Don’t Call Me Counterinsurgency, Baby!

Two things inspired this post. A conversation with a friend over dinner, and this piece at Danger Room.

Scrubbing of Systems

First, the article: The US military establishment is doing away with the term ‘counterinsurgency’. They are scrubbing their “systems, practices and institutions for lameness.” Among the other elements to be jettisoned are the frequently maligned Power Point presentations, and the notion of brigade level command.

The excising of ‘counterinsurgency’ (there’s something disturbingly Orwellian about that notion; here’s the latest from MiniPax (TPMB’s idea is used with the greatest respect. I love his idea of the “Department of Everything Else.” I am an unashamed TPMB Fanboy)) from the US army’s lexicon is the brainchild of General Martin Dempsey.

“His beef is that the term is reactive, defining an Army task in terms of a type of enemy, rather than describing something that the Army does affirmatively.” Dempsey is wrong. Counterinsurgency is a highly active form of warfare. It has to be.

It might not be shouty and tanky and running aroundy and overly shooty, but it is by no means passive. This is where the problems lie in the popular American understanding of counterinsurgency warfare. From the start, one might be forgiven for thinking that Americans expected the Taliban to stand up and fight; like they fought the Germans, and like they were preparing to fight the Soviets. That’s what they have been preparing for over the last 60 years or so. Witness Operation Desert Storm. The Iraqi army was ridiculously outgunned, but the Americans were unsuccessful in achieving anything substantial, in part I believe, because they were anticipating a 1945-esque capitulation on the part of the Iraqi Defense Force; this scenario was repeated in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which promptly dissolved into a violent insurgency.

In the immortal (and mortal) words of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The IDF refused to give up as ordered. The American military establishment was not prepared for this kind of indolence. The same thing happened and is happening in Afghanistan. A softly-softly approach, with a good dose of ass-kickery to those who need it (there are more subtle ways of dealing with those who deserve ass-kickery: the story of Tanjong related by John Nagl in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 89, is a great example), is the order of the day in counterinsurgency.

Linguistics and Reification

The conversation I had revolved around the central premise that ‘counterinsurgency’ is just a word. It is an abstract noun in the most abstract of senses. It’s entirely invented. It’s a set of instructions which work a lot of the time. It’s not a map. It’s not flat-pack directions. It’s not the answer. There isn’t an answer. My friend’s key point, and one that I push hard elsewhere, and plan to make a key to this blog, is that whatever the end point is, there is no way that we can have any idea as to what it might be. It will just be what it is at the time.

Counterinsurgency itself doesn’t exist. You can’t just go about it and hope to get results. Instead, it’s a set of principles which, if adhered to, give one a platform to achieve ones aims. It’s abstract in the same way that ‘war’ is an abstract term. ‘War’ is organized violence. Beyond that, there’s no saying what will happen, or how things will pan out.

We’re Never Gonna Leave

General Petraeus seems to get it. Maybe it’s more difficult to get others to tow the line. The New York Times point out that “military officers, who support General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy and say he readily acknowledges the difficulties ahead, caution that the security and governance crisis in Afghanistan remains so volatile that any successes may not be sustainable.” This is true. It will likely ‘always’ be true (whatever always means, that’s another post for another day).

Is there a way out? Is there a way out of Germany? There have been American troops there since the end of the Second World War. Maybe there will always be some American troops in Afghanistan. The challenge then would become changing the global perception of those troops from occupiers to friends and supporters. And therein lies the crux of counterinsurgency.

Doing away with the term, reified as it is, won’t achieve anything. Humans’ desire to know what things are, the basis of language, will simply lead to another term. (Hint: this can’t be peacekeeping; peacekeeping is a passive activity.)

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One comment on “Don’t Call Me Counterinsurgency, Baby!

  1. […] 17th, 2010 § Leave a Comment I’m a bit of a TPMB fanboy, as I have previously alluded to. I love the way that he thinks about how the world works. Sometimes I think that he is a little too […]

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