Foreign Policy Blogs

Our Schlieffen Plan

At Informed Comment yesterday,  Tom Engelhardt ripped counterinsurgency (COIN) a new one.  He writes that we should “start talking about the madness of making counterinsurgency the American way of war.”  The Counterinsurgency Field Manual is a blueprint for civilian-killing and failure, he argues, and he concludes:

…[L]et me offer my one-line rewrite of their 472 pages. It’s simple and guaranteed to save trees as well as lives: “When it comes to counterinsurgency, don’t do it.”

But let’s be fair to the Field Manual.  Its prescriptions are not being implemented.  For one, the Field Manual preaches the importance of the rule of law, which is apparently not a fundamental U.S. concern (see my earlier post on Bagram).  But also, the Field Manual‘s proposed “troop to population” ratio has been ignored.  The Field Manual recommends a ratio of 1 soldier per 50 inhabitants, which means we’d need 672,000 troops in Afghanistan.  Other analysts offer lower ratios, but the Field Manual is clear on the matter.

We should by all means feel free to tear into the very idea of counterinsurgency, as Engelhardt does.  We should feel free to criticise it as fundamentally neocolonial, as Engelhardt also does.  But we should acknowledge that COIN’s failures may arise from flawed implementation rather than flawed Field Manual prescriptions.  Or we should debate it.  It won’t be the first time such a thing has been debated (see the historical debate on the Schlieffen Plan, for one).  But the divide between what the Field Manual proposes and what we’re actually doing in Afghanistan is an important aspect of the discussion that shouldn’t be ignored.