By Charles J. Dunlap Jr., an Air Force major general and the author of Shortchanging the Joint Fight?, an assessment of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 09/01/08):
The relative calm that America’s armed forces have imposed on Iraq is certainly grounds for cautious optimism. But it also raises some obvious questions: how was it achieved and what does it mean for future defense planning?
Many analysts understandably attribute the success to our troops’ following the dictums of the Army’s lauded new counterinsurgency manual. While the manual is a vast improvement over its predecessors, it would be a huge mistake to take it as proof — as some in the press, academia and independent policy organizations have — that victory over insurgents is achievable by anything other than traditional military force.
Unfortunately, starry-eyed enthusiasts have misread the manual to say that defeating an insurgency is all about winning hearts and minds with teams of anthropologists, propagandists and civil-affairs officers armed with democracy-in-a-box kits and volleyball nets. They dismiss as passé killing or capturing insurgents.
Actually, the reality is quite different. The lesson of Iraq is that old-fashioned force works. Add 30,000 of the world’s finest infantry to the 135,000 battle-hardened troops already there, as we have done, and the outnumbered insurgency is in serious trouble. Detain thousands more Iraqis as security threats, and the potential for violence inevitably declines. Press reports indicate that the number of Iraqis in prison doubled over the last year, to 30,000 from 15,000; and while casualty figures are sketchy, military officials told USA Today last September that the number of insurgents killed was already 25 percent higher in 2007 than in all of 2006.
And while the new counterinsurgency doctrine has an anti-technology flavor that seems to discourage the use of air power especially, savvy ground-force commanders in Iraq got the right results last year by discounting those admonitions. Few Americans are likely to be aware that there was a fivefold increase in airstrikes during 2007 as compared with the previous year, which went hand in hand with the rest of the surge strategy. Going high-tech once again proved to be highly successful.
Regrettably, two other uncomfortable developments also helped suppress violence. First, the Iraqi population has largely segregated itself into sectarian fiefs. Second, supposedly “reformed” insurgents now dominate Anbar Province. While these Sunni partisans have for the moment sided with the United States, can we assume they’ve bought into the idea of a truly pluralistic and democratic Iraq?
Nonetheless, fans of the counterinsurgency manual are using it as a bludgeon against anyone who wants to plan to fight the next war rather than the last one. Their line of thinking holds that our next war will be a replay of Iraq, and thus most of our armed forces should be structured for counterinsurgency.
But this ignores other potential threats. Should we simply wish away China’s increasing muscle, or a resurgent Russia’s plans for a fifth-generation fighter that would surpass our top of the line jet, the F-22 stealth fighter? Moreover, does anyone really believe that creating corps of civil affairs officers will deter North Korea or Iran?
Yes, there is always the possibility that we may again find ourselves battling an insurgency, and the manual has many great ideas. Furthermore, the proposal for a 20,000-strong adviser corps to help Iraqi local forces fight insurgents ought to be green-lighted.
The problem emerges when we consider pouring excessive resources into preparing for only one kind of conflict. Doing so would put us at real risk of losing the technological superiority that has kept America’s vastly more dangerous threats at bay. Consider, for example, that our warplanes are on average more than 25 years old.
The enormous cost of the Iraq war, not to mention the loss of life on both sides, would seem to counsel against the idea of a similar operation elsewhere. Looking ahead, America needs a military centered not on occupying another country but on denying potential adversaries the ability to attack our interests. This is not a task for counterinsurgents, but rather for an unapologetically high-tech military that substitutes machines for the bodies of young Americans.