war in Iraq, US forces will have to both drop conventional military doctrine and organization, and deploy more forces. Iraq is a much larger country, and the situation is far worse. While news reports might give a sometimes exaggerated view of violence—not only in Iraq, but also in Los Angeles and other American cities—the situation in Iraq is bad, measured by security and politics. Even if we deploy more troops, a single bomb in a market or a mortar attack on a police station can end the perception of security.
However, draw-down isn't necessarily a sign of retreat. To force American commanders to learn the tactics of counterinsurgency, rather than repeating conventional methods, they may be forced into situations where resourcefulness will have to replace resources. The individual soldier or commander needs all the body armor, radio equipment, civil affairs budget, and other tools to get the job done. US commanders also need to give their subordinates more freedom of action and rewards for unconventional methods that bring real results. Bodies, living or dead, are no measure of victory in counterinsurgency.