The decisions of NATO member states to contribute 37,000 additional troops to Afghanistan—and Nir Rosen’s timely essay—present a good opportunity to reflect on the intellectual and military developments that led President Obama and his European peers to choose the current path.
Whether or not the United States and its allies are successful in Afghanistan, the conflict in Central Asia will likely mark the end of the Third Counterinsurgency Era. Counterinsurgency warfare has its roots in the colonial experiences of France and the United Kingdom as well as the pseudo-colonial experiences of the United States in the Philippines and Latin America. In the First Counterinsurgency Era, nineteenth-century French colonial military commanders such as Hubert Lyautey, Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, and Joseph Gallieni devised rudimentary “hearts and minds” campaigns that were—though often just as brutal as the conventional warfare of the time—at odds with then-contemporary thought on the employment of military force.
The lessons of those nineteenth-century wars were largely forgotten as two conventional wars ravaged much of the world between 1914 and 1945. Postwar, postcolonial insurgencies in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Indochina, Algeria, and elsewhere gave rise to the Second Counterinsurgency Era. A new group of counterinsurgency theorist-practitioners—including Frenchmen such as David Galula, Roger Trinquier, and Marcel Bigeard, as well as the Englishman Sir Robert Thompson—contributed experiences and memoirs that have shaped contemporary thinking and operations. (General Petraeus, one of the principal architects of U.S. counterinsurgency tactics, provided an introduction to a recent French-language edition of Galula’s classic Counterinsurgency Warfare and is rumored to keep an autographed portrait of Bigeard in his office.) The U.S. experience in Vietnam, meanwhile, had a surprisingly small effect on American combat training for units and officers. For two decades following Vietnam, the higher echelons of the U.S. military saw no need to institutionalize the lessons learned there and simply vowed never again to fight such a war. The operational difficulties encountered by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan have their roots in that neglect.
Counterinsurgency is currently defined by the U.S. military as “those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat an insurgency.” Counterinsurgency is thus less a strategy than an operational choice taken by field commanders and civilian officials.
Progressive journalists and thinkers such as Nir Rosen are often of two minds on how to think about counterinsurgency warfare. On one hand, counterinsurgency owes its development to the imperial and postcolonial experiences of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leading critics such as Andrew Bacevich to paint counterinsurgency doctrine as fundamentally tied to the pursuit of empire.
Nir Rosen is left unconvinced by the promise of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. I am unconvinced by his argument, in part because he gets much wrong, both small and large.
On the other hand, the United States has, unlike France or the United Kingdom, usually fought its counterinsurgency campaigns—in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—on behalf of host nations. And counterinsurgency, as practiced by the U.S. government and its allies today, is not all about killing and domination. As General McChrystal says, “It’s not how many people you kill—it’s how many you convince.”
Counterinsurgency usually incorporates, then, “non-kinetic” lines of operations—aid for post-conflict reconstruction, social-service provision, and economic development—designed to address causes of conflict. The writing of prominent counterinsurgency theorist-practitioner David Kilcullen, for example, is heavily influenced by the “counter-war” theories of Loup Francart. The goal of contemporary counterinsurgency is less to propagate empire than to end a conflict. So the humanitarian means it often employs have co-opted many in the progressive community who grew up in the post-Vietnam and postcolonial eras suspicious of all things military. And it is no surprise that the people who advocated for and executed the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are rarely from the same collection of neoconservative ideologues and incompetent field commanders who led the United States and its allies into Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
Nir Rosen, aside from being one of the bravest reporters of the post-9/11 era and a friend I very much admire, is left unconvinced by the promise of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. I am unconvinced by his argument, in part because he gets much wrong, both small and large.
Rosen’s assertion that Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution was a member of General McChrystal’s assessment team in Afghanistan is incorrect. This early mistake, inconsequential by itself, made me wonder whether Rosen also got things wrong that are more important to his argument.
Rosen compounds the error by dismissing so-called “celebrity pundits” from Washington. Referring to Stephen Biddle and Anthony Cordesman—arguably the two finest and most rigorous defense-policy analysts of their respective generations—the same way one would refer to Paris Hilton or to some Sunday-morning bloviator is inappropriate. These men, along with Frederick Kagan, are academics by training, and they know much about the causes and conduct of conflict. Cordesman got his start in the Vietnam era. For an informed perspective different from his own, Rosen should listen to them.
Rosen’s essay is also filled with generalizations about the conflict in Afghanistan, the kinds of generalizations that he regularly skewers in essays on subjects he knows well, such as the Arabic-speaking world and the conflict in Iraq. For example, he writes that Afghanistan is not yet the site of a civil war. I am not so sure, but I am sure that Rosen has neither the background nor the perspective to make such a judgment. Michael Semple —with two decades experience working in Afghanistan and Pakistan—believes that it is, and that the Taliban and its allies cannot win. The balance of power, he argues, has shifted toward the Taliban’s natural enemies, and the Taliban hides this reality by dressing their civil war in the clothes of an insurgency being fought against Western powers. If this assessment is right, there may yet be hope for U.S. and allied efforts in Afghanistan. Because President Obama has pledged to begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan in eighteen months, time may be too short to execute a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign. But there may be sufficient time to build up key Afghan institutions and allow Afghans to fight a civil war that will no doubt continue after the United States and its allies begin to withdraw.
The one lesson we have all—military officer, politician, and journalist alike—learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, though, is that it is best to avoid such conflicts in the first place. I, then, am one of many hoping that the Third Counterinsurgency Era will soon draw to a close. And on this point, I think Rosen and I agree.