There’s always a gulf between actions and words, particularly when it comes to government pronouncements.
President Obama made getting US forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan a central campaign promise. His administration has also lately talked a lot about “pivoting” to Asia: reorienting the US towards the Pacific and away from the post-9/11 emphasis on the Middle East and North Africa. But shifting this focus will involve a lot more than just pulling troops out of a theater of war. It’s more like breaking up — there’s a difference between simply ending a relationship and processing the experience, moving on, and being open to new relationships.
One big sign that the US military is looking to close the chapter on its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is the production and release of new counterinsurgency manuals. The US military put out a new manual last November and a new joint Army/Marine manual will be released in the coming days. Both try to spell out a new counterinsurgency doctrine and encapsulate the lessons that were learned the hard way over the last decade-plus. What can be gleaned from so many years of going steady in Iraq and Afghanistan? Can we avoid making the same mistakes in our next serious combative relationship?
A lot of what the US has taken away from its experience has to do with legitimacy and the influence of politics in counterinsurgency. For example, a prime lesson is that the only people who can really run a counterinsurgency campaign are the people who actually live and work in the country in question. The US can help a local military fight, but they can’t win a war on someone else’s behalf. No matter how much the local military and government might suck at breaking things and killing people, it’s still a lot easier for them to claim they’re doing it (or not doing it) legitimately.
While this approach might seem obvious, it generates a lot of pushback from people who are apparently convinced that the US isn’t serious about tackling a problem until its forces are shooting foreigners over it. Right now, there’s been a bit of outcry because the US is only going to help the Nigerian government up its game and increase its ability to fight Boko Haram without pissing off everyone in the country, rather than sending in some US soldiers to go kill some Nigerians on behalf of some other Nigerians.
In its super-deep relationship with insurgents in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US learned that a US soldier shooting a local becomes fodder for an information campaign of some sort. Sometimes this means praise for a heroic jihadi who has been booted off the mortal coil to find their just reward in paradise. Other times it’s a tragic murder of a sweet and caring innocent at the hands of brutal US occupiers bent on serving their corporate masters. The takeaway from these treatments at either end of the propaganda spectrum is that when an unfortunate denizen of the developing world gets shot by another local instead of a US soldier, global interest plummets. (See Darfur, Rwanda, or the Central African Republic.)
In a move that looks ever so slightly like a doctrinal booty call, the US Army recently opened a new jungle warfare training school in Hawaii, ending a 15-year-long dry streak on jungle-related combat. (The Marines kept their jungle training center.) The Army is sending personnel to countries across the Pacific to learn what folks with jungles do about fighting in them. The plan is to take those lessons and fold them into a new and improved version of the old jungle warfare manual. The Army’s last jungle warfare school closed its doors in 1999 when the US handed its host installation, Fort Sherman, back over to Panama.
This is almost case of retrograde innovation. Funnily enough, reinstituting jungle training has evidently set-off a run on old-style camouflage uniforms and black boots, both of which are better suited to jungle conditions and were standard issue during the Vietnam War.
A frequent (and often misleading) critique of the military is that it is “fighting the last war” — using the same strategy and tactics it deployed in the previous conflict. These recent developments show that the US is trying very hard to avoid that mistake. Nevertheless, it’s important to recall that the US relied heavily on sending advisers to Vietnam to teach the finer points of breaking things and killing people, and wound up neck-deep in jungle warfare. So maybe the end result of breaking up with insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan means the US risks turning into a Vietnam War re-enactor.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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