Counter-terrorism beats nation-building? Are we going to bury COIN all over again?

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My old classmate Fareed Zakaria recently made the argument that counterterrorism beats nation-building when it comes to winning the war on terror. Taking Osama Bin Laden’s killing as a point of American pride, he says that sort of military/intelligence operation is what we’re good at, and so we should stick with it versus pursue the larger counterinsurgency (COIN) effort that General David Petraeus has now led in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a broad point to be making off the Bin Laden operation, especially as Petraeus heads to CIA. While I may agree with Fareed WRT Af-Pak, let me express a larger concern.

The US Army walked away from COIN after Vietnam, just as it was starting to get good at it – again. The same danger exists now in our rush to “spike the ball” (the buzz phrase) and call it a Not So Long War. Yes, we’re good at the killing, but that doesn’t win you the war even as it buys you a stalemate that arguably accomplishes just enough to let globalization itself defeat al-Qaeda and every other violent extremist group out there by eventually reformatting their societies into something better. The real question is how indifferent you – Mr. Sole Global Military Superpower – want to be to the violence that ensues.  

As globalization penetrates traditional societies, it will continue breaking them up into chunks by encouraging “divorce proceedings” among richer and poorer segments of nations, creating substantial civil strife in the process. Africa is ground zero for this right now – top to bottom.

No, we don’t want to have our military imagine that it alone should run every – or really any – nation-building show, but let’s not abandon the skill-set (yet again!) amidst all this tumultuous frontier integration going on (Operation Geronimo – get the hint?). Simply put, the Chinese and other rising powers aren’t up for the task themselves, so if we can collaborate, then this becomes  a positive venue for mil-mil cooperation, certainly an improvement on the quiet arms race we’ve got going on right now with the PLA in East Asia.

Saying America should only concentrate on the killing misses the larger opportunity: shaping the political preferences of an emergent global middle class – the real capture-the-flag competition of the 21st century. America needs to be about more than just taking out the trash.

We lost a lot of soldiers in Iraq that we didn’t need to because the Pentagon ran away from COIN after Vietnam. We want to avoid that the next time – and there will always be a next time given enough time.