I think Andrew Exum’s assumption number five on this list encapsulates one of the biggest flaws with counterinsurgency thinking as I’ve heard it articulated over the past four years:
“What we do is what matters.” Mostly false. I think we drew some false lessons out of the Baghdad security operations of 2007, thinking it was what we did that caused the dramatic drop in violence that allowed for a political process to take place and allows us to consider the Surge to have been a success. As I have pointed out several times here on the blog, there was a lot of stuff going on in Iraq in 2007 – a Jaysh al-Mahdi ceasefire, the effects of a brutal civil war, the Sahwa, etc. U.S. military operations most certainly had an effect on levels of violence, but correctly portioning out causal responsibility for the drop in violence among all those factors is impossible. One lesson from the Surge, though, might have been that in order for us to be successful in Afghanistan, a lot of stuff outside U.S. and allied military operations was going to have to go right. Another lesson might have been that conditions might change on the ground without us having the ability to accurately explain why. Regardless, in Afghanistan, it is always worth remembering that we are waging a war on behalf of a host nation. What the leaders of that host nation do or fail to do matters more than what we do or fail to do.
Of course this is why some of us were never satisfied with the pat “success of the surge” narrative in the first place. But bygones aside, this strikes me as a major reason to think that conducting counterinsurgency operations is something that should almost never be attempted. It’s not merely that “COIN is hard” but that completely apart from the difficulties, the success or failure is in almost all circumstances going to be largely outside the hands of the United States government. The exception to that rule would be if we faced a domestic insurgency—some kind of rebellion in Montana or something—in which case we would really be the ones conducting the counterinsurgency.
Beyond that, I think all the reams of counterinsurgency thinking out there have a great deal more to say in terms of good advice for the government of Afghanistan where there’s an actual insurgency, than for the United States where there isn’t. Of course there’s lots we can help a foreign government with. We have lots of money. We have access to military equipment. We have spy satellites. We can do airstrikes. We can even dispatch tens of thousands of heavily armed English-speaking soldiers to your country. We can listen to requests for help from foreign governments and decide if it makes sense to help out. But success or failure is going to be ultimately out of our hands.