A retired four-star general, who has studied and fought insurgencies in the Middle East, would appear to have little in common with a new Ph.D., research biologist and expert on infectious diseases.
Indeed, the interests of Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, on the one hand, and Kristina Talbert-Slagle, an associate research scientist at Yale Global Health Leadership Institute, on the other, would appear at first glance to be far removed. But the two Yale professors have discovered fascinating parallels between insurgencies and illnesses.
McChrystal and Talbert-Slagle have collaborated for two years on a model of counterinsurgency. He is a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
The duo presented “Lessons on Counterinsurgency from the Human Body,” on the relationship between counterinsurgency warfare and the human immune system on Dec. 19 at the Brookings Institution.
The model may help policymakers and the military anticipate the obstacles in the lifespan of an insurgency. Better understanding the nature of an insurgency could help defeat it.
The presentation was not intended to recommend policy about current or future counterinsurgency operations.
Sick People, Sick Nations
They used the Taliban in Afghanistan as an example. The model’s conclusions are applicable to all insurgencies, however.
“We didn’t always call it counterinsurgency, but we got a lot of history in dealing with problems that weren’t exactly like conventional war,” said McChrystal.
Since Vietnam, the United States has often had to deal with rebel groups with moral and material support from the local population. Not able to go head-to-head against our military, the enemy resorts to guerilla warfare.
The battlefield in an insurgency is more complicated than in conventional war as the line becomes blurred between the combatant and the noncombatant.
The starting points in the model are healthy people and healthy nations. Talbert-Slagle described the scientific theory of how a healthy person succumbs to infection. She said our cardiovascular, digestive, respiratory, and lymphatic systems work together to make a healthy body.
“This is a ripe and nutrient-rich environment that an infectious agent can’t wait to get into,” she said.
She described the way in which microorganisms exploit the body’s resources and replicate and spread. “The body is much bigger and initially much stronger than the infectious agents,” she said. Antibodies come to the defense of the body, and a kind of war ensues.
According to McChrystal, insurgents are to a nation as infections are to a healthy body. Just as it took years to understand what the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was, it takes years to understand any particular insurgency.
“Most nations are strong enough where not only can they fend [the insurgents] off, they almost don’t notice them,” he said. Here in the states, we are exposed a lot. There are 300 anti-government militias in the United States today, according to most estimates, “but we typically don’t feel we are threatened by an insurgency on a given day,” he said.
The Soviets were in Afghanistan for a decade till 1989, creating a weakened nation state that led to warlord-driven violence against the central government. The Taliban arose in 1994. Traditional Afghan society then deteriorated.
“What we have to do is create in the nation state the equivalent of rebuilding the immune system so they have the ability to deal with the problem,” McChrystal said. It’s not enough to win targeted clashes.
Today, the Taliban resurgence seems as difficult to ultimately defeat as HIV. In the early AIDS epidemic, people did not appreciate the seriousness of the problem in 1981 when the first five cases were found. Most Americans didn’t feel threatened and few wanted to talk about the disease.
Similarly, in the 1980s and 1990s, Americans weren’t too concerned what was occurring in Afghanistan.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, United States forces soon routed the Taliban, who were forced out of power. It seemed to be over, but it wasn’t that simple. Their insurgency is analogous to HIV that can be defeated momentarily in a human body by antiviral drugs. HIV can come back in a more virulent form.
We have the prospect in the not too distant future of zero new HIV infections, said Talbert-Slagle. But this outcome was only possible after three decades of public education and targeted research.
The theory of counterinsurgency evolved as “a well-informed complex response to an extraordinary, complex problem,” McChrystal said. We may think that a targeted response will be the “miracle solution,” only to learn that “the problem takes a much wider level of effort, just as going after AIDS required beyond a single drug or a single scientific breakthrough,” he said.
At the conclusion, the general said, “You are probably thinking, so what?” What practical value does this model have?
McChrystal said that we can learn to comprehend an insurgency problem in all its complexity much sooner. In the fall 2009, as commander of the U.S. and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan, McChrystal told the president that we needed 40,000 more troops. This request was the last thing he wanted to do, but we didn’t have a choice, he said. Had the counterinsurgency been started earlier, the troop surge might not have been necessary.
McChrystal said that with insurgencies, it’s initially hard to convince others that the problem is large enough to warrant the costs of building the nation’s capacity—in this case, Afghanistan—to resist the threat.
It has been his experience, however, “The longer you wait … the more it’s going to cost you, the more difficult it’s going to be, and the more the outcome will be in question.”