my blog, but it has spurred some debate and should be of interest to the Marine audience.
A debate rages at the Small Wars Journal, Foreign Policy's Af-Pak Channel, Tom Ricks' blog, and Carl Prine's Line of Departure over the postmortem our recent counterinsurgency (COIN) adventures and the prospect for future applications. My contribution to this debate, a refined version of this post at LoD, will be posted at the Af-Pak Channel after the holidays. In short, I think they are missing the broader point, which is that we are predisposed to screw these small wars up. No matter how many lessons we learn, our national security decision-making apparatus will churn out suboptimal policies.
Another aspect of the debate centers on economics, our attempt to buy loyalty, and the creation of dependent populations, or a culture of entitlement, as debated at this SWJ post. I really do not think that COIN can be anything but armed state-building. I also believe that we should avoid involving ourselves in such a project of folly, especially given our propensity to underinvest, flail about, then leave. State-building takes time. Our impatience and our profligacy only further distorts fatally flawed socio-economic orders. Whether you are trying to leave a country capable of defeating the remnants of a civil war/insurgency, or a country capable of fending off its northern neighbor's powerful conventional army, you must create an economy that creates revenues, a populace that consents to state taxation, and a state that is capable of extracting resources from the economy without imploding it and turn those resources to beneficial ends. Principally, this includes securing its borders and holding a monopoly on violence within them. This is a massive undertaking in both resources and time. By pouring money out onto the ground in a firehose that cannot be absorbed, you are only washing more of the soil away and beating down the sprouts you want to nurture. You can't do COIN on the quick or cheap. We aren't interested in long term investments. We need to not do armed state-building unless we are going to be honest about the costs and requirements. We won't be honest about the costs and requirements unless they are clear and compelling matters of core national interest.
The slogans about dollars and ballots as more important than bullets are all so much nonsense. You cannot weaponize economic and political development. This is a long, complex process. Weapons create simple, first order effects. They rend flesh and splatter blood and tissue everywhere, if they don't vaporize it. This is easy to understand and to control. Dollars and ballots have effects we cannot understand, even with great study. Dollars float around, changing hands over and over again, often only strengthening skewed socio-economic power structures. This feeds into the political realm, where ballots do not always create great democratic virtue. Often, money, power, and organization favors those very forces that have appropriated the resources of economy and society. As a result, the state can be even weaker after the election than before it. The danger in elections is not the illiberal Islamist bogeymen we love to demonize. The danger is the legitimization of kleptocracy, sectarianism, and the like. None of this, can we control as we so arrogantly lead ourselves to believe.
By shouting about the fine points of COIN, people are missing the broader lessons. We cannot do these wars well at the grand scale. We can adapt to the tactical realities, we can create a lot of local successes, but in real state-building, we have nothing but a record of failure. This is the lesson.
Additional comments after input from readers at my blog:
-I was rightly called out on my line "in real state-building, we have nothing but a record of failure." This runs against the history of the postwar reconstruction under the Marshall and Dodge Plans in Europe and Japan. These support my language above that in cases of compelling core interest as perceived by the public, the friction of the bureaucracy can be overcome. Additionally, these were cases of state rebuilding, not state-building. We had credible partners to work with, who in fact did most of the real work of rebuilding, supported by U.S. funds to address the capital crisis in these countries postwar. While there are lessons to be gleaned from these cases, my assertion holds that we will not be able to put these lessons into practice in the case of small wars of peripheral interest as the phenomena described above will dominate. See the comments for a bit more discussion.
-Regarding a charge that I falsely equivelate COIN with state-building. The tactics of COIN (TM) are not state-building. However, in order to wage a successful counter-insurgency and to leave a state behind that no longer needs to be propped up, you have to successfully conduct state-building. A bunch of CERP projects, a flawed vote, and tons of aid dollars only distort the socio-economic and political entities you leave behind. COIN may not be state-building, but you have to state-build to truly and finally defeat an insurgency. If we are honest with ourselves about this, our appetite for COIN and scenarios where insurgency is likely to pop up will be far more circumscribed.