This Week at War, No. 18

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

May 29, 2009

May 29, 2009

Can counterinsurgency ever be used again?

Does U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates really believe that the United States has less than a year to show convincing progress in Afghanistan? That is what he reveals in a recent interview with two reporters from the Wall Street Journal:

People are willing to stay in the fight, I believe, if they think we’re making headway, he said. If they think we’re stalemated and having our young men and women get killed, then patience is going to run out pretty fast.

Later in the piece, Gates describes himself as impatient regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, impatience is not an emotion suitable for waging a successful population-centric counterinsurgency campaign. And we should expect that Gates’s comments did not go unnoticed by Taliban commanders in Afghanistan. They still have the ability to set their own strategy — Gates just helped them figure out what it should be.

The irony is that just as Gates feels the last of his time in Afghanistan slipping away, a consensus has formed among Western military theorists about how to cope with insurgencies. Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, issued in 2006, became the book that guided the turnaround in Iraq. John Nagl, one of the major contributors to FM 3-24, described in a recent book review how the implementation of FM 3-24 in Iraq in 2007 contributed to the apparent pacification of much of the country.

In an essay written for Small Wars Journal, retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer James Gavrilis explains what makes modern counterinsurgency doctrine so different from conventional military operations:

In counterinsurgency, people are not part of terrain; they are the terrain. The battle is over human terrain. Conventional warfare is about gaining ground, taking more territory, and destroying your opponent’s military power. Counterinsurgency is about gaining human terrain, winning popular support, and preventing your opponent from winning popular support.

Counterinsurgency is a shift from the physical to the human terrain. And because humans are the contested terrain, human factors of war become more important. Insurgency and counterinsurgency include political warfare, psychological warfare, and information warfare. Persuasion and communication are the tools that have impact. More important than finding who the enemy is and who supports the enemy is winning the support of the population as a whole.

This is a doctrine that requires great patience to implement. And since the objective of the campaign is the support of the population, the side that most convincingly displays its determination and patience to the population is the one more likely to succeed. Gates’s open skepticism of the American public’s fortitude is not helpful to the task of winning over Afghanistan’s population.

More broadly, just when Western counterinsurgency theorists have won the doctrinal debate, we should wonder whether this doctrine is too costly to ever be used again. Gates is surely correct in predicting that the most frequent security threats the United States will face are more of what it has seen this decade: insurgencies, terrorism, irregular wars, and the consequences of failed states. However, the solutions applied this decade by both the Bush and Obama administrations, namely population-centric counterinsurgency and stabilization campaigns, have shown themselves to be bloody, costly, risky, and morally exhausting.

Counterinsurgency theorists can point to Iraq as a successful test of their hypotheses. The experiment may have worked. But it may be too expensive to ever try again. Military theorists need to go back to their labs and come up with some new ideas.

Social scientists in the trenches

In the 20th century, chemists, physicists, and electrical engineers proved vital for military success. In this century will social scientists perform the same role?

The Rand Corporation just released a report titled Social Science for Counterterrorism. Researchers at Rand conducted an interdisciplinary survey of social science research related to the causes, sustainment, decision-making, and decline of terror groups. RAND’s 540-page report concludes (see pages 453-454) that more research will be needed before social scientists will be able to answer many questions with more than it depends. The Rand study did shed some light on the relationship between social science and the study of terrorism. But RAND’s researchers called for more field research.

Fortunately, that field research is occurring, much of it sponsored by the U.S. government. In April 2009 Small Wars Journal published a series of five research papers, each coauthored by a U.S. Army soldier or civilian employee and an academic social scientist. This project resulted from a partnership between the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College and the University of Kansas. The papers (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5) discussed topics such as Iraqi military culture, civil engineering challenges in Iraq, and understanding tribal and civic culture in Afghanistan.

In 2006 the Army started its Human Terrain System program with the first Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007. HTTs consist of civilian social scientists, linguists, area studies specialists, and soldiers. The mission of an HTT is to bring social and cultural understanding of the indigenous population to the U.S. military unit the team supports. The Army was happy to quote one HTT member: One anthropologist can be much more effective than a B-2 bomber — not winning a war, but creating a peace one Afghan at a time.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) was not so pleased. In October 2007 the AAA released a statement from its Executive Board warning of troubling and urgent ethical issues related to the Human Terrain System program. In its statement, the AAA endorsed the use of anthropology to legitimately and effectively help guide U.S. policy to serve the humane causes of global peace and social justice. But according to the AAA embedding anthropologists inside U.S. military units deployed to war zones was not a legitimate use of their science.

If the AAA feared ethical corruption by the Pentagon, David Matsuda, a lecturer in anthropology at California State University-Hayward and a former HTT member in Iraq, had this view of the program:

[W]orking with an HTT team was the chance to change the nature of warfare, the chance to anthropologize the military and not the other way around. The chance to lessen casualties, avoid conflict, take people through the post-conflict to peace. It’s just remarkable.

Can social scientists perform the sometimes dangerous field research the Rand study calls for without receiving protection and support from the U.S. military? And, contrary to the conclusions reached by the AAA, might social scientists have a moral obligation to reduce the lethality of irregular warfare by helping the U.S. military improve its cultural knowledge? Or might this instead merely improve the capacity of the United States to be an imperial power?

Physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project faced some difficult moral questions. The wars of this era now lay that burden on social scientists.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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