What makes us think our militaries have the human and organizational capital for counterinsurgency?


“Counterinsurgency,” John Nagl commented the other day, “can’t be dead as long as insurgency is alive and well — and it is, and is likely to be for some time.” Indeed we may find ourselves, as former Chief of the Australian Army Peter Leahy recently asserted, needing to “fight radical Islam for 100 years”. That fighting, the US Army fears, could be get more daunting in the burgeoning megacities of Asia and Africa. In dealing with these problems, whatever we may wish for, we must avoid what H.R. McMaster calls the twin pitfalls of over-reliance on Special Operations raiders, or on proxies and advisors. These are the alluring answers that Sydney Freedberg respectively calls the ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ fallacies. In truth, that is, there really are some geopolitical problems that require commitment and engagement to resolve.


Thus Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute deems the US Army’s ability “to conduct protracted counterinsurgency” one of its essential purposes. His colleague Dan Gouré thinks that the Army’s next tagline should be “To Have And To Hold Land”. Land is where people live, and now plenty of people around the US Army are coming to believe that “people skills” are important to winning modern wars—at least those wars amongst the people. We cannot really know what war will come next; the missions which the US Army has been called upon to undertake have ranged from suppressing bandits on the Mexican frontier with horse cavalry to defending the skies of Kansas with Nike missiles. Today, the Army is at least thinking about how much money and effort to put into coastal artillery, or the foot soldiers of counterinsurgency. With the former it has had no experience since the 1940s; the latter have more recently learned the hard way that hard fighting, as David Johnson might write, is hard work.
But in one recent essay about those wars, I questioned just how effectively the counterinsurgency forces have learned as military organizations. It is not that we lack the data to measure; most military organizations are swimming in data. It is that we do not know where to start. For as two officers recently wrote in Army magazine, “we still lack a coherent and comprehensive concept for dealing with the irregular and hybrid enemies we will continue to face in the foreseeable future.” After thirteen years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, that is a startling admission. Our military organizations may simply lack the organizational capital they need for getting any better at this sort of fight.
At least one view of that hoped-for on-the-job learning puts the onus on relatively junior leaders in the field, who try, fail, and adapt before the enemy in an effectively bottom-up process. But if so, why do their troops still lack the skills their own doctrine expects? Kilcullen and others wrote in Field Manual 3–24 that intelligence preparation in counterinsurgency “requires personnel to work in areas like economics, anthropology, and governance that may be outside their expertise” and until that expertise is developed, “situational awareness will probably be relatively low, and the [campaign] design will, by necessity, require a number of assumptions” [see pp. 81, 146]. For counterinsurgency, Kilcullen asserts in his Article Number 23, “is armed social work; an attempt to redress basic social and political problems while being shot at. This makes civil affairs a central counterinsurgency activity, not an afterthought.”
Social work and civil affairs involve a lot of one-on-one conversations. Thus, in a second essay, I specifically addressed language as a critical case: American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan almost entirely relied on interpreters to communicate. But if the Australian Army can expect every officer graduating Duntroon to master a East or South Asian language, why cannot—and do not—the US Army and Marine Corps? “Maintaining a single trooper in Afghanistan,” I wrote, “is more than a million-dollar annual undertaking.” In contrast, an annual Boren Fellowship for language study costs the Defense Department about $20,000. Why, then, are needs in human capital so under-appreciated? At that level of failure, the military hierarchy might as well forget to provide bullets for the rifles.
Better yet, What makes us think that we will get better at this? As Thijs W. Brocades Zaalberg has written, “most Western governments and armies have a terrible track record when it comes to learning from counterinsurgency experience.” The US has an uneven track record with just training foreign military forces—the recent agony of the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces is just the most acute failure. And so we may, as Kilcullen argues this week in The Australian, “need a complete strategic rethink” of what Maajid Nawaz calls “spreading democracy at the barrel of a gun.” We should either pay serious attention to organizational design and the skills of modern war fighting, or we should stay home.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.