June 28, 2010

Counterinsurgency Under the Microscope

I am about to board a plane this afternoon that will take me to East Tennessee and a week or so spent with friends and family. I’ll be visiting friends in Memphis and Nashville in addition to doing a little climbing and kayaking. My dissertation, ever-present, will be along for the ride.

Before I go, though, I wanted to link to this pithy criticism of population-centric counterinsurgency that was posted on The Monkey Cage. I recommend you all take the time to read it, because it is both short and elegantly summarizes some of the recent scholarly research on counterinsurgency. (I think the post fails to recognize that population-centric counterinsurgency could include strategies that both seek to protect the population as well as strategies that seek to control the population, but this is a minor quibble. I do not think that Kalyvas, though, was writing about control of terrain so much as he was of control over the population.)

I think advocates and practitioners of counterinsurgency get unfairly tagged as an insular bunch closed to competing theories or criticism. This strikes me as unfair for any number of reasons. First, the earliest theorist-practitioners of counterinsurgency in this particular era never claimed to have the blueprint for the way counterinsurgency should be practiced. Gunner Sepp and Dave Kilcullen both published articles on best practices based on historical evidence mined from previous successful (and unsuccessful) counterinsurgency campaigns. Both authors never claimed to have cracked the code: they basically said to the junior officers who were reading their articles, “Hey, dude, I’m not going to tell you there is only one way to skin the cat, but here are some things that counterinsurgents have done through history that have proved useful.”

Second, if counterinsurgency as practiced by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps has developed into some kind of rigid step-by-step process, we’re not correctly applying the doctrine. Even tactical light infantry doctrine, like FM 7-8, allows for leaders on the ground to shape their tactics and operations depending on variables such as the mission, enemy, time, troops, terrain, civilians on the battlefield, etc. FM 3-24 is no different and in fact stresses the need for leaders to remain flexible and to adapt the doctrine to the war – not to try and force the environment to fit the doctrine.

Third, I think some academic critics of counterinsurgency doctrine and strategies mistakenly assume that many of theorist-practitioners who write about counterinsurgency will be as fiercely protective over their theories as, say, the political scientist Robert Pape is about his theory on what causes suicide terror. I’m not trying to pick on Pape – he is a brilliant guy, and I admire him professionally and personally (we debated on CNN once, and afterwards, he was really gracious) – but you would be hard-pressed to find any evidence that could convince him that his particular theory about what causes suicide terror is incorrect. Theorists and practitioners of counterinsurgency are not, for the most part, trying to get tenure or to get published in the American Political Science Quarterly: they are trying to win a war. Contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine developed as a pragmatic response to the operational difficulties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I explained recently to my friend Chris Preble, who disagrees with me on most things, counterinsurgency – population-centric or otherwise – cannot afford to become some unfalsifiable theory like Marxism or supply-side economics. If we lose the war in Afghanistan and ten years from now, you hear me saying, “Oh, if only we had thrown more troops into the equation, we would have been successful,” you would be well within your rights to wonder whether or not I am more a charlatan and counterinsurgency “evangelist” than social scientist and pragmatist. Afghanistan, like Iraq before it, is not about whose theory is the most elegant – it is about what works on the ground.

No serious theorist or practitioner of counterinsurgency does not welcome the scrutiny that has been applied to existing theories, doctrine and strategies. The recent research on counterinsurgency conducted by political scientists, economist, historians and others is of uneven quality but exciting in its scope and scale. My boss John Nagl may seem pretty enthusiastic about counterinsurgency doctrine, and the two of us have our disagreements on a regular basis about how counterinsurgency might be applied in Afghanistan, but believe me when I say that John is not trying to defend FM 3-24 in front of a tenure committee: he is trying to find pragmatic solutions for political and military decision-makers. Here’s one example: A few weeks ago I told John how I thought a lot of recent research – including my own research in southern Lebanon and Afghanistan – had really called into question some of our earlier assumptions about the utility of social services in counterinsurgency campaigns. I told John how on second thought, the provision of social services probably benefited the insurgent in a way it does not benefit the counterinsurgent. John nodded his head, said, “I think you’re right,” and walked back to his office. This is not a man held slave to things he wrote or believed years ago.

The past few weeks have seen a rash of newspaper pundits dismiss counterinsurgency out of hand while simultaneously failing to consider the costs, benefits and risks of alternate courses of action. That really annoys me. But I certainly do not begrudge the scholars who have tested our existing doctrine, assumptions and strategies through historical research, economic models, new or ignored case studies, etc. Some have even gone the extra mile and have proposed alternate courses of action for Afghanistan – which may come in handy should the president at some point decide to abandon his current policy or strategic goals. I consider it part of my job as a researcher employed by a think tank – with one foot in the world of academic research and one foot in the world of contemporary operations – to translate a lot of this new research for policy audiences and military officers. Which, I must admit, is a pretty sweet gig.

For now, though, I am off to God’s own country, where for the next 10 days counterinsurgency theory and operations will only be discussed over a grill and with a PBR tall boy in hand. I trust the readership will hold the fort down both here in Washington, abroad in Afghanistan, and wherever else you may be.

UPDATE: Prof. Nagl weighs in: "The twin pillars of FM 3-24 are "protect the population" and "learn and adapt", in that order for a reason. The doctrine is doctrinaire about the first pillar for a reason; a representative democracy cannot adopt the Roman method of destroying the province to save it. Other than that first principle, everything is up for discussion -- and in fact, the "Paradoxes of COIN" highlight the requirement to continually learn and adapt!"