Two Points on COIN

>> Wednesday, November 04, 2009

First, I don't think that there's quite enough appreciation of this:

But the choice between a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to scare China & Russia” or a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to intervene effectively in third world backwaters” has very real implications for what kind of hardware purchases look cost effective. The 2017 budget deficit or the potential economic impact of a manufacturing plant closure in Georgia is not the kind of thing a lieutenant, captain, or major serving in the field is going to think about. But it’s still, in an objective sense, quite important and senior Pentagon figures are not mistaken to treat it as such.

And part of the subtext of the Afghanistan debate is that as a matter of bureaucratic warfare, it makes enormous sense for the currently ascendant COIN faction to try to press its advantages—to exaggerate the extent of what was achieved in Iraq in 2007, and to overstate the strategic significance of achieving some kind of comprehensive success in Afghanistan.

The battle against the Taliban isn't the only fight taking place in Afghanistan. We're also, as Matt suggests, seeing serious combat between two visions of warfare, and two factions within the greater defense community. The broad, and sometimes hyperbolic, claims about the potential effectiveness of COIN should be understood in this light, as should much of the pushback. One faction, broadly speaking, wants a military organized around the possibility of conventional combat. The other has been skeptical of this approach for some time, and has found an unexpected opportunity over the past six years to press its case. The Surge was a huge gamble for this faction; conditions didn't favor its success, forces were insufficient, and the top brass didn't care for the approach. In spite of all this, and assisted by a number of other factors, the Surge enjoyed surprising tactical and operational success. It didn't solve the strategic problem of Iraq, but it was a huge bureaucratic victory for the COIN faction, and it created major problems for the more conventionally oriented factions in the military. The heart of the fight over COIN in Afghanistan is, I think, about whether this bureaucratic victory will be consolidated or rolled back.

I'm of two minds on this fight, because while I'm very skeptical that ground forces of the United States will be required to fight a conventional war against a peer competitor during my lifetime, I'm increasingly skeptical of the mission in Afghanistan. I also have a tremendous amount of respect for the intellectualism of COIN proponents, and an equal degree of contempt for right-critics of COIN like Ralph Peters. Along these lines, I think it's important to push back on a particular line of COIN critique:
In addition, the doctrine of counterinsurgency virtually assures long-running military campaigns in other hot spots, even as we're engaged in combat and rebuilding operations in Afghanistan. "We're going to be involved in this type of activity in a number of countries for the next 15 to 20 years," said Lt. Gen. David Barno, a COIN advocate who served as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

I'm pretty skeptical of this line of thinking, and I'd like to see that quote in full context; I'm not convinced that Barno is making the point that Dreyfuss wants him to make. There's no question that COIN can be a critical part of the imperial project; indeed, for really successful territorial imperialism in the modern age a COIN oriented military would be absolutely necessary. The roots of COIN clearly lie in the age of empire. However, I think that warnings about how the adoption of a successful COIN doctrine and orientation will lead to additional counter-insurgency campaigns is fundamentally wrong-headed, for two reasons. First, the United States didn't need capable COIN to become involved in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. A conventional military doctrine did nothing to prevent any of these wars, and there's no indication that it would do so in the future.

More importantly, I think that COIN skeptics underestimate the degree to which the dominance of the conventional faction was necessary to the war in Iraq (and perhaps also to the war in Afghanistan). The motivating concept behind the invasion of Iraq was the idea that potential enemies of the United States could be terrified into submission by a cheap, quick, and technology-laden war of conquest. The invasion was intended to frighten Syria, Iran, North Korea, and others. In the end it failed to do so, because no one believed that the United States would be willing to devote all of the blood and treasure to Iran or Syria that it was expending in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, I suspect that many of the fiercest advocates of war would have opposed the conflict if they'd had an idea how long it would last and how expensive it would be. In particular, there's not a shadow of doubt in my mind that Don Rumsfeld would have bitterly opposed the war if he'd had a sense of where it was going; he loathed COIN, loathed nation-building, and loathed the idea of the US being bogged down for an extended period in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The war would also have been less attractive to a number of other prominent neoconservatives.

Winning quickly and leaving, perhaps with a few major bases and oil contracts, was the point of the war. Public support of the conflict was more or less premised on this outcome. Winning quickly and leaving, however, is something that COIN advocates can never promise. The way of fighting that COIN proponents advocate doesn't lead to the sort of war that American hawks like, or that is very palatable to the American public. The kind of war that COIN advocates want is the kind of war that the US is least likely to engage in if the COIN faction becomes dominant. In the American political context, an appreciation of the costs of COIN means fewer wars, not more.


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