Counterinsurgency Cookie Cutter Doesn't Fit Afghanistan

The Iraq surge's "success" is a myth, not a foundation for sound military strategy.

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Gian P. Gentile is a U.S. Army colonel, a professor of history, and head of the military history program at West Point. He commanded a battalion in West Baghdad in 2006. The views in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the Department of Defense.

"Counterinsurgency" has become the new American way of war. A once obscure theory of internal conflict, it has become ubiquitous in military circles and dominates thinking on both current and future wars. Examinations and discussions of counterinsurgency theory pervade conferences, journals, study agendas, and even human interest stories about its chief exponents; journalists and pundits routinely toss the term about as if its meaning is well understood by all. More important, its precepts are being followed without serious inquiry or examination, and the U.S. military has become so enamored with the theory that it seemingly will not consider any serious alternative methods to achieve the president's objectives in Afghanistan.

American military leaders are in the business of providing options, not a single formula with questionable relevance to Afghanistan. Conflict is never an either-or proposition. There are always alternatives. Good strategy—linking means to ends—involves much more than tactics. China's famous military philosopher Sun Tzu got it right when he warned, "Strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory," but "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." Statements by self-proclaimed counterinsurgency experts that emphasize the imperative to protect populations and separate them from the insurgents, and win their hearts and minds through nation building, frighteningly sound like Sun Tzu's noise.

Such incantations do not withstand serious scrutiny and do not provide a way to assess the alignment of means and ends, the essence of strategy.

Why do we think nation building at the barrel of an American gun can work in Afghanistan? This confidence results from a powerful fad in military circles and is fueled by a flawed interpretation of the recent past in Iraq, specifically the Iraq War Triumph Narrative, which suggests that the surge of troops worked in Iraq. The unstated assumption is that a large American military presence in Afghanistan on the Iraq model will buy time for an eventual "awakening" in Afghanistan as there was in Iraq. But the "awakening" in Iraq (in reality a "cash for peace" program that turned Sunni Arab sheiks into American allies against al Qaeda) is of dubious strategic benefit to the United States and its allies given the establishment of a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. Moreover, the surge was subsumed in a complex mix of conditions, from al Qaeda's conflict with indigenous Sunni Arab leaders to Iran's actions to remove Moqtada al-Sadr from Iraqi politics and consolidate Shiite Arab power behind Nouri al-Maliki's government. The surge narrative ignores these complexities and diverts attention from the point that Afghanistan is a country, not a nation.

Our perceived success in Iraq has created a natural tendency to define all of our problems as insurgencies, since we now believe we have the tools to "counter" such challenges. Yet, it is at best problematic to define the problems in Afghanistan as insurgency—that is, a simple problem of an organized band of enemy insurgents trying to overthrow the established government. The war in Afghanistan certainly has some features of insurgency, but characterizing it as such oversimplifies the complex problems of the place.

Afghanistan is a country wracked with internal problems: tribal conflict, backwardness, corruption, tension that produces endemic violence, bitter regional disputes, dysfunctional national boundaries, etc. Can a foreign occupation by a military force—even if it believes that it is carrying out better counterinsurgency practices under a so-called new strategy—solve such fundamental problems? History is not encouraging on this score. Could any outside force have come into the United States in the 1850s and resolved its internal conflicts at the barrel of a gun? Actually, the British tried to resolve internal conflict in North America about 80 years earlier during the American Revolution and lost, or gave up trying because strategy showed them that it became an endeavor that was simply not worth the cost.