Could "repetitive raiding" replace counterinsurgency?
After the last decade's costly experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, future U.S. leaders will very likely wish to avoid another nation-building effort that requires the suppression of a stubborn insurgency.
But wishing rarely makes problems go away. There might, hypothetically, be another occasion when a "rogue" regime needs to be removed in the interests of either regional stability or basic human rights. Is there an alternative to post-removal counterinsurgency and nation-building? And what about Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" -- "you break it, you own it" -- referring to the United States' moral obligations to Iraq after the 2003 invasion?
Writing in Armed Forces Journal, Bernard Finel, a senior fellow at the American Security Project, rejects the Pottery Barn rule and offers an alternative to counterinsurgency, namely "repetitive raiding." Finel explains his proposal this way:
[T]he vast majority of goals can be accomplished through quick, decisive military operations. Not all political goals are achievable this way, but most are and those that cannot be achieved through conventional operations likely cannot be achieved by the application of even the most sophisticated counterinsurgency doctrine either.
As a consequence, I believe the U.S. should adopt a national military strategy that heavily leverages the core capability to break states and target and destroy fixed assets, iteratively if necessary. Such a strategy -- which might loosely be termed "repetitive raiding" -- could defeat and disrupt most potential threats the U.S. faces. While America's adversaries may prefer to engage the U.S. using asymmetric strategies, there is no reason that the U.S. should agree to fight on these terms.
After explaining why the United States should fight on its own terms rather than those that favor the adversary, Finel then applies the economic concept of marginal benefit versus marginal cost to discuss the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. Finel argues that in both cases, the United States achieved most of its war objectives very early on. Cumulative costs at those points in the campaigns were trivial compared with what they would eventually become. In both wars, the United States stayed on in an attempt to achieve the remaining war objectives, paying massive marginal costs for the last few marginal benefits.
It seems easy to dismiss Finel's argument by noting the risks and costs the United States would have borne had it left Iraq and Afghanistan as broken and chaotic places. Finel explains how these risks and costs were minor, unlikely, or could have been mitigated without open-ended military occupations.
But Finel is right to bring up the point about marginal benefits versus marginal costs. The United States will leave Iraq and Afghanistan at some point. When it does, there will still be some degree of trouble and uncertainty about the future in both places. Even then, no one will be able to say that all the broken dishes were repaired. Accepting that, Finel's argument for "repetitive raiding" as an alternative to counterinsurgency may find some appeal.