The Center on Law and Security’s November 20 day-long conference, “Counterinsurgency: America’s Strategic Burden,” featured several experts who wrote the book on counterinsurgency—literally.

During the conference’s first panel, “Counterinsurgency Today: Theory vs. Reality,” Conrad Crane, the director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, recalled the day in November 2005 when David Petraeus, who would later lead the U.S. troops in Iraq, asked him to take a leading role in creating a new counterinsurgency manual. A joint effort of the Army and the Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency was the first field manual on whose creation the two military branches collaborated closely.

Given that the entire project unfolded in less than a year, Crane said, the finished product was not perfect. He pointed out the weaknesses—the need for a better definition of irregular warfare, for instance—but also touched on the strengths of the manual’s counterinsurgency doctrine, such as its emphasis on the importance of sociocultural intelligence: “In this type of war, perception is more important than reality. It’s not what you’ve done, it’s what people think you’ve done that’s most important.”

Montgomery McFate is the senior social scientist for the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS), a program that embeds anthropologists and other social scientists in combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan to help the military better understand local populations and cultures. The counterinsurgency doctrine’s goal, said McFate, who was also involved in the manual’s creation, is “to move a host nation population from active or passive support of an insurgent group to, hopefully, active support of a legitimate host-nation government.” But the majority of Afghans, McFate continued, do not see the central government as legitimate. With governors appointed rather than elected, and with no conflict-of-interest laws to regulate the behavior of officials, she said, corruption is inevitable: “Until this issue of legitimacy…is really addressed, I am not sanguine about the prospects for peace or stability in this country.”

Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security, who acted as managing editor of the counterinsurgency manual, made an even starker assessment: “Today the United States is not winning the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.” The military must institutionalize the lessons it has learned about counterinsurgency and irregular warfare, Nagl said, arguing that in the aftermath of Vietnam the nation turned to large-scale conventional warfare at the expense of counterinsurgency. Janine Davidson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans in the Department of Defense and another participant in the manual project, highlighted the problem of “short-term-itis,” evident in the fact that military funding is in two-year cycles, putting major constraints on long-range counterinsurgency planning: “We know that counterinsurgency is a protracted kind of conflict…but our systems aren’t set up for long-term anything.”

Adam Silverman, who was an HTS field social scientist and team leader in Iraq as well as the HTS strategic advisor, said that the authors of the counterinsurgency manual were hindered by an overly broad preexisting definition of insurgency that warps the policy debate about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like McFate, he questioned the likelihood of a legitimate Afghan state. In the absence of such legitimacy, he said, the insurgency will continue: “We’re dealing with high-context communicators. If they’re pissed off they’re going to let you know. They’re not going to let you know by coming and yelling at you. They’ll let you know because they’re going to blow up your gun trucks or they’re going to blow up the interstate.” Panel moderator Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and a CLS fellow, suggested that Afghans wanted something even more basic than governmental legitimacy: security.

In the panel “Lessons from the Past: Counterinsurgency Throughout History,” Thomas Johnson, a research professor and director of the Program for Culture & Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, made an extensive comparison between the conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan. He argued that the U.S. lost the former war because it failed to establish the legitimacy of its favored government, and because it pursued a war of attrition instead of successfully protecting and isolating the general population from insurgents. Said Johnson: “The lack of self-awareness of this repetition of events 50 years ago I find deeply disturbing.... The current dual-pronged strategy of nation-building from the nonexistent top down and a default war of attrition is leading us down the same tragic path.”

Recalling how counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam both waxed and waned over the course of that conflict, retired Colonel W. Patrick Lang, a Middle East and South Asia expert, said his chief concern involves the will of the U.S. public for continuing the Afghanistan effort with an increased number of forces: “The bigger that footprint is and the more evident it is to the American people, the shorter their patience gets to be.” Retired Colonel Martin Stanton, senior analyst for the Afghanistan-Pakistan Intelligence Center of Excellence at the United States Central Command, stressed a lack of clear objectives as the primary obstacle to winning the Afghanistan conflict: “We are having a real problem as a nation developing strategic leaders that can look at something and see it for what it is.... Ambiguity in these things is just killing us.”

Michael Sheehan, former assistant secretary general in the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations and former ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism in the State Department, took issue with much of General Stanley McChrystal’s report to the secretary of defense recommending more troops in Afghanistan: “The question it answers is how we win an insurgency. That’s not the question. The question goes back to our initial purpose of why we’re in Afghanistan: to prevent another strategic terrorist attack within our borders or other national interests around the country. And in that regard, for the past eight years, we’ve been enormously successful.” It wasn’t automatically the case, Sheehan argued, that the U.S. needed to establish political stability in Afghanistan to achieve its counterterrorism objective. “The notion that you have to fix failed states in order to strategically beat al Qaeda is flawed.”

Moderator Stephen Holmes, Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law, questioned the part of McChrystal’s report calling for civilian experts on how to connect a government with a society from which it is alienated: “Who are the experts who know how to turn two-handed corruption into one-handed corruption in a combat zone?”

Posted December 3, 2009