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Posts For: May 13, 2007

Not A Dead End

I’ve been traveling a lot so have only now gotten around to reading “Dead End: Counterinsurgency Warfare as Military Malpractice,” Edward Luttwak’s article in the February issue of Harper’s. As usual with Luttwak, the article is thought-provoking and stylishly written. It’s also almost entirely wrong.

The blog of the Small Wars Journal has already posted two trenchant critiques of the article, by two of the leading counterinsurgency experts in the world: Dave Kilcullen, a former lieutenant colonel in the Australian army now working as an adviser to General David Petraeus in Baghdad, and Frank Hoffman, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

I won’t repeat most of what they have to say, except to note that Kilcullen scores a devastating hit when he observes that Luttwak is critiquing an early draft of FM 3-24, the Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual. This draft was changed substantially before its publication in December 2006—a full three months before Luttwak’s article appeared. It is also odd to read in Luttwak’s article that the manual’s principal drafters, Army General David Petraeus and Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis, are “each now responsible for the training and doctrine policy of his own service.” In fact, Mattis left that job last year to take over the First Marine Expeditionary Force; Petraeus left earlier this year to take over the U.S. command in Iraq. The editors of Harper’s seem to have sat on Luttwak’s piece for months without bothering to update it.

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I’ve been traveling a lot so have only now gotten around to reading “Dead End: Counterinsurgency Warfare as Military Malpractice,” Edward Luttwak’s article in the February issue of Harper’s. As usual with Luttwak, the article is thought-provoking and stylishly written. It’s also almost entirely wrong.

The blog of the Small Wars Journal has already posted two trenchant critiques of the article, by two of the leading counterinsurgency experts in the world: Dave Kilcullen, a former lieutenant colonel in the Australian army now working as an adviser to General David Petraeus in Baghdad, and Frank Hoffman, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

I won’t repeat most of what they have to say, except to note that Kilcullen scores a devastating hit when he observes that Luttwak is critiquing an early draft of FM 3-24, the Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual. This draft was changed substantially before its publication in December 2006—a full three months before Luttwak’s article appeared. It is also odd to read in Luttwak’s article that the manual’s principal drafters, Army General David Petraeus and Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis, are “each now responsible for the training and doctrine policy of his own service.” In fact, Mattis left that job last year to take over the First Marine Expeditionary Force; Petraeus left earlier this year to take over the U.S. command in Iraq. The editors of Harper’s seem to have sat on Luttwak’s piece for months without bothering to update it.

But these slip-ups, while embarrassing, should not prevent consideration of the merits of Luttwak’s article. He makes some excellent points in noting the difficulties that conventional militaries (such as our own) have in grappling with unconventional foes (such as those we confront today in Iraq and Afghanistan). He is especially accurate in bemoaning the lack of training in foreign languages and cultures that afflicts our armed forces, and the severe limitations of our technological intelligence-gathering systems. He is correct, as well, to argue that counterinsurgencies cannot be based entirely on civil-affairs measures designed to woo the population, and that there must be a strong element of coercion to counter the terrorism usually practiced by guerrillas.

But Luttwak wildly overstates his case. He argues that the only way to defeat an insurgency is to “out-terrorize the insurgents.” He cites almost approvingly the practices of the Ottoman Empire, the Roman Empire, and the German armed forces in World War II, all of whom employed “mass executions” and “massacres” to cow occupied populations into compliance. Oddly enough, he never mentions the success of the Arab uprising against the Ottomans during World War I, nor the numerous barbarian uprisings against the Romans, nor the Yugoslavian uprising against the Germans—all of which show that even utter ruthlessness does not necessarily win the day against determined guerrillas.

Ruthlessness of the kind Luttwak advocates may, in fact, backfire by provoking more resistance than it suppresses. That was certainly the lesson learned by the Red Army in Afghanistan, where, notwithstanding any number of “massacres,” it was defeated by determined indigenous forces. (This is another war that Luttwak does not mention.)

Nor does Luttwak mention the many counterinsurgencies that have been waged successfully along the lines advocated by the new field manual. The list is a long one, including the British prosecution of the first Boer war and the U.S. success in the Philippine uprising, among others.

Luttwak would be on solider ground if he were to write that modern Western democracies have a hard time waging counterinsurgency warfare because of their aversion to casualties, and to the bad press generated by ruthless practices. He would be right to say that autocracies have an easier time of it: witness the brutal way Egypt and Algeria put down Islamist uprisings in the 1990’s. He would certainly be right to say that indigenous governments have more success in putting down rebellions than do foreign occupiers, though foreign governments can do a lot to help local allies prevail. But instead of making these distinctions, he prefers to conclude with melodramatic overstatement, claiming that the prescriptions in FM 3-24 “are in the end of little or no use and amount to a kind of malpractice.”

And yet he recognizes that simply “out-terrorizing” the insurgents is not a policy the U.S. could pursue, even if it were as effective as he says (which it isn’t). So what does he think the U.S. should do? Opt out of irregular warfare entirely? Would that we could! But in order for us to do so, subnational groups like al Qaeda and nation-states like Iran will have to stop their own use of unconventional tactics. And Luttwak nowhere proposes a plan for bringing about this desirable state of affairs.

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