Counterinsurgency

COUNTERINSURGENCY….Matt Yglesias, quoting Lawrence Kaplan, raises a vexing question. We are frequently told that the military finally learned its lesson by the end of the Vietnam war and figured out how to do counterinsurgency right. In fact, the story goes, we were damn close to winning the war when Congress pulled the plug and everything went to hell.

The point of this story is not that we could have won the Vietnam war if we had stuck it out a little longer (a proposition I doubt). The point is that we learned how to do counterinsurgency. But if that’s true, why have we performed so abysmally at counterinsurgency in Iraq? Why have we, in fact, not even pursued a strategy of counterinsurgency during most of the time we’ve been there?

Matt proposes that the answer lies in Dwight Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex: Defense contractors make their money selling big ticket weapons systems and therefore spend a lot of time promoting those kinds of weapons systems as the right way to wage war. The U.S. military has fallen in line, and counterinsurgency has therefore become a Pentagon backwater.

That sounds plausible to me, though I think the causality works in the other direction too (much as Eisenhower suggested). The U.S. military likes big wars against big enemies, not messy little pissant wars, and this keeps the contractors happy and makes counterinsurgency a career killer for ambitious military professionals.

But I think there’s at least one other critical point to all this: nobody ever thinks these wars are going to last very long. The very act of fighting a counterinsurgency is an admission that you’re going to be around for years, because that’s how long insurgencies last. If your war planning ? driven by neocon ideologues ? is so wildly divorced from reality that you don’t plan to be around for more than a few months, what’s the point of even thinking about counterinsurgency?

That’s what happened in Iraq, and it’s been the source of nearly all our problems since then. More on this later.