Counterinsurgency as military malpractice

Interesting article I’ve been waiting for Harper’s to put online to post…a critique of the latest update on the small wars manual, this time by General Mattis (the update, not the critique). It speaks to a lot of the concerns I’ve had for some time, namely that absent a genuine desire to colonize or the ability and will to practice outright tyranny (neither of which is desirable), we have no successful counterinsurgency models to build on. You can’t just cut either of those elements out and staple on “hearts and minds and infrastructure” and get results.

Comments?

The US is involved in multiple guerrilla conflicts currently, and reading about them and the various successes and failures leads me to believe that COIN operations have to be custom tailored for whatever country (and at times by region within the country) and what works in point A may not be effective in point B. But the decisions need to be made by those with experience on the ground, rather than political decision-makers half a world away. Imperial Grunts–freakin’ awesome book.

I agree with the issues that the American government doesn’t want its soldiers to be administrators, and in my thinking the idea was to fight the war and get the hell out as fast as possible, figuring the locals and the world at large wouldn’t accept us running the country for any length of time. Despite that, it’s not like we didn’t run cities and regions–we damn well did.

— Alan

Unfortunately the article is completely correct. We have only ourselves to blame for it, but that doesn’t mean anything really. It’s a losing proposition in either morality or military and neither one is really all that great. More than likely this will of course dissolve into some flame fest of armchair politicians and policymakers, but in the end it’s still the same quagmire.

This may sound strange and somewhat cynical, but somewhat recently Rucker linked an insurgency for n00bs article. It mentioned that if we leave now, we’ll just have to re-invade because the civil war will turn into genocide, ethnic cleansing, or a government with strong ties, if not run by Iran.

But, what’s the likelihood of getting international support on a 2nd invasion? If we do just up and leave, watch it descend to even more extreme violence and chaos, would the destabilization of the region force the UN and rest of the world to act? Then, on the second invasion, we have help?

Very strong article. Also, although Edward Luttwak is probably obscure to a lot of people, I’ve read a lot of his works and find his analysis to be extremely solid. He spoke to one of my undergrad classes back in the 80s, and his book “Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire” was one of the best books about the rise and fall of military power I’ve ever read. So he has a lot of credibility to me and I found the article to be very well reasoned.

Basically, b/c of the limits of our civilized values and political structures, we cannot fight an effective counterinsurgency in direct fashion ourselves. The effective way to defeat an insurgency with military power is to out terrorize the insurgents but we are (correctly) unwilling to do that. We are trying a “workaround” by trying to create a native Iraqi proxie government to do it for us but that proxy gov is failing for several reasons: first, its not loyal to us or our values and has little interest in benefitting the US, second its not a true national government of unity but is instead a factional coalition riven with internal tensions, and third, even if that government were unified, efficient and willing to support US policy, the only way IT could defeat the insurgency would be to out-terrorize the insurgents. And of course, we wouldn’t call that victory, we’d call that civil war. And that is, of course, what is inevitably happening.

I don’t believe there is any peaceful solution to the chaos in Iraq. And despite the intelligence of General Petraeus et al, I think Luttwak is right: I think their counterinsurgency policy is doomed to failure. I won’t go as far as Luttwak in calling the military doctrine malpractice: the generals are doing the best they can in following the orders given them. The malpractice IMO exists at a higher policy level in the hands of George W. Bush.

We don’t need help, we need a plan. And the only plan that works is based around bluntly colonizational protocol and/or systematic brutality. Unless, of course, you are willing to make certain massive compromises in your goals for the region (honestly embracing dictatorships up front, saying out loud we don’t care what you do to your people as long as the oil keeps a coming, etc).

I enjoyed it upon first reading it, if only because he didn’t shit all over himself when talking about marines. But it becomes less relevant to me the longer we get away from the point in time in which it was written, and by that I mean in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one is going to lose sleep in America over the back and forthing in the Phillipines…it just doesn’t matter on the level Iraq does.
The conclusion he draws, which you reiterate, is true to a point, but also incredibly unstable when you are talking about 1 the US military and its rigid adherence to top down command, let alone its wild variance in officer quality and 2 the very nature of a media driven war.

I agree with the issues that the American government doesn’t want its soldiers to be administrators, and in my thinking the idea was to fight the war and get the hell out as fast as possible, figuring the locals and the world at large wouldn’t accept us running the country for any length of time. Despite that, it’s not like we didn’t run cities and regions–we damn well did.

No, we damned well didn’t. The half assed shit that the US government persists in calling Civil Affairs groups (when they should be called what they are: Thug Licensing services) are not running anything worth mentioning in Al Anbar, and I can only infer that Baghdad is similarly chaotic. Running doesn’t just mean infrastructure (at which they fail but less spectacularly) but most importantly law and order, which does not exist. Ergo, not being run.

We sure as hell did, you just never heard about them. There were plenty of small and medium-sized towns we practically ran from the get-go. I’m not talking about the Civil Affairs groups. Then, just as quietly, they were handed over to locals and that was that. I’m not talking right now, I was referring to 03-04.

I agree the Kaplan book becomes less relevant as time goes on, especially in Iraq and to some extent Afghanistan.

– Alan

Not to worry; if things go to hell in any of these insurgencies, we’ll just send in these guys.

On the way to saving the mother-fuckin’ day now! Oh yeah!

Which has exactly what to do with the price of oil? You’re right, my hands on experience is limited entirely to Fallujah in 05 and Ramadi in the present, but I would say those are far more significant in their endstate than any of these “countless” hamlets whose administration you laud. We’ve shown an absence of tactical and strategic understanding in every major urban center that could be accurately described as part of the Sunni region, which has left the locals in the uncomfortable circumstances described ad nauseaum in the more capable brands of media.

I agree the Kaplan book becomes less relevant as time goes on, especially in Iraq and to some extent Afghanistan.

…although as current events with Abu Sayyaf indicate, it does present workable models for counterinsurgencies in places that aren’t failed states/warzones beforehand.

I did not mean my responses to seem so stridently combative, nor was I trying to irritate you more than a little bit. I was just surprised by the offhand assertiveness in your initial statement in the face of so many relevant counterexamples.

I’m sure this kind of thing will be transformed by the virtues of time and ideology to “we weren’t allowed to win Iraq because of those pesky human rights” in 30 years.

I think I’m having trouble with Luttwak’s assumptions because they strike me as so sweeping and all-encompassing in tone they don’t account for all kinds of variant positions. All Shiite and Sunni clerics are saying that we’re selfish invaders? All of them? No Iraqi appreciates what reconstruction and assistance, however hamhanded and incompetantly executed, we’re trying to provide? All Iraqis are as religiously motivated as Spanish Christians in an era before widespread secularism infiltrated Western culture? Isn’t there something left of Saddam’s more secularly oriented, educated, Iraq or has it all vanished (or fled the country with the rest of the middle and upper class)?

I don’t know the answer to this. I suspect things are sliding more and more into the model he describes but there’s a nagging in my gut when I hear such casual generalization applied. If this is all so obvious why hasn’t it occured to Petraeus and Mattis? They don’t strike me as the least bit slow. In fact, Petraeus has himself served in Iraq and remarkably successfully.

Why assume that the Sunni insurgency is one big bloc? Aren’t there cracks? Mutual hostilities? Rivalries? It’s a fancy word but one with some application here: granularity. Break things down onto the level of the village or city neighborhood. Understand personal relationships. Develop them. In Arab culture, I’m given to understand, all relationships are seen as very personal ones and trust is only earned over time. If we keep rotating units around and in-and-out of Iraq how is it even possible to build those kinds of neo-tribal connections? They’ll just see us as a nameless, faceless, mass of soldiers wearing uniforms rather than an orderly local society, a new clan in the neighborhood, with recognisable faces to deal with atop it. It’s even worse if we hide away in castles, like historical crusaders, and only venture out to deal damage.

These are things Petraeus has gotten at and they make a huge amount of sense to me. Then again, it’s probably easy for me to say that sitting on my ass in a nice air-conditioned office on a slow day at work.

I think they have many different positions, but that largely lead them to either self serving manipulation of American assets or direct opposition to us. Also, I don’t think Sunni clerics are anywhere near as relevant as Shiite ones…rather you are talking about Sunni sheiks and gang bosses for the most part.

No Iraqi appreciates what reconstruction and assistance, however hamhanded and incompetantly executed, we’re trying to provide?

I don’t think that’s a very useful metric. I’m sure they appreciate it, in an abstract sense. But in a concrete sense, they are more concerned about the fact that their chances of growing old are approaching zero, and that the longer they delay in joining a side in the “insurgency” the worse it gets. And the teams available are all anti-american, whether in the subtly Shiite manner (for Iraq, that is) or in the overt Sunni manner.

All Iraqis are as religiously motivated as Spanish Christians in an era before widespread secularism infiltrated Western culture? Isn’t there something left of Saddam’s more secularly oriented, educated, Iraq or has it all vanished (or fled the country with the rest of the middle and upper class)?

It’s largely irrelevant. Power vacuums were filled on the Sunni and Shiite communities, and both claim varying degrees of piety. Either way, their power stems from the barrel of the gun and the trigger of the ied.

I don’t know the answer to this. I suspect things are sliding more and more into the model he describes but there’s a nagging in my gut when I hear such casual generalization applied. If this is all so obvious why hasn’t it occured to Petraeus and Mattis? They don’t strike me as the least bit slow.

I’m absolutely certain it has. The problem is, if you’ll note, that neither of his suggestions are available to the United States as a policy. It serves the purposes of his argument (pull out now) because he has that option. It does not offer the generals any such option because they can only work with the problems they are tasked with, which consist of fighting the insurgency no matter to what unrealistic standards, until sent home. I think some of the lessons are being embraced as we speak in the embrace of the Iraqi proxies for brutality and ruthlessness…the question is whether such an embrace will happen in Sunni areas with Sunni forces before the Shiites are given the chance to exterminate them altogether.

Why assume that the Sunni insurgency is one big bloc? Aren’t there cracks? Mutual hostilities? Rivalries?

Sure, but there is one thing they can all agree on, which is that destabilizing Iraq and fucking with America is crucial to keeping the Shiites off their necks. Why? Because the AQ elements, and other reflexively anti-American forces, once in the minority, have risen to the point where they give the Sunnis no choice but to start claiming turf or face extermination.

It’s a fancy word but one with some application here: granularity. Break things down onto the level of the village or city neighborhood. Understand personal relationships. Develop them. In Arab culture, I’m given to understand, all relationships are seen as very personal ones and trust is only earned over time. If we keep rotating units around and in-and-out of Iraq how is it even possible to build those kinds of neo-tribal connections? They’ll just see us as a nameless, faceless, mass of soldiers wearing uniforms rather than an orderly local society, a new clan in the neighborhood, with recognisable faces to deal with atop it. It’s even worse if we hide away in castles, like historical crusaders, and only venture out to deal damage.

I certainly agree. I would gladly have agreed to a continuous tour in the same area vs the current rotation madness. The problem is that this very much a small unit war, where continuity in the NCO/junior officer is almost as important as with field and general grade officers, and our entire military is not geared to continuity at those levels.
Firmbases are a huge problem that I’ve been bitching about from the moment I got here. It’s really the most obscene manifestation of the military industrial complex one could imagine. I can’t really see that being tackled anytime soon, but I hope so.

These are things Petraeus has gotten at and they make a huge amount of sense to me. Then again, it’s probably easy for me to say that sitting on my ass in a nice air-conditioned office on a slow day at work.

Well, I do agree that the author is a bit hard on the current command in terms of the progress they are making relative to their predecessors. I can only hope that his contention that changing now is worse than just giving up is wrong.

This, Blowback, and Overthrow have convinced me US foreign policy is simply incapable of handling minor powers. “Great power with developed civil society” vs. “minor power that we want to get resources from” seems to explain the Germany/Japan vs. everyone else we’ve occupied divide pretty well.

For whatever reason, we just default to the gun, dictators, and patronage incompetence when we’re fighting the war to prop up resource acquisition. It’s not the crude “war for oil” - it’s war to support are current method of using oil, which god knows it’s much easier to butcher everyone than bother changing it. Also applies to United Fruit and South America.

Alternatively, we could not trigger the insurgencies in the first place. The US foreign policy certitude that invasion and installed strongmen are the most cost-effective method of getting the resources we want is pretty inexplicable. You’d think after all the time, effort, and backfiring people would notice.

Seriously, it doesn’t seem to be much of a simplification to summarize the history of US military or proxy interventions as “install a unpopular strongman to get what we want, it promptly blows up in our face.” The only place we haven’t personally suffered for it appears to be Hawaii. Don’t even get me started on the foreigner body count.

Here’s the final draft in pdf

Another review, less academic/more Vietnam vet experience based

Also, from what I gather of how it’s being received it is intended as a generalized introduction to counterinsurgency for those unfamiliar with the concept, hence its focus on a lot of things more relevant to Vietcong than Al Qaeda Iraq. Everything I see around us here seems to indicate that the engagement has evolved to several stages past what the manual indicates, especially with regard to using and developing local forces. I’ll be interested to see what’s actually in the fucking pdf myself once it finishes downloading on my awesome Iraqi internet.

If you guys need hardcopies shipped out I work for a printing company. Just give the word.

I’m reading it now and much of it is quite digestable by a layman. It’s surprisingly good reading in fact.

I flipped through it and it seemed to be summary of things already known. That’s not bad, of course, but I was surprised at not being surprised.

It’s interesting that it completely skirts the issue of the local government, assuming without saying so that the government you’re defending against said insurgency is legitimate and capable of effectively running the country. Maybe there’s a matching copy for politicians that has that part?

I haven’t had time to give the manual a thorough going-over yet but I’d assume it’s not the military’s job to decide on whether a government is “legitimate” by some abstract legal standard. They’re there, assuming this is a manual about counter-insurgency to prop that government up. (This does lead me to wonder if there’s a companion volume about how to conduct an insurgency though).

As for whether the government is capable of running the country, that too would seem to be beyond the perview of the military aside from the extent to which those failures offer rationales and popular cover to insurgents. And it’s clear they suggest doing what they can, in terms of providing assistance and services, in order to fill in where the government is failing on their own. They’re even quite specific about how to concieve of these operations in one of the sections I read. Don’t assume that because one program works well in one instance it should instantly become the model for much bigger programs, for example. Every situation is different and should be evaluated differently.

The idea is that by filling in by providing services the soldiers learn about what’s going on in the community on many different levels. That other fellow wrote about the example of the NYPD’s crackdown on minor crimes as an example. You want to stop murders, rapes, drug dealing and robberies, right? The only way to effectively preempt that is by stopping graffitti, littering and jaywalking. People will see cops doing their jobs and get to respect them. And folks with warrants out for them will often get picked up for lesser crimes.

I’ll admit I’d read about much of this before but never quite put together like this. I also still have a good deal more reading to do.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it necessarily, it’s just interesting. I’d say the political class needs a manual on it at this point a hell of a lot more than the military.

I’m glad you’re finding it digestible, Brian. I think it’s a lot more defensible when taken on its own merits rather than through the lens of a person who was already set on the US failing in Iraq.

Not everyone has the Machiavellian grasp of both politics and military strategy that you (claim to) have, Jason. If the most profound criticism a (non)reading of it can provoke in you is that it fails to penetrate your shield of jaded cynicism, I’d say it’s a good deal short of the military malpractice that the initial article claims it is.

I’m not claiming I’m an expert, just that the advice seems rather obvious to anyone who’s read a book or two on Vietnam. I don’t know what the educational baseline of officers is there though.