The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The unseemly side of small wars

Getty Images

Now that the United States has ended its military presence in Afghanistan on unfavorable terms, one wonders what it takes to win a war like this. The answer is not encouraging, and serves as a reminder that the United States should be picky about when to engage in wars against weaker foes in faraway places, and for how long.

Over the past 20 years, the United States has found itself trying to defeat insurgents, small groups of uniform-optional fighters who use hit-and-run tactics as they work to gather strength until they can overwhelm the state. During the surge in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and like-minded colleagues laid out a modern version of the “hearts and minds” model — the idea that if the forces fighting insurgents can win over enough of a population with good governance, they can rob the insurgents of a base of support.

As the good governance crowd acknowledges, counterinsurgency unavoidably entails nation-building. They are less clear about how violent the process can be. That’s because nation-building is really state-building, which, in the United States’s case, means helping another group try to monopolize the legitimate use of force in a territory where that monopoly has been contested. It’s often a “nasty business,” as one new book makes plain, and it requires violence and oppression delivered either directly or through the accommodation of unsavory rival elites.

In fact, guerrilla fighters can be so hard to divide from the population that some counterinsurgents don’t even try. If insurgents are fish in the sea of the people, as Mao Zedong once analogized, then one awful but sometimes effective response is to “drain the sea.” Wars in which insurgents enjoy significant civilian support are much more likely to result in mass killing than those lacking a popular guerrilla movement. Ruthlessness does not guarantee success, but it usually proves necessary — a difficult truth that should sit uneasily with democratic counterinsurgents who are supposed to care about human rights. 

Not all human rights violations are created equal, however, and key actors do not always choose the most effective mix of bad deeds. My coming book shows that the belief that rule-breaking pays in war — not always an unreasonable assumption — can inspire acts such as torture, for which the evidence of effectiveness is thin or nonexistent. This pattern played out not just in the war on terror, but in previous U.S. campaigns in Vietnam and the Philippines as well. Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism do not inevitably lead to human rights abuses, but they do coincide at a frustratingly frequent rate.

Even if the outside power is willing to be sufficiently terrible, and it chooses the right instruments, it still faces the tough challenge of trying to call the political tune where it has no interest in settling permanently. Good governance advocates are clear that counterinsurgency takes a long time to be successful, but apparently some campaigns must be interminable. A recent Special Inspector General’s report claimed that U.S. timetables for Afghan reconstruction were too fast and ambitious in several areas, and while some projects started later in the United States’s tenure, one wonders why 20 years total was not enough. That’s why the most honest advocates of intervention self-identify as liberal imperialists. But these modern enthusiasts of liberal empire never have explained convincingly why the persistent losses of blood and treasure that come with open-ended campaigns would be justifiable to a majority at home. Zeal for war gives way to fatigue, apathy and neglect — hardly the basis for a project that calls itself “liberal.”

Ultimately, larger countries fighting insurgents defeat themselves, as the late Andrew Mack once argued in an article written at the end of the Vietnam War. The stronger side doesn’t run out of soldiers. It doesn’t endure an invasion of its own cities. It simply decides that the game isn’t worth the candle. With an Afghan leadership that proved hollow and corrupt, and given the endless commitment and brutal methods that counterinsurgency would require, the United States’s realization of this truth in Afghanistan is painful, but also welcome and overdue.

William L. d’Ambruoso is a postdoctoral fellow with the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Tags Afghanistan and Iraq wars American democracy nation building Vietnam War

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More National Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video