March 1, 2013  

The once and future insurgent

Irregular warfare is nothing new, and always difficult

As America enters what is now the 12th year of the “decade of war,” it is time to assess that experience and learn what we can. In that light, three recent books demand our attention. The first, Max Boot’s “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” addresses the ancient and contemporary problem of war in the shadows. The second, Fred Kaplan’s “Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War,” is a fascinating tale of how a band of insurgent leaders tried to change the armed forces from within and reteach the Army and Marine Corps how to fight insurgencies. The third book, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,” tells two stories: one about Marines fighting insurgents in Helmand province and a second about how contending bureaucracies failed to work together in the pursuit of national goals.

Together, these books remind us of the ubiquity of insurgency, the difficulties associated with irregular warfare and the effects that it has on Americans and on the American way of war. Despite an apparent desire to think more about big wars in developed theaters, these three books together serve as a warning to the United States: Even superpowers can’t always define the course of the wars that they choose.

‘Invisible Armies’

“Invisible Armies” is a 750-page, narrative encyclopedia of insurgency, terrorism and small wars. Not only does Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, show the dominance of this form of war over a few millennia, he manages to draw an entertaining picture of individual insurgents and the counterinsurgents. Boot brings these characters to life across a stretch of history from the Maccabees to McChrystal. The value of such a compilation comes from the perspective that it gives its reader. Insurgency and other forms of irregular conflict were not invented after World War II. Like terrorism, guerrilla warfare has been a hardy perennial, a tool of the weak that enables them to take on the strong. Boot’s mammoth book is destined to become a classic with few imitators.

In addition to dozens of case studies, Boot has developed a database of nearly 450 cases since 1775. Since the end of World War II, there have been 200 wars, with 60 of them ongoing. The average insurgency has lasted 10 years. Boot concludes that insurgents “have been getting more successful since 1945, but still lose most of the time.” He notes that “public and press opposition” is powerful, especially when brought to bear against a democratic government. New media, like Twitter and Facebook, are likely to magnify this phenomenon. In all, Boot is wedded to the notion of population-centric counterinsurgency, but points out that it is not as “touchy-feely as commonly supposed.” Despite the cliché of “winning hearts and minds,” first used by a British general in the American Revolutionary War, insurgency and counterinsurgency are often dark and bloody, a point that we have had to relearn in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Boot’s collection of cases ends in Iraq with a point about Gen. David Petraeus. With more than a bit of hyperbole, Boot writes, “Before he could conquer Iraq, Petraeus first had to conquer the U.S. Army, an institution famously resistant to intellectuals such as this Princeton Ph.D.”

• Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, by Max Boot (Liveright Publishing, 2013)

‘The Insurgents’

Petraeus’ attempt to transform the Army on counterinsurgency is the subject of Kaplan’s entertaining book. Kaplan, who holds a Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctorate, writes for Slate. With gobs of detail mostly provided by the change agents themselves, Kaplan tells the story of how the “insurgents” — savvy officers with big brains and advanced degrees in history and the social sciences — came to develop a new counterinsurgency doctrine, push the careers of their friends, form alliances across the government, influence the development of the surge in Iraq and generally succeed against the wishes of many in Congress, the Joint Chiefs and the previous theater commanders. The cast of characters here is long, but among the insurgents were: Conrad Crane, John Nagl, David Barno, David Kilcullen, Kalev “Gunner” Sepp, Ike Wilson, Mike Meese, Bill Hix, Douglas Ollivant and Eliot Cohen.

At the end of the book, the arcs of Kaplan’s two main concerns — Petraeus and COIN doctrine — both come crashing down. He portrays the ever-fit flag officer as successful in Iraq but stumbling in Afghanistan. Petraeus’ untimely resignation from the CIA provides an almost-Hollywood ending for Kaplan’s rise-and-fall theme. He asserts that the counterinsurgency doctrine that made great progress in Iraq became dogma and a poor fit for Afghanistan. He judges the Afghanistan war effort to be a failure. Kaplan astutely observes that one of the key problems was that the U.S. government and the Karzai regime had conflicting objectives. The United States had insufficient leverage to make the Karzai regime practice good governance and to improve its legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Still, the game doesn’t end in the seventh inning. Neither the war in Afghanistan nor Petraeus are finished, even if that would ruin an interesting conclusion.

• Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, by Fred Kaplan (Simon and Schuster, 2013)

‘Little America’

Chandrasekaran, of The Washington Post, would tend to agree with Kaplan’s conclusion. In “Little America,” he traces the American experience in two of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, Helmand and Kandahar. The title comes from the nickname of a small town in Helmand that, in the 1960s, was home to a major but unsuccessful U.S. development project. While saluting the Marines’ courage and determination, Chandrasekaran finds their deployment to Helmand in 2009 to be misguided and disproportional. In his view, the U.S. simply put too many scarce military resources against too small a target. This piling on, however, also explains the great progress made by then-Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson and his intrepid brigade. Counterinsurgency is a manpower-intensive activity. The 10,000 Marines in Helmand were later awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their accomplishments.

Chandrasekaran depicts the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department as generally ineffective and barely supportive of the Marines. He holds the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan in particularly low regard. According to the author, frustration with their diplomatic comrades is close to the surface among senior military officers. One Army general, a dedicated advocate of and expert in whole-of-government solutions, was so frustrated by the State Department’s lack of support that he declared: “I want the last ten years of my life back. … My heart is broken.”

The State Department heroes here are front-line political advisers, like Kael Weston, or temporary hires, like Carter Malkasian, who, for more than two years in one area of Helmand, was a figure akin to Lawrence of Arabia. Worse, the Afghan government comes off as almost disinterested in the Marines’ courageous efforts. The most effective Afghans — including President Hamid Karzai’s murdered brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai — are portrayed as corrupt or hopelessly embroiled in tribal intrigues.

Chandrasekaran’s book is subtitled “The War Within the War for Afghanistan.” He documents the bureaucratic disputes that thickened the fog of war: the U.S. against Karzai, the government in Kabul against its provincial partners, the British Army against the Marines, the Marines against the U.S. Army, the State Department against the Defense Department, Richard Holbrooke against almost everyone else, etc. Chandrasekaran is flabbergasted that the Marines would demand autonomy and even manipulate the U.S. chain of command to establish “Marinestan” in Helmand province. He seems shocked that bureaucratic politics and interservice rivalries exist in combat zones, which, of course, is where they were born.

In Afghanistan, a nation at war for 34 years, and in Helmand province, dominated for a decade by an entrenched enemy, the author chronicles how hard it was to make progress in one or two fighting seasons. In the end, he concurs with an Army brigadier general who sees folly in our efforts in Afghanistan. Chandrasekaran concludes that the blame can be shared liberally. A sampling of topic sentences summarizes his conclusions. “The American bureaucracy had become America’s worst enemy.” “The Pentagon was too tribal.” “The generals were too rigid.” “The grunts committed too many unforced errors.” “The war cabinet was too often at war with itself.” “Those rivalries were compounded by stubbornness and incompetence at the State Department and USAID.’’ ‘‘Weston had been right all along: Afghanistan was a marathon, not a sprint.” “Obama should have gone long, not big.”

None of these books is perfect. Boot’s encyclopedic tome could have shed a few chapters if he had stuck to just insurgency and counterinsurgency. Anarchists, commandos, partisans and even terrorists could have been the subject of another book. Kaplan’s fast-moving, insider account contains some factual errors, most of which should have been caught by fact checkers or copy editors. Kaplan spins an interesting tale, but, with little documentation to support his assessment, he judges our efforts in Afghanistan to be a failure. You can make an argument for his point of view; what you can’t do in a 400-page book is to make an assertion and leave it at that. If the Afghanistan war effort is broken, the reader should know how the author knows that.

Chandrasekaran generalizes about the nationwide war effort, based mainly on his study of two (of 34) provinces, buttressed by some disputed, pessimistic CIA estimates. He also shows a haughty way of dismissing some people in the field. The more he came to know a character, the more nuanced his portrayal was. Some people, however — especially USAID and State Department personnel — were figuratively eviscerated in one, short, judgmental anecdote. One senses that no embarrassing story was left untold. Soldiers and diplomats in a war zone deserve better.

In both Kaplan’s and Chandrasekaran’s books, the evidence of positive developments in the campaign — presented, for example, in tremendous detail in the government’s semiannual “1230” reports or on the International Security Assistance Force or USAID websites — are never addressed. In both of these books, progress in Afghanistan is a dog that never barks. Their virtual message is clear: Pay no attention to those health clinics, the schools, the Parliament, the elections, improvements in human rights, the thousands of kilometers of roads, the legions of dead and captured al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, and the sacrifices of the 350,000 members of the Afghan National Security Forces. They don’t really count. Our efforts in Afghanistan are on the road to failure; you can take our word for it.

• Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)

Lighting Candles

None of these books offers searchlights, but all three light some candles for the near-term future. First, Boot reminds us that betting against future involvement in irregular conflicts is a fool’s wager. We have to be ready to deal with insurgency, even if we will mainly be in an advisory role. Allies and friends will remain essential. Like France in Mali, our allies can also lead operations where the weight of their interests outweighs our own. It may be psychically uncomfortable for Americans, but in some cases a supporting role will be the right one for the United States.

A second lesson from Boot is that counterinsurgency takes time and effort. Superpowers tied to election cycles and worried about budget deficits are in a weak position. They must work efficiently and expeditiously to get the local forces up to speed. Fish and liberators begin to smell very quickly. As Weston suggests, going long instead of big may be a better way of accomplishing goals.

Third, these books are all clear that large-scale, expeditionary-force counterinsurgency is very difficult and unlikely in the near future. Such operations are not impossible, however, and the armed forces and its partners must be ready for them. Our flawless record of never predicting the locale or the type of our next war should give us humility.

Fourth, these books, especially the Kaplan and Chandrasekaran volumes, point out the necessity of whole-of-government involvement in countering insurgencies. Sadly, they also demonstrate that after nearly 12 years of war, we are still not good at it. Perhaps real progress here requires a quantum increase in our budget for diplomacy and foreign aid. In the meantime, there is a great need for us to keep working on the doctrine and to preserve the sinews of the whole-of-government effort at State, USAID and the Pentagon.

Fifth, these books all contain a subtle and often unheralded point. Success in irregular warfare depends on excellent intelligence and sound decision-making. Without both of these qualities, even the best soldiers and diplomats will be mauled by Winston Churchill’s “untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant fortune, ugly surprise, [and] awful miscalculations.” Strategic errors cannot be permanently righted by operational or tactical excellence.

Finally, much of the material in these three widely praised books is about learning and adapting. All contain evidence that the armed forces can learn under fire, but we need to go beyond quick adaptation to unexpected circumstances. We need to think through new developments in warfare. Cyberwarfare, anti-access and area denial, missile defense and counterproliferation campaign planning all require their own gangs of “insurgents” to educate the force for the future. Although it has lost its leading status, U.S. doctrine for counterinsurgency and stability operations doesn’t need refinement; it needs a fundamental re-examination of its assumptions and the historical cases from which it has been drawn. We will need it for the future. If George Santayana were alive, he would remind us that only the dead have seen the end of irregular wars.


Joseph J. Collins teaches strategy at the National War College. A retired Army colonel, he served for 12 years in the Pentagon. In his last assignment there, from 2001 to 2004, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations.