By Andrew J. Polsky
John A. Nagl, a noted commentator on military affairs, blurs many lines in his effort to claim success for counterinsurgency tactics in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. For example, he correctly observes that in Iraq in 2007 both the counterinsurgency (COIN) methods employed during the American troop surge and the Sunni Awakening helped reverse the tide of violence. Yet he quickly brushes past the impact of the latter when he asserts “[t]he surge changed the war in Iraq dramatically.” Similarly, in discussing Afghanistan, he blends COIN tactics with targeted counterterrorism strikes when he claims that “the strategy… worked to a degree” in effectively dismantling Al Qaeda. In the end, he insists, counterinsurgency gives us messy outcomes, the best we can hope for in these struggles.
Nagl leaves out a critical element contributing to the survival of US-backed regimes facing ongoing insurgencies. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has concluded credible long-term security agreements with the governments we have supported. Simply put, we are not leaving, even after our combat forces have been withdrawn. The continuing American presence assures the local government that it will not be abandoned to face its adversaries alone. They in turn must recognize that the resources of the United States will still shore up the government. Both sides thus have a greater incentive to work toward a political accommodation.
Contrast this with the endgame in Vietnam. There any American commitment to sustain the Saigon regime rested on Richard Nixon’s empty private pledge to respond with force to North Vietnamese violations of the Paris Peace agreement. He had failed earlier to secure either congressional or popular support for an ongoing security partnership. Within months, moreover, it became evident that Nixon had no intention of honoring his words.
COIN supporters, both within the military and beyond, may yet make a case that counterinsurgency methods represent a viable political-military tool that can contribute to a broader strategy to support regimes in which the United States has a vital interest. But the argument should not rest on eliding the complexities of the wars in which COIN methods have been tried or on overlooking the much more direct contribution of a binding security partnership.
Andrew J. Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read his previous blog posts: “Obama v. Romney on Afganistan strategy” and “Mitt Romney as Commander in Chief: some troubling signs.”