MARSOC Marines take a knee in a wheat field in Farah Province, Afghanistan.
When was the last time that the U.S. military — the strongest military power on earth — decisively won a conventional war against another capable state? The 2003 Iraq War might come to mind as an answer. Yet the Iraqi armed forces in 2003 were hardly the dedicated professional army of Saddam’s heyday. Indeed, the impunity that U.S. air power enjoyed during the campaign and the shortness of the campaign itself suggested that the war was really no contest. The 2001 Afghanistan War, albeit waged against the Taliban regime, was even less conventional. The Taliban regime hardly possessed any notable conventional military power at all.
The last time the U.S. achieved victory over a powerful conventional enemy was in fact during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, when the U.S.-led coalition comprehensively overwhelmed the still formidable modern Iraqi military. Since then, the U.S. military has focused on performing a different kind of duty: rather than just defeating the enemy, the military has stressed the imperative of nation-building. Winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi and Afghan populations — either through building schools and hospitals or through training military and administrative personnel — became just as important as destroying the enemy. Even the actual combat components of the military’s new duty took on a new form: military operations were carried out on a smaller scale, with lower intensity, and with less technological sophistication (no F-22s required), but with longer troop presence.
The largely unsuccessful nation-building enterprises in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, testify to the questionable viability of the counterinsurgency strategy. The revival of Russian irredentism and China’s bid for military superiority in Asia, moreover, signal the need to move away from the counterinsurgency doctrine.
The strategy of counterinsurgency carries several practical disadvantages. First of all, the timeline for any such campaign is necessarily long, which creates fatigue in both the military and the American public, and requires massive government spending. Even after several years, counterinsurgency and nation-building efforts achieve only limited success. An effective education system and a competent civil service, for example, cannot be built overnight. What little progress is made, moreover, is quickly overshadowed by American casualties, which may prompt the administration to prematurely extract its forces from concerned regions.
Secondly, the U.S. military’s focus on counterinsurgency has damaged its reputation in the eyes of both its rivals and the international community. Indeed, a common ridicule on the Chinese Internet goes like this: if the U.S. military cannot take care of the Taliban — a group armed with primordial weapons — then how can it boast to be the strongest military on earth? Of course, this notion severely underestimates the ability of the insurgents and overlooks the fact that, if anything, the ability of the U.S. military to fight a war halfway across the globe for years is a mark of strength. Nevertheless, these kinds of ideas can lead rival powers to believe that the time is ripe to challenge U.S. military dominance. For other members of the international community, the recent bloody but futile counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East have undermined America’s reputation as a guarantor of world peace. It is conceivable that in the future more countries will oppose U.S. initiatives that they consider to be potentially destabilizing.
More importantly, however, these prolonged counterinsurgency operations may instill a rigid “counterinsurgency mentality” in the U.S. military. Honing the skills required to defeat elusive insurgents may come at the expense of the traditional military prowess of winning a conventional war against an enemy with sophisticated air, land, and sea combat systems. The combat requirements of counterinsurgency — e.g. finding and destroying small groups of the enemy, pacifying the local population, and delivering air support from uncontested airspace — may give birth to tactics and strategies that are ill suited to traditional warfare. In short, the U.S. military is in danger of being caught off guard by a more conventional opponent.
Counterinsurgency would not be so problematic if conventional warfare had left the world stage for good. Sadly, however, that is not the case. No matter how small the chances of another conventional war are, the recent tensions between NATO and Russia and the potential conflicts with Iran and North Korea should remind people that the threat of conventional war is still very real. After more than a decade of frustrating involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is time for the U.S. to reevaluate its counterinsurgency doctrine and break out of the political and military mentalities that underlie it. Counterinsurgency — and the nation-building effort that usually accompanies it — requires a military to do things that it was never designed to do in the first place.