William Rosenau (“Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Spring 2009) raises several important points. It is difficult not to agree with most of them. But in regard to his “more fundamental” criticism, this is not the case. Rosenau contends that “since the 1960s, US counterinsurgency policy and strategy has been relentlessly state-centric, and in some respects counterinsurgency has been virtually synonymous with state-building.” He believes this to be a major mistake and advocates “the decoupling of counterinsurgency and state-building.” Rosenau suggests that in some cases it “makes sense to bypass state structures.” One of Rosenau’s arguments for de-emphasizing state-building in counterinsurgency is that these strategies have failed in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
While this is definitely true in Afghanistan and to a lesser and decreasing degree in Iraq, the reason for this failure has not been the emphasis on building states in these two countries, but the neglect of it. In Afghanistan, the core strategy of the United States has from the start been to bypass the state in favor of non-state actors. Local warlords have long been utilized to fight the insurgency, and some 80 percent of international financial assistance to Afghanistan has bypassed the Afghan state, thereby using exactly the approach Rosenau is suggesting. The result was the failure of both state-building and counterinsurgency. Creating statehood has largely been left to other actors, such as the UN and Europeans, in Afghanistan. In Iraq, US strategy, or the lack of it, has even produced state breakdown, needlessly creating a failed state and long ignoring the resulting political vacuum, which was filled by the insurgents until the rebuilding of a collapsed state began to shift the balance away from them.
When the United States finally did engage in state-building, it was heavily focused on the security services in both countries. The approach was pragmatically triggered by the desire to ease the burden for US forces by letting locals fight locals. But it was only of a tactical, not strategic character, and it was primarily concentrated on building local security forces. Therefore, Rosenau’s diagnosis of a state-centric approach to counterinsurgency by the United States is not supported by the evidence. State-building and “nation-building” were indeed part of the policy package, but generally applied as result of trial-and-error behavior.
Creating statehood is not a technique that can be implemented everywhere, any time, and under all conditions. It has preconditions to function. And it can be done in very different ways. The strength of Rosenau’s article is to clarify that this is not an off-the-shelf activity, and that the risk of failure is high. But its weakness is not to distinguish between different approaches and not to reflect on its local context. Without successful state-building (often combined with non-state mechanisms of governance), it is very difficult to create durable security and stability. But since one cannot build other peoples’ states, without a local project of state- and nation-building which is accepted by relevant sectors of the population, state-building will either fail or turn into a quasi-colonial exercise, which also implies failure, if the goal is stability and improved security. Building and strengthening states can work if it can restrict itself to supporting local projects of statehood; if a state is generally accepted as legitimate; if it avoids the imperial temptation; and if it is not reduced either to a primarily military tool or a technical endeavor. But if the local state is not worth building, if it is not accepted, if it is not better than the insurgent’s project of rule, then the chances of failure are considerable. And then it often deserves to fail, counterinsurgency or no counterinsurgency.