September 07, 2006

Eating Soup with a Knife

Anyone who's been paying even cursory attention to the debacle in Iraq knows that the United States military doesn't do counterinsurgency very well. In fact, the military's awful at it. What's more, officials in the Army have long refused to try to improve things along this front—despite the fact that the military has lost in both Vietnam and Iraq because of, in part, its ineptitude at counterinsurgency. Instead, they prefer to focus on winning conventional wars, which the military does very well, but which are rarely fought these days. But why do military leaders do that?

In a new paper for Cato, Jeffrey Record of the Army War College blames it on the "strategic culture" in the military. American strategists have long preferred to "separate war and politics"—believing that if they just kill lots of bad guys, the rest will sort itself out later. When the Pentagon planned for a war against Saddam Hussein's army but neglected to plan for postwar operations, it wasn't a fluke: military leaders have always thought that way. And that culture is unlikely to change. So Record thinks the U.S. should just give up even trying to wage small, counterinsurgency-heavy wars like we've seen in Iraq, unless there's some truly, truly dire need.

It's a smart paper, but I think there are also structural reasons why the military is so terrible at counterinsurgency. For one, there's an institutional bias towards spending more and more money on fancy new weapons every year. Congress loves them, because fancy new weapons create jobs. Pentagon bureaucrats love them, because they get bigger budgets and new toys. Contractors and lobbyists love them for obvious reasons. So procurement spending takes up an inordinate share of the defense budget, at the expense of things that could potentially help the military become more adept at counterinsurgency—like an increase in peacekeepers and linguists.

There's also the fact that U.S. military deployments tend to be logistically very complex. Any occupation these days will need lots of support staff, supply lines, convoys, etc. All that stuff needs guarding. And that means that inevitably, something like the Green Zone will be set up, where soldiers reside, aloof from the local people and their culture—and that runs at cross-purposes with winning "hearts and minds" and the like. Plus there's the military's understandable desire to avoid casualties at all costs, which again, militates against having soldiers blend in with the local population. There's also public opinion to consider.

At any rate, I do think Record's right. It's very, very unlikely that the military will suddenly become good at counterinsurgency. The latest Quadrennial Defense Review was probably the best chance that proponents of counterinsurgency had to drastically change the direction of the military. After all, soldiers were dying daily in Iraq because the military was futilely trying to win a fourth-generation war using conventional means. Surely if things were ever going to change, it would be then. But, of course, the 2006 QDR merely ended up hyping the "threat" from China and largely focused on building up the military's conventional capabilities further.

Record's paper dovetails nicely with an essay Andrew Bacevich recently wrote, arguing that Islamist movements in the Middle East are increasingly learning to wage sophisticated insurgency campaigns that are impossible for conventional Western militaries to defeat. Israel never vanquished Hezbollah. Iran will give the United States equal trouble or more if we ever try to invade. "The inhabitants of [the Middle East]," Bacevich says, "now have options other than submission or collaboration." We can no longer, it seems, impose our will on recalcitrant Middle Eastern countries by force.

Fortunately, as Bacevich rather sensibly points out, we don't have to impose our will on these countries. They don't pose existential threats. Iran, at the moment, is surrounded by American troops, rather than vice versa. Whatever problems are associated with its nuclear program can be handled by perfectly dovish means or, if worst comes to worst, deterrence. Ideally, the United States would just accept that it can no really longer use its military power to meddle in the Middle East. Regardless of whether we should or not, it's just not feasible. Somehow, I think we'll survive just fine.
-- Brad Plumer 11:31 PM || ||