The Counterinsurgency Debate in Two Quick Hyperlinks

Tuesday, December 02, 2008 at 11:00 am

Over at the Middle East Report, Jason Brownlee critiques the Army’s new stability operations field manual as a bloodthirsty imperialist document. Over at Abu Muqawama, Andrew Exum annihilates Brownlee’s critique. If you’d like to read a quick primer on the larger ideas at stake in the counterinsurgency debate, read these two pieces together.

… actually, I can’t resist saying one thing about this exchange. Exum contends that Brownlee is committing a category error, attributing strategic ambitions in an operational document — in this case, the stability operations field manual, known as FM 3.07. This is mostly right. But it’s a bit simplistic to say that the authors of FM 3.07 or the authors of FM 3.24 (the counterinsurgency field manual) aren’t putting forward a strategic picture of the world. They clearly are: they’re making an argument about what the current state of warfare is, and what the sorts of wars the U.S. is likely to find itself in will be; as well as pushing back on what they consider inadequate conceptions of the current strategic environment put forward by other elements of the military.

What the counterinsurgents are not making, as a general proposition, is a normative argument that these are the sorts of wars the U.S. ought to fight, and that’s where Exum is right and Brownlee is wrong. You can surely find any number of counterinsurgents who think this or that intervention is good and wise and just and valuable. But such a position, in my experience, does not emerge from a study of counterinsurgency. Now, you might also find any number of counterinsurgents who would say “Given that we are involved in Afghanistan, an application of counterinsurgency concepts would aid the war effort.” But that’s a different proposition from one of the form “Given that we consider counterinsurgency a worthwhile enterprise, we ought to invade, occupy and then pacify Pakistan or Malaysia or Indonesia or the Philippines to put our ideas to the test.”

Perhaps, though, someone could object: “But the stability-operations field manual and the counterinsurgency field manual can be used to justify imperialism.” As best as I understand Brownlee, this is at the heart of his argument. But, as Exum points out, it’s a statement that applies to a whole lot of operational military concepts. Brownlee might have also considered that the current counterinsurgent ascendancy came as a corrective to the debacles launched by precisely the American imperialists in the Bush administration. It can hardly be the fault of the counterinsurgents if the Bush administration glommed onto counterinsurgency when it suited their purposes in Iraq last year.

That’s not to say that the conscientious anti-imperialist shouldn’t be on the lookout for political malefactors who use counterinsurgency to justify foolhardy wars. It’s to say that the lookout properly centers on those malefactors and not counterinsurgency. FM 3.07 says explicitly that Iraq and Afghanistan — and, implicitly, wars of occupation — are not the future of U.S. arms. Counterinsurgency and imperialism have a history of intermingling, but the two concepts are distinct. And anti-imperialist counterinsurgency skeptics ought to grapple with this point of Exum’s:

And if the officers of the U.S. Army say that “we don’t do windows” and refuse to author any doctrine for nation-building and security sector reform and then the politicians decide that oh yes you do, then who is being irresponsible? Both parties, perhaps, but certainly the officer corps. What the author of this article doesn’t understand is that while military officers don’t decide how the U.S. military is to be employed, they do have a responsibility to ensure junior officers and their units are prepared for any foreseeable contingency.

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Comment posted December 2, 2008 @ 10:49 am

But if counterinsurgency becomes a part of the military's MO, doesn't that imply that incentives to build up counterinsurgency capacity, and even to exercise that capacity, will likely increase in the military, just as we currently have a military-industrial complex that tells us to buy and develop more fighter jets?

In other words, aren't we witnessing the birth of a constituency in the military which favors the development and application of counterinsurgency techniques and technology? Then, from a practical standpoint, we can expect more COIN R&D, more COIN ops, and more imperialism on balance.

I'm not sure the question of “whose fault this is” is the relevant question. Instead we should see this event for its practical significance, as a sign of more imperialism in the future. No?

Comment posted December 2, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

Exum's point proves too much. Once you've completely separated operations from strategy/politics/morality/etc, then you can write yourself a field manual on anything you wanted. How about a manual on “coercive interrogations”? Or tactical use of nuclear weapons? Just as some have argued that ignorance of counterinsurgency got us entangled in Iraq, one could imagine that an army manual on torture might have prevented some of the more extravagant abuses at Abu Gharib and Bagram.

Any manual of operations has to give you some basis on which to judge the likelihood of the operation's success. Those likelihoods have ideological content. The military's desire to avoid “normative” statements is too closely parallel to the MSM's desire for “balance”–an impossible, self-defeating goal. Not to mention that I would have (naively) thought that a bright line between operations and strategy/politics is at odds with how counterinsurgency theorists usually think.

I'm not at all certain that Brownlee is right–so long as we have to fight wars, we'll have to rebuild nations when we're finished. But anyone who is as sure of the distinction between means and ends as Exum is in that post strikes me as somewhat suspect.

Sam Roggeveen
Comment posted December 3, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

Ultimately, the decision to focus on COIN and stability ops is a political one, since it means a lot of resoures have to be moved away from other priorities. More here, at the Lowy Institute's blog:…

Sam Roggeveen
Comment posted December 3, 2008 @ 11:28 pm

Ultimately, the decision to focus on COIN and stability ops is a political one, since it means a lot of resoures have to be moved away from other priorities. More here, at the Lowy Institute's blog:…

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