Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers in September 2001 was one of the darkest moments in our nation’s history.
That event triggered the beginning of the United States’ involvement in two major wars abroad, one in Afghanistan and later, one in Iraq.
Twelve years later, the United States is out of Iraq and President Barack Obama has begun the final drawdown of troops from Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, in his State of the Union address, he announced he will be withdrawing thirty-four thousand US troops by the end of this year.
“Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of Al Qaeda...This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over."
American troops may be leaving but the outcome of the war is far from clear. Agreement on what these two wars have accomplished is far from settled. After overthrowing regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military was forced to fight a different war. It was one against insurgents and terrorists. It is known as counterinsurgency. But, whether the US military should have been fighting such a war and whether they fought it well, is still being hotly debated. Fred Kaplan is a journalist and author of the book “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the plot to change the American way of war.” He describes counterinsurgency this way: “The premise of counterinsurgency is that insurgents arise out of socio-political conditions and, therefore, the point of a counterinsurgency campaign, or the goal of it, is not just to kill and capture insurgents, but to change the living conditions to help the government provide basic services to the people, so that support for the insurgency dries up.”
Over the next hour, we’ll explore America’s decade of experience with counterinsurgency, and the role it might play in the future.
How well did it work in Iraq and in Afghanistan? Was it oversold as a success, following the Iraq “surge,” led by General David Petraeus in 2007?
And in an era of smaller defense budgets, will it be banished from the military as it was after Vietnam, only to be needed again in the future?
The war in Iraq came two years after the Bush Administration responded to the events of September 11th, 2001.
On that day, Americans watched their television screens after a plane struck one of the twin towers of the world trade center in Manhattan.
Another plane hit the second tower as the world watched.
The 9/11 attacks came as a shock after the United States had settled into a period of relative peace following the end of the Cold War.
President Bush issued this ultimatum to the Taliban who were protecting members of Al-Qaeda and who ruled Afghanistan at the time: “Deliver to the United States authorities all the leaders of Al-Qaeda who hide in your land. Release all foreign nationals, including American citizens you have unjustly imprisoned. Protect foreign journalists, diplomats, and aid workers in your country. Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. And, hand over every terrorist and every person in their support structure to appropriate authorities.”
When the Taliban failed to comply, punishing U.S. air strikes, combined with Special Forces, helped an armed, anti-Taliban Afghan group known as the Northern Alliance to enter the capital, Kabul.
A month later, the Taliban were out and Al-Qaeda fighters had scattered, though many had taken refuge in the mountainous Eastern region of Afghanistan or across the Pakistani border.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Invisible Armies.” He says, “I think we lost a major opportunity there because there was a period there between 2002 and 2005 when the Taliban were flat on their backs.”
He argues that the United States did not act quickly enough to shore up the Afghan government: “They had lost confidence and the people were hungry for an alternative. They wanted democracy. They wanted economic development and we didn’t really provide what they wanted. So, we created this vacuum which allowed the Taliban to get back on their feet.”
A major part of the problem was that the U.S. had entrusted the future of the Afghan state to Hamid Karzai. In October 2004, he was declared the victor in a popular election. Karzai would sit atop what was to become a weak and very ineffective government, riven with corruption.
Max Boot says: “Nation-building is an essential part of insurgency and counterinsurgency because these kinds of conflicts are essentially a struggle to see who can govern. And, both the insurgent and the counterinsurgent is trying to assert their authority as best they can, which means essentially building a state whether it’s the established state or a shadow state, which seeks to govern where the established estate cannot.”
And according to retired Lt. Col. Conrad Crane, America’s goal in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq, was to establish a legitimate governing authority as a partner. He says: “Legitimacy is the key. We’re Americans. We fight this counterinsurgency on somebody else’s turf and we leave.”
Crane is the director of Historical Services for the Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and a lead thinker on counterinsurgency warfare. He says: “And you’ve got to be able to establish a legitimate authority to leave behind, and that’s your very first principle. There are other things that attach on to that, but that is the primary one.”
That was the challenge too in Iraq.
Early in March of 2003, President George W. Bush announced that Iraq was running out of time to allow UN weapons inspectors to verify that Saddam Hussein’s regime did not possess weapons of mass destruction.
Later that month, Bush issued an ultimatum, demanding that Hussein and his family step down from power.
When they didn’t comply, Bush later announced that the war had begun. “My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger. On my orders, military forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance, to undermine Saddam Hussein’s ability to stage war.”
Coalition forces went into Iraq using overwhelming force to defeat Iraqi troops. There was little planning for the possibility that U.S. troops would be needed after Saddam and his government was overthrown. Under the direction of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the military’s strategy was to hit hard, hit quick and get out.
Author Fred Kaplan told me that was the U.S. military philosophy at the time: “There is a tradition in the American military that the point of an army is to annihilate the enemy and after the failed experiment in Vietnam, the army just decided to throw out all the guide books on that sort of war. In the 80s and early 90s, all the army field manuals and books defined war as major combat operations against a comparably mighty foe. Conflicts against insurgents, terrorists – that sort of thing – they were called ‘MILITARY OPERATIONS OTHER THAN WAR’. This wasn’t even war it was MOOTW and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time was overheard mumbling once that ‘real men don’t do MOOTW.’
…Yet at the time, in the early 90s, soldiers and junior officers who are out facing fire and firing back, if they were in places like El Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia. These were places that their own generals were saying these places were not theaters of war and, yet, it certainly felt like war to them and therefore they decided, some of them, a group of them, that as they rose through the ranks, they would help change the army because they saw this kind of conflict as the kind of conflict that would dominate the decades to come.”
One of those officers rising through the ranks was General David Petraeus. In 2002, he was commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. He was aware, not only of the military’s allergy to counterinsurgency, but of the distaste for it in political circles as well.
“The Bush administration was very hostile to the idea of nation building, which it saw as being some kind of democratic plot foisted off by Bill Clinton in Bosnia and Kosovo,” says Max Boot. “But, in fact, what Bill Clinton realized and what Bush did not until much later, is that you have to build some kind of functioning governmental institutions if you’re going to topple an existing regime. Otherwise, you’re just creating an opening for various criminals and insurgents to fill the vacuum and that’s unfortunately exactly what happened in the early years in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Here is what Author Fred Kaplan said about Petraeus in Mosul, Iraq in 2003.
“He gets there the place is in chaos. It’s in turmoil. There is no senior U.S. Command. There is no strategy or plan whatsoever for what to do after Saddam Hussein falls, which is kind of remarkable. So, Petraeus imposes his own plan. He’d been reading literature on counterinsurgency since he was a junior officer in the mid-70s and he decides to put it into effect. He vets candidates for new elections. He sets up the elections. He reopens the university. He opens up the economy. All without any consultations or orders from above and it works. The place is pacified at least for the year while he’s there.”
Professor Peter Monsoor was General Petraeus’ executive officer during the surge in Iraq from February 2007 to May of 2008 and is a retired Army Colonel.
He also commanded an Army brigade in Iraq in 2003. Mansoor helped Petraeus develop the counterinsurgency doctrine and is working on his own history of the surge in Iraq.
Professor Mansoor says: “Because there was no operational concept to which the whole force had to subscribe, individual unit commanders could experiment with different tactics techniques, procedures, we saw this 2002 to 2003 up in Mosul, with Gen. Petraeus with the 101st Airborne Division in which he was implementing a full-blown counterinsurgency operation.”
One commander, who served under General Petraeus in Iraq, was General Stanley McChrystal. Like Petraeus, McChrystal had studied the classic texts of counterinsurgency. “I was born in 1954, but the overarching historical event and I always loved history, was World War II, but as my father went to Vietnam, I became very interested in some of the post World War II experiences, the French in Indo China, the French in Algeria, then Americans in Vietnam and some of the British in Malaya. I became interested in and studied the limited wars that the post World War II era showed us”, says McChrystal.
While in Iraq, McChrystal was commander of Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC. There, he operated under an entirely different approach from counterinsurgency. He used drones – small groups of commandos – and other specialized tactics to kill insurgents and terrorists.”
McChrystal says: “Iraq was getting worse in the spring of 2004, the meltdown in Falluja, suddenly the rise of Zarqawi’s network which was extraordinarily effective and growing fast.”
Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was leading a dangerous insurgency in Iraq. And, General McChrystal had to figure out how to fight it. And, so he used a tactic known as counterterrorism – killing or capturing as many bad guys as possible. Now, though, he says they should have done something more:
“We were only effective when that was married with an effective counterinsurgency, because even though you can tear apart their network, if there is nothing to fill the vacuum bad things come back again. So you’ve got to have a balanced effort where counterinsurgency and counterterrorist efforts complement each other. One puts pressure on the enemy network, dismantles it. The other is simultaneously building up post-nation capability and something that almost prevents the… it’s like preventing the erosion of soil once you’ve pulled out the bad weeds there.”
And the soil was eroding quickly. In 2006, Iraq was on the brink of all-out civil war. Celeste Ward was the in-country political advisor to General Peter Chiarelli, who commanded coalition forces in Iraq at the time. “I think after the bombing of the Shia mosque in February of 2006, the sectarian conflict reached a new level when bodies were simply washing up from sewer systems, downriver, weekly, daily, and keeping track of the number of people that were simply being driven from their homes or murdered or worse, was part of what we did.”
Shi’ite Iraqis in Samarra were overcome with emotion when one of their holiest shrines, Askria Mosque, had become a pile of rubble. At dawn, attackers dressed as police commandos detonated a bomb in its golden dome.
It was a spectacular attack, but by no means isolated. There was uncontrolled violence across the country at the time. And in some areas, U.S. commanders were launching innovative counterinsurgency strategies to try to stem the violence.
In 2005, commander H.R. McMaster cleared neighborhoods in Tal Afar of terrorists and set up what are called “forward operating bases” right among the people, not huge fortresses, isolated from civilians.
That idea was also used by Colonel Sean McFarland and his team in Ramadi a year later, says retired Colonel Peter Mansoor. “They went into Ramadi and did the same thing although with a new twist and this was getting the tribal sheiks to be part of the solution and put up their young men to be part of a local police force, which turned out to be spectacularly successful and was the germ for the tribal rebellion against the Al-Qaeda in Iraq. So there were these examples where getting out into the community rather than positioning on big bases worked and yet the command in Baghdad didn’t adopt that as an operational concept for the entire war. Again, that had to wait until General Petraeus came in and took command in 2007.”
I spoke with author Fred Kaplan recently about the events that led to Petraeus’ decision to ask for the surge of troops in Iraq.
Host Madeline Brand (MB): It is on the brink or in the midst of civil war between the Sunni and the Shia. So David Petraeus comes in as commander of the entire country and says look, we’re going to try this counterinsurgency. What happens?
Fred Kaplan (FK): “Well, something was already going on. There was the Anbar Awakening in western Iraq, where a group of Sunni tribesmen who had allied themselves with Al-Qaeda in Iraq, turned against Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was going several steps too far and they reached out to an American commander, a colonel named Sean Macfarland who is in Anbar and who had studied the same books that Petraeus has studied, reached out to him to form an alliance. So, he recruits and forms militias of pro-American, anti-jihadists on the ground. Petraeus comes in, sees this going on, understands exactly what it is from the very beginning and applies the same principles across Iraq. Now what he does, it’s really sort of staggering if you think about it, he sets up something called the “Sons of Iraq”, where he pays militias to convert to our side. These were semi-militia men who weeks earlier had been shooting at Americans and who, as far as anyone might know, could start shooting against us again months end, and he pays them out of his commander’s discretionary fund.
The discretionary fund was for things like paying people to sweep the streets or setting up a neighborhood watch auxiliary force. He’s paying this to militias. Again, without telling anybody in Washington, knowing that they would probably reject the idea. This, however, proved to be one of the turning points in the war. Casualties on all sides went way down, sectarian violence almost screeched to a halt. It really was a turning point and what Petraeus did, again exploiting situations that were present on the ground, but knowing enough to know how to exploit it and to what end to exploit it. But, he really did turn the situation around.”
MB: With the overall change in philosophy from operating from behind these big, huge bases, these armored fortified bases, to actually saying ‘we need to be in and amongst the Iraqi people to find out what’s going on and to win over the hearts and minds of the regular Iraqi people and that’s what’s going to turn this thing around.’ Was that his governing philosophy and a philosophy that ultimately prevailed in Iraq?
FK: “It is and it did. But, there was one flaw to the reasoning. And, that is Petraeus had said all along that ‘look, my aim is provide some breathing space, a zone of security, so that the Iraqi factions can work out some larger reconciliation without worrying about getting bombed everyday.’ The problem was that Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister of Iraq, had no interest in doing this in the long run.”
Despite the problems with Maliki, Petraeus had to muster a lot of political will in Washington to do what he did.
“And so the product that came out in 2006 we shaped very much by and for Iraq, I think, in hindsight,” says retired Lt. Col. Conrad Crane. He is speaking of the now famous counterinsurgency field manual that he and General Petraeus and others worked on leading up to the surge. The field manual, formally known as, “FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency”, codified what some field commanders were doing in Iraq with good results.
General Petraeus was well aware that American-led efforts in Iraq were looking increasingly desperate.
Author and military historian Conrad Crane says: “In many ways, the most important impact of the doctrine was almost as a confidence builder. When the doctrine came out, it really was a key factor in convincing our political leaders, soldiers, marines, and even our enemies, that United States had finally figured out how to do this kind of war and can be successful. And, I think that that confidence had a major impact as well.”
But to do it, Petraeus needed many more troops. He needed a surge.
He got it.
In January of 2007, many saw Iraq as a “catastrophic failure” and called for U.S. withdrawal. But, instead, President Bush announced that he would boost troop levels. It was a bold attempt to stabilize the situation and end sectarian violence.
President Bush announced: “Our commanders say the Iraqis will need our help. So America will change our strategy to help the Iraqis carry out their campaign to put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad. This will require increasing American force levels. So I’ve committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq.”
The violence dropped.
Military historian Conrad Crane argues that the surge was a key part of this: “In Iraq, a lot of the change in political will came from just the announcement of the surge and the sign of American commitment. I actually talked to Iraqis when I was over there in 2007 that said one of the main reasons they joined the awakening, much of which happened before the surge troops even showed up, was because the announcement of the surge and the sign of American commitment, and the fact that we’re to be there for a while gave them the confidence that they could turn against Al-Qaeda and they would be supported by the Americans in that move.”
The surge turned out to be one of President Bush’s most consequential decisions of the Iraq war, and it propelled General David Petraeus to greater fame. And, like everything else about the war, it’s been subject to a lot of criticism. One of the most common criticisms is that its success has been overblown.
Colonel Gentile is one of those who believes that. He was a commander of a combat battalion in Baghdad in 2006 and now is a professor of military history at West Point. The views reflected here are his own and not those of the U.S. military.
He says too often the question of why things got better in Iraq in 2007 is answered with what he calls, “a stock narrative” about the surge: “And people start to ask why did violence drop? And very quickly, the answer is because we put a better General in charge. We changed the Army’s operations. They started using Field Manual 3-24. And, there’s -- come to a belief that it worked.”
The elation, he says, led to a less than ideal use of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan: “Then, after that, it really starts to steamroll and you start to see sort of the language of counterinsurgency being used by policymakers, terms like ‘protect the people,’ those kinds of things. So, it does, at a certain point, counterinsurgency as an operational method comes to eclipse strategy and even policy. So, the ideas that if you made it work in Iraq, shoot, we can just make it work in Afghanistan if we get the right inputs in place, a few more brigades, get a better General in charge and it can work just like it did in Iraq.”
That counterinsurgency could work “just like it did in Iraq” was not an idea one would have expected to be endorsed by the new president, Barack Obama. As a Senator, Obama opposed the war in Iraq, and voted against the surge. While Senator Obama saw the Iraq war as a needless distraction, he called the war in Afghanistan a war of necessity.
As a presidential candidate, Obama delivered a speech calling for more attention and U.S. troops in Afghanistan:
"Our troops have fought valiantly there, but Iraq has deprived them of the support they need and deserve," Obama said. "As a result, parts of Afghanistan are falling into the hands of the Taliban, and a mix of terrorism, drugs and corruption threatens to overwhelm the country. As president, I will deploy at least two additional brigades to Afghanistan to reinforce our counterterrorism operations and support NATO's efforts against the Taliban."
Indeed, President Obama would significantly intensify America’s war in Afghanistan. First, soon after taking office in early 2009, he announced an increase of 17,000 troops in Afghanistan.
At the time, Akbar Ayazi, Director of Broadcasting at Radio Free Afghanistan, explained to his listeners what the 17,000 troop increase would be used for:
"The short effect will be to provide security for the upcoming elections that will take place next August. In the long term, what these troops could do is to provide training for the Afghan National Army. The long-term effect will be, we're hoping to produce the same results as it did for Iraq.”
And this was not the end of the build up. As part of his vision for the mission in Afghanistan, President Obama announced in March 2009, that he would increase the number of civilian government workers in Afghanistan – a sort of “civilian surge.” They were to help build that country’s infrastructure: “This push must be joined by a dramatic increase in our civilian effort. Afghanistan has an elected government, but it is undermined by corruption and has difficulty delivering basic services to its people. The economy is undercut by a booming narcotics trade that encourages criminality and funds the insurgency. The people of Afghanistan seek the promise of a better future. Yet once again, we've seen the hope of a new day darkened by violence and uncertainty. So to advance security, opportunity and justice -- not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces -- we need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers. That's why I'm ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground.”
President Obama also reviewed his military options as commanders asked for yet more troops. General McChrystal had been in Iraq and was now commander in Afghanistan and by then, a big proponent of counterinsurgency. He gave the president his on-the-ground review of the situation. It wasn’t good. The Taliban were gaining ground. The president understood and announced his own troop surge at West Point in December of 2009: "And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”
The President faced immediate criticism for his decision to put an explicit timeline on the surge. Conrad Crane says: “One of the lessons of the surge in Iraq, to contrast it with the surge in Afghanistan, is one of the worst things you can do is announce a military surge like that, but then also present a deadline for its ending and for withdrawal. Because not only does that encourage your enemy to wait you out, it also discourages people who are thinking of coming over to your side about making that kind of move because they are going to be left behind to deal with the bad guys after you’ve gone.”
Historian Max Boot says: “That is in many ways the crux of the issue because insurgencies are long running affairs. The average insurgency since 1945 has lasted nearly ten years and some have been even longer than that. So you have to have a lot of patience in this kind of conflict and if you leave prematurely, the games that you may have achieved on the battlefield could very easily evaporate as our enemies like to say, ‘You have the watches, but we have the time.’”
I asked author Fred Kaplan what he thought the mission really was in Afghanistan.
Madeleine Brand (MB): “Was it defined by David Petraeus when he was there to be some kind of counterinsurgency mission. So, were there two different goals and two different strategies going on at the same time?”
Fred Kaplan (FK): Well, there was always a bit of confusion about this. You’re right. Obama, his main goal was to disrupt, dismantle Al-Qaeda and to create a stable state in Afghanistan so that Al-Qaeda wouldn’t come back.”
But, at the beginning, Obama didn’t quite understand how complicated this was. There were two theories. For example, one was Vice President Biden’s view, which is ‘look let’s forget about all this nation building stuff…Do raids, commando raids, go after the bad guys.’ Petraeus and others said ‘well no, listen, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t just keep swatting at these pests. You’ve got to drain the swamp out of which the pests arise. You’ve got to change the conditions. You can’t just go after them. That’s an endless fight.’”
The promise that the U.S. could turn things around in Afghanistan in 18 months seemed possible because of the success of the surge in Iraq. But, Afghanistan was a very different country, with other, more challenging conditions. I asked author Fred Kaplan about this.
MB: David Petraeus is seen as someone who is a hero and is lauded everywhere in the military and in Washington by journalists and he gets the assignment I suppose, plum assignment, to do the same thing in Afghanistan -- to try to turn Afghanistan around in the way that he turned Iraq around. But, he had a much different situation, a much different experience.
FK: Well, in Afghanistan he knew intellectually that Afghanistan is very different from Iraq and that counterinsurgency is something that depends on the local situation. However, we view things through the prism of our own experience and he viewed Afghanistan through the prism of Iraq. I was told by a number of people who worked for him that whenever a problem came up he would say, well, in Mosul we did this or in Anbar, we solved that problem this way. I was told that once even in a meeting with President Karzai, the Afghan president, he said, ‘well, we solved this problem such and such a way in Baghdad’ and one of Petraeus’ aids who was in the meeting, when they were walking out said to Petraeus, ‘it might be a useful intellectual experiment to try not even to think about Iraq and Petraeus said, ‘I’m working on it.’”
On February 13, 2010, U.S.-led military forces launched a massive attack on the town of Marjah – a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. The surge of troops, combined with devastating night raids launched by U.S. Special Forces, did in fact, beat back the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan. It reversed the momentum of the war beginning in 2010. And U.S. forces continued large-scale training of the growing Afghan Police and Army.
In May of 2011, President Obama could claim a major victory in the war in Afghanistan – the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
President Obama announced: “Good evening. Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda, and a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children. It was nearly ten years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory…”
While Special Forces took out bin Laden, the Army beat back the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
But, clearing areas of Taliban insurgents turned out to be easier than implementing a counterinsurgency strategy. I discussed this with Washington Post reporter, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who wrote a book about Afghanistan called “Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan.”
MB: Can you give some examples of how the strategy was carried out and in villages or provinces?
Rajiv Chandrasekaran (RC): I travelled throughout a number of districts, which were sort of Afghan county-level structures in southern Afghanistan. In 2009, 2010 and 2011 and witnessed what the military and the State Department were calling ‘counterinsurgency operations’ and in many cases that involved putting up hundreds if not, a thousand or more American troops in largely rural communities. There was no electricity; no running water and such. But it wasn’t just those troops. We would set up what the State Department called ‘District Stabilization Teams’ with a representative from the State Department, an individual or two from the U.S. Agency for International Development, sometimes a person from the U.S. Department of Agriculture helping farmers plant better crops and such. It was an incredibly laborious effort and one that involved getting down into the real minutiae of these places, trying to establish local governing councils and trying to ensure that they were broadly representative of their communities. So, you had American civilians trying to map out, you know, okay, what are the tribal connections here? How do we get this sheik involved and this guy involved on, well let me rephrase that because sheiks are an Iraqi thing, they are not an Afghan thing.
MB: Right, right.
RC: I thought to myself on more than one occasion that a couple of hundred years from now, archeologists will excavate in those areas and find these big generators trucked in by the United States and it will be the equivalent of finding Roman coins in England where people sort of thinking, ‘what the hell were they doing over there? What were we doing establishing these giant, essentially cities, in the desert expanse of Southern Afghanistan.
But, General Stanley McChrystal argues that establishing more effective governance was the key to success in Afghanistan, and more important than killing Taliban fighters: “In reality in Afghanistan, the enemy were a by-product of the real problem with governance and the real problem with corruption and the enemy distracted you from dealing with the real problem,” says McChrystal. “If you fix the real problem, the enemy go away because the reason for being go away and they become irrelevant in the population’s support. But, if you follow the matador cape, which is enemy activity and you spend your time just dealing with that, then the matador will eventually tire you out and kill you and you are the stupid bull. So, I was trying to tell people, this has nothing to do with compassion, it has to do with winning. You only win when the people support you. Until then you can kill whoever you want, but you going to lose more of our own troops if we don’t do it, but it’s always a tension.”
In June 2011, 18 months from the time President Obama ordered the surge, he announced - as promised - a drawdown of those troops: “When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives: to refocus on Al-Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country. I also made it clear that our commitment would not be open-ended, and that we would begin to draw down our forces this July.”
So was counterinsurgency a failure in Afghanistan? Here’s retired Col. Peter Mansoor:
“If you look at what’s happened in Helmand Province and Kandahar, these counterinsurgency campaigns waged down there have been very, very successful. They have reclaimed parts of Afghanistan for the governing authorities.”
Retired Lt. Col. Conrad Crane is studying the effects of counterinsurgency in both wars: “I would argue that though it’s a messy result in Iraq, it’s a result that would not have occurred without the impact of Gen. Petraeus, the doctrine, and the surge. I would argue that though it did work in Iraq, that particular approach may not have been the appropriate one in the situation in Afghanistan.”
Colonel Peter Monsoor says: “I think that counterinsurgency was a piece of the solution for sure. The idea that we could somehow just do night raids and use drone strikes to keep the insurgents suppressed I think is absolutely a wrong concept and then the alternative of withdrawing, of course, would have meant the collapse of the Afghan state. So these are wicked problems.”
Author Rajiv Chandrasekaran agrees that counterinsurgency has helped bring down the level of violence in Afghanistan, with caveats.
RC: There were elements of the counterinsurgency strategy that certainly have created positive outcomes there. The admonition delivered almost daily by Stan McChrystal when he was in charge of forces there to focus on the population – to avoid alienating them, to avoid injuring or killing them – was certainly very significant and I think did help to decrease civilian casualties. I'm not one of these people who say reflexively that Afghanistan is going to fall apart or implode in a year or two. I think that there are enough indicators to argue that things are, you know, perhaps on a steady trajectory. There are also other indicators that are very alarming. But, it raises a much bigger public policy question which is, is it worth it to spend that money and that time? Does the ends justify the means? And too often the debate in national security circles has been about, is the strategy sound? Well, let's move beyond the question of is the strategy sound to does it make sense as a nation, as a nation that has limited resources to be devoting so many resources to that sort of activity?
MB: Well, I think one of the answers to that or has been or it had been immediately after 9/11 was, yes, we need to do this because we need to get rid of these safe havens, if you will, where terrorism can flourish or terrorists can group and plot their evil deeds. That, if we do make populations more stable, wealthy, or more literate, etc., they will be less likely to turn to extreme forms of terrorism and that is in our best interests in the long run.
RC: And that's true, but that comes at a cost and after so many years of counterinsurgency operations, there is a growing belief in some quarters in Washington, particularly in some quarters of the White House, that you could also manage that threat by other means, by the use of counterterrorism operations that seeks to whack any weeds that grow too high, but not necessarily engage in the laborious effort of tilling and fertilizing the ground and planting brand new grass.”
In January, 2012, President Obama announced that he would withdraw most U.S. troops by the end of 2014, effectively ending the war there. And in January of this year, President Obama joined Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, in a press conference praising the end of the U.S. military commitment there:
President Obama: “At the NATO summit last year we agreed with our coalition partners that Afghan forces will take the lead for security in mid-2013. President Karzai has been here for several days, we've shared vision for how we're going to move ahead, we've consulted our coalition partners, and we will continue to do so. And, today, we agreed that as Afghan forces take the lead and as President Karzai announces the final phase of the transition, coalition forces will move to a support role this spring. Our troops will continue to fight alongside Afghans when needed. But, let me say it as plainly as I can: starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission -- training, advising, assisting Afghan forces.”
Now, as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond Odierno, says our nation’s budget problems have left our military future uncertain. Odierno spoke to the Brookings Institution a few weeks ago: “The near term budget decisions ahead of us today will deeply affect the direction which we are trying to take, the joint force, but in my case, the Army, as we complete combat operations in Afghanistan. In my opinion, the greatest threat to our national security is the fiscal uncertainty resulting from the lack of predictability in the budget cycle. Our country’s inability to put its fiscal house in order, compromises the future readiness of the joint force, the Army, and ultimately will impact our ability to provide our security to our nation.”
So as our military grapples with its budget questions, where does counterinsurgency fit in? We posed that question to the people we interviewed for this program, beginning with author Fred Kaplan.
MB: So Petraeus leaves after a year and goes to the CIA and now he has left the CIA and your argument is that with the departure of Petraeus comes the end of the idea of counterinsurgency, the strategy of counterinsurgency as part of the military. Is it dead? Is it over?
Fred Kaplan (FK): I would say it’s in a great slumber. It’s not just the departure of Petraeus. It was the failure of Afghanistan as well. It was the realization that this is not some universal principle and the desire not to get involved in this kind of conflict again. So in February of 2012, President Obama signed a new strategic guidance for the Pentagon, part of which stated that the army and the marines shall not size their forces for large-scale, long-term stability operations. What that translates to me in plain English is that when you do your calculations that you should not assume that one of the scenarios, one of the types of wars you’ll have to fight is a large, lengthy counterinsurgency campaign. That is off the table.
What we’re now seeing is reversion to very small footprint kinds of conflicts. We’re seeing it today in Libya, in Mali, Uganda, Sudan. The idea of not calling off the war on Al-Qaeda but using drones, air strikes, intelligence surveillance, letting allies take the lead if they want to take the lead, small groups of commandos rather than large brigade size units of conventional soldiers. The situation of the army, the U.S. Army these days is really facing an existential crisis. They’re wondering what their mission is.”
Retired Col. Peter Mansoor is troubled by this new scaling back. He says the Obama administration may be going too far in the opposite direction from counterinsurgency: “I think that the worrisome thing is that the Obama administration is using the drone campaign as a substitute for strategy that, because it doesn’t want to conduct counterinsurgency operations in places like Yemen, in Somalia, in Mali, and in Pakistan or even support governments who do, that the only option is to plunk away from above. This, again, is akin to mowing the grass. You’re going to kill hundreds, maybe thousands of terrorists, but you’re also going to kill civilians. You’re going to turn the people against you. But, we have an administration who came into office believing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were misguided and that counterinsurgency doesn’t work. So this is where we are. I think America’s going to pay for a price for it in the coming years.”
Col. Gian Gentile disagrees.
MB: Do you think that with the departure of Gen. Petraeus from military life, for now at least, that along with his departure, as with the departure of Stanley McChrystal, is that the end of this current version, iteration of counterinsurgency?
Gian Gentile (GG): I mean, just from my reading of the American political scene, it’s hard to imagine that in the next five, to ten, to 15 years, we’re going to see the United States committing military force to try to do something like we’ve done in Iraq, in Afghanistan. But, ultimately, that’s a policy matter and so if the American president tells the American Army or the American military, ‘Go do nation-building wherever and that’s what I want you to do,’ that’s exactly what we shall do.
Now, I think what your question is getting at is with all this, with the last ten years in Iraq, 11 years ongoing in Afghanistan, as the American military looks to the future, how should we organize ourselves in terms of our doctrine or organizational structure? And in my view, it should not be premised on counterinsurgency and nation building. It’s not to say that the American military won’t do that again, but we may have to do a lot of other things. But I mean, you’ve got to make some choices here and the American Army may have to do a lot of other things in the future.
MB: Is this a very important moment, do you think, for the American Army, for the American military in terms of its philosophy, what it’s role is in the world?
GG: Actually, I’ve thought about that. The American Army, after Vietnam, had April 1975 on its mind, and North Vietnamese Army tanks rolling through Saigon City, and that was a clear endpoint, right? And, it was a clear endpoint that said ‘we lost.’ And we don’t have that now. I think we’re trying to wrestle with that now, at least within the American Army. We’re trying to figure out what we’ve done, what we’ve accomplished, what our force should look like. How well we do with that process, I don’t know.
MB: I asked Historian Max Boot for his thoughts.
So would you agree with David Petraeus leaving the military and now the CIA, Stanley McChrystal as well, that counterinsurgency for now is dead in terms of a viable military tactic or strategy that America will use?
Max Boot: I don’t. I don’t agree at all. I think that if we forget counterinsurgency, we do so at our peril. I mean, this is something that happened once before after Vietnam where the Armed Forces tossed away their counterinsurgency manuals after we got out of Vietnam. And as a result of that, I think we paid a heavy price once we got into Afghanistan and Iraq because we didn’t have the training or doctrine to address these situations. Over the course of the last decade, however, through a process of trial and error, the U.S. Armed Forces have become one of the most effective counterinsurgency forces the world has ever seen. Now unfortunately, like it or not, insurgency is not going anywhere. This is the dominant form of warfare. It’s always been around, always will be. So if we ignore how to fight this kind of warfare, I suspect we’re going to pay a heavy price for our ignorance in the future.
Professor Conrad Crane agrees with Max Boot that America’s security will suffer if counterinsurgency or COIN is banished from military doctrine as it was after Vietnam.
Conrad Crane (CC): We all know the budget realities. We all know the political realities. We all can see the COIN instability operations fatigue that’s out there and that’s just what we have to deal with.
From these last wars, General Stanley McChrystal takes away this lesson from his experience with the locals in Ramadi, Iraq: “There was a young boy with one of the men presumably his father and the father laid down as we stood around guarding, you know, superior and the young boy just mimicking and went and laid down next to his father. And at that moment, I remember thinking how I would feel if I was the father. First, I am humiliated in front of my son. I am made to look powerless and then I see my son mimicking that behavior and what that would cause in him and at that point I remember thinking ‘we could lose this war if we forget that the winner is determined in the minds of the people. It’s not who you kill. It’s who you convince.’”