Think Again

Think Again: Counterinsurgency

Why the U.S. Army's focus on nation-building at the expense of warfighting is misguided and dangerous.

The U.S. military is still too focused on conventional warfare.

Absolutely not. In fact, over the past six-plus years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army has become a counterinsurgency-only force. The notion that there are still some conventional-minded bogeymen lurking in the shadows and waiting for the chance to take the Army back to the 1980s so that it can prepare to fight the Soviets in the Fulda Gap is a chimera.

There are understandable reasons why the Army has become so focused on counterinsurgency: The operational demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demand it. Counterinsurgency expert John Nagl is thus correct when he calls for winning the wars we are in now. Currently, when Army combat brigades go to any of the national training centers for preparation for deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq, they primarily train on counterinsurgency operations.

Yet the Army has allowed its understandable operational focus on counterinsurgency to dominate its current intellectual climate. Three Army colonels, all former combat brigade commanders in Iraq, warned Army Chief of Staff General George Casey last year that field artillery, because of its recent focus on counterinsurgency operations, had lost its traditional warfighting skills and had become a dead branch walking.

The group of counterinsurgency experts within the Army and other parts of the greater U.S. defense establishment, moreover, has narrowly selected and employed a certain, situational form of counterinsurgency operations called the population centric approach. It's really nothing more than a rehash of the counter-Maoist approaches of the 1960s formulated by Sir Robert Thompson, a British officer in Malaya, and David Galula, a French officer in Algeria. This narrow approach -- known in the current military vernacular as clear, hold, and build -- dominates the Army so much that it permeates the service's professional journals. Now, whenever a problem of instability or insurgency presents itself, it's the only approach that seems to be considered, yet different situations might call for different methods. In this sense, the Army has become dogmatic.

Small wars are the wars of the future.

Perhaps. But for the Army, the term small wars has become synonymous with nation-building. The future of war certainly holds more than that.

Indeed, the dustbin of history is full of mistaken predictions about the future nature of war. An aide to Josef Stalin told the Russian dictator in 1939 that mechanized warfare was not the wave of the future. German armored columns proved that prediction utterly wrong when they came sweeping across the Russian steppes in the summer 1941. Between World War I and World War II, the British saw the future of conflict more in terms of policing their empire rather than major battles fought between land armies. Their muddled thinking led, at least in part, to the near-disaster for the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940 and its fortunate evacuation from Dunkirk.

More recently, the Israeli Army that stumbled its way into south Lebanon in 2006 received a sharp response by Hezbollah fighters who operated like-small unit infantry. One of the reasons for the Israeli Army's poor performance (as shown by analysts like Mat Matthews and Avi Kober) was their heavy focus on counterinsurgency operations in the Palestinian territories for the six preceding years.

It is true that the future may not necessarily be centered on state-on-state warfare. But future wars will involve fighting terrorists, insurgents, and possible hostile states, or combinations thereof, even if they also involve softer tasks. The Army must organize itself around the principle of fighting with the knowledge that if called on, it can easily shift to nation-building and counterinsurgency, as it has done in Iraq. But doing the opposite -- building an Army that is great at building schools and negotiating with tribal sheikhs but is unprepared to fight at the higher end of the conflict spectrum -- will only ensure that most of the blood and guts will be ours.

The surge worked in Iraq.

Not quite. It depends how you define surge. If the surge is defined as follows, then yes, it worked: 1) a set of key decisions on the part of senior U.S. leaders in Iraq to ally with Sunni insurgents to fight al Qaeda; 2) Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr's decision to stand down in summer 2007; 3) the fact that many areas of Iraq, especially Baghdad, had already become ethnically cleansed by the time the surge started; 4) the addition of an additional five combat brigades, which sent a message to Sunni insurgents and Sadr's militia that the United States did not intend to depart in the near future.

However, the notion that the additional five brigades practicing new counterinsurgency methods under inspired leadership was the primary causative factor that lowered violence is not supported by the operational record. As early as the fall of 2003, prior to the surge, most Army and Marine units were already conducting best practices in counterinsurgency operations, according to a recent and authoritative history of the Iraq war by the Army's own Combat Studies Institute.

Yes, General Petraeus and the surge did give coherence to these practices with the introduction of the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine, Field Manual 23-4. However, that coherence was not decisive and would not have made an appreciable difference without the other critical conditions in place. It was those conditions, followed by the additional troops, that led to the reduction in violence, not the other way around.

General Petraeus is a military genius.

Time will tell. General Petraeus has worked against long odds and proven himself to be a forward-looking thinker. But evaluating generalship in counterinsurgency warfare is a murky matter, unlike in conventional war, where at least at the fighting level a general's performance is readily knowable. In World War II in North Africa, for instance, U.S. General Lloyd Fredendall was relieved shortly his Army's dismal performance at Kasserine Pass, which resulted in great losses of men and equipment and a clear tactical defeat. In most cases of evaluating generalship in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, it is simply too early to tell. Objective histories of generals' performance have yet to be written.

One should further show caution when proclaiming this or that U.S. general in Iraq to be a genius and the next Ulysses S. Grant or, conversely, another general to be a consummate failure. In the years after the American Civil War, Grant received mixed reviews by historians for his battlefield performance. It wasn't until relatively recently that historians and most other Americans have come to see him -- correctly -- as one of the best. And, ironically and interestingly, General William C Westmoreland in 1965 was Time Magazine's man of the year. Nowadays, Westmoreland has come to be seen as the symbol for American failure in Vietnam. And his replacement, General Creighton Abrams, who is currently seen by misinformed counterinsurgency pundits as one of the greatest counterinsurgency generals ever, was actually considered for relief in 1971 by President Nixon.

The military should embrace nation-building.

If those are the orders. The U.S. military should do what it is told to do by its civilian masters. If the mission is building an Afghan nation from scratch where none existed before -- as the counterinsurgency experts would have it -- then we in the rest of the military must figure out how to do it.

The danger, however, is that the military has shown a tendency in Afghanistan to replace sound, resourced strategy informed by a realistic assessment of what is feasible with clever counterinsurgency tactics and methods, based on a wrong-headed view that those same tactics and methods worked in Iraq. This, tragically, is a recipe for long-term nation-building in Afghanistan but without the resources needed to succeed. Does anybody really think that Afghanistan, a ravaged, ethnically divided country of 25 million with 72 percent illiteracy and little history of centralized rule, can be turned into a real state any time soon, on a budget that US. taxpayers can support?

There is an opportunity now for change in the Army. The future security environment demands it. But we should not view the past seven years of counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq as prologue. Nor should we view the surge of troops in Iraq as the template for future action. If we do, then we tempt the fate of many past states and their militaries that thought that they had become smarter than war and had divined its future, only to find out they were wrong after squandering much blood and treasure.

Yuri CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Think Again

Think Again: Pirates

More than 20 countries are joining a special U.S.-led naval force to combat pirates off the coast of Somalia. But it won’t be warships that defeat these modern-day sea dogs.

Piracy Is Making a Comeback

No, it never went away. The world has lived with piracy for millennia, and efforts to clean up the seas have never been truly successful. If anything, a rise in piracy has simply kept pace with the growth in international shipping. There are more targets, and thus more incidents -- on average, about 275 attacks around the world annually for the past several years. True, the string of hijackings off the coast of Somalia in recent months has taken the phenomenon to new heights of drama. It is hard to believe that a Ukrainian ship loaded with weapons and a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million worth of oil could fall victim to a couple of Somali skiffs, as both did last fall. But it isn't hard to do when Somali pirates have an army of wishful recruits ready to fill their ranks. Piracy is an industry with very few barriers to entry.

What has changed is the geography of piracy. Up until 1994, the roughly 300 annual reports of piracy and armed robbery against ships were distributed fairly evenly throughout the world. With the growth of China's exports to Europe and imports from the Middle East, international trade greatly increased -- 90 percent of it moving by sea. In the latter half of the 1990s, piracy increased in key shipping lanes in the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, and the Indian Ocean. During the past five years, pirate waters have shifted away from Southeast Asia to both coasts of Africa.

In all cases, the problem is rooted in poor governance onshore. There has been no effective government to control illicit groups or patrol waters in Somalia since the 1991 collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's regime. In the years since, foreign fishing trawlers have increasingly encroached on Somali waters, decimating the local fishing industry and spawning the plague of piracy to defend Somali waters (one pirate group even calls itself the coast guard). Unlike in West Africa, where hijacking occurs close to shore, Somali pirates track down their prey hundreds of miles from the coast. The Saudi oil tanker hijacked on Nov. 15 was 420 nautical miles from shore. Somalia is the hot spot for now, but pirates will likely crop up wherever coastlines and failed states align.

Pirates Are Terrorists

Not yet. Piracy is armed robbery at sea, but it isn't terrorism. It is more akin to carjacking than to car-bombing. Yes, pirates target civilians, but not to instill fear; it's to make money. Somali pirates' business model of holding ships, cargo, and crew hostage until shipping companies pay million-dollar ransoms has proven to be lucrative, raking in more than $150 million last year, according to Kenya's foreign minister. One of the reasons companies pay these ransoms is because of the implicit guarantee that ships, cargo, and crew are left unharmed. So serious are the pirates about keeping their end of the deal that an illicit catering industry has sprung up in Somalia to care for and feed the hostages while awaiting ransom.

Piracy is better compared to organized crime. The enterprise employs thousands: commando-like pirates who hijack the ships, international negotiators who secure payments, and logistic supporters who supply food, fuel, and weapons. Like other illicit networks, pirates have a faster learning curve than governments. During the past five years, pirates have readily harnessed off-the-shelf technology such as satellite phones, night-vision goggles, and GPS. They successfully combine this technology with simple weapons such as knives, AK-47 assault rifles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The shipping industry -- not to the mention the world's navies -- has yet to catch up. Right now, there are at least 14 ships being held hostage in Somali waters; 250 crew members from around the world are waiting for ransoms to be paid.

Armed Merchant Ships Are the Answer

Wrong. Arming crews or deploying security teams on merchant ships won't prevent hijacking, but it is guaranteed to escalate violence. So far, pirates have not harmed their hostages or sunk captured vessels. Fighting back will certainly change this. Armed crews will also create higher insurance rates for ships as the risk of damage to vessels and cargo increases. Already, companies' need to buy kidnapping insurance for their crews and cargo has raised costs by half a percent, and that number is sure to rise. Greater costs will also follow if the risk of pirates forces ships to avoid the Suez Canal and transit around South Africa -- a far longer, less fuel-efficient journey.

Protective measures such as barbed wire, improved early warning radar, nonlethal fire hoses, and long-range audio devices are the best -- and least expensive -- way to repel attackers. Pirate attacks have been easily frustrated when their targets have increased speed, removed boarding ladders, and taken evasive maneuvers. Compare these simple measures with the no less than 70 warships that would be necessary to protect commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Safe escort from an international coalition might work to protect humanitarian ships bringing desperately needed food shipments into Somalia. But a few antipirate warships in the region from Europe, China, and India -- with none coordinating -- would have little effect on the problem for the vast majority of commercial ships.

If Captured, Pirates Could Easily Be Tried for Their Crimes

Guess again. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea notes that every State may seize a pirate ship or aircraft... and arrest the persons. Yet, no single country has jurisdiction over international waters -- where many of the recent hijackings have taken place. More importantly, no country wants to prosecute pirates in their domestic court system for fear those arrested might request asylum. That concern is particularly acute when it comes to Somali pirates desperate to flee the dismal conditions in the Horn of Africa. Most captured pirates end up being released.

To fill the judicial vacuum, Egypt has called for the creation of an international tribunal to prosecute pirates. There is sufficient international law to bring charges, but there are no courts, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, or investigators dedicated to the task. And as other international tribunals on war crimes have illustrated, this path will create its own set of challenges. With the international community stepping up land and naval activities to combat piracy, the legal void will have to be filled or pirates will simply have to continue to be released. Just last week, France transferred custody of 8 pirates to the Puntland region of Somalia, which is home to pirate bases. In other words, don't hold your breath for the pirates to walk a plank or remain locked forever in a brig.

The World Needs a War on Piracy

Absolutely not. Wars against commodities, tactics, or phenomena are rarely, if ever, truly won. Just look at the war on drugs, or the war on terror -- both dragging on with hard-to-quantify results. Such wars misdirect scarce resources and cannot address underlying conditions. Under a war on piracy, merchant ships will still be hijacked and pirates will continue to extort money from commercial shipping companies.

Beyond the fact that absolute victory against piracy is a fallacy, there are the logistical problems. No country or naval coalition has the capacity to monitor the Gulf of Aden, an area four times the size of France. Vast amounts of intelligence -- and moreover, intelligence swapping -- are required to locate pirates. And most of the time, pirate ships do not stand out from other fishing vessels, so identification only comes after an attack has taken place.

All this comes at a time when naval budgets have shrunk to just a fraction of their former strength. U.S. President Ronald Reagan's famed 600-ship navy is down to 283, including submarines, and the British Royal Navy's decline has left just 25 destroyers and frigates for action. There are well-identified pirate anchorages and towns in northern Somalia, but a land war into the country is not what the international community has in mind. Instead, with a smarter fight against the conditions onshore that foster piracy -- the country's instability, the illegal fishing that puts Somalis out of work -- the world will come to find the high seas a great deal safer.