Rethinking Insurgency with Dr. Steven Metz

Rethinking Insurgency with Dr. Steven Metz

Dr. Steven Metz is Chairman of the Regional Strategy Department, Co-Director of the Future of American Strategy Project, and research professor at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

Dr. Metz has been at the Army War College since 1993, previously serving as Research Professor of National Security Affairs, the Henry L. Stimson Professor of Military Studies, and Director of Research. He has also been on the faculty of the Air War College, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and several universities. Dr. Metz has served as an adviser to political organizations, campaigns, the intelligence community, and national security policy advisory panels, testified in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and spoken or undertaken research in thirty-one countries.

Dr. Metz is the author of more than a hundred publications on future war, the emerging security environment, military strategy, defense policy, international relations and world politics. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.

John Little: In Rethinking Insurgency you stated that America has to recognize three distinct insurgency settings:

  • A functioning government with at least some degree of legitimacy can be rescued by Foreign Internal Defense.
  • There is no functioning and legitimate government but a broad international and regional consensus supports the creation of a neo-trusteeship until systemic re-engineering is completed. In such instances, the United States should provide military, economic, and political support as part of a multinational force operating under the authority of the UN.
  • There is no functioning and legitimate government and no international or regional consensus for the formation of a neo-trusteeship. In these cases, the United States should pursue containment of the conflict by support to regional states and, in conjunction with partners, help create humanitarian “safe zones” within the conflictive state.

Where would you place Afghanistan in this model? Is our current battlefield and political strategy (especially our relationship with regional players) in sync with this reality?

Dr. Steven Metz: The problem with the American conceptualization of insurgency and counterinsurgency is that it ignores the distinction between state strengthening and state or even nation building. Americans are pretty good at state strengthening, as demonstrated in El Salvador during the 1980s and 1990s. State building, though, is much harder.

Americans learned counterinsurgency largely from the French and British. But when those nations undertook state building, they did so as colonial powers. This gave them the ability and the motivation to pursue state or nation building even though it almost always takes decades of sustained effort.

Because the United States is not a colonial power and because the attention span of the American public and Congress is fairly limited, it has sought ways to speed up the state or nation building process. As Afghanistan shows today, this seldom works. I simply can’t conceive of the Afghan state, as currently configured, functioning and providing security without massive outside assistance for a very long time. And whether the United States and other Western nations will provide such assistance, particularly given the endemic corruption of the Afghan state and Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to shut down the Taliban’s external sanctuary , is questionable. There’s also no chance of an effective multinational trusteeship for Afghanistan. That’s why I believe the only sustainable U.S. strategy is a low footprint one designed specifically to prevent an outright Taliban victory (which I think is very unlikely anyway) and to launch spoiling attacks should al Qaeda develop a power projection capability from within Afghanistan (which is also unlikely).

One other factor is important: while the United States and its allies seek the outright defeat of the Taliban and a democratic Afghanistan at peace, the vested interest of the Pakistani and Afghan governments is a sustained insurgency which is strong enough to keep outside aid flowing but not strong enough to overthrow them. Karzai and the Pakistani military and political elites must surely know that if the Taliban and al Qaeda were eradicated, the foreign aid flowing to them would diminish dramatically. This is a common dynamic in contemporary insurgencies: the state and the insurgents develop a sort of symbiotic relationship in which both benefit from the conflict.

Ultimately, then, ISAF is undertaking some very skilled operations in pursuit of a flawed national strategy. Early in the Iraq conflict General Petraeus was famously quoted as asking, “Tell me how this ends.” I think it is even more pressing to ask that for Afghanistan. Looking at all the factors, including economic and demographic ones, I simply cannot imagine a situation where the Karzai government defeats the Taliban, imposes stability over all of Afghanistan, and builds an economy capable of sustaining Afghanistan’s population growth (which is one of the highest on earth) and supporting a massive security force (or finding other employment for the hundreds of thousands of members of the police and army).

John Little: It feels like we’re bailing water in Afghanistan while ignoring the source of the leak – Pakistan. Is it really that difficult to re-calibrate our relationship with Pakistan? Could we create a framework where Pakistan is held responsible for the taking the lead on ensuring something like stability in Afghanistan while tying US aid (and the size of our footprint in the region) to their performance? If that is deemed impossible, and we declare that Pakistan is an unfit partner in regional security efforts, wouldn’t that point to the futility of COIN in Afghanistan anyway?

Dr. Steven Metz: The Pakistani government and security forces have become absolute masters at manipulating the United States. I can’t blame them for it–statecraft is a rough and tumble game. But I blame Americans for allowing themselves to be manipulated.

This demonstrates one of the key dilemmas of American involvement in counterinsurgency support. This has two dimensions. First, the more committed Washington is to a partner or ally, the less leverage it has. Second, American policymakers have to play up the stakes in a conflict in order to gain and sustain support from the public and Congress, and that makes it politically difficult to extricate the United States from the conflict.

Historically, U.S. has had leverage over a partner or ally only when the threat to disengage was credible. In a de facto “good cop/bad cop? way, the Reagan administration was able to express its commitment to El Salvador while making sure the Salvadoran elite and military understood that if it did not rein in the right wing death squads, undertake democracy, and improve its military, the U.S. Congress was likely to cut off aid. This message got through and the Salvadorans undertook the necessary reform.

At the present time , it appears that the Pakistani elite simply does not believe that the U.S. will disengage, at least not for some time. Therefore it is able to play both sides of the game by taking action against extremists that threaten it directly but casting a blind eye or, perhaps, even offering support to extremists who only target Americans or the Karzai government.

Every insurgency that succeeded over the past hundred years faced either an incompetent government (Cuba, China) or had external sanctuary. External sanctuary does not determine success on the part of insurgents, but it is a vital component of success. It is a necessary but not sufficient element of insurgent victory. Given this, I personally favor a much harder line toward Pakistan. The United States should ask the Pakistanis to explain their strategy for eradicating the extremist strongholds, including the time line and the amount of American support necessary. If this seems feasible, Washington should make clear that failure to execute the strategy will result in a diminution or cut off of assistance. The United States has to be willing to write off Pakistan.

Now, I realize that the Pakistani elite and public would scream about this. Their goal is assistance without conditions. Again, I can’t blame them for that, but I can blame America for playing along. The best that can be done is to keep the conditions quiet. And I know that the Pakistanis would claim that without U.S. support, extremists will take over their nation and gain control of its nuclear weapons. That is a tremendous risk but I don’t think that it justifies unconditional and escalating assistance. We simply must have ways to gain control of or neutralize the nuclear weapons should Pakistan descend into chaos.

The problem then becomes sustaining support for such a strategy from the American public and Congress. A policymaker who expressed unqualified support for Pakistan and then later withdrew the support would be excoriated by his or her political opponents. Yet the only alternative seems to be pouring endless money into Pakistan with little influence over how it is spent.

Clearly the United States and its allies would have a difficult time sustaining the current counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan without transit through Pakistan. So if America felt that it had no other option than to end support for Pakistan, it would have to revamp the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. But, I believe, it would still be possible to prevent an outright Taliban victory with a much smaller U.S. footprint in Afghanistan.

John Little: Is all the effort poured into COIN Afghanistan in vain if the Pakistan problem isn’t solved or if, as many observers feel, gets even worse? The security, military, and political challenges generated by a disintegrating Pakistan would seem to dwarf any threat posed by Afghanistan.

Dr. Steven Metz: I think the effort and resources poured into both Afghanistan and Pakistan are out of proportion to the strategic benefits–the added security–gained by it. The whole strategy is intended to counter al Qaeda. But there is no evidence that al Qaeda needs formal sanctuary in Afghanistan or Pakistan. If it needs sanctuary at all, that can be almost anywhere in the Islamic world. So even if the current strategy in Afghanistan succeeds, the costs will greatly outweigh the strategic benefits.

The question, then, is why is the United States expending so much effort, money, and blood to gain so little additional security? I think that during the Cold War and post-Cold War period, the U.S. was so dominant in military and economic terms, that it lost sight of the fact that strategy must consider efficiency as well as effectiveness. It was like a shopping spree with a rich sports figure or entertainer who based their purchases strictly on whether they wanted something with no regard for price. The U.S. wanted to weaken Islamic extremism so it pursued strategies designed to do that without considering whether the additional security gained was in proportion to the strategic costs. I’m afraid that mentality is about to crash on the rocks of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But on the issue of a disintegrating Pakistan. There is no question that would be a immense disaster in many ways. Yet Pakistan has been teetering on the precipice of disintegration for its entire history but has somehow held together. I really believe that it is more resilient than Americans give it credit for. A more likely problem is the emergence of an Islamist government in Pakistan, possibly through the democratic process. While that would certainly be damaging to U.S. policy, I don’t think it would automatically be disastrous. I find the assertion that any Islamist regime will provide nuclear weapons to terrorists absurd. The United States should have a stated policy that if terrorists use nuclear weapons and the source of them can be identified (which is likely), it will be treated exactly the same as a direct nuclear strike from the source country.

Of course an Islamist government would be more hospitable to a Taliban or al Qaeda presence. But I’m not sure that would be markedly different than the current state of affairs. The emergence of an Islamist government, though, could increase pressure on Karzai to bring the Taliban into his government. We don’t know whether a coalition government that included the Taliban would provide sanctuary for al Qaeda. I suspect not. I think the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda pre-September 11 was based on ignorance. It was simply not aware of the immense costs of harboring al Qaeda. Now it is. Hence I don’t think it would make that mistake again. The Taliban’s leaders are not stupid.

Another Pakistan scenario, though, might be “semi-disintegration” where Islamabad loses even the pretense of control over some regions. That would not be much different than today where the central government has little or no influence in the tribal areas and even parts of Karachi. So long as the government controls Punjab, though, Pakistan can teeter along.

John Little: There’s no real indication that our political class is going to step up and deliver bold leadership and no sign that US military wants to do anything but charge full speed ahead with COIN. So where do you think this takes us in the next three to five years and what will be the impact on the US military?

Dr. Steven Metz: I don’t think that it’s accurate to say that the military is convinced that counterinsurgency will be its primary mission in coming years. The Navy and Air Force certainly don’t, and even with the Army there is debate and discussion. As a new Chief of Staff takes over the Army, I suspect there will be a re-evaluation of the notions of “the long war.”

I also believe that the American public and its elected leaders will revisit the notion of making counterinsurgency the central element of U.S. strategy. Certainly counterterrorism will remain important. But the important point is that counterinsurgency in unstable regions may be an effective method of counterterrorism, it is the most inefficient means conceivable. Given the U.S.’ lingering economic crisis and budget deficits, this is going to become a pressing concern.

There is no doubt that the United States, including the military, will remain involved in strengthening states facing internal conflict–what the military calls Foreign Internal Defense. The U.S. is actually pretty good at it, and it doesn’t require a massive American military presence.

I think it would also be useful if the United States had a “whole of government” surge capacity for stabilization. This would allow pre-empting insurgencies rather than allowing them to metastasize, then surging. Insurgency is like cancer–the earlier the treatment, the greater the chances of success and the less damage to the system. Imagine if the U.S. had been able to make the effort that it made in Iraq in 2007–to include both military and non-military actions–in the summer of 2003. There is a pretty good chance the insurgency there would have been stillborn.

The challenge, though, is that having the ability to rapidly surge stabilization efforts means that there has to be a lot of capacity sitting around unused when there is no crisis underway. That’s why I think such a whole of government stabilization surge capacity should also be multinational. It should be fully in place, supplied, trained and educated–ready to go in a matter of weeks. Creating this would be an immense challenge but, I think, the options are either protracted disasters like Iraq and Afghanistan, or simply avoiding involvement and allowing conflicts to burn themselves out at great human and strategic cost.

So what will the next three to five years bring for the U.S. military? Assuming that the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan diminishes significantly, I expect a shift away from a counterinsurgency-centric force and strategy back to a more balanced one. This is likely to entail returning the land forces to 2003 levels. Critics contend that would leave the United States unprepared for another Iraq and Afghanistan. Given that American involvement in both of those places began with massive strategic blunders, that might not be a bad thing.

John Little: There doesn’t appear to be much appetite, or bandwidth, for traditional multinational COIN efforts now or on the horizon. Aren’t future conflicts more likely to look like Yemen or Somalia than Iraq or Afghanistan? Models that reduce or eliminate our visible footprint, allow maximum flexibility, and facilitate third party humanitarian efforts would appear to be attainable and more efficient going forward.

Dr. Steve Metz: The model most often discussed for the United States is the Philippines: quiet, low footprint assistance to help a state improve its capabilities. Of course, this goes back to my point about the difference between state support and state assistance. This model works very well, but only when there a relatively effective state in existence. And even then it bumps against the problem that states may not desire the outright defeat of the insurgents, but rather keeping them at a controllable or tolerable level.

The notion of humanitarian assistance is different and vexing. One of the most depressing phenomena in recent conflict is that parties to them–insurgents or militias of various types–recognize that the civilized world is repulsed by humanitarian disasters and use that to extort resources. Food becomes a weapon.

Humanitarian intervention can work. While there is this image of the U.N. and American involvement in Somalia in the 1990s as a massive failure, the fact is that tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Somalis were saved from famine. The dilemma is that humanitarian assistance is much easier than rectifying the things that caused a humanitarian crisis in the first place. I suspect that the United States, Europe, and other nations will remain prepared for short term intervention in the face of genocide or humanitarian disaster, but it will be more of a “stem the crisis and leave” sort of thing, hoping that NGOs can deal with the deeper causes. The problem with that, of course, is that the ability of NGOs to resolve deep problems is limited in the face of violence.

Perhaps a new model to replace the current, Cold War conceptualization of counterinsurgency with its emphasis on the national government is for multinational military forces to simply provide security for NGOs, and NGOs to concentrate on local economies and governance rather than the national level ones.