Counterinsurgency

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COUNTERINSURGENCY….Over at the Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman referees an argument between Jason Brownlee and Andrew Exum about whether the Army’s new focus on counterinsurgency is inherently imperialistic. Long story short, Brownlee says it is, Exum says COIN is just a tool and it’s only imperialistic if Congress and the president use it for imperialistic ends, and Ackerman agrees with Exum. It’s worth a quick read if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

But as long as we’re on the subject, I’ll bring up a different concern, one that I’m just going to throw on the table since I don’t really have the chops to write anything definitive about it. It’s this: even now, after years of hearing from experts about how hard counterinsurgency is, do we really understand how hard it is? Imperialistic or not, my fear is that the success of the surge in Iraq, which was in large part coincidental, and the growing influence of David Petraeus and his proteges, has convinced policymakers that counterinsurgency is rapidly becoming a standard part of our military kit bag, one that we can count on in the future.

But I doubt that. It’s still the case that in the entire history of the world since WWII, big power counterinsurgency has virtually no success stories. Malaysia is the famous exception, but the circumstances there were unusual, it took a very long time anyway, and it’s almost certainly not repeatable. Likewise, although Petraeus’s success in Iraq is unquestionably due partly to his adoption of superior tactics during the surge, that was only one of the Five S’s that allowed his counterinsurgency doctrine to work. Without taking anything away from him, this just isn’t an indication that COIN is any easier to pull off than it ever has been. It certainly doesn’t seem to be making much headway in Afghanistan.

So that’s that. Maybe some milbloggers want to weigh in on this. Are we becoming a little too excited about the future possibilities of counterinsurgency? Even if we take it seriously and get a lot better at it than we are now, is it ever something that’s likely to be successful more than very, very occasionally? Comments?

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