TWQ: Dirty Windows and Burning Houses: Setting the Record Straight on Irregular Warfare - Spring 2009
April 1, 2009
After a slow start, the U.S. military has made remarkable strides in adapting to irregular warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is beginning to institutionalize those adaptations. Recent Department of Defense (DOD) directives and field manuals have elevated stability operations and counterinsurgency to the same level of importance as conventional military offensive and defensive operations. These changes are the outcome of deep reflection about the nature of current and likely future threats to U.S. national security and the military’s role in addressing them. They represent important steps toward transforming a sclerotic organizational culture that long encouraged a ‘‘we don’t do windows’’ posture on so-called ‘‘military operations other than war,’’ even as the nation’s leaders called upon the armed forces to perform those types of missions with increasing frequency.
Despite the clear need for change from a Cold War military to one that can deal with the threats of the current century, numerous military officers and civilian experts have challenged the U.S. military’s development of improved theory and practice for irregular warfare. Michael Mazarr’s recent The Washington Quarterly article, ‘‘The Folly of ‘Asymmetric War’,’’ presents one of the more cogent arguments against an increasing emphasis on anything other than major combat operations. Mazarr contends that the armed forces should not ‘‘be specialized for asymmetric, nontraditional forms of warfare . . . particularly counterinsurgency and nation building.’’ His argument rests on two central points: first, that the challenges presented by insurgencies and failed states are not amenable to externally-imposed military solutions, and second that “deterring and responding to major conventional aggression” is a “much more important global role for U.S. military power.”
Mazarr is far from alone in his views. Others share the fear that, as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the capabilities pendulum has swung too far in favor of irregular warfare at the expense of the military’s major combat skills. For example, Colonel Gian Gentile, the U.S. Army’s most vocal internal critic of military adaptation to the kinds of wars we are currently fighting, warns that ‘‘this hyper-emphasis on counterinsurgency puts the American army in a perilous condition. Its ability to fight wars consisting of head-on battles using tanks and mechanized infantry is in danger of atrophy.’’ He also accuses supporters of counterinsurgency adaptation of believing that there are ‘‘no limits to what American military power . . . can accomplish.”
Such arguments are born of a misunderstanding of the role of irregular warfare in the international system of this century. It is true that military power should not be the tool of choice for resolving complex contingencies involving failed states and internal political violence, and it would certainly be preferable if the U.S. military could focus on conventional interstate warfare and not have to worry about the messier business of counterinsurgency and nation building. These observations, however, do not offer much help in dealing with the current and most likely future security challenges that the United States faces, which include counterinsurgency and reconstruction missions in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as efforts to build the capacity of partner countries in the wider campaign against lethal al Qaeda-type terrorist organizations.
Although military force is not always the tool of choice for complex contingencies, the U.S. military has the responsibility to address those challenges to the best of its ability, particularly since other government agencies do not currently possess viable crisis response capabilities. While preserving its major combat capabilities, the military must continue to improve its ability to conduct post-conflict reconstruction, counterinsurgencies, and train and advise allied security forces. Balance is the key; as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in an important speech at National Defense University in September, ‘‘The defining principle driving our strategy is balance . . . [b]etween institutionalizing capabilities such as counterinsurgency and stability operations, as well as helping partners build capacity, and maintaining our traditional edge—above all, the technological edge—against the military forces of other nation states.”