Can Modern America Wage a Counterinsurgency Campaign?

Lt. General David Barno, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, gave testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 26. His testimony is not small (30 pages in PDF form) but is an essential read for those concerned with the future of American efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. While much in the testimony was brilliant, one particular section of his report prompted an immediate double take; for the first time since I began my education in geopolitics I find myself seriously doubting America’s ability to win the war she is waging.
The passage of note is a time table for the implementation of the strategy General Barno outlines throughout his testimony. Below is an excerpt, in which I have taken the liberty to highlight phrases whose implications have given me cause for alarm:

Therefore, at the operational level, the level at which strategy is implemented through campaigns and civilian programs on the ground, the sequence of action is “Stabilize, Protect, Build, Transition.” This can be summarized as follows:

2009 – Stabilize Phase (Holding Operation): Focus a surge of US and Afghan forces, and additional combat forces from other partners willing to contribute, on the central essential task of protecting the population during the August 2009 elections and on stabilizing the security situation. The election outcome will be a key test of legitimacy of the Afghan government, and indirectly, the international effort. A successful election outcome – one that meets international standards of fairness and transparency and strengthens Afghan institutions – offers the chance to hit the literal re-set button, restoring the legitimacy of the Afghan government and with it the credibility of the international effort.

2010 – Protect / Regain the Initiative Phase (Counteroffensive): continue to protect the population and state institutions while persuading, enabling and mentoring the Afghan government to govern more effectively – top-down and bottom-up. This will entail substantial growth in security forces: US, allied, Afghan Army and Police.

2010-2015- Building Success Phase (Consolidation): – protect the population, build Afghan state and non-state institutions. Improved security built from the bottom up around the country provides space for concurrent growth of key economic and governance functions. Success in the security sphere incentivizes reconciliation efforts. Begin selective transition (Afghanization) in the north and west.

2015-2025 –Transition /Movement to Afghan Control: continue selective transition — as further geographical areas (provinces/regions) or functional aspects (e.g. agriculture, local government, customs and border protection, policing) of the state achieve sustainable stability, hand-off control over them to responsible Afghan institutions. International military presence draws down.

Continuous – Prevent (Counter-Sanctuary Operations) Throughout the operational sequence above, the “prevent” task is concurrent, continuous, and (because it disrupts other tasks) is conducted only to the limited level needed to prevent another international terrorist attack on the scale of the 9/11 attacks. Tactical opportunities which undermine broader strategic goals are avoided.

To be clear: Barno is proposing a strategy that will take 14 or more years to complete. This plan requires the number of American troops in Afghanistan to “surge” for the next two years. If the European nations of NATO do not increase their own troop levels, the U.S. is required to pick up the slack and provide the soldiers. The majority of these men and women will be rotated in and out of Afghanistan until 2015, and the last will not leave until 2025.
This timescale is not unusual for successful counterinsurgency campaigns; following the Spanish-American War the United States spent 14 years putting down the Philippine Insurrection, while the British launched an 18 year campaign to end the Malayan Emergency. In both cases, the counter insurgent power developed a long-term plan to stabilize the nation occupied and isolate the insurgency from the main population. Lt. Gen. Barno (with the advice of COIN expert David Kilcullen) has developed such a strategy for Afghanistan. The question then, is simple: can the United States implement this strategy?
I am sorrowed to say that I do not believe she can.
Between the years 2009 and 2025 the United States will have four Presidential elections and eight different Congresses. Each of the major parties will draft four different party platforms. In the Darwinian jungle of American electioneering, hundreds of pundits and politicians (or would-be politicians) will cycle through thousands of opinions and manifestos, intent on creating grievances that they need to solve.
This environment is not conducive — heck, it is downright toxic — to any prolonged counterinsurgency campaign.
The American public’s reaction to COIN efforts in Iraq provides a perfect example of this. As the graphic below displays, one month after the dismemberment of the Baathist regime 70% of the American public believed the war with Iraq was worth fighting for. This support for Coalition efforts was completely unsustainable; within a time span of four years public opinion had flipped. By February of 2007, 64% of the American public stood firm in the belief that the war in Iraq did not provide benefits to the United States.
What caused this drastic change in opinion? The first answer to that question is simple: the public could not tolerate the rising number of American men and women dying in Iraq. As the number of casualties (hostile and non-hostile) grew, so did opposition to the war. That the majority of these deaths were not the price of battlefield victories but the result of attrition warfare only added fire to the flames. To observers, the United States seemed stuck in a quagmire, playing the role of Hannibal to the insurgent Fabius.

The American populace’s reaction to the relatively small number of combat deaths is worrisome for the success of any long-term strategy for Afghanistan. Properly conducted counterinsurgency is population-centric. This means that success — particularly over the next two years — will not be defined by a low death toll. The number of fatal engagements is predicted to skyrocket as NATO forces begin to engage in the most deadly parts of Afghanistan. Writing for Foreign Policy, COIN experts Nathaniel Flick and John Nagl summarized this paradox in their essay “Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition”:

The more you protect your force, the less secure you may be. 2-1. The U.S. military, designed to inflict overwhelming and disproportionate losses on the enemy, tends to equate victory with very few body bags. So does the American public. The new counterinsurgency doctrine upends this perceived immunity from casualties by demanding that manpower replace firepower. Soldiers in Afghanistan must get out among the people, building and staffing joint security stations with Afghan security forces. That is the only way to disconnect the enemy from the civilians. Persistent presence—living among the population in small groups, staying in villages overnight for months at a time—is dangerous, and it will mean more casualties, but it’s the only way to protect the population effectively. And it will make U.S. troops more secure in the long run.
[For those who wish to understand how the focus on American casualties has brought about the current crisis, I heavily recommend you read this (small!) dispatch from Joshua Froust.]

It took America three years to decide that the number of casualties she suffered in Iraq was too high a price to pay in order to justify the occupation. With this fact in mind, ask yourself whether the American people will be able to sustain support for a fourteen year attrition-style campaign?
The American media and political system makes matters even harder for the Coindistas. Seeing the widespread discontent with the way things were going in Iraq, the Democratic Party was quick to place a draw down in troop numbers to the front of their party platform. The media was even quicker at capitalizing on this political controversy and began to focus its attention on Iraq, ensuring that counterinsurgency efforts in the country would become a partisan issue. Thus, far from being the foundation a national consensus, the United State’s “Iraq Policy” became the center of a ferocious national debate. The verdict of this trial was decided on in 2004 and once again in 2006. This frequent change in leadership and public opinion made it impossible to execute a long term plan for the occupation of Iraq.
Now fast forward to 2009. Iraq is a dead issue; coalition deaths are at an all time low and the SOFA has forced a political consensus onto Republicans and Democrats alike. Iraq has all but disappeared from the news; the Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that not even 1% of last week’s news coverage involved Iraq.
Taking its place is the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. The Scholar’s Stage has previously reported that the American consensus on Afghanistan has been destroyed. As I noted in that post, the media’s change in tone between 2008 and 2009 is astounding. A media storm is brewing, and once the “surge” is underway it shall break out in full fury.
I have outlined the results of the last media storm. Is there a reason to believe this one shall be any different? Indeed, is there any feasible reason to think that at least one of the 2012, 2016, 2020, or 2024 major party platforms will not be pressing for a withdrawal from Afghanistan?
A true counterinsurgency campaign capable of bringing Afghanistan away from the brink will cost money, men, and most importantly, time.
These are things modern America simply cannot provide.

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I completely agree with your assessment. Unless the case is made from the top with a bipartisan voice …. and sustained for a very long time …. a long term counterinsurgency campaign will never be possible.

Great analysis on the public’s willingness – and the election cycles’ inherent counter-action – to waging a sustained war.

These certainly aren’t the timelines we were given by Rumsfeld and Bush, huh?