Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Global Counterinsurgency and Disaggregation

I just finished the George Packer article on counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen and the use of sociological analysis in counterinsurgency. It's a fascinating piece, full of useful insights, and Kilcullen is clearly a very smart guy who knows what he's about...but either I'm missing something crucial, or the whole thing is maddeningly myopic.

Kevin Drum writes about the most essential insight:

The biggest Kilcullen's belief that we're trying to force a hundred little propaganda wars, each of which requires a media and intelligence strategy all its own, into the more familiar straitjacket of a single broad-based military war (the "war on terror," "Islamofascism"). But that broader war is a chimera, and refusing to acknowledge this in a serious way is just making things worse.
Packer talks about the remedy:
A war on terror suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to "disaggregate" insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan's tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so that they aren't mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad. Kilcullen writes, "Just as the Containment strategy was central to the Cold War, likewise a Disaggregation strategy would provide a unifying strategic conception for the war -- something that has been lacking to date."
This, I think, is on the right track. The 'Global War on Terror' rhetoric conveys exactly the impression al Qaeda and other groups want: that they are vital actors in some grand global struggle1 instead of isolated groups pursuing parochial grudges.

But the problem with Packer's article is that having argued for disaggregation, he repeatedly undermines this point with his references to 'global counterinsurgency' and his repeated use of the Cold War as an analogy for our current situation.

The thing about the Cold War is that a) there really was a global struggle going on, and b) for the most part we did a piss-poor job of disaggregating local conflicts from the wider struggle. As to the latter, Packer's point seems to be that at least we were making an effort to understand what was going on, and the effort may well have helped us not make some situations worse (while in Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iran, and so on, our failure to understand and disaggregate local conflicts certainly exacerbated the hell out of them), but I'm very skeptical that it had much impact on the eventual outcome.

And 'global counterinsurgency' isn't a bad attempt at giving a name to a phenomenon for which there is not as yet an adequate name...except that the reason it doesn't have a name is that it doesn't exist, except to the extent we invent it. 'Global counterinsurgency' leads us down exactly the same dead-end as 'Global War on Terror'--a dead-end in which our very terminology defeats us by misleading us about the nature of what we fight. It isn't one big struggle, no matter how much some people want to think it is.

A much better article (and one that also quotes Kilcullen, although it relies less heavily on him), is James Fallows' Declaring Victory, which appeared in the September Atlantic Monthly. (I wrote about it, and included extensive excerpts, here.) The articles pursue the same basic subject from slightly different angles, but Fallows' prescription is far more sensible: declare an end to the 'war on terror', abandon the pretense of a 'global' struggle, and pursue individual conflicts with whatever diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, and military tools are appropriate to the particular situation. Packer gets part of the way there, and that's good, but he punks out in the end; he just can't let go of the 'global' thing. Fallows takes similar insights to their logical, intelligent, pragmatic conclusion.

1Which, of course, makes them somewhat analogous to the warbloggers.

[That's all, folks]