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Celeste Ward -- The Pentagon's Obsession With Counterinsurgency

Gen. Chiarelli, the operational commander in Iraq before the surge and the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad in 2004-2005, was known for his emphasis on assisting the population. In a Military Review article nearly two years before surge began, Chiarelli argued that the 1st Cavalry Division had significantly reduced violence in Sadr City -- the densely populated Shiite slum and stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr -- by cleaning up sewage and providing electricity and running water.

Innovative, smart and energetic commanders all over Iraq had already been building schools, water treatment facilities, sewage lines, electricity infrastructure and other essentials, all the while conducting operations against belligerents. The list of commanders who combined military operations with measures to assist the population is a long one: Robert Abrams in Sadr City in 2004-2005, Sean MacFarland in Tal Afar and later Ramadi, and Michael Beech in Baghdad in 2006, to name but a few. Marine commanders and units had quietly been working with the Sunnis in Anbar to gain their trust and cooperation since at least 2005, their efforts finally coming to fruition during the surge.

Petraeus, then-operational commander Gen. Raymond Odierno and their team deserve great credit for adjusting the focus of the Iraq campaign during the surge and for masterfully leveraging the opportunities that came their way. Their innovation and industry no doubt played an important role, as did the mere fact of the surge, which likely had a powerful psychological impact on Iraqis and Americans alike. But the overall story is more complicated and confounding than most accounts have allowed thus far.

The complexities and uncertainties of the Iraq war should give us pause about applying Iraq's presumed lessons to Afghanistan. Yet the similarities between the particulars of the surge in Iraq and the new strategy in Afghanistan are hard to ignore. McChrystal has already been dubbed "Afghanistan's Petraeus." U.S. forces are being increased, top aides to President Obama are said to be advocating a "civilian surge," just as in Iraq, and counterinsurgency doctrine is again the proposed answer.

But to what question? Washington's ultimate objectives in Afghanistan remain unclear. The United States has spent six years, more than 4,000 American lives, mass quantities of psychic and political energy, and untold billions on the effort in Iraq -- a project that has to date yielded little in a strategic sense. Iraq had an urban, educated population, infrastructure and bountiful natural resources, whereas Afghanistan has none of these. If "counterinsurgency" is merely a more palatable stand-in for "nation-building," that politically freighted but strategically more illuminating term, then our terminology may be obscuring the true extent of our predicament.

The U.S. military can be notoriously resistant to change, so the rapid ascent of counterinsurgency thinking is an impressive triumph of intellectual entrepreneurship in a normally parochial institution. But while counterinsurgency theory and doctrine are vital and have a role to play, their applicability is bounded. Too often in Washington the discovery of a hammer makes everything look like a nail. The question is not whether counterinsurgency works, but where, when and to what ends it is wise to commit U.S. power and resources.

Celeste Ward, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, was political adviser to the operational commander of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2006 and deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations capabilities in 2007-08.

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