I think that, basically, yes, we should give up these sorts of wars as futile. Kaplan observes near the top of his article that “as a nation we may simply be ill-suited to fight these kinds of wars.” This is a common trope in the counterinsurgency literature. And it appears to be true. The deeper problem, though, is that so do all the other relevant nations. The history of liberal democracies waging successful counterinsurgency campaigns of the sort suggested by the Field Manual is very poor.
I think this is wrong for few reasons. First, I don’t think that the history of counter-insurgency has been quite as grim as Matt suggests that it is, even for military organizations employing relatively civilized tactics. The United States Marine Corps assissted several counter-insurgency operations in the 1920s and 1930s in Cental America, and these operations by and large were successful and did not employ the sort of scorched earth tactics that Matt later aludes to. The US also assisted in the elimination of the Huk rebellion in the Philippines, and in the defeat of the communist Greek insurgency in the late 1940s. British success in the Malayan Emergency is well known. The Boer War has to be rated at least a qualified (if costly) success for the British Army, and again did not involve mass slaughter tactics (although large number of Boers died of disease in concentration camps). Now, there are also plenty of examples of successful insurgencies against liberal democratic opponents, and I don’t want to suggest that such operations commonly succeed, but the number is a bit higher than zero. The converse is also wrong, I think; mass slaughter as a counter-insurgency tactic works pretty rarely.
Second, Matt makes what I think is an important qualification: The history of liberal democracies waging successful counterinsurgency campaigns of the sort suggested by the Field Manual is very poor. Right, but that’s part of the point. For the modern military organization, nationalist insurgency is a relatively new problem. It’s important to recognize that insurgency and guerilla warfare are not the same thing; the former often (but not always) employs the latter, and the latter can exist without the former. In Iraq, the Saddam Fedayeen that the US encountered early in the war quite clearly employed guerilla tactics, but were not insurgents. European military organizations of the 19th century were accustomed to dominating huge colonial tracts with extremely low troop density. If we accept that the tools that make a military good at counter-insurgency are not the tools that make an organization good at conventional continental warfare, then it becomes apparent that even during the period in which nationalist insurgencies could be expected, many organizations had better things to do. Whereas keeping the colonies down was important, defending the border was usually viewed as the more compelling mission in most military organizations. Simply put, armies haven’t had that much incentive to either theorize about counter-insurgency or become proficient at executing it. The two conclusions that follow from this are first that the number of democracies executing these tactics in a competent manner has been quite small, but second that there is no very compelling evidence to think that military organizations cannot improve their counter-insurgency tactics over time. Indeed, we’d even expect it as the incentives for fighting counter-insurgency well increase. Training and doctine matter, and both can be improved over time. It is certainly well known that organizations vary in their capacity to execute counter-insurgency or peacekeeping operations; colonially experienced European military organizations (France, UK) tend to do better than continentally oriented ones (US, Germany, Russia). Finally, we can do a bit of process tracing and point to situations in which well-executed tactics worked better than poorly executed ones (see, of course, Andrew Krepinevich’s The Army and Vietnam, which points out how much more successful Marine operations were than Army, despite employing less firepower).
Treating insurgency as an intractable problem opens up other difficulties. Not all insurgencies are the same; some are weak, some strong, some have a large popular base, others don’t, and so forth. Even if we were to accept that defeating the Iraqi insurgency was impossible from the start (a proposition I regard as unproven) this hardly means that no insurgency can be beaten with civilized tactics. Moreover, simply suggesting that we should discard the project of improving our counter-insurgency capabilities because it’s too hard disregards the possibility that the US may be required to engage in difficult counter-insurgency operations. In the case of Iraq, I can think of half a dozen different scenarios in which the US would have come into conflict with an insurgency for entirely legitimate reasons. If Hussein had openly allied himself with Bin Laden, or attacked Kuwait again, or if the state had begun to collapse, US intervention would have been both justified and necessary. It’s quite possible that an insurgency would have developed anyway, and the US military would have needed to develop the tools to fight it.
Matt also argued that “we need to endeavor to steer clear of counterinsurgency situations as much as we possibly can.” I concur, although that doesn’t really distinguish insurgency from any other kind of war. Whether we’re just bad at counter-insurgency or the task is impossible doesn’t matter all that much, because we shouldn’t fight wars we’re unlikely to win. But this strikes me as an unproductive and potentially disastrous way to argue against intervention. The idea that war could be at least quasi-civilized and that particularly brutal tactics like gassing the enemy, incinerating their cities, and killing their prisoners didn’t help anybody out has, in spite of some setbacks, contributed to the reduction of human misery. Suggesting that the only successful counter-insurgency tactics are likely to be the brutal ones leaves a humanitarian with relatively few options in the face of a necessary counter-insurgent fight. Moreover, it’s not rhetorically compelling to argue, against someone invoking national necessity, that the tactics we need to win are just too brutal for us to conduct. In the wake of, say, an Iranian sponsored terrorist attack against the United States, the “we can fight them because we’ll kill too many of them” argument is likely to fall on deaf ears. Indeed, some considerable portion of the US electorate might regard mass slaughter as a feature, not a bug.
So, I can’t agree with Matt that efforts to improve counter-insurgency tactics and operations are pointless. I do, however, agree with him that trying to maintain a reputation for resolve is ridiculous. More on that later.