The COIN wars flare up again

6 June 2012



A week or so ago the New York Times published at article about the split at West Point between those who see value in counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrines and those who see no value in these doctrines, West Point Is Divided on a War Doctrine’s Fate, by Elisabeth Bumiller. At West Point the doctrinal dialectic is being played out between Col. Gian P. Gentile, COIN skeptic, and Col. Michael J. Meese, COIN defender. Now George Friedman of Strategic Forecasting has published The End of Counterinsurgency and the Scalable Force on the Stratfor website (this is one of Stratfor’s free offerings, so you can read this if you don’t have a subscription), giving his perspective on the COIN debate. Not surprisingly, with a portentous title like “The End of Counterinsurgency,” Friedman’s position is not very enthusiastic about COIN.

I discussed some of Gentile’s views in Maintaining the Distinction Between Strategy and Tactics, where I reviewed Jason Fritz’s take on Gentile’s slogan that, “COIN is a strategy of tactics” (or SoT) and I said that this view entailed the idea that, “COIN has no true strategic content, and that a military force that makes COIN its central doctrine is a force essentially without a strategy.” But there is a missing distinction here. COIN certainly can be approached as a mere SoT, blind to larger concerns, or it can be formulated precisely to avoid a muddled collection of tactics that may well be at cross purposes to each other. History affords examples of both.

In regard to the NYT article, Thomas E. Ricks noted on the Foreign Policy magazine website that another obvious distinction should be made:

“…contrary to what the reporter seems to think, one can easily believe a) we should not have gone to war in Iraq, b) that COIN worked, and c) but that nothing was gained in that war.”

This isn’t the only distinction that should be observed. There is an obvious distinction to be made between the fact of COIN operations, which are often the result of historical accident piled upon historical accident — in other words, stumbling into COIN, not making an explicit strategic choice to pursue COIN over other alternatives — and a military doctrine that makes COIN operations central. The NYT article includes this:

“Colonel Meese’s opposing argument is that warfare cannot be divorced from its political, economic and psychological dimensions — the view advanced in the bible of counterinsurgents, the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that was revised under General Petraeus in 2006. Hailed as a new way of warfare (although drawing on counterinsurgencies fought by the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, among others), the manual promoted the protection of civilian populations, reconstruction and development aid.”

Clearly, to re-write a central document of military doctrine as though counterinsurgency were a new way of warfare that is to be the wave of the future is to make a strategic decision that this new way of warfare is of crucial importance now, will continue to be a crucial importance, and needs to be the focus of ongoing efforts. This is something very different from being caught in an insurgency being forced to fight it.

There are certainly good reasons for believing that COIN is the wave of the future, or, at very least, part of the wave of the future. I noted in The Security Paradox that “military operations other than war” (MOOTW) of necessity now play an increasing role in military thought and practice because of the reduced opportunities for peer-to-peer conflict.

George Friedman takes up the COIN debate in relation to peer-to-peer conflict in several points in his recent piece:

“…many within the military have long opposed counterinsurgency operations. Others see counterinsurgency as the unavoidable future of U.S. warfare. The debate is between those who believe the purpose of a conventional military force is to defeat another conventional military force and those who believe conventional military conflicts increasingly will be replaced by conflicts more akin to recent counterinsurgency operations.

If MOOTW come to predominate over peer-to-peer conflict, then COIN certainly will be part of the unavoidable future of U.S. warfare. That means that if a military force is built for conventional military conflicts, it will be underutilized while non-conventional conflicts go unaddressed because there is no force available to fight them. It is often said that, “The enemy gets a vote.” This unavoidability of non-conventional conflict is a result of the enemy’s voice. Regardless of the kind of military establishment that the U.S. builds, it does not get to choose its enemies unless is launches a preemptive or preventative war. And, as we have seen, even a preemptive or a preventative war can be transformed into unconventional, asymmetric warfare.

George Friedman addresses the growing role of asymmetric warfare indirectly, by denying that COIN is a type of warfare:

“Understanding this debate requires the understanding that counterinsurgency is not a type of warfare; it is one strategy by which a disproportionately powerful conventional force approaches asymmetric warfare.”

To assert that “counterinsurgency is not a type of warfare” is to cut the Gordian Knot; moreover, it is not very helpful. The unique position of the U.S. in the contemporary international system — like the unique position of Rome in classical antiquity — means that the U.S. is held to different standards than other nation-states and very different standards than non-state actors. The unavoidable Clausewitzean equation of war and politics means that wars become political and politics sometimes forces a nation-state into wars against its better judgment. These realities cannot be wished away.

Similarly, the complexity of war (including mission creep) cannot be wished away. Friedman envisions a light, mobile, flexible force of Marines who can suddenly descend upon hostiles in a violently effective surgical strike, only to disappear as the sun begins to peek over the horizon. There are many who would like see this as the central scenario of U.S. conflict involvement. I will avoid arguing the obviously cheap shot that, “commando raids are not a type of warfare; they are one strategy by which a disproportionately powerful conventional force approaches asymmetric warfare.”

After ten years plus involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, military thought in the U.S. is being affected by a psychological attrition that is not at all unlike what happened after ten years plus of involvement in Viet Nam. This fatigue also affects the security professionals who study the same problems and think about the same dilemmas day in and day out, year in and year out. Military and security professionals know that military casualties are at historic lows, but the deaths affect them personally even if they come at lower rates than in any other previous conflict (less than a tenth of the deaths in Viet Nam, to take the obvious comparison). This phenomenon has a precise analogy in the civilian sphere. The reporters know that civilian casualties are at historic lows, but competition for dramatic photographs and interviews drives every story of civilian casualties onto the front page and gives the impression that the deaths are disproportionately high when they are in fact disproportionately low.

In short, almost everyone has lost their objectivity, and the quality of thought and judgment is wavering or seriously compromised as a result. It is probably not possible for any democratic society to wage quasi-imperial wars, even with the best of intentions, without suffering cognitive dissonance at a level proportionate to the length of the conflict. And the erosion of thought and objectivity is a side-effect of this cognitive dissonance. Give the US another twenty years to engage in soul-searching, hand-wringing, and much-publicized recriminations, and the spirit of reckless adventurism will return, for better or worse. This, too, is the result of a decline in the clarity and objectivity of thought. We can only hope that, in the long term future, counter-cyclical forces will emerge that will temper both the highs of adventurism and the lows of defeatism.

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Note added 08 June 2012: On the same day that I posted the above, Thomas E. Ricks posted a longer and much more detailed piece on COIN, No matter what Gentile and others wish, counterinsurgency just isn’t going away, by Col. Robert Killebrew. I agree with almost all of this.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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