Defense policy analysts and pundits are wasting ink arguing back and forth about whether or not counterinsurgency is dead or alive. The real debate -- the one that risks getting lost in the noise about counterinsurgency’s vital signs -- concerns the future of the U.S. Army. As the U.S. military ends its role in Iraq and winds down in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army, alone among the armed services, has no compelling narrative for how it fits into the nation’s defense.
The questions today surrounding the future of counterinsurgency are no less intense than the debates over whether or not counterinsurgency was the appropriate operational response to the violence in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 or in Afghanistan in 2009. The arguments against counterinsurgency have not changed: It does not work; it is too expensive; it should not be executed by conventional forces; the historical data suggesting its success is flawed; it prioritizes tactics at the expense of strategy; and the resources devoted to training military organizations to fight counterinsurgency campaigns erode the skills required to fight other campaigns.
Many -- though not all -- of these claims have some merit. Counterinsurgency, when one has the option, is indeed best executed by special operations forces rather than general-purpose forces. And the success rate for counterinsurgency campaigns fought on behalf of a host nation, as the United States has done in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, has never been very high. But contemporary U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine was developed as a pragmatic response to the maelstrom of violence in Iraq in 2005. The men and women who wrote the doctrine were not the same people responsible for the initial disastrous decision to invade Iraq. They were merely trying to salvage a war gone horribly wrong.