Robert D. Kaplan examines the successful COIN effort by Sri Lanka and concludes that, yes, it "represented the culmination of a counterinsurgency campaign that the U.S. could only dream about," but that we should draw no lessons from it.
Why? Because it was immoral.
The Sri Lankan government fought through human shields (which isn't necessarily immoral -- St. Thomas Aquinas' doctrine of double effect explores the question in depth). They took aid from regimes that didn't mind their brutality. They killed journalists who generated negative publicity. America couldn't do that, he argues, and therefore we can't learn from the COIN campaign.
We can learn something, though.
The great debate of our time is between nations that are based on consent, and nations that are based on authority. Faced with new ways of organizing and communicating, like the internet, the authoritarian nations -- China, Iran, and others -- find themselves slipping more toward liberty.
Free nations, however, are also slipping more toward authoritarianism: Venezuela's elections are what brought Chavez to power, and the recent 'coup' in Hondouras was about an elected leader refusing to surrender power according to the law. The United States government, traditionally the leader of the free world, is on the wrong side of all of this at the moment: it is supporting the unconstitutional acts of the president of Honduras, treating Chavez as if he were still a democrat, and giving the Iranian government room to suppress its internal debates. Iran is moving according to the Tiananmen model, which is also a proven mode of counterinsurgency.
The argument that America cannot do these wicked things is fair enough: it is America's business to be better, and there is a great power in being on the side of the right. There is no weight, though, to the argument that these things are ineffective. We have heard a great deal about how useless torture is; but Saddam Hussein, who was a master of it, was not removed by an insurgency in spite of several attempts.
We have also heard that you cannot kill your way to victory in a COIN campaign, but that is simply not true. It has been done often.
This is not an argument for undertaking torture, murder, or immorality in our wars. It is an argument, though, for seeing these things as they are. If we are making moral arguments, let us make moral arguments: let us argue about what kind of people we are, and what kind of people we want to be. With such clear moral principles, perhaps we can begin to see which acts our government ought to oppose and which it ought to support.
Let us not blind our eyes with wishful thinking, and hope that torture is worthless and brutality counterproductive. Those who are truly brutal will march under cover of such illusions.
It is tempting to think: "We shall not worry about Iran's show trials, or Honduras' slip from liberty, because such wickedness will provide its own punishment." The truth is that brutality is the normal condition of the world, in part because it is so highly effective. If we want a less brutal world, we will have to bend our will to making it; and where we have made it, to defending it.