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Some More CI Thoughts


A bunch of people ask some really interesting questions in these two threads, questions that I think are deserving on their own post.

lemuel pitkin writes:

I think if you reframe the question away from preparing for the wars we are likely to fight to wars we have any business fighting, the brass may be right on this one.

Most counterinsurgencies are like Iraq — brutal unwinnable wars that kill huge numbers of civilians and don’t advance our national interest in any way.

In principle you can separate the decision about what kind of military the US should have from the decision about when it gets used. But in the real world, the wars we prepare for tend to be the wars we end up fighting.

What’s wrong with a citizen army? Seriously, Rob, why shouldn’t we cut the standing professional military down to a tenth its current size?


The more the US prepares for counterinsurgency, the more likely it is to attempt to engage in immoral, illegal, and/or counterproductive efforts to impose its preferred regimes on other people by force.

The funny thing is Rob has described this exact same dynamic with respect to the air force — the pressure to use your weapons and training regardless of whether it’s justified in a particular case — and yet he doesn’t seem worried about the same thing happening with counterinsurgency.

I’m not sure what lemuel means by “citizen army”, but the point about reducing the size of the force is well taken; I certainly think that the size of the US military establishment can be significantly reduced, given that US defense spending currently reaches about half the world total and that most of the other major military powers are close US allies.

On the more specific questions about counter-insurgency, I would have to disagree. Others, including Brad Plumer, have also argued that the United States should resist counter-insurgency training because such training might incline us to engage in more counter-insurgency conflicts. I think this is wrong on two counts. First, proper counter-insurgency doctrine does not (as Air Force EBO or “shock and awe” doctrine does) promise cheap, easy, and quick victories; indeed, it promises precisely the opposite. To the extent that we have a military establishment and civilian political leadership educated in the requirements of counter-insurgency, I’d say we’re less, not more, likely to engage in unwise military interventions. While it’s true at the extremes that lacking the tools for war reduces the likelihood of war, I tend to resist such arguments for the same reasons that I’m a progressive and not a libertarian; I believe that, given the right tools, the state can solve important problems that we face. I also don’t think that LP’s charge that “we get involved in the wars we prepare for” is empirically defensible; of the four most destructive conflicts the US has engaged in since World War II, two have been primarily counter-insurgency (Vietnam and Iraq), and one has been against a conventional opponent that tried very hard to fight as an insurgency (Korea), in spite of the fact that we have made every effort to avoid planning for counter-insurgency operations. Finally, I think there’s a big difference between Air Force parochialism (promising cheap, easy victories) and a CI capability (promising long, expensive productions) such that the latter doesn’t carry the same negative implications as the former.

I also disagree with the notion that counter-insurgency efforts are necessary brutal, imperialistic, and unwise. Certainly, counter-insurgency efforts conducted by military organizations that don’t have the faintest idea about how to go about such operations can be brutal. To my mind, however, that’s rather a reason to develop more competent capabilities, instead of less. I would also argue that not all US CI interventions have been imperialistic and unjust. I believed at the time that it was correct to invade Afghanistan, still believe it, and think that victory there is possible. There are also conditions that might have justified an invasion of Iraq, in spite of all the practical problems with that project. If, for example, Laurie Mylorie had been right about Saddam Hussein, and all of the folks on the jets on 9/11 had been Iraqis, or if Iraq had decided to try to grab Kuwait again, then the use of military force and even the deposition of the regime would probably have been sensible. These eventualities may sound absurd, but they are absurd in part because of overwhelming US military superiority. CI would have been necessary to the operation, even if the justification had been one that was largely agreeable to everyone.

ajay writes:

[What about a] purely defensive war, of the kind justified by the UN convention as a response to aggression. The Falklands War involved no counter-insurgency, for exactly that reason. Nor did the 1991 Gulf War. Nor, presumably, would a future war against a North Korean invasion of South Korea.
If you don’t go around imposing your rule on people, then you won’t have to fight against insurgencies.

Fair enough to a point, but the UN convention also justifies military action that is agreed upon by the Security Council as necessary to solve some particular problem in the international system. Such interventions can directly involve counter-insurgency warfare (Afghanistan) or more often can involve stability operations, which are not exactly the same as CI but that operate by similar principles, and certainly share more with CI than with conventional uses of military force. As Matt Sledge noted here, the uniformed services have been as reluctant to engage in planning for stability operations as they have for CI. This isn’t surprising, given the characteristics that CI and peacekeeping share. ajay is right that this betrays an particular attitude on my part; I do think that the United States have an active role to play in the international system, and that this role will involve the deployment of uniformed military forces around the world in various capacities. I don’t think of this as a particularly imperialist project, because I don’t see it as differing in anything but scope from the actions of many European countries. The Scandinavian countries, for example, deploy military personnel all over the world, as do France, the Netherlands, and others. If a defensive war is all we’re interested in, then ajay is right that we can focus on conventional operations, but I think that there is an opportunity (and, indeed, a responsibility) to do more than that.

R. Stanton Scott (who does some, but not nearly enough, outstanding blogging at Foggy Bottom Line; encourage him, people) writes:

It probably makes sense to develop some counterinsurgency capability within our military forces, though I am not convinced that conventional war–perhaps against a rogue state that really *does* have WMDs–is so unlikely that it is safe to allow our traditional combat power to atrophy any more than it has. History has shown that real war sometimes breaks out just when it seems least likely.

Having conventional military capability and not needing it is better than needing it and not having it–within the constraints on what capabilities we can sustain simultaneously. I think we need both traditional combat forces and counterinsurgent specialists, but today we have neither. Instead of hiring a plumber and an electrician, we told the electrician to fix the pipes after he wired the outlets. Now the crapper overflows, and if we get a short in the wiring he may not remember how to fix it.

I would substantially agree with this, except that I don’t think we’ve lost, or are really in any danger of losing, our conventional expertise and predominance. I should have been more clear about this in my initial post; US conventional capability is important, but we’re so far ahead of the curve that we really, really don’t need to start worrying about losing that capability while we’re engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. I certainly don’t advocate dismantling that capability in favor of CI; I’m just worried that over-concentration on conventional capabilities is now and has in the past severely limited our CI capability.

Last but not least, Mojo points out that I’m being unfair to the Air Force. True enough on some level, but I’m sure they can handle it.

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