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.