Tackling insurgents is not enough for America

by Tyler Moselle

Published: March 18 2010 20:23 | Last updated: March 18 2010 20:23

American counterinsurgency theory has become ensconced in national security strategy and permeates nearly every aspect of the US interagency process as if it is a cure-all for failed states, global terrorism – and even poverty. As its name implies it is appropriate for countering an insurgency, but is inappropriate for countering global terrorism, fixing failed/fragile/failing states, or improving the underlying conditions that supposedly fuel violence and instability. American policymakers should treat counterinsurgency as only one limited option among many in the national security and foreign policy tool box.

Counterinsurgency theory and practice was rethought and implemented as the Iraq invasion and toppling of Saddam’s regime devolved into violent insurgency largely because Utopian neo-conservative ideologues did not implement a nation-building and stability campaign after the Iraqi military was defeated.

By 2006, General David Petraeus redefined the theory as a tool to pacify violence, protect innocent civilians and prop up a “legitimate” government. American counterinsurgency theory and practice was improved significantly by focusing on civilian protection, emphasising corruption and legitimacy in host-nation politics, and highlighting factors that contribute to insurgent violence.

However, it overlooked the problematic difference between an existing government fighting a domestic insurgency in order to maintain stability and protect the population, and that of a radical, revolutionary outsider overthrowing an established government in order to create a new regime. Counterinsurgency theory inadequately incorporated the fact of regime change into its analysis. Violence in Iraq eventually diminished, with many claiming counterinsurgency theory and practice were behind much of the improvement. But other variables mitigated violence and the nuances have been highlighted by many books on the Iraq war.

Gen Petraeus was promoted to run US Central Command in October 2008, and shortly afterwards Afghanistan received renewed attention from newly-elected President Barack Obama. General Stanley McChrystal was subsequently picked to oversee the war because he understood counterinsurgency theory – he apologised when civilians were killed, he cut airstrikes, fearing they were not precise enough and caused too much collateral damage, and he reinforced to his soldiers the message of protecting civilians and supporting the government.

The problem is that Afghanistan is a country which needs its sense of nationhood to be cultivated, requires stability and development, and desires an end to violence. Proper US strategy toward the country should be a mixture of nation-building, stability operations, long-term humanitarian and economic development, precision-based counter-terrorism strikes, political negotiations with the Taliban – plus counter-insurgency to put down the Taliban.

By allowing counterinsurgency to lead the overarching policy toward the country, we risk militarising every other endeavour. We cannot expect quick, short-term results to deeply ingrained, long-term problems. By allowing counterinsurgency to guide our national security strategy, we risk deluding ourselves into believing we have solved problems that will, in fact, fester and re-emerge later.

Counterinsurgency strategy has enveloped US foreign policy and national security, leaving Americans in a strategically compromised position. Robert Gates, US secretary of defence, has promoted counterinsurgency capabilities in order to transform the US military to deal with future threats, such as guerrilla movements and the problematic environments that produce them.

Mr Obama will unveil a plethora of US national security strategy documents this year. There is a high probability these documents will emphasise counterinsurgency theory and practice as if it is the solution to an increasingly complex world. The underlying assumption behind this theory is that American power can prop up its allies and subdue its enemies while protecting civilians – a new manifestation of liberal imperialism at its finest.

All of these considerations highlight the basic fact that counterinsurgency is not a panacea for American national security and foreign policy.

The writer is a research affiliate of Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010