Expeditionary and Civil Wars: Legitimacy Doesn’t Cut It
The United States’ military must find a way to accomplish its strategic objectives during wars among populations. The doctrine we implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan was premised on a number of assumptions that, carried to their logical conclusions, created overly ambitious methods for the pursuit of strategic objectives. This led to a campaign that was too costly for the meager results attained. Chief among those assumptions was the belief that host nation government legitimacy is the best way to defeat an insurgency. Our faith in legitimacy comes from an ill-founded use of civil wars as models for expeditionary counterinsurgencies.
The pursuit of host nation government legitimacy was an expensive endeavor. Between October 2001 and April 2014, we spent $686 billion on Operation Enduring Freedom and $815 billion on Operation Iraqi Freedom. Approximately 8,234 coalition service members and more than 147,000 Iraqi civilians, 10,000 Iraqi Security Force personnel, 23,000 Afghan civilians, and 13,000 Afghan National Security Force personnel were killed during these conflicts. Beyond the conflicts’ readily apparent fiscal and human price, the opportunity cost of our 13-year involvement in these conflicts is incalculable.
The price may have been justifiable if we had achieved our long-term objectives, but that has not been the case. Iraq has devolved into another round of civil war with an enemy more dangerous to us than Saddam Hussein was in 2003. Afghanistan’s future is in doubt, and the country’s current state does not resemble the product of 13 years of operations, thousands of lives, and $686 billion. One of the drivers of these high costs and poor results was our legitimacy based approach.
U.S. forces, challenged by a form of war in Iraq we had not prepared for, conducted systemic analyses of other conflicts. Kalev “Gunner” Sepp’s excellent article, Best Practices in Counterinsurgency, examined 53 different campaigns from the 20th century. Similarly, RAND Corporation’s comprehensive monograph, Victory Has a Thousand Fathers, researched 79 factors in 30 case studies to determine which factors are associated with victory and which with failure. Studies such as these contributed to and sustained the view that host nation legitimacy was crucial for the success of counterinsurgency campaigns.
Unfortunately, these analyses used a flawed method to select their case studies. The studies included both civil wars and expeditionary, or “third party” counterinsurgency campaigns. While expeditionary forces often operate in the midst of and alongside combatants in a civil war, it’s a mistake to assume they can therefore operate identically with similar results. Governments fighting civil wars operate in a markedly different environment than foreign expeditionary forces, limiting the transferability of concepts from successful forces fighting civil wars to their expeditionary counterparts.
If we want to defeat insurgencies in other countries, the military must understand the difference between civil wars and expeditionary counterinsurgencies. The best way to understand the difference is to contrast the limiting factors both forces must overcome to achieve their objectives.
Expeditionary forces have several limiting factors forces fighting in a civil war do not face. The government of the expeditionary force must satisfy competing demands. While soldiers can address security problems, they need help from other parts of their government to affect many other changes in the host state, giving birth to the whole of government approach. While I was in Afghanistan, I appreciated the resources provided by Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Civil Affairs units, but they did not meet our area’s needs. The population needed agricultural assistance, civil infrastructure, and a government mechanism to monitor and reduce corruption, none of which our infantry battalion was qualified to provide. We had civilian counterparts in the United States well trained and qualified to meet each of those needs, but they were employed by departments that had to maintain their own domestic responsibilities. The logical result of legitimacy’s ambitious goals is a force that requires its own pseudo government to create a new host nation government, but does not have the personnel to do so.
The host nation government also limits our effects. Government weakness, corruption, sectarianism and human rights violations are the lifeblood of an insurgency. These behaviors emerge and remain because they benefit the elite of host nations, and are difficult for any outside force to change. In Afghanistan and Iraq, while working alongside a government that could not or would not sustain gains, progress often had the lifespan of the current unit’s deployment. During our deployment to Afghanistan, the improvement we needed the most was not a better weapon systems, more soldiers, or even a temporary decrease in the number of enemy combatants. The improvement we needed the most was a governor the population could trust to resolve disputes and distribute resources justly, and who would create and cement progress for his population instead of using it as an opportunity to increase his family’s wealth. If we channel our efforts “by, with, and through” allies such as these, progress will always be limited.
Weak domestic support limits our ability to accomplish strategic goals more than any other factor. Americans perceive most expeditionary counterinsurgencies to be wars of choice. Without the sense of urgency found in wars of necessity, our population rarely provides wars of choice thorough or persistent support. They also rarely receive the clear rewards of a convincingly declared victory like V-E or V-J Day. Instead, most defeated insurgencies gradually fade into extinction without providing a defining moment of victory or a ticker tape parade. In Iraq and Afghanistan, I knew our area of operation was improving, but we did not have a clear, dramatic sign at any point. While we could produce statistics showing a decline in violence, an improving economy, and increased trust for security forces, statistics rarely create the patriotic glow that sustains military efforts. Both a lack of urgency and a lack of visible progress leave citizens less likely to maintain the support wars need.
Popular support is incredibly important for the prosecution of a war in a democracy. Political leaders frequently do not back expeditionary campaigns after their voter base’s feelings sour. When public approval for Vietnam declined, the Congress passed the Case Church Amendment in 1973, significantly reducing support to the South Vietnamese government while the North Vietnamese increased their conventional attacks. The British Parliament handed Iraq over to Faysal in 1920 after popular dissatisfaction caused by the loss of 450 soldiers and 40 million pounds while suppressing a rebellion. More recently, President Obama campaigned in 2008 on a platform that included a plan to withdraw American forces from Iraq.
Forces fighting in a civil war have fewer limiting factors than expeditionary forces. By their very nature, political goals in civil wars are far more absolute, and their consequences are far more immediate. Our goals in Iraq and Afghanistan influenced the nature and composition of governments thousands of miles away in countries many Americans still cannot find on a map. To the Iraqis and Afghans, however, the wars were and are about the character of their own government, how much say they have in its decisions, and often their survival in sectarian or tribal conflicts. Governments managing a civil war also do not face a division of efforts, as the governance of their population automatically ties in either directly or indirectly to the prosecution of the war. Forces fighting in civil wars also know more about their operating environment than foreign forces, reducing a thousand different friction points.
Legitimacy is an excellent approach for domestic forces whose members and supporting population have committed to the results of their conflict, whose government can control its own efforts instead of expressing them through an ineffective host nation, and who know their operating environment. But, applying lessons learned from civil wars to more constrained expeditionary counterinsurgents has unduly burdened us with an approach that mismatches ambitious goals and significant constraints, making future expeditions unlikely to succeed.
Once we have developed a method that accurately reflects the resources and national willpower available, we can foster a strategic dialogue that creates realistic objectives that lead to a desired policy outcome. We acknowledge the role of policy in conventional war, and have not entered every war expecting enemies to unconditionally surrender. Instead, we allow policy to shape our strategic and operational goals. Expecting every state hosting an expeditionary force to become a legitimate government is just as absolute and blind to limitations as always demanding unconditional surrender. If we cannot appreciate expeditionary forces’ greater limitations and allow realistic policy goals to drive operations, and instead allow legitimacy to create new, more ambitious goals, future expeditionary counterinsurgencies will rarely achieve their desired outcome.