Peters: Not What I Signed Up For

by William Peters | 4/1/15 7:00pm

On the first day of this term, I found myself in a seminar taught by government professor Jeffrey Friedman, entitled “Lessons from America’s Foreign Wars.” I sat beside Air Force veteran Matthew Brandon ’16 and a retired U.S. State Department official who is auditing the class. After the obligatory introductions, Friedman — who specializes in foreign policy and civil conflict — asked Brandon why he thinks American troops have a history of difficulty conducting counterinsurgency operations after many lessons from the Vietnam War and over a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I don’t think it’s the policy,” Brandon answered. “Guys just do not sign up for that sort of thing. I certainly didn’t.” Likewise, as a veteran myself, I did not enlist to perform counterinsurgency — and neither did many within my former unit. The question is whether we want a military that serves as a counterinsurgency asset or one that is used to fight our enemies and defend our borders, and the answer directly affects how we conduct foreign policy and combat operations.

The military changes over the years. Just as the rationale behind wars and the tactics employed to fight them evolve, so too does the culture of soldiering. After 9/11, the dominant culture of military service appeared to be one of anger and retribution towards Al Qaeda for their acts of terror. Men and women enlisted with the hopes of doing their part in the effort to eliminate the terror group and bring Osama bin Laden and those responsible for the tragedy to justice. Recruitment remained steady through the 2003 invasion of Iraq and continued long after the occupation. The U.S. had plenty of manpower to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army in Iraq and to continue fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. What U.S. leadership lacked, however, was sufficient planning for ensuring post-war stability in either country. Once the conventional fighting had ended in both countries, the state-building and counterinsurgency efforts began — and with a military that was not mentally prepared from the start. Though recruitment quotas continued to be satisfied, military recruiters were not exactly making reconstruction and counterinsurgency their primary sales pitches.

It would be nice to think that the more than two million military personnel joined for the notion of making foreign states safer and more stable. In reality, many of those who enlist are not prioritizing the welfare of other nations over the U.S.’s national defense. In the post-9/11 era, it seems that if we are to continue being the leaders of global peace, we need to be sufficiently prepared for the aftermath of military intervention. As with the Vietnam War, our mission in the Middle East is about combating ideologies — radical Islam, sectarian violence and political corruption — and we are once again persistent about maintaining our efforts in the hope that the enemy will yield. Much like the communists of North Vietnam, today’s enemies are not giving up the fight.

The insurgencies that plague Iraq and Afghanistan are locally made — and in order to combat them, we must ask our troops to win over the local residents. Doing so requires large amounts of time, money and cross-cultural cooperation. Yet, the people who conduct these civil-military operations are largely disconnected from the locals both socially and culturally. Brandon asked a piercing question when explaining his stance on Americans conducting counterinsurgency: “How can you expect me to care that much about someone I’ve never met, who’s willing to shoot at me and my friends and plant bombs on the roads if they decide they don’t like us or if they’re too afraid of Al Qaeda?” It is a valid question, one that U.S. policy makers need to seriously consider now that these particular conflicts are winding down. Our military is made up entirely of volunteers. Perhaps it is time for our leaders to re-evaluate, and it is important they do not take the commitment of these men and women for granted.

The future of American foreign policy will depend on both rethinking how we go about policing the world and our interests and how we go about training our troops and informing the public. With the most recent threat in the Middle East — the Islamic State, often referred to as ISIS or ISIL — the U.S. has shown that it has learned a lesson from the past decade and a half of conflict through the Obama administration’s caution alone. Much of Washington is reluctant to jump into another counterinsurgency mission — understandably so, considering we have not left Afghanistan after 14 years, and we have already sent several brigades to Baghdad to serve as advisors to the Iraqi military. Going forward, our leaders need to consider what kind of military they want — one that can use shock-and-awe tactics to defeat enemies as needed or one that digs in and lives among the people until we see the results we want.

If the U.S. is to fight the Islamic State, or any other enemy, it is clear that another occupation that wages counterinsurgency will be politically toxic. The public dislikes it, or at least fails to adequately understand it. In my experience, many veterans and service members disapprove of counterinsurgency and would rather see units deploy, fight and come home. We have seen the human costs of these operations firsthand, and in this modern era, many do not view them as worth the risk. Ultimately, to answer professor Friedman — perhaps the answer to why the U.S. has a history of struggling with counterinsurgency and state-building is because it is not something we as a country and as a military particularly want to be good at doing.