Counterinsurgency Warfare and the Revenge of the Periphery

As a form of prudence, strategy is an important, but often neglected dimension of American political thought, a bridge between American principles and American foreign policy objectives. Moreover, since the dawn of the Cold War at least, Americans have led the world in this kind of thinking, though almost always with worries that strategies to provide for national security may boomerang to undermine principles of freedom at home or prove incompatible with such principles abroad. This is especially true in counterinsurgencies in which special operations forces abroad work at the edge of the law or outside of what the law and custom would be consider acceptable in a free society at home.

So this controversial new book is a must read, especially for those who reflect on the proper role of the military in a free society, and not merely because it has just been selected for the Army Chief of Staff’s professional reading list for all Army officers. Douglas Porch, a Distinguished Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, has written a highly polemical critical intellectual history of the theory and practice of counterinsurgency (COIN) and the role of special operations within it. Porch does not mince words. His main points are that COIN theory, a novel branch of military-political thought developed in the United States, France, and England especially, is a fraud, a house of cards built by ambitious special operators and journalists willing to cooperate with them in selling or overselling COIN as the cure for what ails us, usually understood as a rigid, all too conventional approach to waging war.

It evolved from the theories and practices of the “small wars” of the imperial powers of the 19th Century, those of England and France especially, with the United States Marine Corps developing its own version of the theory for the small wars resulting from American interventions in Central America and the Philippines during its own flirtations with imperialism in the Progressive Era. Even today, it includes a substantial element of paternalism with practitioners aiming to uplift what are perceived as barbarous or semi-barbarous peoples, an attitude that often leads to considering insurgents as beneath the respect accorded combatants by the laws of war, with the people deemed supporters of the insurgents until they prove themselves innocent. According to Porch, this has led time and time again to torture, prisoner abuse, and collective punishment, including relocation (concentration) camps and calorie control (starvation), of people suspected of cooperating with insurgents, tactics that tend to drive the population toward the insurgents, thus undermining the strategy COIN is supposed to serve. In that way, “war among the people” has a habit of becoming “war against the people,” despite good intentions of providing them an alternative, more Western way of life, through investments in infrastructure and experiments in Western ideas of good governance. Says Porch, COIN is not a strategy in the Clausewitzian sense of orchestrating raison d’etat, popular passion, and military creativity to achieve political objectives so much as a kind of grand tactics of social engineering, a checklist of best practices from previous wars divorced from their contemporary political context. At best, it puts a Band-Aid on underlying political problems which those who frame policy and strategy are often reluctant to address. For Porch, COIN thus often treats the symptoms of insurgency, not the disease, and that is a failure of political-strategic thinking.

Porch shows that COIN can be pernicious for civil-military relations, especially for the rule of law and security of liberty at home. Much of his account is about operators who considered themselves and their form of warfare special. These entrepreneurs often had little patience with the rule of law. They often worked outside of it, especially when the media were not looking; just as frequently, they argued that the challenges of insurgency were so complex that military and political authority had to be fused. Arguably, the most important separation of powers in a free society is not among the different branches of government; nor is it between church and state, or society and government. It is between soldiers and statesmen as a guard against Caesarism and Bonapartism. In counterinsurgencies, however, proconsuls and other officers often acquired forms of political power abroad that they would never be allowed in a free government at home. As they grew accustomed to wielding political power abroad, they sometimes grew contemptuous of political authorities at home, thus damaging civil-military relations significantly. French counterinsurgents in Algeria in the 1950s, for example, came to think the French republic was a liability to the empire; to save the empire and the military’s reputation, they believed they had to overthrow the republic, so the soldiers could control the state. Porch is thus making a Clausewitzian critique of COIN theory and practice for neglecting the primacy of policy, and thus of elected policy-makers, including the laws they make.

To paraphrase Charles de Gaulle, a modern hero of liberty who saved republican government in France from seditious officers in the army and army veterans in the OAS who practiced terrorism against the French republic (including numerous attempts to assassinate de Gaulle), the army did not exist for the sake of the army, but rather, to serve as a tool of the state. War, therefore strategy, and therefore COIN operations, are not autonomous, but tendacious claims that COIN is a special form of warfare risk that operators will seek autonomy. As Clausewitz predicted, this would lead them to follow the grammar, not the logic of war, toward self-destructive escalation, ultimately even against their own government and people. In sum, by habituating soldiers to exercise political authority, and govern through force abroad, COIN risks a boomerang effect, which Porch, following Hannah Arendt directly, and indirectly, Burke and Thucydides, terms the “revenge of the periphery” in which imperial or neo-imperial adventures dressed in democratic drag undermine at home the very principles of liberty intended to be exported abroad. Extensive surveillance of internet messages, extended detentions without trial at Guantanomo Bay, secret FISA courts, and the application of COIN strategies to confront street gangs in California are merely the latest examples Porch sees of this recurring phenomenon.

The bulk of Porch’s critique of COIN, however, is strategic. First, it is often hawked as a silver bullet to save policymakers from the consequences of their own poor policies and strategies, but there are no magic bullets in these messy wars. Thinking so is an exercise in magical thinking; we would do better to reflect on remedying the policies and strategies that got us into the mess in the first place.

Second, Porch argues COIN rarely works at a moral, political, economic, and human price peoples of free governments are willing to pay. It inevitably involves attrition, which takes time and tries the patience of the people at home. When they lose patience, and pull the plug, the COINdinistas often feel betrayed, blaming failure not on COIN itself, but governments that did not let them try hard or long enough, an attitude with baleful consequences for healthy civil-military relations.

Third, to sustain popular support, COIN often demands exaggerating the threat, whether it be monolithic communism during the Cold War or a restored Islamic caliphate led by Al Qaeda-inspired fanatics today. Hyping the threat to sell COIN puts military officers especially in morally compromising positions, with their strategic communications and information operations not infrequently directed more at their own people than their adversaries.

Fourth, even when COIN works, however temporarily, it does so most commonly through divide and rule tactics that undermine the already difficult objective of nation-building. COIN frequently produces dependency, and local officials are often seen as stooges of foreign powers, thus undermining their legitimacy and stability among those who harbor resentment over being divided in order to be pacified. It frequently involves a great deal of waste, either because foreign powers really do not know what is good for other peoples and make costly mistakes, or because such powers are played by local elites, who stash the cash they receive in Swiss banks.

Fifth, the case for making COIN a branch of special operations is weak. It assumes the special operators are more adaptable than conventional forces, but Porch demonstrates that while adaptation is necessary in COIN, conventional forces are no worse and sometimes better at adapting than the special operators.

Sixth, there is a serious danger in adapting too much in the direction of COIN. The French did this by 1870, and Porch suggests, this contributed to their humiliating defeat at the hands of Prussia in a conventional war. The British also transformed in the direction of COIN, ironically, in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the 1920s but found themselves unprepared for the conventional threat from Germany in the 1930s. Had the United States gone whole hog on COIN in Vietnam, Porch suggests it might have found itself unprepared for war on the Central Front of the Cold War, in Germany. One inference from Porch’s warning against transforming too much is that if conventional forces are at least as adaptable as special operators, it would be better to focus primarily on conventional conflict, the great killer of the 20th Century and an always potential danger of the 21st, because it is harder to adapt “up” from COIN than “down” from conventional warfare. And because conventional forces do not consider themselves special, they are more likely to abide by the laws of war and their own government.

Last of all, losers do not always give the best advice, but much of COIN theory in the United States is based on the prescriptions of losers, like David Galula, a veteran of the French war in Algeria who later wrote at Harvard and spread his theory via American strategic think tanks. His shadow looms large in the Army COIN manual, FM 3-24, the gold standard of COIN theory today. Porch shows that the French in Algeria actually followed Galula’s principles but ultimately lost. Why? Some of those principles proved not merely abhorrent but also counter-productive in practice. Isolating the people from insurgents sounds great in theory, but if it requires putting numerous people in relocation camps and driving others into exile, it is likely to produce more enemies than friends. Moreover, the strategic context, the international, social, institutional, economic, and above all, political environment, was stacked against the French, as it was for them before and the U.S. later in Vietnam, and then again, some might say, for the U.S. in Iraq.

Regarding Iraq, Porch finds General Petreus and his acolytes, like the journalist Tom Ricks, little or no different from T.E. Lawrence of Arabia and the P.T. Barnum-like showmen who sold him to get bylines and sell newspapers and books, with a gullible public loving the story of the unconventional hero who rescued victory from impending defeat. The famous surge in Iraq in 2007-08 began after the Sunni awakening; the surge did not save the U.S. experiment in democratizing Iraq so much as take advantage of developments within Iraq, like population transfers through ethnic cleansing, to create conditions (via divide and rule tactics again in the concrete barricades dividing neighborhoods in Ira1q) for an orderly withdrawal of US troops, i.e., one that did not leave the U.S. holding the bag, resulting from its invasion in 2003, for producing a genocidal civil war. And it was a Band-Aid. Religiously inspired violence in Iraq is now back to pre-surge levels. Al Qaeda, or rather, its spin-off, the Islamic State of Iranq and Syria (ISIS), has either returned or come out of the sewers in which it was hiding. Despite almost a decade of occupation, all the U.S. will have accomplished may well turn out to be arming the Shi’a majority for civil war against the Sunni minority (the Kurds would be next), with a Shi’a majority despotism, probably backed by Iran, potentially replacing the Sunni-rooted despotism under Saddam Hussein. So the road to Hell in Iraq may well still turn out to be paved with the good intentions of the United States.

The great takeaway from Porch’s book is that no amount of operational proficiency, even in special operations based on best practices dressed up as sophisticated theory, can overcome a bad match between policy and strategy, one that does not fit its context. If so, true wisdom about COIN lies at the political-strategic level, understanding when it might be compatible with American principles and when the odds of success at an acceptable moral, political, economic, and human cost are good or not. To be clear: Porch is not arguing that COIN is bound to fail strategically. Sometimes the context is favorable. Sometimes the insurgents have no allies or sanctuaries. Sometimes their cause has no popular appeal. Sometimes their leaders are inept or so brutal that they drive the people away from them. Sometimes the incumbents are competent, willing to adapt politically and militarily to meet the challenge. Counterinsurgents do win, but not because COIN is a form of war only specialists can understand. War is war! A strategy appropriate to the context is the most important element in victory for both the insurgent and the counterinsurgent.

To be sure, this book is highly polemical, a screed in fact. Porch is the Oliver Stone of COIN critics, often over the top, especially in his animus against special operations. Most who practice these unconventional forms of warfare consider themselves, and deserve to be considered as, the consummate soldiers of a free society, with fidelity to its laws serving as a uniform, or badge of pride, that distinguishes them from criminals. General Petreus may have been lucky that the surge coincided with the so-called Sunni Awakening against Al Qaeda and other developments in Iraq, but strategic wisdom often involves taking advantage of good luck. If his relative success in Iraq (though not Afghanistan, too tough a nut to crack and too late to do so after the war in Iraq) did not result directly from his personal role in drafting U.S. COIN doctrine and applying it, intelligently, to Iraq, it was nonetheless a vast improvement over the work of his predecessors, who did not plan for a potential insurgency, sometimes denied its existence, were slow to confront it, and occasionally aggravated it. Porch does not offer any alternative solutions to COIN in situations, like 9/11, when the United States has been attacked directly and finds it necessary to defend itself by overthrowing governments, like Afghanistan’s under the Taliban, that give aid, comfort, and above all, sanctuary, to Al Qaeda. Without proposing an alternative, not the least of which might have been not getting diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq, his critique does not seem particularly useful for the challenges of Afghanistan.

To paraphrase Hegel, the owl of Minerva sees only at dusk. Much of Porch’s critique helps us make sense of the end of the U.S. war in Iraq and continuing problems in Afghanistan, but these are now old news. The United States has since moved from COIN to a new strategy of counter-terrorism (CT), via special operations and drone strikes especially, with decapitation raids designed to disrupt Al Qaeda and its affiliates, in no small part because there is no appetite left in the U.S. for the costs that COIN produces, both domestically and internationally. The special operations, often involving snatch and grab tactics to gain intelligence via capturing prisoners, and the drone strikes, occasionally without due process against American citizens, pose their own moral and constitutional questions, as well as risk serious blowback when innocents are caught in the net, as they inevitably will be. Within a generation, the pendulum may swing back toward COIN, however. The U.S. may once again be tempted to disregard the advice of John Quincy Adams and go in search of monsters to overthrow abroad. It may once again engage in the sort of republican jihad (what we often term Wilsonianism or neo-conservatism today) that Alexander Hamilton feared among supporters of the French revolution in the Washington administration. Inevitably, some will resist their liberation, in Rousseau’s famous phrase, being ”forced to be free,” and resort to insurgency. At that point, it would be wise to pull out Porch’s contribution to American political-strategic thought and ask whether we really want to go down the COIN road again. Never say never, but Porch supplies a powerful argument for self-restraint, not least of all because of the problems COIN especially poses for free government, both at home and abroad.