Over the past decade, the U.S. military have mastered the fine art of counterinsurgency, or COIN. When the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the military had neither the theories nor capabilities to practice counterinsurgency. Slowly, painfully, it developed the doctrine, strategy and tactics, created the organizations and acquired the equipment to do well at counterinsurgency. General Petraeus spent several years at Fort Leavenworth writing the Army’s counterinsurgency manual. Now the Pentagon has nearly 30,000 MRAPs and M-ATVs specifically designed for counterinsurgency operations. It is flying some 60 Predator drone orbits. The Army developed an entirely new rapid acquisition process that provided its troops in the field and the Marines with a host of critical items including improved body armor, better boots and helmets, enhanced night vision goggles, IED jammers, tethered aerostats and special weapons. The Air Force is about to buy a propeller-driven light attack and armed reconnaissance aircraft that can be used in low-intensity conflicts and sold to partner countries. The military is now richly equipped with the theories, experience and material that will allow it to fight successfully future counterinsurgencies.
So it grieves me — slightly — to say that all these investments may have created assets of only waning value. The United States did not become involved in Afghanistan and Iraq based on a vision of a world beset by terrorists and insurgents. It had no grand theory for conducting stability operations in the service of nation building from which we derived the missions to liberate Baghdad and save Kabul. Our two wars were driven by a unique constellation of events that carry no larger meaning. The termination of Osama bin Laden’s dreary existence puts something of a period to this era of U.S. foreign and security policy.
The Libyan campaign demonstrates the reluctance of the United States and its major allies to become engaged in new international adventure to secure foreign populations and create new governments and nations. Many of the issues that the military confronted in detail in its counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were present in Libya: unknown allies, weak or non-existent governments and civil institutions, tribal conflicts, military incompetence, the possible presence of terrorists and the potential for the conflict and its effects to spread. In this instance, however, rather than the situation triggering a full blown counterinsurgency/nation building response, it produced an abundance of caution. In particular, the U.S. has refrained from engaging in precisely those activities called for by the theory of counterinsurgency. There is no “whole of government” approach, no “three cups of tea” in Libya. If anything, the Libyan operation is a variant of the gunboat diplomacy, march to Kabul approach that served the European powers well during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Libya is important; its oil resources and location make a conflict in that country of concern not only to its neighbors but to Europe and the world. So why, given the U.S. military’s demonstrated capability to drop in on a foreign country and reshape it, has the United States not chosen to exercise its theory and capabilities in Libya? The reason for the evident unwillingness to jump into the conflict is that we have no confidence that we can alter the political and social environment in Libya from the outside.
The lesson of the Libyan experience is that, contrary to the common wisdom, low-intensity conflict and counterinsurgency operations will not be the dominant problem confronting the future force. Our capacity to control and influence the local populations is extremely limited. Moreover, absent catalytic events such as September 11, where will we find the will to remain engaged in nation building and population shaping for the many years that counterinsurgency theory says is required in order to have an impact? As the United States has discovered, it has choices when it comes to intervening in other peoples’ conflict. Increasingly, the United States will choose to limit its involvement in such situations.
Moreover, the government finds itself struggling to find ways to pay for needed military modernization programs such as a new strategic bomber, the F-35 fighter, nuclear attack submarines and strategic forces. As the administration considers the choice between the uncertain political benefits of protracted counterinsurgencies and the need to protect vital national interests against potential Iranian, North Korean and Chinese aggression it is likely to choose the latter. The second American flirtation with counterinsurgency and nation building is over.
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