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Civilised military doctrine

by Hans Dembowski


After the Kunduz airstrike. Nach dem Luftschlag von Kundus

After the Kunduz airstrike. Nach dem Luftschlag von Kundus

In regard to Afghanistan, non-governmental organisations warn against militarising development policy. The snag is that the USA’s military doctrine has recently become far more geared towards civilian reconstruction than critics are aware of. [ By Hans Dembowski ]

The USA’s military doctrine has historically alternated between conventional warfare and counter-insurgency approaches. President George W. Bush was following the conventional logic when he began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under the motto “search and destroy”, he wanted to obliterate enemies.

In both conflicts, however, commanders on the ground began to reconsider the effectiveness of counter-insurgency because of mounting problems. They understood that “search and destroy” will never succeed when troops inflict so much suffering upon the civilian people that ever more recruits join the insurgents. In late 2006, when Bush was still in office, the US Army’s new Field Manual Counter Insurgency (FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, page 1-21) stated a new paradigm: “The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.”

This doctrine is in line with the notion of comprehensive security, which German governments composed of various parties have espoused in recent years. According to the German doctrine, security is based not only on military strength but also on societal legitimacy and effective government action. Nonetheless, the German public still does not understand that President Barack Obama increased troops in Afghanistan because he wants them to be able to act in a more police-like manner, not to gain more firepower against the Taliban.

There are many reasons why the US military today portrays itself as a tool of policymaking rather than as the solution to the problem. In view of likely failure in Afghanistan, one reason is to involve as many actors as possible so as not to be the only institution bearing responsibility. Everyone knows, after all, that Obama has announced he will start withdrawing troops in 2011.

Such considerations do not alter the fact, however, that the proclaimed military goal in Afghanistan is politically correct: effective governance by a legitimate government. Whether international non-governmental agencies subscribe to a military logic or not, they are serving military intentions as long as they manage to improve the situation for Afghanistan’s people.

This does not imply that one must no longer criticise military action. The point is that generic complaints about military semantics or the increase of troops are futile. Critics must spell out precisely where and when soldiers are undermining the civilised military goal of effective governance by a legitimate government. Massacres are an obvious example – like the one in Iraq that was recently documented on wikileaks.org. It is similarly unacceptable to count many civilian dead as “collateral damage”, as was the case after the Kunduz airstrike, which a German officer initiated last year.

On the way to societal stability in Afghanistan, however, there are many other obstacles. The drugs economy is one, and repression can hardly serve to tackle it if the allied forces are serious about winning hearts and minds. Another dilemma is that nepotism is all too common in a society marked by deep ethnic divides, but people only tend to consider it legitimate when it occurs within their own respective clan.

Depressingly, the US only switched to counter insurgency very late. This strategy takes a lot of time. Effective governance and governmental legitimacy in the eyes of the people cannot be installed over night. Far more dubious than the military doctrine, therefore, is the time span in which Western leaders proclaim they will get things done.

If they are serious about counter insurgency, the begin of withdrawal next year cannot be large scale, but will have to turn out quite marginal. Western governments’ rhetoric suggests everything will be over in four years or so. That is hardly more credible than the German Left Party’s stance of “development assistance instead of troops”. If more than humanitarian aid is to be achieved in Afghanistan, both will be needed for many more years.