Counterinsurgency Needs Civilian Cabilities

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Steve Metz has an excellent TNR piece making the case that pious talk aside, we’ve done nothing to actually build the civilian capabilities that all our defense policy planners and political leaders say we need in order to conduct the sort of counterinsurgency operations it’s claimed that we need to do. What to do about it. I’m going, however, to quote the very end of the article where I think he doesn’t lay the conclusions out just right:

There are only two solutions. We could belly up and provide the resources for a serious expeditionary civilian corps. But a few hundred or even a couple of thousand people is not enough. We would need many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of advisers with linguistic skills and cultural knowledge willing to leave home and live under risky conditions for years at a time. And we are not talking about 20-somethings paid a pittance and fueled by idealism, but skilled professionals demanding serious pay for their expertise and sacrifice. (The difficulty that the State department had convincing even its hardened professionals to volunteer for duty in Iraq showed what a challenge this is.) Of course, if the pay is high enough, the experts will come. But, at a time of massive government budget deficits and a persisting national economic crisis, this is simply not in the cards.

What, then, is Plan B? If we are unwilling to pay the price for a serious civilian capability–and admit that foisting the job of development and political assistance on the military is a bad idea–the only option is to alter our basic strategy. We could find a way to thwart Al Qaeda and other terrorists without trying to re-engineer weak states. We could, in other words, get out of the counterinsurgency and stabilization business. This is not an attractive option and entails many risks. But it does reflect reality. Ultimately, it may be better than a strategy based on a capability that exists only in our minds.

I think the situation is actually much less bleak than Metz makes it out to be. For one thing, the massive government budget deficits and a persisting national economic crisis really shouldn’t be a barrier to doing this. If the things that leading Pentagon officials claim to believe about American national security are true, what we ought to do is draw up a bill of what it would cost to properly finance the civilian side of things and cut that much money from the Defense Department budget in order to pay for it. But of course the Pentagon won’t actually agree to that, which sets up the more realistic option of the Pentagon paying lip service to the need for civilian capabilities while in practice building those capabilities in-house.

That’s not a great idea, but it’ll probably work out okay anyway because there’s really very little reason to believe that “thwart[ing] Al Qaeda and other terrorists without trying to re-engineer weak states” is really all that hard. Al-Qaeda is a very small number of people with what appears to be an extremely limited capacity to damage western interests. What’s more, even on the rare occasions when al-Qaeda achieves tactical success at murdering westerners, there’s no sign these murders do any real damage on a strategic level. It’s not as if the July 2005 bombings in London have displaced the U.K. from its ranks as wealthy, medium-sized country with highly competent armed forces.