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Interview: Celeste Ward


A senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, Ward was political adviser to the operational commander of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2006 and deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations capabilities in 2007-08. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 14, 2009.

“Until you have specified what the end state you're aiming for is, then counterinsurgency is a recipe for a presence in perpetuity.”

What is counterinsurgency? And where does it come from? How does this idea become ascendant suddenly?

I think it starts when Iraq starts becoming very violent around 2004. … I think at that point you start seeing an enormous emergence of effort to study insurgencies of the past, and to try to reawaken this intellectual area that many regard as having been purposely set aside after Vietnam. At least this is how the story goes.

As people start to look at it, don't they then go back and look at what [Gen. David] Petraeus was doing in '03 in Mosul?

That was certainly one of the cases that they looked at. Of course, they looked at many other historical cases, and geographical cases. …

But the ideas start reaching their zenith when, of course, the FM 3-24 (PDF), Field Manual 3-24, comes out in late 2006. General Petraeus' signature is on the front in his role of combined arms center commander.

And then he's selected as the commander of all forces in Iraq. And then, the story ... continues to escalate and build from there where it is thought that this was now an implementation of FM 3-24, that the surge -- the catch-all term meant to describe many different changes in our approach in Iraq, including the insertion of additional troops -- is an example of a counterinsurgency strategy. …

I would argue … that many techniques that helped reduce the violence in Iraq were in fact not featured in the manual, that it was not primarily a counterinsurgency operation. In fact, our problems in Iraq were not strictly according to definition of an insurgency according to the military, but were multi-faceted and really crossed borders. It really wasn't this entity outside of the government that was challenging the government. They were ethno-sectarian and other conflicts that were actually featuring major government players. So it really wasn't an "us" and "them." It was a honeycomb of interests and conflicts that were being played out in Iraq.

But it put the luster on counterinsurgency as doctrine.

I believe it did. … The perception that they succeeded I think led to these ideas gaining huge credence in the defense community, and becoming so prominent that really discussion of alternatives got sidelined to an unhealthy degree in my opinion.

Is fashion or fad a common trait of military theory?

Well, fashion is harsh. That sounds rather pejorative. But I do think that there tend to be waves of ideas. Since I've been in the defense community, transformation and the revolution in military affairs used to be the shiny new penny, and that was what all the conferences were about, and that's what all the articles were about, and that's what everyone talked about.

And then, that was set aside. To some degree, those ideas were discredited by Iraq, since the view is that those ideas were implemented in the early days of Iraq, but they didn't actually lead to victory.

And so then counterinsurgency emerged. I think the effect -- and I'm not sure this was anyone's intent -- but the effect has been to push out other concepts of internal conflict, and to a general tendency to group internal conflicts under this rubric, and to set aside other ideas of ways of resolving those conflicts.

Counterinsurgency gets a lot of credence coming out of Iraq. It doesn't mean, however, that it's not an appropriate sort of approach to the problems on the ground in Afghanistan. In what ways is it? In what ways is it not?

I think if you look at Field Manual 3-24, and you listen to a lot of the rhetoric of the population-centric counterinsurgency that's most prominent now, it's virtually indistinguishable from the notion of nation building. …

Let's unpack that a little bit because population-centric, as I understand it, at the foot-soldier level, is pretty understandable. … Take me up the ladder. Where does it become nation building?

… Let me start with the concept of clear, hold and build, which is a familiar counterinsurgency dictum. And if you think about it in theory, it makes a little bit of sense. You want to clear the enemy from an area, and then, you hold the area and protect the civilians, and then you build.

The problem is it's terribly vague about what exactly it is that you're required to build and to what point. Are we building sewage plants? Are we building electricity plants? Are we building security forces? And how do I know when I'm done? And so, a lot of these ideas that have become chants or incantations don't stand up to a lot of scrutiny, or at least don't provide sufficient specificity to constitute a strategy.

And then, you get mission creep.

And then, you get mission creep. And then, I've got to build the Afghan economy or the Iraqi economy to some unspecified unknown point, where you get to "We'll know it when we see it." And that's a difficult sell for the American public I think.

I remember after 9/11, and the sort of progressive argument was against the counterterrorists who said, "Well, we got to go out and kill folks." The liberal crowd, or progressive crowd was saying: "No, you have to drain the swamp. You have to eradicate those conditions that lead to these fundamentalist groups, terrorist groups, if you will, arising." It seemed all pretty reasonable at the time. But isn't that what counterinsurgency now has grown from that soil?

I think it does grow from that soil. And I think as a national strategy that makes sense. But when you're talking about a particular country, then you need to be very specific about what that really means to drain the swamp, and how I know when I'm done.

The problem with Afghanistan is that it's such a poor country. It's, I believe, ranked 219th of countries with per capita GDP. And, you know, quite an ancient, mostly tribal culture that to develop them to some point that would even be recognizable as modernity will take decades and untold billions of dollars.

And so, if that's what we intend to do by draining the swamp, then I think we need to be explicit about that. And if that's the strategy, then let's call it that instead of calling it counterinsurgency, which sounds a bit wonkish and a bit more abstruse and less explicit about the strategic tradeoffs and decisions that the nation is making about commitment of its resources.

Give me a description of counterinsurgency from the ground up as best you understand it. …

I think at the tactical level, of course, soldiers and marines are to get to know and understand the regions in which they're operating, to develop relationships with the people, to not commit acts of violence or offenses against them to the extent possible. And this all makes sense.

But the effect of this sort of thing is going to be inevitably quite limited. And I think one of the unremarked upon conceits of counterinsurgency theory is that we will be able to effectively sway or gain the long-term trust and change the opinions of these ancient tribal people that we don't really understand terribly well.

And so, I think we need to admit the limits of American knowledge and American power, and know that while we can certainly conduct non-kinetic operations and assist the population and put a nice face on American operations, in the end, the likelihood that we'll be able to permanently change their opinion, or gain their loyalty is a distant prospect.

But it is better than bombing them and raiding their homes, or not?

Certainly. But the question comes back to, what are we there to do? If we're there to primarily prevent Al Qaeda from gaining a bolt hole, or a place where they can plan and execute attacks against the United States, it's not clear to me that the only way to do that is to build Afghanistan into a democratic state that is run from a strong central government of which there's virtually no history, and to build its economy to some state that has yet to be specified.

[What's on the military's plate in Afghanistan?]

Let me be clear. I don't blame the military or put on them the ascendance of a lot of these ideas. In fact, I think that they're looking for ways to deal with incredibly difficult missions that they've been given and trying to find a way to victory by hook or by crook. And they're dealing with their difficult position in the most admirable and best way possible.

But I think we have given them a pretty difficult mission, including conducting a lot of so-called non-kinetic operations, or economic development, and things that really they're not trained for, nor were they ever intended to do.

But certainly, we've been at this for eight years. And though it's long been noted that the military is conducting operations that normally civilians might more naturally conduct, we're still doing it. And somehow, we still haven't managed to build up the civilian capacity to actually do a lot of these things. And I would submit to you that some of that may be ambivalence among American policymakers and some on the hill that building up thousands and thousands of civilians to build countries globally is not an idea that has a lot of currency in some quarters. And the fact that we haven't built it is evidence of the lack of complete support for that idea.

[What are some of the limits of counterinsurgency?]

… One of the key tenets of counterinsurgency is that the counterinsurgent force is there to support and underwrite the government, and to help the government establish its legitimacy.

The problem comes when perhaps the government is part of the problem. And I think that we certainly face that in Iraq, and may well be there with Afghanistan. And counterinsurgency theory doesn't really help you there.

The other problem it raises is it doesn't really discuss the advantages of not being there. And when counterinsurgent forces are exactly an irritant to the conflict and exactly exacerbating some of the problems and creating some of the violence, then your presence is actually hurting more than its helping. And certainly, we hear all the time in Afghanistan, they're a tribal people notoriously suspicious of outsiders. …

I heard all the time from commanders and from soldiers and Marines on the ground assurances given to the people that "This time we're here to stay." Do you think American people are in on this?

I'm not sure. I know the polls certainly suggest that the public is growing increasingly uneasy with the mission in Afghanistan. I don't know that there's great understanding out there about exactly what it is we're there to accomplish.

Of course, the United States went in justifiably in Afghanistan. Our moral outrage for the attack on 9/11. But eight years on, it's not clear that this is still a reprisal for 9/11. We're doing something else now. And I'm not sure that the public totally understands that.

And I don't know that they've been presented with the idea that sometimes, according to counterinsurgency theory in order to protect the civilians, you might have to sacrifice Americans. That's a heady prospect. I'm not sure if Americans were fully aware of that how long they would be willing to support that on a large scale.

[What do you mean?]

If your focus is on protecting the civilian population, and that's your priority, well, then in some cases you might not call in air support. Or you might not conduct a bombing raid when forces are under fire because of the risk of civilian casualties. At least, it's something that you would be forced to consider in a strategy where your first priority is to protect the civilian population. And so, that's obviously a much increased risk to American forces.

Isn't it the difference between mounted versus foot patrols?

Of course, that's certainly going to be more risky. When you have people walking around out in villages in relatively small numbers, they are at a higher risk. And that risk I think the American public would accept taking on if they agreed with the fundamentals of the mission, and if they understood exactly what our purposes were, what our objectives were, and what they're worth to us. And I'm not sure if we're there yet.

We're there to prevent Afghanistan from becoming host to Al Qaeda. Isn't that a worthy mission?

That is a worthy mission. But I'm not sure that the only way to conduct that mission is through large-scale nation building efforts in Afghanistan. And so, one of the things that you'll hear the administration talk about is this is a counterterrorism purpose, and counterinsurgency is the means. …

But I would submit to you that the dominance of counterinsurgency thinking in defense circles right now is keeping real alternatives from being seriously considered. And some of those alternatives have been named by a few people out there, including going to a much smaller footprint, focusing on punitive strikes against very difficult elements of Al Qaeda or the Taliban, focusing on humanitarian development where we can succeed.

People argue that we tried this and we got 9/11; that the Clinton administration tried punitive strikes from afar and that it was unsuccessful. But that was before 9/11. That was before we understood the nature of the threat. And I don't think we have tried anything along those lines since then. …

We've got ourselves in a very difficult situation in that there are many there who will say: "Look, you abandoned us after the defeat of the Russians. And then, once again, you abandon us when you were distracted by Iraq. Are you for real this time?"

I think that's one of the calculations we have to make. But it can't be the only one.

But aren't we now down the road with the new counterinsurgency emphasis in promising people that this time we're here to stay? I heard it over and over again at the village level and wondered, you know, if Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer understood the promises that were being made on the ground.

There seems to be a fairly prevalent notion that we own Afghanistan, that Afghanistan's problems are shouldered primarily by the Americans, that they're ours. And I think we need to consider how to look at this problem from a regional perspective and seek regional solutions to it.

Others in the region have a strong interest in a stable Afghanistan. It isn't just us. Of course, we're getting help from our NATO allies. But other nations nearby do not want to see Afghanistan in a mess in perpetuity. And so, we need not shoulder the entire problem ourselves. And we need not demonstrate a lack of commitment to providing Afghanistan with a future. But we need not do it with very large numbers of U.S. troops and untold billions far into the future as far as the eye can see.

… We're protecting the people. How does that get us to these big notions of nation building?

Because how long do you have to protect them for? And it gets back to the clear, hold, build problem. So I can go on, send forces onto the ground to protect the population. But then what? Well, the "then what?" is, well, we hold the area. And assuming we had sufficient forces to hold the area and the population of Afghanistan, which would require several hundred forces anyway.

And then, you build so that you make the environment hostile to any future incursions from the enemy. But this really has no end. Until you have specified what the end state you're aiming for is, then counterinsurgency is a recipe for presence in perpetuity. And it's that missing piece, the stated objectives and the plan for reaching those objectives, that makes counterinsurgency a problem if it is your sole element of your strategy.

Now you say there's nations in the neighborhood that it's in their interest to stabilize Afghanistan, have Afghanistan not be a perpetual problem. But you've also got states whose solution to that is supporting the Taliban, i.e. Pakistan. What does counterinsurgency prescribe for addressing that kind of issue? And what alternatives should we be considering?

This is precisely where counterinsurgency is not a strategy because it precisely won't tell you how should you situate yourself in a strategic sense in a regional conflict. It gives you tactics, techniques, and procedures to employ. But what it doesn't help you do is figure out where the United States wants to be with respect to these other countries. What is it that we are trying to achieve? What is in U.S. interests? And that's what really needs to come to the fore.

I think by engaging these regional partners -- or regional countries, some of them may not be partners -- we help them understand the consequences of Afghanistan being a perpetual failing state. And that we may not necessarily be there forever, and that they need to step up and figure out what arrangements will allow Afghanistan to be stable.

This is a problem on your block, not ours.

Exactly, exactly. We don't own Afghanistan forever. It's not our foster child. It was a problem for us. And now it's a problem for all of us. So how are we going to do this together?

And you prescribe that we apply better intelligence, and targeted strike capability as opposed to nation building in terms of preventing a repeat of events such as 9/11.

I think we need to explore the idea of pursuing a strategy like that in far more detail. … I don't agree with people who suggest that tomorrow we should announce that we're leaving Afghanistan and we give up. I think that would be a moral victory for our adversaries. I think all manner of nefarious characters could crow that they chased out the Americans. We don't want that. That would be disastrous.

But I do think we could modulate our approach. Rather than simply doubling down, we could at least maintain for a while, and gradually reduce our force numbers and focus the effort much less on building a country, and much more on our primary interest, which is preventing Al Qaeda from establishing a base.

It seems a very confusing set of tactical missions that are going on. We just inserted 4,000 Marines into Helmand. … It seems like an urgent question for us to figure out what it is we're going to do and signal to the Afghanistan's people as to what we are doing.

It is an urgent question. And I think more and more people are calling for exactly that clarity. And it's a difficult mission to define. But again, if counterinsurgency is your strategy, then you've defined it. And it's ultimately about nation building. And if that is not what you intend, then we need to be more clear about dialing down our objectives and explaining to the American public what exactly it is we're intending to accomplish in Afghanistan.

And nation building is off the table because we can't afford it? Or because we don't do it? Or what?

It's only off the table if the American public can't support it. But we need to make those choices explicit to them and explain where Afghanistan is in terms of economic development and the state of its governance, and where we think we can get it, and what period of time, and at what cost.

One of the things that often goes unremarked upon in all of this discussion is what the opportunity costs are strategically for the United States. Other adversaries around the world haven't been sitting still for the last eight years. And there are things that we are not doing because we're doing this. But we need to make those choices more explicit.

Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal said to Congress that it was going to be long and hard and costly. I asked him if that was a hedge. He said no, it's just he thinks it's realistic. …

To do what? Long and hard and costly to do what? I mean, it keeps coming back to that. Please describe the Afghanistan in the end state that we're trying to get it to. Just draw a picture.

That I think they would say would be an Afghanistan that will not host Al Qaeda.

There may be lots of ways to get there. There's many people now calling for negotiated settlements with a variety of actors in Afghanistan. I can't comment on the specific feasibility of that. But it is worth noting that one of the most significant contributors to the reduction of violence in Iraq during the surge was paying people to stop attacking us. Paying people off is a well-worn tactic in international diplomacy. And it might be successful here.

Long-term? How long can you do that?

It might be cheaper in the long-term than turning Afghanistan into a society that will never again be a problem for the world. That's a promise probably no one can keep.

That's perpetual presence.

That's perpetual presence and perpetual investment and a perpetual foster child of a country. We may already be there, frankly, with what we're building them in terms of security forces since we know that the Afghan budget can't pay for the security forces that they have now.

Explain that.

We're building Afghan security forces, police and army that are expensive for the Afghan government to maintain. In fact, they can't afford to maintain them now under their current budgets, which is somewhere around a billion or less per year. And we're talking about increasing the size of those forces. I have not seen a cost estimate on what increasing the size would be over time. But they can't afford it now. So it's hard to see how the situation improves.

But this is the exit strategy that Adm. [Mike] Mullen talks about that we get them trained up, that we're there until we can get the police and the army operating. And then, we can leave.

It is, and depending on what this might cost us per year to help them maintain those security forces, provided we had the appropriate deals with the appropriate people, then that might well be worth it to us. That's a calculation that we need to make.

You talked about corruption. What kind of corruption are we talking about in Afghanistan? And how does that compromise counterinsurgency?

Corruption is of course a serious problems in a lot of these societies. … And what happens in a counterinsurgency scenario … is vast sums of money come into the country, which is generally a recipe for corruption of a variety of types -- funds being simply stolen, or diverted. …

And what consequence does that have for an effective counterinsurgency campaign?

Of course, it's undermining the legitimacy of the government, since they're the ones that are mostly likely to be receiving the money, and potentially really, or at least perceived to be stealing the money, or using the money in the wrong ways. So that is going to undermine your primary effort to establish legitimacy among the government.

And we become seen or perceived, if not in fact, complicit?

Complicit or dupes. And this goes back to my point about the complexity of these societies and our ability to penetrate them, even people that understand the language and have substantial experience in these countries. And in a place like Afghanistan, that's a very small number of Americans or westerners who qualify in that regard. … We need to have a degree of humility about our ability to even understand it, much less manipulate it in our favor.

So are we trying to re-engineer, therefore, the dynamics of this society?

We're becoming a player in the dynamics of the society. I think that by the very nature of counterinsurgency theory there is an assumption that we can get the population on our side, and that we understand what that takes. And it may take more than having tea a few times, or offering some medical care.

These are deep relationships that have been there for generations. And just because we've come in and done a few favors for people doesn't mean that they're going to be on our side, or be on our side for long. And we need to have a degree of humility about what we understand in these societies, and what we can really do, and what relationships we can develop and trust.

I asked McCrystal if the military could reasonably be expected to re-engineer the dynamics of Afghan society. And he said: "Well it's not easy. But what's the choice?"

It's never been done before. I don't think there's much historical precedent for any one re-engineering the dynamics of Afghan society. They've been doing this way for a very long time. And the British were there for a very long time and didn't succeed in re-engineering their society.

It's hubris then.

I believe there is an element of counterinsurgency theory that contains quite a bit of hubris.

And why is that in fashion suddenly? Especially given the fact that many people understand that it's not what succeeded in Iraq. Is it just the need for new fashion, or new strategy? …

Frankly, I think the overuse of the term, the over-application of the concepts has actually reduced it to a bit of nonsense. It's so loaded with historical context, contemporary assumptions, myth, and just plain nonsense that the term is batted about without, in some cases, much real understanding of what we're really talking about.

And that's why I think the terminology is so problematic because imprecision in our language shouldn't lead to imprecision in our thoughts, or would be expected to lead to imprecision in our thoughts. And so, I can't explain its ascendency. It's really mostly about Iraq in my view. If Iraq was not the narrative that it is, we would not be here.

I suppose it's in recognizing or coming to a conclusion, right or wrong, that we're fighting an insurgency, so therefore, counterinsurgency --

Exactly. We have a hammer, so our problems are a nail. It's an old aphorism in Washington. But in this case, it's true. And that's where the dangerous illusion part comes in because if we can define our problem as something for which we have a tool to combat, well then, our tool will work because our tool has worked before, and we have this tool.

And that's where it becomes reductionist. And it removes and drains from the situation all this relevant detail. Conflicts are to some degree sui generis. They have their own motive forces, their own historical context, their own characters, their own dynamics. And even attempting to classify them, probably an academic question, is an interesting debate.

But it's assumed now in defense circles that this is not only possible, but that it makes a great deal of sense, and that we can then derive lessons from one historical situation or multiple historical situations, and apply them in a new situation with radically different characters, features, geography, history, culture, and so on. We don't even have that discussion though. …

But maybe counterinsurgency is just what Afghanistan needs. Why not? We got to do something there, right? You agree that we can't just leave.

We need to do something to meet fundamental U.S. national security interests. And that is preventing Al Qaeda or anyone else from establishing a base from which they can plan an attack against the United States homeland. That is our priority. That has to be our priority. And strategy is all about making priorities. And that needs to be priority number one.

And there are other alternatives for reaching that goal that need to be considered. And counterinsurgency is a recipe for staying forever. Until one can specify what we are trying to get to, and that counterinsurgency is in fact a method to get to that place, then we're talking about forever. …

posted october 13, 2009

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