Afghanistan: America’s War of Perception (from Policy Review)

In the days before he was forced into retirement by scandal, General Stanley McChrystal was fond of referring to the Afghan theater he commanded as a “war of perceptions.” In February he spoke to the Washington Post:

“This is all a war of perceptions,” McChrystal said on the eve of the Marja offensive. “This is all in the minds of the participants. Part of what we’ve had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this.”

McChrystal’s phrase — which, we will see, is a superficial interpretation of counterinsurgency theory — aligns regrettably well with the zeitgeist, particularly with what I will call “perspectival culture.”

Counterinsurgency theory, or coin, represents the extension to warfare of the same validation of the “eye of the beholder” that has characterized the arts and even aspects of the social sciences in the 20th century. This shift marks a departure from and constitutes a critique of an older, classical understanding of what it means to win or lose a battle or a war — indeed, about the nature of reality itself as externally given and immutable fact, as opposed to a social construction built of competing and shared “perceptions.” Although the critique has ample merit, as we shall see, it also poses underappreciated difficulties of its own.

I will argue that perspectival culture is so dominant today that it has led to a nearly uncritical embrace of “perception” as the heart of coin theory. The essential problem of coin theory, at least in its crude form (such as General McChrystal voices it), is its nonfalsifiability, the impossibility of phrasing it in ways which can be tested and disproved.
The dominance of perspectival culture has led to a nearly uncritical embrace of “perception” as the heart of COIN theory.

When scientists evaluate a new medicine, they want to see if it is better than a placebo at treating a disease. They test it accordingly, and the scientific community agrees that medications that don’t work aren’t brought to market. But coin advocates insist that perception, in this case the perception of the local population in a conflict area, is ultimately determinative of the success or failure of U.S. military operations. If bribing the villagers and spending billions on dubious training programs fails to produce security, coin advocates answer that we need more troops and money. They will not admit the possibility that the medicine does not work. And nonfalsifiable is a very dangerous thing for a military theory to be.

I have argued elsewhere that our strategy in Afghanistan is far from sound, indeed far from a strategy; that we are neglecting the political factors and following a “strategy of tactics” that will inexorably lead to an unnecessary, self-inflicted defeat. I have also argued that the American civilian and military leadership has been unfortunately reluctant to test our strategy by available metrics, insisting instead that we have not had enough time, or enough troops, to make it work. The understanding of counterinsurgency in the “war of perceptions” is a far cry from the unglamorous, common-sense measures that are recommended in the classic works by David Galula, Roger Trinquier, and Sir Robert Thompson that underlie the Counterinsurgency Field Manual supervised by General David Petraeus, “ fm 3–24.”

Or consider this excerpt from General Eisenhower’s 1945 manual, “Combating the Guerilla”:

The most effective means of defeating guerrilla activity is to cut them off physically and morally from the local inhabitants. While stern measures, such as curfew, prohibition of assembly, limitations of movement, heavy fines, forced labor, and the taking of hostages, may be necessary in the face of a hostile population, these measure must be applied so as to induce the local inhabitants to work with the occupying forces. A means of bringing home to the inhabitants the desirability of cooperating with the forces of occupation against the guerrillas is the imposition of restrictions on movement and assembly and instituting search operations with the area affected.

Counterinsurgency operations, like any other military activity, should be judged on their merits. And counterinsurgency has worked in some times and places, though not under conditions acceptable to the current American population (Algeria, the Huk rebellion in the Philippines, the Sri Lankan struggle against the ltte). Even during our own Civil War and Reconstruction, federal commanders treated American citizens with harsh measures that would never have passed muster in Iraq in 2006. In 1868, an Army commander took Ku Klux Klan sympathizers hostage to prevent an assault on Augusta, Georgia. In 1863, Northern troops forcibly resettled relatives of the insurgents in Missouri who were attacking towns in Kansas.

There are ways of measuring whether counterinsurgency operations are working, besides the elusive perceptions of the population. Economists look at the price of transportation, travel data, crop prices, and other variables to try to devise objective measures of effectiveness. They also look at simple measures of violence like ied attacks and assassinations. The problem is that many in the top leadership don’t seem to be interested in what these metrics tell them. The coarse “war of perceptions” gloss on contemporary coin theory encourages a lack of interest in metrics and an emphasis on rhetoric instead.

The metrics of the Afghan war continue to deteriorate under the banner of coin, and yet Petraeus, who replaced McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan, has recently assured the American public that our strategy is basically sound. While Petraeus is a very capable general who understands the difficulty and subtleties of counterinsurgency as McChrystal did not, he too appears to be trapped in a conceptual dead end.

Understanding the intellectual history and context of coin helps to turn it from an article of faith to the mere doctrine it is, so that it can be criticized, improved, amended, or abandoned as needed. We are, after all, in Afghanistan to win, not to serve a theory.

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