Hammers, Nails, and Counterinsurgency

Matt notes that one of the subtexts of the Iraq war debate is an intra-military struggle between advocates of conventional warfighting capabilities and those who think the military needs to bulk up on counterinsurgency tactics. I agree that it’s disheartening to see the counterinsurgency folks being co-opted into supporting a longer Iraq war, but I don’t agree about this:

The trouble here is that though the counterinsurgency people are, I think, generally correct about the sort of scenarios we should be preparing our military for, Iraq is, at this point, completely lacking in strategic rationale. But the two ideas — should we be fighting in Iraq, versus should we be preparing more for stability operations rather than big state-to-state warfare — really ought to be considered separately.

I think it’s important not to underestimate the extent to which the existence of a government capability makes it more likely that that capability will be put to use. Clearly, the ease with which we won the first Gulf War, and the relatively large size of the US military made it easier for the Bush administration to make the case that we should invade Iraq. Had the military been smaller or had less advanced weaponry over the last couple of decades, proponents of war would have had to face tough questions about where they would find the personnel and hardware to launch a second war in Iraq before the war in Afghanistan was completed. Similarly, I think one of the major things holding the Bush administration back from a war in Iran is that even the hawks in the administration realize that we simply don’t have the troops necessary to do the job properly.

It seems to me that the same principle applies to a beefed-up counterinsurgency unit. Right now, one of the most potent arguments against nation building is that our military isn’t designed for it. Our military is trained to kill people and blow stuff up, and so if you stick them in a foreign country where they have to worry about the nuances of the local culture and avoid killing too many civilians, that creates some serious problems. But if we start training a special counterinsurgency corps, policymakers will naturally be more inclined to test those units out in places where they appear to be needed.

Now, obviously that wouldn’t be a problem if we had a counterinsurgency corps that was so effective that it always led to good outcomes. But I think it’s hard to draw from Iraq the lesson that the only problem was the lack of proper counterinsurgency training. Obviously, if our troops had been well trained in counterinsurgency tactics, the odds of success would have been higher. But they still would have been quite small. My understanding of the history of counterinsurgency is that they practically never work, and in the rare case where they do work the costs are often unacceptably high.

All of which is to say that it’s almost never a good idea to get ourselves into counter-insurgency operations. And indeed, if we get to the point where counter-insurgency forces seem desirable, that should be a sign that we ought to start looking for the exits. Creating a dedicated counterinsurgency unit will create institutional pressures for near-perpetual counterinsurgency operations. I suspect that most of the time even the best counterinsurgency efforts won’t be effective, but if we’ve got a hammer, we’ll be awfully tempted to keep pounding any nails we see.