I Don't Get Stephen Walt's Complaint About Counterinsurgency

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on November 16, 2009

Yes, I understand his concern that we are supposedly basing our military strategy “on two enormous blunders,” but irrespective of whether blunders were committed, counterinsurgency doctrine had to be learned by the United States military, and is now being put to good effect in Iraq. Counterinsurgency doesn’t become a bad tactic merely because Walt believes it sprung from past military failures. Failures are there to be learned from, so that they can pave the way towards future successes, after all.

Walt doesn’t seem to appreciate the advances made in Iraq thanks to the surge, which is disappointing because despite the fact that the surge has not achieved perfection, it has significantly tamped down the insurgency in Iraq, thus saving both Iraqi and American lives. He is concerned that we are making the switch to fighting small wars via counterinsurgency, and not focusing enough on fighting great power wars. Possession of the latter capability remains important, to be sure, and it needs to remain on the radar screen of the American military. But we are engaged in small wars right now, and that means that we have to be able to fight them well. Fighting them well means using counterinsurgency. If we get away from that tactic, American troops die. It’s that simple.

Walt also states that if only we had captured or killed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, “we could have declared victory over al Qaeda and come home and we would be far less worried about events in Central Asia today. Who would care about a ‘safe haven’ in Afghanistan if Bin Laden had been killed or captured back in 2001?” Well, Walt may not care, but even if we kill bin Laden or other top leaders of al Qaeda, that does not mean that we will be able to simply declare victory and go home. Al Qaeda will reconstitute under a different leader, instead of simply slinking away, as Walt apparently expects it to do in the aftermath of the death or capture of bin Laden and/or other leaders. Our objective is not to simply decapitate al Qaeda in the short term, but rather, to significantly hamper and limit their capabilities in the long term so that they do not possess global reach. Killing or capturing a few head honchos will not be enough to achieve that objective.

In sum, even if we grant that counterinsurgency is the result of past American military failures, I am not all that concerned, because the application of counterinsurgency itself has been a success, and it deserves an important place in American military doctrine. If Iraq and Afghanistan did not lead to the development and implementation of counterinsurgency strategy, something else would have. We ought to continue to practice counterinsurgency when and where it is appropriate. As for defeating al Qaeda, that will be a long struggle. I wish that I could say that struggle will come to an end with the killing or capture of a few top leaders, but anti-terrorism is not chess, where if you checkmate the king, the game comes to an end.

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