The recent publication of American Spartan has brought renewed attention to human cost of fighting a counterinsurgency. But equally as important is the organizational cost imposed on the US military. Not only is the United States military not suited for prosecuting counterinsurgency campaigns, but focusing on doing so has a deleterious effect on its conventional warfighting capabilities.
Historically, there have been three major methods by which successful counterinsurgencies have been fought: employing highly professional forces with in-depth knowledge of the local language and culture, fighting alongside a legitimate indigenous state, or operating outside of modern conceptions of jus in bello. While ideal, the first method is virtually impossible, as the United States military has a finite amount of resources, and many of them must be devoted to combating or preparing to combat geopolitical rivals. While the United States could certainly teach many more soldiers Dari and Pashto, such knowledge would be useless outside of the context of the fight in Afghanistan.
As for the latter two, the widely cited example of the Malayan Emergency is in fact an example of how difficult counterinsurgency is and how fighting them while remaining within modern ideas of acceptable wartime conduct is very difficult. In Malaya, the British fought with a colonial government widely seen as legitimate against an insurgency largely made up of minority ethnic Chinese, and the war effort involved the forcible displacement of approximately 500,000 rural people to closely guarded camps. Similarly, the arguably successful counterinsurgencies of the Boer War, the US in the Philippines, and the Dutch in the Aceh War all involved displacement of large portions of the population and acts which would be no doubt considered “war crimes” by modern standards.
Because such tactics are untenable for the United States, it must employ resource and training-intensive methods such as public diplomacy. Such expenditure in money and man-hours reduces resources dedicated to maintaining and improving the military’s core warfighting competency. While advances in war-fighting, such as advanced communication technology, certainly are useful tools in prosecuting a counterinsurgency, the tactical, operational and strategic overlap between population-centric counterinsurgency and conventional 21st century warfare is minimal. There has already been concern expressed about deficiencies in the Army’s core warfighting competencies and the field artillery has been described as a “dead branch walking.” While the United States’ military establishment is certainly large, its resources are not unlimited, and any increased efforts devoted towards counterinsurgency detracts from other areas. This is especially true for the United States Army, which has been searching for a future mission with its exclusion from AirSea Battle. However, it is important for the Army to recognize that its mission to deter and combat conventional opponents is still one of great importance, and that historically forces which have focused on counterinsurgencies and small wars have had little success when asked to fight more conventional opponents.
The United States also already possesses units tasked with fighting unconventional wars: the soldiers of Special Operations Command. As a superpower, the United States certainly has the capacity to prosecute population centric counterinsurgency – it is the question as to whether it should that is more critical. Not only is the United States military unsuited for fighting a counterinsurgency, but doing so has a negative effect on its other warfighting capabilities. While the United States will certainly continue to encounter insurgent groups acting against its interests, the non-SOCOM military should not be the exclusive or even the primary means of combating this threat – there are plentiful alternative and more effective tools to do so.