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COIN Dead? Probably the Wrong Question

[ 18 ] November 30, 2011 |

I’ve been frustrated by the discussion over counter-insurgency for quite some time.  This week, I took those frustrations out on my WPR column:

Of course, abandoning COIN doctrine would not in itself eliminate the possibility for stupid wars or massive strategic errors. To the extent that U.S. Army doctrine had anything to do with the invasion of Iraq, it was in giving the U.S. the ability to completely destroy fielded Iraqi forces in a short period of time with a minimal footprint. In other words, U.S. conventional capabilities, organized by a doctrine that eschewed serious political or strategic thinking, gave U.S. policymakers the impression that the conquest of Iraq would be cheap and easy. And in the wake of the initial conquest, the response of the U.S. Army to the growing Iraqi insurgency was clearly inadequate. Here, however, Gentile plays a bait-and-switch. He is surely correct to say that good COIN tactics and operational proficiency cannot redeem disaster at the strategic level. However, he does not examine in any serious detail the strategic, which is to say the political failures that led to the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring instead to critique the work of the surgeons trying to save the patient. The worst that can be said of COIN, with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan, is that it failed in an expensive way to remedy a disaster produced by a combination of civilian strategic incompetence and extant U.S. military doctrine in 2001 and 2003.

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  1. actor212 says:

    Have we ever fought a war that involved such dramatic insurgent tactics? I mean, you could make the case for Vietnam, but they had lots of help and materiel from the two you-know-whos.

  2. scott says:

    The worst that can be said of COIN is that it seems to require a daunting set of conditions to be successful, which begs the question of whether much time should be spent on considering its application. Krepinovich once took the Army brass to task for exiting Vietnam and then turning its back on COIN. I think they drew the appropriate conclusion – why worry about a theory that might work in a vanishingly small and probably unrepeatable set of circumstances? Armies, like Hulk, are for smash, not political persuasion of foreigners whom we at best only dimly understand. If smash isn’t a good idea, then COIN probably isn’t either, and making square peg fit round hole should be abandoned.

    • kth says:

      Pretty much. Counter-insurgency was a cudgel with a military logo on it, with which center-left types might pummel George W. Bush and especially Donald Rumsfeld. But it’s basically neo-conservatism on steroids, and not good for the liberals at all.

      • I don’t understand why you’re linking COIN with “center-left types.”

        Isn’t it pretty much the professional military’s baby, as opposed to something that came out of the political class?

        • wiley says:

          Well, it seems it was a military product, sold to the political class for the purposes of gaining funding and a free hand, and that it became a dominant cudgel because of an alignment with the military and the political interests of the day to promote it as a solution to a political problem.

          COIN seems to me to be used primarily as a sort of colonial weapon to keep populations from rebelling against invasion, military hegemony, and cultural hegemony for the purpose of making a people act in the interest of Western powers, instead of their own.

    • Charlie Sweatpants says:

      “The worst that can be said of COIN is that it seems to require a daunting set of conditions to be successful, which begs the question of whether much time should be spent on considering its application.”

      Exactly. I’m hard pressed to think of a single place on Earth where there’s a justifiable and compelling reason for a U.S. counterinsurgency effort. (You could make a case for Afghanistan in 2001, I don’t think you can in 2011.) The real worry about whether or not the Army is convinced it can effectively perform counterinsurgency is the effect it could have on civilian decision making. If the Army starts thinking it’s got the gameplan that can root out FARC or Jemaah Islamiah then sooner or later some asshole in a suit and tie is going to tell them to go do precisely that.

      Farley’s bit about civilian leadership that “eschewed serious political or strategic thinking” is dead on. Like Vietnam before them, Afghanistan and Iraq are civilian failures the brunt of which were borne by the military. No amount of tactical innovation is going to save a strategic or politically doomed enterprise, but enough tactical confidence can convince enough people to blunder into a new one.

  3. Njorl says:

    “U.S. conventional capabilities, organized by a doctrine that eschewed serious political or strategic thinking, gave U.S. policymakers the impression that the conquest of Iraq would be cheap and easy.”

    I think this was exacerbated by one key policymaker who probably had no interest in the conquest of Iraq, and merely sought to defeat Iraq. Rumsfeld represented the epitome of the eschewing “serious political or strategic thinking”. He wanted a military which destroyed – armies, governments or nations. He didn’t want to occupy Iraq. He wanted to use Iraq as the first example of his policy. Destroy the threat and leave, chaos be damned. He wanted no COIN, or even an occupation. Rumsfeld believed the specter of unpopular occupations deterred presidents from using military force more often. With a smoldering, anarchic Iraq as an example, Rumsfeld wanted to show that war could be quick and easy with no regrets.

    Rumsfeld worked to make the invasion force as incapable of occupation as possible, while still achieving his goals. He assumed he would be able to bring Bush around to his way of thinking.

    It seems, that there is an effort to steer the military in Rumsfeld’s direction again. People want an army that just destroys – no occupations, no COIN. The problem is, even if they succeed, we will still occupy, and be forced into COIN.

  4. wengler says:

    COIN didn’t work. Retreating to bases and paying off the insurgency did. Flooding areas of the country with American soldiers and then supporting ethnic cleansing also had interesting results.

    I don’t know what the goal was in Iraq but it wasn’t achieved. Even the most steel-eyed realist must consider Iraq an immense failure especially with the hardened Sunni-Shia battle lines playing out in Bahrain and Syria.

    It turns out the Suck. On. This. policy wasn’t terribly well thought out.

    • I don’t know what the goal was in Iraq

      The bases. The permanent military presence, capable of “projecting power” throughout the region, without bothering those very excellent friends of the Bushes, the House of Saud. Basically, “an ally in the War on Terror.” You know…a launching pad for the endless neocon project. On to Syria.

      but it wasn’t achieved.

      Nope. It was not.

  5. rea says:

    I don’t know what the goal was in Iraq but it wasn’t achieved.

    Bush got a second term. There wasn’t really another goal.

  6. Jager says:

    Anybody track the careers of the guys who said, “you know this invasion might not be the best idea”?

  7. Ralph Hitchens says:

    I’d like to think that COIN in its current incarnation is here to stay — old lessons re-learned for the umpty-umpth time — and that next time Presidents wish to go questing outside the Shire the Army will have a viable doctrine with which to bring them back to reality. I hope Gentile’s main point about bad strategy trumping good COIN sticks in our collective mind.

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