Conservatives And COIN: A Short-Term Marriage

petraeus1Ralph Peters’ latest cry for help supports a suspicion that I’ve long had about conservatives and counterinsurgency. For all of their praise of General Petraeus for having “turned Iraq around” using population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) methods, (what COIN guru David Kilcullen has called “armed social work“) conservatives remain generally committed to the proposition that the best way to protect Americans from terrorism is to just go out into other countries and kill lots and lots of people.

Praising the promotion of former joint special operations chief Lt. Gen. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Peters writes that “Petraeus’ deservedly lauded performance in Iraq appears to have inhibited his ability to think clearly about Afghanistan”:

[Petraeus] doesn’t seem to grasp that, while al Qaeda was a foreign and ultimately unwanted presence in Iraq, the Taliban’s the home team in Afghanistan. Afghan tribesmen just don’t share our interests. And Iraq’s a state. Afghanistan’s an accident. […]

Will McChrystal, our special operator without peer, be allowed to do what’s necessary — and to jettison huggy-bear programs that sound good but don’t work? Can he focus on the destruction of our enemies?

While recognizing that violent kinetic operations such as those that McChrystal oversaw in Iraq are often an underplayed aspect of counterinsurgency — and McChrystal’s promotion strongly indicates that such operations will play a major role in Afghanistan — it’s important to note here that we spent a number of years doing “what’s necessary” in Iraq, (as Peters wrote so charmingly at the time, “if we can’t leave a democracy behind, we should at least leave the corpses of our enemies… Give therapeutic violence a chance.”) and only managed to incite a violent insurgency and midwife a sectarian civil war that killed tens of thousands and utterly changed the face of the country. Of course, Peters’ view was that we weren’t doing enough of “what’s necessary” — we just needed to do more of it, and harder.

He was, of course, proved wrong on that, just as were many on the other side like myself who were skeptical that any strategy conducted under the auspices of a U.S. occupation could actually succeed in bringing violence down. (It still remains to be seen, however, whether that strategy will result in a stable and unified Iraqi state.) While I think it’s correct to note the difference between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, it seems to me that the fact that the Taliban (or the various insurgent factions that are often carelessly referred to together as “the Taliban”) are more deeply embedded in Afghan society argues even more for a careful population- and governance-centric approach to isolate the irreconcilable hardcore from the reconcilable opportunists.

Peters’ basic argument, though, is that protecting the population was all fine and nice in Iraq, but in Afghanistan it’s time to get back to the KILLIN’. Add this to the tendency of people like Bill Kristol to diminish or dismiss the role that public relations and symbolism play in counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency and you really have to question whether they really understand or believe in the strategic approach that they’ve been hailing so vociferously for the past couple years. I have my own concerns about the Cult of COIN that’s been developing here in Washington, but I think it’s becoming clear that, for many pro-war conservatives, what Petraeus and the COINdinistas really deserve praise for is helping them save face.