Foreign Policy Blogs

the politics of counterinsurgency

Spencer Ackerman critiques the equation of counterinsurgency with the progressive agenda in Democracy‘s Spring 09 issue. His point – that the military should not be a political organization, and that military strategy and a political agenda (whether progressivism, conservativism, or whatever) should be disaggregated in order for the military to do its job is well made. It’s also an appropriate response to the tendency among some political progressives to deify Petraeus and embrace the idea of counterinsurgency. I understand that tendency: counterinsurgency, as it is packaged via the mainstream media, seems like a humanizing way of waging war. It acknowledges that there is more to winning than killing lots of people, emphasizes population security and minimizing casualties, and reflects a relationship-oriented way of thinking about military victory. In short, progressives like it because it sounds progressive.

In celebration of the fact that this way of thinking has reached the military, though, some people tend to forget that not only is counterinasurgency supposedly loyal to no political agenda (although the idea that the military is apolitical sounds kind of like saying that social science scholarship is objective) but that it implies a deep infiltration of the military into all areas of civilian life. Of course militarization is not necessarily at odds with progressivism – one might very well have a progressive military – but I don’t think the progressive utopia envisioned by many American liberals includes a soldier carrying a gun while he engages in neighborhood clean-up.

As Ackerman says, counterinsurgency is not a political platform. But those of us who do choose to adopt a political platform would do well to reflect on what sort of role the military should play in implementing it, and an expansion of the military into non-combat operations might not be progressive.