I spent a few hours recently, reading Edward N. Luttwak's article in Harper's Magazine, "Dead End: Counter-Insurgency as Military Malpractice", and carefully thinking over his argument. It was a pleasant holiday from the reality of war here in Baghdad, and a reassuring reminder that there are still havens of calm (like CSIS, where Dr Luttwak is a Senior Fellow) where one can consider issues thoroughly and arrive at firm conclusions. From my viewpoint, here in Iraq, things somehow never seem quite so black-and-white.
Professor Luttwak is a famous defense policy expert, with publications on the Roman Empire, nuclear strategy, coups d'état and globalization, among others. He is not a specialist in counterinsurgency, but his opinions carry much weight and we should all welcome his recent foray into the field. I hope he will forgive this précis, but in essence he argues that "insurgents do not always win, actually they usually lose. But their defeats can rarely be attributed to counterinsurgency warfare, as we shall see". The means he argues are most effective (but does not himself advocate, of course) are wholesale reprisals and "out-terrorizing" the insurgents.
The first part of the article is a critique of the new counter-insurgency manual, FM 3-24. As Dr Luttwak acknowledges, he is actually critiquing the so-called "straw-man" draft (leaked onto the internet in early 2006) not the final version published last December (about three months before his Harper's piece appeared). This is a pity, because the official version differs substantially from the straw-man he critiques.
For example, Dr Luttwak criticizes the draft's focus on legitimacy as a means to popular consent, suggesting that coercion makes up for lack of consent: "government needs no popular support when it has obedience". If he had seen the final version he may have been more comfortable with these words (from Chapter 1):
All governments rule through a combination of consent and coercion...Legitimacy makes it easier for a state to carry out its key functions.... "police states" typically cannot regulate society or can do so only by applying overwhelming coercion. Legitimate governance is inherently stable; the societal support it engenders allows it to adequately manage the internal problems, change, and conflict that affect individual and collective well-being. Conversely, governance that is not legitimate is inherently unstable; as soon as the state's coercive power is disrupted, the populace ceases to obey it.
Some other comments seem based on incomplete information. Dr Luttwak observes that "better government...is certainly wanted in France, Norway and the United States but obviously not in Afghanistan or Iraq, where many people prefer indigenous and religious oppression". This differs markedly from my field experience in both countries. One night last summer, a member of a tribe that sits astride the Afghan-Pakistan border told me: "you want to bring us 'democracy' at the national level, but we already have democracy within the khel. What we want from the government is security, honor, justice and prosperity. If anyone offers us those things, we will fight for him to the death. If democracy only brings elections, what use is it?" In my experience, this is a fairly widespread view in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It reflects cultural differences in the way social groups conceive of the state, and varying notions of democracy and legitimacy. But ordinary Iraqis and Afghans have told me repeatedly that they want effective government that is responsive to people's needs. This is legitimate government, defined through their (emic) terms of justice, honor and responsiveness, not our (etic) categories of parliamentary elections and English common law.
Dr Luttwak argues that "the vast majority of Afghans and Iraqis, assiduous mosque-goers, illiterates or at best semi-illiterate, naturally believe their religious leaders" (who, Dr Luttwak suggests, incite violence with claims that America seeks to destroy Islam and control oil resources). Again, this is at variance with field observation. In fact, neither Iraqis nor Afghans are particularly assiduous mosque-goers. And religious figures are prominent on all sides of both conflicts, in moderate and extreme political groups; there is an extremely wide range of clerical opinion, ranging from quietism through support for democratic government, to extremism. More fundamentally, in these societies, religious faith is not a function of ignorance and credulity, as Dr Luttwak implies, but a widespread cultural norm that infuses all social classes, political orientations and education levels. Indeed, this is one criticism of FM 3-24 that others (including Ralph Peters) have raised, arguing that it minimizes the role of religion. Again, this is a valid criticism of the leaked straw-man, but was addressed in the final version.
In his discussion of intelligence work, Dr Luttwak draws a sharp distinction between intelligence problems and political problems, criticizing the manual for insufficiently addressing political issues. In my view, this is a fair point (though, again, the final version includes much more discussion of political factors than the unofficial draft). The U.S. government is currently preparing a whole-of-government counterinsurgency handbook, which will address political issues more fully.
Dr Luttwak's point about sectarian tendencies in security forces is useful. I am unsure when Dr Luttwak was last in Afghanistan, so he may have more recent information than me. But my impression of the Iraqis I work with now, and the Afghans I worked with last year, is that though such tendencies are real, the presence of U.S. forces, joint operations, and partnership of police with soldiers, provide "checks and balances" that mitigate them. And the growing professionalism of security forces is reducing these tendencies, particularly in Afghanistan. That is, in fact, the point of the Joint Security Stations, which resulted in a large drop in sectarian violence in areas of Iraq where they have been applied. So we may end up making some progress on this issue.
We have also had some success addressing Dr Luttwak's concerns about language proficiency. He writes of the "astonishing linguistic incapacity" of the U.S. military, comparing unfavorably the number of Arabic students at defense language institutes with historical training efforts in Chinese and Japanese. Again, he may not have the latest information on this. According to the Defense Language Institute, by 2005 there were over 300 Arabic instructors and more than 1000 Arabic students in training—a ten-fold increase since before 9/11. Language skills are still too rare in the field, but I have seen steady improvement in the past few years. The new manual pays a great deal of attention to developing and improving cultural and language capabilities.
More importantly, Dr Luttwak implies that only indigenous forces can do counterinsurgency, because only they have the local knowledge, cultural understanding and language ability to work effectively. I could not agree more: imagine how Californians would react if the Iraqi military tried to police the streets of Los Angeles. Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan also agree, and have made major efforts all along to train local forces to do the job themselves. In addition, the partnership of Iraqi or Afghan forces with U.S. units in the field today gives commanders immediate access to cultural and linguistic understanding from local partners, while U.S. forces reinforce them (Iraqis use the term thabit) and help them ensure that their behavior accords with legal and human rights standards. Local forces are crucial, which is why the manual emphasizes partnership so heavily.
Another benefit of working alongside locals, right in the heart of an operating area, is that it encourages the population to report on the insurgents. Dr Luttwak argues that "many of the local inhabitants certainly know who the insurgents are...but they are not telling". Actually, they now are. Every U.S. unit that has applied the new manual's approach, living among the people and focusing on their security, has reported a flood of unsolicited tips from the population and volunteering of information about insurgents.
Having knocked the stuffing out of the straw-man, Dr Luttwak suggests an "easy and reliable way of defeating all insurgencies everywhere": essentially, to "out-terrorize" insurgents through reprisals, mass executions, and collective punishments. He cites German forces in the Second World War, claiming this approach was standard, "and very effective it was too in containing resistance movements with very few troops". Again, I beg to differ. One German officer on the Eastern Front remarked: "the German Army in Russia was like an elephant attacking a nest of ants. The elephant will kill millions. But in the end the ants will eat him to the bone". German methods in Yugoslavia, Greece and Russia proved extremely counterproductive. And as Barbara Tuchman argued in The Guns of August, earlier German brutality against civilians in Belgium and France in 1914 helped provoke worldwide revulsion, contributing to eventual American intervention and German defeat in the First World War. (These are historical observations, of course, and do not in any way impugn modern Germany or today's Bundeswehr).
The methods Dr. Luttwak mentions are thus not a prescription for success, but a recipe for disaster. As he quickly admits, U.S. and Coalition forces would never consider such methods for a moment. And this is just as well, since this approach does not work. The best method we know of, despite its imperfections, has worked in numerous campaigns over several decades, and is the one we are now using: counterinsurgency. I admit (and have argued elsewhere) that classical counterinsurgency needs updating for current conditions. But the Nazis, Syrians, Taliban, Iranians, Saddam Hussein and others all tried brutalizing the population, and the evidence is that this simply does not work in the long term.
Dr. Luttwak's final point is one of his strongest. He argues that there is ambivalence in the United States approach, that America is "—to start wars because of future projected threats...—to conquer territory or even entire countries, and yet is un—to govern what it conquers, even for a few years". What he calls "the critical ambivalence of occupiers who refuse to govern" is indeed worth discussing, though it is properly an issue of political will, strategic culture and national character, rather than counterinsurgency technique. As a colleague said to me in Iraq last year, "we need to either make a serious effort to govern these people, or get the hell out". But Iraq and Afghanistan now have sovereign governments; and we (with many other countries) are helping these governments to do exactly that—make a serious effort to govern their people effectively. And we have no plans for permanent presence: as the President said, we will stay as long as we are needed, and not a day longer.
Overall, I found Professor Luttwak's viewpoint fascinating, and a thought-provoking addition to our ongoing professional discussion, but ultimately not quite convincing. Perhaps that's just me—things do tend to look different, and more complicated, from here in the field. But I would encourage people to read both the Harper's piece, and the actual final version of FM 3-24, and make up their own minds. On-the-ground facts (like language improvements, partnering with Iraqi forces, the drop in sectarian violence, joint operations, and improved governance) are also worth taking into account.
None of this means we will automatically win in Iraq and Afghanistan; unlike some pundits, most of us with a professional background in counterinsurgency always expected this to be a forbiddingly difficult undertaking. Our approach remains fundamentally field-oriented and evidence-based, and clearly there are still many things that could go wrong, dark days ahead, and extremely demanding and complex challenges to be faced, as in every war. Admittedly, also, we waited a long time before adopting our current approach, which inevitably makes things harder. And as John Nagl so convincingly demonstrated, our counterinsurgency doctrine will undoubtedly need ongoing and agile adaptation as things develop. But to suggest that counterinsurgency is intrinsically flawed, that it is "malpractice", or that wholesale slaughter and oppression are the only viable solution (albeit one that we will never apply) is an argument that the facts simply do not support.
Dr. David Kilcullen is Senior Counter-Insurgency Advisor to the Commanding General, Multi-National Force Iraq. Though authorized to post at SWJ Blog, these are his personal views, do not reflect those of any government or organization, and have not been screened or vetted.
SWJ Editors Note: Small Wars Council discussion: Edward Luttwak - Counterinsurgency as Military Malpractice