Stay out of Libya: counterinsurgency doesn’t work

A moment of some significance in journalism perhaps, as the New York Times reviews  the current talked about book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan by Bing West. The author is no bleeding heart but a former assistant Defense Secretary from the Reagan era who stomped his way round the Afghan battlefield to research it. With remorseless lucidity, he exposes the good intentions and practical shortcomings of today’s counterinsurgency doctrine.

It brings to mind that critique of Cold War counterinsurgency in the early years of  Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie  by Heil Sheehan. Although that is a polemical narrative, it has a similar effect of seeming right and irrefutable. 

 In West’s book incidentally, the Afghanistan conflict is all- American; no mention of little Britain.  The book was referenced in a Newsnight discussion on why it might not be an entirely good idea  to intervene militarily in Libya.


The new religion, of course, is counterinsurgency, or in the military’s jargon, COIN. The doctrine of counterinsurgency upends the military’s most basic notion of itself, as a group of warriors whose main task is to destroy its enemies. Under COIN, victory will be achieved first and foremost by protecting the local population and thereby rendering the insurgents irrelevant. Killing is a secondary pursuit. The main business of American soldiers is now building economies and political systems. Kill if you must, but only if you must.

The showcase for COIN came in Iraq, where after years of trying to kill and capture their way to victory, the Americans finally turned the tide by befriending the locals and striking peace deals with a vast array of insurgents.

So what’s wrong? Why hasn’t the new faith in Afghanistan delivered the success it promises? In his remarkable book, “The Wrong War,” Bing West goes a long way to answering that question. “The Wrong War” amounts to a crushing and seemingly irrefutable critique of the American plan in Afghanistan. It should be read by anyone who wants to understand why the war there is so hard.

His basic argument can be summed up like this: American soldiers and Marines are very good at counterinsurgency, and they are breaking their hearts, and losing their lives, doing it so hard. But the central premise of counterinsurgency doctrine holds that if the Americans sacrifice on behalf of the Afghan government, then the Afghan people will risk their lives for that same government in return. They will fight the Taliban, finger the informants hiding among them and transform themselves into authentic leaders who spurn death and temptation.

This isn’t happening. What we have created instead, West shows, is a vast culture of dependency: Americans are fighting and dying, while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them.

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  • Manfarang

    Unwinnable wars.

  • Greenflag

    ‘The main business of American soldiers is now building economies and political systems.’

    Bing West

    Then they had better get back to the USA (almost wrote USSR) where the economy and political system needs rebuilding and pronto , With 50 million on food stamps , 28 million unemployed , 3 million in prison , 50 million without health insurance, hundreds of thousands on the streets protesting against Republican Governors , and 19 states on the verge of bankruptcy with the Federal Government now financed temporarily for another 2 weeks .

    The Afghans simply don’t want foreign armies marching around their country be they Americans or Russians or British . The West has other means of helping Afghanistan and other states to become more democratic and to ensure that women have access to education and equal rights .

  • dwatch

    Hear Hear Greenflag.

  • Brian

    COIN worked decently well in Iraq, in what was in 2006 on the brink of civil war. Doesn’t change the fact Iraq was a gigantic mistake.

    Sadly, what Bing proposes for Afghanistan won’t work either. Nothing will work. It is hopeless. The govt is hopelessly corrupt and doesn’t so much as serve the people as prey on them. Great article on Kabul bank scandal.

    The only good thing out of these two wars are that they have made the US public, and politicians, very wary of foreign intervention, COIN, and Neocon strategies. I don’t expect a new foreign adventure on a large scale anytime soon….not that we can afford it anyway.

  • Cards on table: I’ve done Bright Shining Lie (and it’s magnificent), but not Bing West.

    OK: to the meat.

    Some civil wars aren’t (Russia, 1917; Spain, 1936; arguably Ireland post-Treaty, consider the King’s most political soldier, Wilson). If this one is, it’s not for the West to intervene.

    Cameron’s follies this last week (egged on, it now seems, by that great military genius, Gove) have been precisely what one would expect of the great-great-great-great-great-grandnephew of the Grand Old Duke of York.

    The whole history of US intervention is (as Mr Walker’s rendition of Bing West — no apology offered or required — implies) the creation of dependencies, most of them unstable and autocratic.

    Democracy is a precious commodity: it can be viral but it cannot be imosed.

  • “imposed”. Dammit! (It’s the carpal tunnel syndrome, I promise).

  • pauluk

    Surely involvement in Libya would be more along the lines of supporting the insurgency, not COIN.

    And another thing, I haven`t yet heard anyone thanking Old George W for intimidating the WMD`s out of Gaddafi. Just imagine how much more complicated this whole Libya thing would be if the Mad Gad still had his stockpiles!

  • Greenflag

    I wonder who will ‘control’ Libya’s Oil post Ghaddafi ?

    Will it be the Libyan People’s Democracy , the USA , Italy or the UK ?

    But well done Obama for sending in planes to Tunisia to rescue Egyptian refugees exiting Libya’s western border and flying them back to Egypt . These Egyptians and other foreign nationals have probably been the people who have kept the oil dollars coming out of the ground. Without them for Ghadaffi it’s only a matter of time .

  • qwerty12345

    Well done to Obama indeed, and it’s not like me to say such things.

    The longer this whole thing goes on the worse I think it’s going to end, I sincerely hope I’m wrong. Libyans have had it hard enough without their country being destabilised long term.

  • RepublicanStones

    And another thing, I haven`t yet heard anyone thanking Old George W for intimidating the WMD`s out of Gaddafi>

    I thought it was Doc Brown who nipped the Libyans WMD plans in the bud. He stole their plutonium….remember?

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Well, apparently Obama, et al, have take a page from Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus and will be fiddling whilst Kadaffy is out and about burning things.

  • andnowwhat

    Libya is neither Afghanistan not Iraq.

    I have been hearing first hand requests via the BBC from Libyans and their relatives living in Britain that they want foreign intervention. Unlike the other 2 cases the majority of Libyan citizens want it and the opposition will be tiny, tis is more Kosovo than Iraq

  • joeCanuck

    If the greatest military force ever known cannot beat a few thousand lightly armed insurgents with their improvised exposive bombs, then it’s way past time they went home. A guerilla force cannot be defeated if they get support from parts of the community either willing or unwilling support. Batista could have told you that.
    Leave them to it. Continue to give foreign aid while a sem-democratic government exists. Nothing more.