Stephen M. Walt

Building on 2 blunders: the dubious case for counterinsurgency

As most of you probably know, over the past few years the U.S. military has been engaged in an extensive internal debate about counter-insurgency warfare. This is partly a debate about COIN tactics and techniques — in other words, about how to do COIN better — but the more important debate is about the priority ...

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As most of you probably know, over the past few years the U.S. military has been engaged in an extensive internal debate about counter-insurgency warfare. This is partly a debate about COIN tactics and techniques — in other words, about how to do COIN better — but the more important debate is about the priority that COIN should receive in U.S. defense planning. Specifically, should the United States continue to focus primarily on preparing for “great power” wars and strive to retain “command of the commons” through air power, naval power, and other sophisticated warfare capabilities, or should it retool for the various small wars that it seems to have been fighting lately? This latter view dovetails with the idea that United States also needs much greater civilian capacity for nation-building, development assistance, and the like.

Unfortunately, most of the attention seems to have focused on “how to do it better” issue, and much less on the desirability of the proposed shift. Those who argue for radical change invariably point to the various wars the United States has fought in recent years — notably Iraq and Afghanistan — and simply assert that we need to get ready to do a lot more of them.

Unfortunately, this line of argument ignores the fact that these wars are the result of past American mistakes. The first error was the failure to capture Bin Laden and his associates at the battle of Tora Bora, which allowed al Qaeda’s leaders to escape into Pakistan and thus ensured that the United States would become enmeshed in Afghanistan. Had we captured al Qaeda’s top leaders then, we could have declared victory over al Qaeda and come home and we would be far less worried about events in Central Asia today. Who would care about a “safe haven” in Afghanistan if Bin Laden had been killed or captured back in 2001?

The second mistake was the foolish decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which led us into yet another costly insurgency. Not surprisingly, those charged with waging that war eventually focused on COIN, because that was the problem they were expected to solve. But the only reason they had to do so was the fact that the Bush administration decided to wage an unnecessary war in the first place.

In short, the current obsession with counterinsurgency is the direct result of two fateful errors. We didn’t get Bin Laden when we should have, and we invaded Iraq when we shouldn’t. Had the United States not made those two blunders, we wouldn’t have been fighting costly counterinsurgencies and we wouldn’t be contemplating a far-reaching revision of U.S. defense priorities and military doctrine.

The obvious question is: Does the United States really want to base its military strategy on two enormous blunders?

John Moore/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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