I interviewed my friend Michael Hastings about his new (and worthy) book The Operators. If the piece did the work I intended, it provided some pushback and clarification to someone for whom I have a lot of respect, even when/especially when we disagree.

Among those circumstances: counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency fascinates me, and I don’t care if much of the foreign-policy community (and the Pentagon) is declaring it passe. I try to study it dispassionately and often fail. Accordingly, it can grate on me when counterinsurgency and its practitioners get described as imperialists and warmongers — even while, as I’ve written and smarter people have observed, counterinsurgency is disturbingly coterminous with imperialism.

I also have a hard time recognizing that my counterinsurgency fixation is boring to a readership that doesn’t share my fascination, and so that’s where Noah comes in to remind me that Danger Room readers don’t want to read 800 words of two journalists debating counterinsurgency. So for those of you that do want more of this discussion, here’s the director’s cut. As you’ll see, some of it splatters on my friend Andrew Exum and the Center for a New American Security; I’ll address that after the discussion.

Danger Room: What’s your actual critique of counterinsurgency? I can understand you arguing that the Afghanistan war is a bloody mistake, killing too many Afghans. But isn’t counterinsurgency an attempt at mitigating those civilian deaths?

Michael Hastings: I don’t agree that they’re actually killing fewer Afghans. Look at the numbers, they’re not. If I had goverment that local insurgents were trying to overthrow, then yes, I’d probably try to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy. But what that strategy entails is a system of secret prisons and torture and this kind of no-holds barred fight. I think it’s a mistake when you’re trying to fight someone else’s counterinsurgency for them. We’re just not equipped to do it very well. The Israelis have been fighting a counterinsurgency against the Palestinians for decades, and they know the language, they know every nook and cranny of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the conflict is never-ending.

DR: But the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t like the Israeli wars against the Palestinians. Petraeus warned troops in Iraq against torture; McChrystal’s guidance to his troops was to be respectful of Afghan drivers.

MH: But I don’t think it’s true. Petraeus says we have to not torture Iraqis, I don’t think that’s true. Our proxies we fund and train, like Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq, or Col. Abdul Razik in Afghanistan, are torturing people and running secret prisons. McChrystal says we have to respect Afghans, I don’t think they really are. They convince themselves they are, but I don’t necessarily buy it. And certainly they’re not doing it for any kind of moral reason, because we care about the Afghan people.

DR: But do you have to have a moral reason? They argued that protecting the population, in fact not torturing someone, was in the interests of the war effort.

MH: Maybe, I don’t know. Maliki tortured a hell of a lot of people and he won. The counterinsurgency in Iraq was on the back of Nouri al-Maliki’s death squads. The counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is going to be on the back of Col. Abdul Razik. He’s burning people with cigarettes as we speak in Kandahar.

COIN [counterinsurgency] in Iraq, as practiced, actually makes more sense. The invasion was a bad idea, and they had to figure out some way to put the pieces back together. I didn’t agree, I wouldn’t have gone into Iraq in the first place, but I can see it. Today, to go to Afghanistan, to go and say we did this in Iraq, and you have to triple the size of the force, more than any significant escalation, to say we have to have our soldier-diplomats transform this culture, culture, make sure [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai is a good democrat, get Col. Abdul Razik on our side, it’s lunacy, it’s nonsense. You can see that with CNAS [the Center for a New American Security, a prominent think tank], everyone’s backing away from it, thinking maybe war for 30 years, spending a trillion dollars in Afghanistan isn’t a great idea.

DR: Is that fair to them? I don’t find people at CNAS who say “We need a 30-year counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.” I have heard them say, “There are a lot of really bad options for Afghanistan, counterinsurgency is the least bad,” and then after the surge, they say, “That was tried and now we need to shift strategy.”

MH: I don’t think you can say, “Oh, they just sent couple hundred Americans to their deaths and a couple thousand Afghans to their deaths, let’s try something else.” I don’t find that to be very persuasive. I address this point in the book. CNAS guys have this sort of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand, let’s dip a toe in the water kind of attitude, “Oh, we’re real intellectuals.” And journalists eat that up. People love to hear that kind of cerebral-warrior attitude, and I reject that. You can talk about this really intelligently, but at the end of the day, what you’re talking about is making the natives behave the way you want them to behave. You’re using bribes, and you’re hunting people down in the middle of the night. Don’t try to sell it to me as hearts and minds.

DR: But it’s not really about hearts and minds. The counterinsurgents wish no one used that term. It’s about asses, wallets and stomachs, less airy concepts and more ruthless ones.

MH: Your characterization is much more honest. The problem is it’s a political problem. The President of the United States isn’t interested in nation building. Counterinsurgency is nation building. Asses, wallets in stomachs — you’re talking nation building. The COIN guys are in a difficult political position. They want nation building but the political leadership has no stomach for it. So yeah, they tried out the surge. But they tried that knowing that the president isn’t gonna sign off on a ten-year war but then they gave him a plan that’s gonna last ten years.

Michael makes many good points. His comment about journalists eating up the counterinsurgents’ intellectual style hits home. As I wrote in my Danger Room intro, his work makes me question whether I’ve uncritically accepted the principles of counterinsurgency.

Lastly: CNAS. I didn’t expect Michael to go off on CNAS or Exum. (It’s worth pointing out that Exum wrote a series of posts criticizing Michael’s piece on Lt. Gen. Caldwell, which I also found to be a problematic piece.) The vitriol expressed to that guy — and now I’m not talking about Michael, but more broadly — I genuinely do not understand. If you read his blog or his professional writings, he has an admirable and rare ability to avoid the temptations of the cheap shot — something I definitely don’t share, and wish I did. He doesn’t demonize the people he disagrees with; he grapples with their strongest arguments and ignores their weaker ones; and he rethinks his assumptions.

I had a conversation today with someone else who was pissed that Exum (and David Barno) published a strategy paper arguing that counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan should end with the surge. The guy wanted Exum to… acknowledge that he was a counterinsurgency advocate and a surge supporter, which I don’t recall him hiding.

It struck me that the guy was finding fault with Exum for not having some kind of gaudy public conversion narrative, repudiating counterinsurgency and flogging himself for its sins. But that only makes sense if you assume that Exum (and CNAS, etc.) is theologically committed to counterinsurgency, arguing that it’s a panacea and a curative. I have interviewed and hung out with many people at CNAS; that perspective describes none of them. (Even Nagl!) Those guys thought counterinsurgency was appropriate for Iraq and was the least-bad option worth trying in Afghanistan. They didn’t propose it for Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Mexico — go down the list. Sometimes I think that COIN critics really do want its advocates to be as rigidly wedded to counterinsurgency as the critics are to knocking it off its pedestal. The horrible truth is more mundane and transactional.