The Obama administration last month announced plans to create a network of military bases in Iraq to aid the training of Iraqi-government forces and push back ISIS insurgents. Painting a Monet-style impression of the deployment, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey described the bases as “lily pads.” The escalation of U.S. involvement in the Iraqi civil war should remind us of a battle-tested lesson: However much Americans would like to pivot away from nation-building, Washington invariably returns to the business of stabilizing foreign lands.
Nation-building endeavors include peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency (or COIN) — all with the goal of constructing a state and creating order inside another country. In recent years, there’s been a powerful backlash against preparing the U.S. military for stabilization missions, a response that is both understandable and dangerous. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed the limits of America’s capacity to reshape foreign societies. But given the nature of global conflict, the United States is bound to end up nation-building. So it’s wise to prepare for the wars we’re going to fight.
For a brief period in the mid 2000s, the U.S. military seemed to embrace counterinsurgency as a core mission. David Petraeus emerged as the most prominent “COINdinista,” and he helped write the 2006 Army and Marine Corps Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency, which stated: “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.” In 2007, when Petraeus became commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, he applied the principles of counterinsurgency as part of the “surge.”
During the Obama administration, however, a growing tide of critics has characterized nation-building as a fool’s errand and urged a shift in focus toward preparations for conventional interstate war against challengers such as China.
The core of the Obama Doctrine is the avoidance of Iraq-style stabilization missions. The president urged “the end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints,” in favor of “nation-building right here at home.” Rather than putting thousands of boots on the ground, the president prefers surgical military operations, including Special Forces raids and drone strikes. In 2012, the administration announced a “pivot” away from nation-building in the Middle East and toward countering conventional threats in East Asia. Chris Hill, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, described “a perception that somehow the Middle East was yesterday’s news” and said there was “a definite sense that America was moving on.”
The U.S. military has also tried to distance itself from nation-building. In 2011, former deputy undersecretary of defense Jed Babbin warned that the military suffered from “COIN fatigue.” In 2012, the Pentagon’s strategic-guidance document declared that the Army “will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” In 2014, the Army announced the closure of the Irregular Warfare Center, at Fort Leavensworth, in Kansas, which it had established in 2006 to study the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq and teach the principles of counterinsurgency. Meanwhile, Washington continued to spend vast sums on military assets designed for interstate warfare, such as the trillion-dollar F-35 warplane program.
Many leading Republicans joined the chorus of disapproval. “We don’t want another Iraq,” Mitt Romney said during a presidential debate in 2012. “We don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us.” It’s striking that when Marco Rubio recently called for stepping up the campaign in Iraq against ISIS, he stressed: “It’s not nation-building.”
There has also been a broader groundswell of opposition among military analysts to nation-building. In 2008, Michael Mazarr argued that the focus on “insurgent-terrorist” adversaries was a “folly” that distracted the military from its core task of winning conventional interstate conflicts. Retired colonel Gian Gentile, a professor at West Point, agreed, writing in 2008: “Hyper-emphasis on counterinsurgency puts the American Army in a perilous condition. Its ability to fight wars consisting of head-on battles using tanks and mechanized infantry is in danger of atrophy.”
In an era of political polarization in the United States, opposition to nation-building is virtually the only issue that unites the Left and the Right. Many on the left associate nation-building with imperialism and the hawkish excesses of the George W. Bush administration. Many on the right see nation-building as big-government social engineering or a kind of military Obamacare.
Shining a critical light on nation-building reveals some harsh realities. Trying to reconstruct fractured societies such as Iraq and Afghanistan can be horrendously difficult. These wars carried a joint price tag of nearly 7,000 American lives and trillions of dollars. Dispatching U.S. forces into distant and culturally alien societies hands the opponent a home-field advantage. We’re often ignorant of local religions, traditions, and languages, and our presence may trigger resistance if we’re seen as foreign occupiers. Skepticism about nation-building could therefore be healthy if it induced more caution about the consequences of launching military campaigns.
The pivot away from nation-building could be hazardous. It won’t prevent the United States from engaging in stabilization operations, but it could increase the chances of a failed mission.
But the pivot away from nation-building could also be hazardous. It won’t prevent the United States from engaging in stabilization operations, but it could increase the chances of a failed mission.
Since World War II, conventional interstate wars have become extremely rare, due to nuclear deterrence, the spread of democracy, globalization, and other forces. But the receding tide of interstate war has left us with a host of intractable civil wars. The collapse of the European empires after World War II, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the Arab Spring in 2011 all triggered conflict within states. Today, almost 90 percent of wars are civil wars, including prominent conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine, Nigeria, and Gaza.
It’s true that most foreign internal conflicts don’t represent a major security threat to the United States. But globalization has increased our sensitivity to such wars, which can have an impact on U.S. interests and values by causing humanitarian crises, refugee flows, and terrorism. Since Vietnam, enemy countries have killed around 300 Americans, whereas insurgents and terrorists have killed more than 10,000 Americans.
In a world where nine out of ten wars are civil wars, almost every imaginable U.S. military operation will have a stabilization component. Even conventional interstate wars often evolve into nation-building missions, as we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq. Regime change can trigger the so-called Pottery Barn Rule: You break it, you own it.
Despite the current aversion to nation-building, the United States has begun a wide range of new stabilization operations: sending advisers to help allied governments in central Africa fight the Lord’s Resistance Army, dispatching personnel to Jordan to help deal with Syrian refugees, and training Libyan commandos in counterterrorism in the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attacks. Washington has also steadily escalated the deployment of Special Forces and trainers to Iraq. With 3,500 American military personnel in Iraq — equivalent to a brigade — it’s increasingly hard to claim there are no boots on the ground.
We don’t choose our threat environment. But we do choose how to prepare for it. Nation-building and counterinsurgency operations require very specific skills centered on understanding the political and human aspects of war and winning hearts and minds. We need to provide additional cultural and language training to U.S. soldiers, beef up Special Forces capabilities, and improve initiatives to mentor and advise local security forces. These programs aren’t cheap, but they’re less expensive than much of the high-tech hardware we’re building for conventional interstate war.
Contrary to what some claim, not all stabilization missions are doomed to fail. The United States has certainly had a tough time fighting large-scale insurgencies in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. But peaceful nation-building operations in post-war Germany, Japan, and South Korea were successful. Peacekeeping also has a fairly good record at preventing civil wars from reigniting — provided there’s a peace to keep and the combatants consent to the arrive of international forces. During the 1990s, for example, the U.S.-led peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo stabilized the war-torn Balkans with zero American casualties.
The wish to forget about nation-building is strategically risky, first of all, because it means we might not be prepared. The U.S. military has traditionally seen nation-building and waging irregular war as peripheral tasks. According to historian Russell Weigley, the military has repeatedly battled guerrillas, but each time it “had to relearn appropriate tactics at exorbitant costs,” and viewed the experience “as an aberration that need not be repeated.”
Following Vietnam, the Army largely abandoned its efforts to train soldiers for nation-building and even destroyed its files on counterinsurgency at the Special Warfare School, at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina. Having failed to learn lessons from Vietnam, the Army was unprepared for later missions after the Cold War.
The second strategic risk is that of overthrowing regimes without thinking through the consequences. The George W. Bush administration initially saw nation-building as Bill Clinton–style do-goodery. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pursued the “transformation agenda,” meant to create a lean U.S. military with highly mobile ground forces that would avoid stabilization operations and instead smite tyrants and terrorists through shock and awe.
The desire to get away from Clinton-era nation-building led directly to the fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq. After toppling the Taliban regime in Kabul, the White House made little effort to create order in the country. A year after the invasion, there were only 10,000 U.S. soldiers, along with 5,000 international troops, in Afghanistan, a country of more than 20 million people. With no one standing in their way, the Taliban almost inevitably made a comeback.
Similarly, Bush was determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein without any nation-building. The result was too few American troops to stabilize Iraq and little or no preparation for the collapse of Iraqi institutions.
In 2011, the United States once again tried to skip the stabilization phase of war. Washington helped overthrow Moammar Qaddafi but resisted any nation-building in Libya, which soon collapsed into anarchy.
Today, we’re in danger of repeating the same mistakes. Military-budget cuts may fall disproportionately on nation-building and counterinsurgency capabilities such as the Irregular Warfare Center. If U.S. troops fought tank battles with defective equipment or training, there would be an outcry. Is it less scandalous to send soldiers into stabilization missions without the right preparation?
President Obama came to power promising to extricate the United States from war, but he has found himself drawn back into the Middle East cauldron. In some shape or form, further stabilization missions lie on America’s horizon — whether we’re ready or not. The lesson of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya is that there’s little point in toppling tyrants if the result is chaos and civil war. The answer is to develop our nation-building skills and capacity, and then use them with discretion.
Doctors don’t study 10 percent of illnesses. Firemen don’t train for 10 percent of fires. And the U.S. military shouldn’t prepare for 10 percent of wars.