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The Counterinsurgents’ National Security Strategy

To build out a theme from the previous post, it’s noteworthy how the National Security Strategy draws on conceptions of military power developed over the last few years by the theorist-practitioners of counterinsurgency in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Before 2006, counterinsurgency was an apocryphal focus of study by dissident officers in the Army and Marine Corps in search of an institutional home. Now this line is in the National Security Strategy: “We will continue to rebalance our military capabilities to excel at counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, stability operations, and meeting increasingly sophisticated security threats, while ensuring our force is ready to address the full range of military operations.”

If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you’ve read my 2008 interview with the patron saint of counterinsurgency. “You don’t get to pick your wars. Sometimes they are thrust upon you,” Gen. Petraeus said back then. “They don’t always turn out the way they were envisioned, or the way you envisioned them turning out. The enemy gets a vote. And that’s why I’m persuaded by the logic of the concept of full-spectrum operations.”

But it’s deeper than just declaratory statements about counterinsurgency. The National Security Strategy reflects key counterinsurgency concepts, like integrating security capabilities across the government and among allies. “We must update, balance, and integrate all of the tools of American power and work with our allies and partners to do the same,” it reads, echoing what Petraeus likes to call a “whole of government and whole-of-governments approach.” It’s concerned with the relationship between power and legitimacy, writing, “The United States supports the expansion of democracy and human rights abroad because governments that respect these values are more just, peaceful, and legitimate. (Or, as the Counterinsurgency Field Manual puts it, “Legitimacy Is The Main Objective.”)

And it tethers foreign support for American goals to local perceptions of how American power materially benefits others. In the NSS, that’s given a broad section about how to “Promote Dignity by Meeting Basic Needs.” In section 2-6 of the Field Manual — an admittedly under-developed section — counterinsurgents are instructed to “take responsibility for the people’s well-being in all its manifestations,” not just “essential services, such as water, electricity, sanitation and medical care” but also “sustainment of key social and cultural institutions.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that the National Security Strategy draws on lessons of the counterinsurgent experience. The Obama administration is itself a coalition of progressive national security strategists and key counterinsurgents, and decisions like the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy represent the crucible for that partnership and its relationship to the national interest. Increasingly, it’s inspiring a similarly improbable counter-coalition of progressive war critics and more traditionally minded military leaders. Adm. Eric Olson, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, called out the counterinsurgents earlier this week for offering an insufficiently martial strategy that bears little relationship, in his telling, to the realities of war.

Two years ago, before Obama’s strategy coalition took shape, one of the most prominent critics of counterinsurgency, Army Col. Gian Gentile, lamented to me that the “matrix” of counterinsurgency was overtaking Army thinking. Today’s National Security Strategy indicates that Gentile, now a West Point professor, was more prophetic than he thought in describing counterinsurgency’s influence.

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