After 9/11, the United States was thrown into a type of conflict that the U.S. military, intelligence community and Department of State all did not expect: large-scale counterinsurgency. The United States, particularly the military, had always been reluctant to take this on. Counterinsurgency is a politically and psychologically complex struggle that doesn’t play to America’s strength: morally unambiguous warfare where victory comes from creating the biggest and most powerful military, then winning battles until the enemy is crushed. Counterinsurgency often takes place in cultures and locations—remote villages, dense city streets—that Americans have a difficult time understanding.
Despite the desire to avoid this trap, U.S. political leaders sometimes stumbled into it, most prominently in the Philippines from 1899 to 1902 and in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. Both times the United States had to create a counterinsurgency capability from scratch. Both times it eventually did so but paid a cost for its lack of preparation. Then, both times America let its counterinsurgency capability atrophy after disengaging, believing that it would never need it again. In counterinsurgency, America was like Sisyphus.
When President George W. Bush committed the United States to major interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of his “global war on terrorism”—involving regime change, post-conflict stabilization, nation-building and the reconstruction of both countries’ security forces—armed resistance quickly emerged, dragging America back into counterinsurgency. Once again, the United States had to recreate its strategy and capability, again paying a significant cost in blood and treasure for its lack of preparation.
Now this cycle is underway again. According to the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” by “revisionist powers,” particularly Russia and China and “rogue regimes” like Iran and North Korea. So preparing for war with those enemies is the military’s top priority. Since the publicly available summary of the National Defense Strategy says nothing about counterinsurgency, the military services—particularly the Army, which always bears the brunt of counterinsurgency—are focusing on large-scale conventional war.
Admittedly, the abandonment of counterinsurgency is not as total as it was after Vietnam. There is still a bit of it in the curriculum of the military’s professional educational system, and training programs have continued to update counterinsurgency doctrine, with the Army and Marine Corps writing a new manual in 2014 and the Joint Force in 2018. The Army has also created Security Force Assistance Brigades to help partner militaries develop counterinsurgency capabilities.
A counterinsurgency learning center could be a wise and cost-effective hedge against an uncertain future.
This is all important, but not enough. The Army may have a foundation to reconstitute its counterinsurgency capability if—or when—the United States again takes it on, but it cannot do it alone. Counterinsurgency must be a more holistic effort. Its core challenge is effective strategy, not soldier skills. In every instance where the United States got involved in counterinsurgency campaigns with less than satisfactory results, the culprit was not inadequate military training or tactics, but an inability to understand the conflict. It could happen again.
But there might be a solution. Given the possibility that it might be drawn back into fighting insurgencies, the United States should form a learning organization to monitor the evolution of insurgency around the world; undertake research, strategic level exercises and war games; refine strategic concepts; and sustain an interagency and multinational community of experts. It could look closely at the future of insurgency, rather than its past, as the world becomes more urban, more interconnected, more transparent, more reliant on new technologies like robotics, more shaped by the fusion of crime and political violence and private and political action, more vulnerable to terrorism, and more influenced by swarming networks than centrally commanded, hierarchical organizations.
This counterinsurgency learning organization should not be simply one more U.S. Army “center of excellence,” but something much broader. The Army should certainly be a major participant, maybe even the largest. But effective counterinsurgency must be “whole of government” and multinational. That means that the learning center should include participants from the intelligence community, the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, a wide range of international partners, and relevant social scientists, futurists, cultural experts, historians and technologists. Its leader might be a seasoned diplomat or senior intelligence officer rather than a military officer. He or she might even be a non-government futurist. The learning organization could be hosted by another nation rather than the United States, or, at least, be led on a rotating basis by various nations interested in a unified approach to counterinsurgency. It could, for instance, be part of NATO rather than a purely U.S. entity but still integrate non-NATO participants. Even more broadly, it might be a transnational network of linked centers rather than a single entity.
It’s always good to be cautious before creating a new government organization; there are too many as it is. But in this case, developing a multiservice, multiagency, multinational counterinsurgency learning center makes sense. There is no reason to believe that insurgency will not become strategically significant again. If it does, the United States, as it has too many times before, will have to develop tactical capabilities and deep understanding. A counterinsurgency learning center could be a wise and cost-effective hedge against an uncertain future.