The Next War

Americans are fooling themselves if they think the era of adventures abroad is over. In fact, another big international intervention is just around the corner. And we're not nearly ready for it.


U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent speech during his surprise visit to Afghanistan on May 1 said it all: “Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives.” This extraordinary statement is one that those involved in U.S. foreign policy have heard many times before: The era of big interventions is over. It’s a tried-and-true narrative, and today, the argument goes something like this: The combination of significant war fatigue and coming defense cuts makes it unlikely that the United States will muster the political will or economic resources to sustain another large-scale military effort. The invasion, occupation, and reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan will almost certainly be seen as aberrations permitted by the post-9/11 environment, or so the thinking goes.

The conventional wisdom has it wrong. It is, in fact, likely that in the next decade, the United States will once again launch a military intervention, though with a smaller footprint than in years past. The threat from terrorist camps in weak, failed, or rogue states such as Yemen; the danger of civil wars or internecine conflicts that threaten stability in countries such as Sudan and South Sudan, and humanitarian crises that could cost tens of thousands of lives in places such as Syria and Somalia will not allow the option of intervention to be taken off the table. But the full-scale military engagements of the 2000s — akin to Iraq and Afghanistan — will not be policymakers’ preferred mechanism for conducting such operations

In light of these changes, future interventions require a revamping of current counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. COIN doctrine as presented in the famous FM 3-24 field manual — let’s call it COIN 1.0 — reflected the historical experience of the 20th century and the fledgling 2003-2006 counterinsurgency efforts, based largely on the U.S. experience in Vietnam. It’s unsurprising that this doctrine is now showing its age.

COIN 1.0 may not have been written exclusively for Iraq, but it was significantly tailored to meet the demands of that war. Not to minimize the complexity — and lethality — of combat operations in Iraq, but in retrospect it was a relatively easy country to stabilize. Iraq is a coherent nation-state with infrastructure, an educated workforce, and a well-established market economy with a high-value export: oil. It has only two ethnic groups and two major religions, and these groups overlap. Perhaps most importantly, it has a fully functional seaport connected to a road network, making supplying large bodies of troops relatively inexpensive (as such things go). Between the lack of infrastructure, complex tribal structure, and poorly developed economic market, the challenges in Afghanistan, as well as in many other countries in which the United States might be tempted to intervene, are much greater.

With revisions of COIN 1.0 under way, it is time to consider the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. The differences between the two wars underscore a host of significant lessons from the last five years that should be incorporated into a revised counterinsurgency doctrine — let’s call it COIN 2.0.

Our starting point is the belief that a society that has been disrupted, whether due to war or natural disaster, does not experience a linear return to stability. This is immensely frustrating to the outside observer (let alone a participant like the U.S. forces who were charged with shepherding the transition). The history of civil conflict suggests that the relationship may be more analogous to the physical process of phase change, such as conversion of water to ice or steam. Long changes in temperatures, whether cooling or heating, do not affect the liquid state of water — until at a fixed point it changes state to become ice or steam. In a similar manner, it often appears as though many counterinsurgency measures are without observable effect until a threshold for change is reached. The perception that various inputs appear to have no impact leads to both unjustified support for ineffective projects and unfair dismissal of potentially very effective programs.

For example, in Iraq after months of intense conflict and high death tolls, violence precipitously declined between April and December 2007. A range of targeted operations, training programs, and other 2006-2007 counterinsurgency activities have been both credited and discredited for this decline, but in fact a confluence of events and conditions were likely the reason for the declining death tolls. New counterinsurgency strategies must be built on the assumption that we do not know the exact process to obtain stability but that we should be able to identify and evaluate trajectories.

COIN 1.0 holds that establishing a set of observable measures is vital to assessing the effectiveness of various efforts. This is often easier said than done, however, as measures are fraught with inaccuracy and largely based on guesswork. For instance, the United States often measures stability by gauging levels of violence. In most cases, this is uninformative: U.S. commanders don’t know whether violence is occurring because of their programs, because there are fewer victims, or because of a change in insurgent tactics. For example, in Afghanistan, civilian casualties by insurgents increase violence against coalition forces, leading many to conclude that protecting the population is critical to counterinsurgency success. However, civilian casualties by insurgents in Iraq actually resulted in less violence against coalition forces. Simply measuring levels of civilian casualties may be informative for policies in Afghanistan but under other conditions (such as those in Iraq) other more nuanced measures may be required.

The other common approach is to measure progress using operational output, conflating measuring the process of counterinsurgency activity with the impact of those activities. Process measures are most easily understood as the direct results of COIN programs. For example, a process measure for security-training programs may be the number of trained police. An assessment like this is clearly appealing — it’s easy to count — but this approach is incomplete and often misleading. In this example, “more police” is not the desired end; “more police” increases public safety, which in turn generates government legitimacy — but we do not know the number or quality of police required for public safety or what level of public safety is required for this increase in legitimacy to occur.

Additionally, the models and measures of progress in COIN 1.0 do not account for third-party problems. Simply stated, the United States usually fights insurgencies by supporting a host-nation government, which means it is constrained by that government’s preferences. In many cases, this is a significant constraint, as U.S. officials have learned through their often-problematic partnerships with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

This presents us with what social scientists call the “principal-agent problem.” In this case, the United States serves the role of “principal” — stripped of academic jargon, that means an actor that wants things done — with a set of objectives related to international security. The host-nation government, as the “agent” (commissioned to act for the “principal”) does not receive the full benefit of the objectives, but does face costs and risks for its efforts to conform to U.S. desires.

Broadly speaking, the United States has two options to induce the host-nation government to act in accordance with its objectives. First, it can try to convince the host nation that it should change its preferences. Secondly, it can change the incentives — through positive (carrots) or negative (sticks) means.

In the international arena, the first approach very seldom works. Politicians in weak or failed states have typically risen to the top by knowing and exploiting local power dynamics, and they don’t need an international power to inform them of their interests. The second approach, while perhaps more useful, has the risk of incentivizing the host nation to sustain conflict in order to be rewarded for resolving it. That is what social scientists call a moral hazard — a government may be inclined to play the role of an arsonist in order to get hired for the job of firefighter. This moral hazard tends to exacerbate the problems with process measures. For example, do police still increase legitimacy if they are corrupt and foster instability, thus ensuring future aid and support?

COIN 1.0 focused on military force as a solution to political or social problems, such as an insurgency or ethnic tensions. Although the military has been critical in ending and deterring interstate conflict, it has a more limited capability in the nuanced intrastate-conflict setting. While we still don’t know exactly which COIN activities induce stability, we do know that military force alone is insufficient.

First, violence has limited applicability in solving what are inherently political problems. The record regarding the use of large-scale force, in accordance with Western norms of warfare, to bring about political settlements is not encouraging. Mass indiscriminate violence (like that wielded by the Roman Empire or the Russians in Chechnya) has proved effective in quelling insurgencies. The same is true of highly targeted, discriminate violence by small and exceptionally trained forces against an opponent with a hierarchical structure (think U.S. Special Forces against al Qaeda in Iraq). However, the first of these options is not a viable course for U.S. policy (even leaving the moral concerns aside), and the second requires a special set of circumstances — the right capability against the right enemy.

The second reason that the military is no panacea for resolving insurgencies is the simple fact that it is ineffective in employing nonviolent means. The military is a blunt instrument, best used for forcefully imposing security — its attempts to impose nuanced political, social, and institutional reforms will likely be counterproductive. For instance, continued efforts to build governing capacity in light of widespread corruption in Afghanistan has been both intensely frustrating for NATO forces and counterproductive at building public support for the national and local government among Afghans.

Finally, existing institutions meant to better provide nonviolent solutions, such as the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, are often ill-resourced and ill-prepared to effectively implement programs in conflict settings and deal with substate actors (such as governors or district heads). As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted on more than one occasion, there are more personnel in U.S. military bands than there are Foreign Service officers. Struggles by these civilian agencies in conflict zones have been well documented, and significant reform in both resourcing and culture is needed in these civilian departments.

The new model of counterinsurgency, COIN 2.0, must be based on a flexible, realistic model incorporating a set of feasible methods by which progress can achieved and measured. Although some of these concepts have been considered and even to some extent developed in COIN 1.0, greater effort should be directed to the following changes:

Lesson 1: Measure both the counterinsurgency activities and their direct outputs. It’s not wrong to measure the hours or dollars spent training police or the number of police. But these should be thought of as steps that move us in the right direction, not to be confused with progress toward the ultimate outcome.

Lesson 2: The record on establishing “metrics” is less than encouraging. Some are so general as to be useless, while others are so specific that their relevance is questionable. As a result, we should continue to use multiple crude measures such as violence or public polls on support to gauge any given environment. But rather than treating these measures as competitors, policymakers should treat them as related, helpful in finding the “sweet spot” where these measures may be combined to become markers for outcomes.

Lesson 3: Explicitly address the moral hazard involved in working through host nations by developing means to work “by, with, and through” their governments. Strategic planning must anticipate incentive and implementation difficulties raised by host nations’ shifting incentives — and plan on this being immensely frustrating.

Lesson 4: Cultivate civilian-agency culture to recruit, train, and deploy individuals with the expectation that work outside the traditional embassy setting is now the norm.

Lesson 5: Foster and develop a culture of impact assessment and evaluation in military activities similar to efforts to study and evaluate development programs. Despite the recognition that “assessment” is required, few programs have incorporated the controlled-comparison approach. This gold standard for evaluation typically involves collecting systematic information about the outcomes experienced by individuals or areas before and after exposure to a policy and then comparing these outcomes to individuals or areas that did not receive the program. This allows us to make inferences about effectiveness by using measurements with controls as in scientific experiments — and thus presents the best hope for determining which programs have impact.

Lesson 6: The military, while invaluable in providing a general blanket of security, is currently unsuited for the delicate work of knitting societies back together. Hybrid operational entities that value the role of the military within a civilian framework, as well as agencies implementing civilian programs that can bring back stability and legitimacy, should be constituted.

Don’t expect the United States to completely abandon its interventionist past. It will continue to be involved in diplomatic and military interventions abroad due to its strategic needs and humanitarian ambitions. To ignore this reality is to create a dangerously underprepared military and civilian workforce.

To prepare for the interventions to come in the next decade, the United States must adapt the lessons from its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and use them to generate a new, more realistic, and feasible doctrine. Much like innovation in technology, COIN 2.0 keeps the best features of COIN 1.0, with important modifications. Only a comprehensive relook at all these aspects of intervention strategy can effectively meet the demands of the new age of conflict. Military leaders should consider these concepts carefully — the next intervention is always just over the horizon.

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