Why Counterinsurgency Doesn't Work

The Problem Is the Strategy, Not the Execution

An Afghan villager walks during U.S. army patrol in Paktya province, December 11, 2009. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

Both Max Boot (“More Small Wars,” November/December 2014) and Rick Brennan (“Withdrawal Symptoms,” November/December 2014) provide insight into what the United States did wrong at an operational level in Iraq. Boot’s precepts for doing better in the next counterinsurgency are sensible, even if some of them would require a higher tolerance for casualties, and Brennan’s arguments about the errors the United States committed in Iraq from 2010 to 2012 generally ring true to me, as one of the people making some of those mistakes.

But Boot’s and Brennan’s arguments rely on a flawed assumption: that if only the United States had waged counterinsurgency properly, it could have succeeded. If Washington’s original goal was to transform Iraq such that Baghdad could govern competently, quell the country’s insurgency, and develop functional, Western-style institutions, counter­insurgency was destined to fail—just as the United States failed in Vietnam, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The blame lies not with poor implementation but with the strategy itself.

Counterinsurgency, which General David Petraeus described in The U.S. Army–Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual in 2006, calls for a three-legged approach known as “clear, hold, and build”: push insurgents out of a designated area, prevent them from returning, and build local institutions that help the population move forward. The U.S. military is capable of implementing the first two legs, since they are primarily military in nature. But it runs into problems with the open-ended nature of the third. The military can enlist civilian U.S. government agencies to provide very limited assistance, but those bodies, too, have spotty records when it comes to implementing reform and reconciliation, even in countries at peace.

The “build” leg is indeed ambitious; it involves developing competent local governments and security forces capable of replacing U.S. forces. Yet here the deck is stacked against success. The United States tends to commit troops to counterinsurgency missions only in the absence of a friendly central government (think of Afghanistan in 2001 and

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