My issue with COIN is that it has been used by the think tanks, and senior leaders associated with the think tanks as a tactical solution to solve a strategic nightmare. This article does an excellent job of describing what the recent Rolling Stones “The Runaway General” was really getting out, how a tactical solution fails to solve strategic problems. The Germans found this out in World War I and II. They were premier at the tactical and operational levels of war, but failed at the strategic level. As I have said before, their strategy caused them “to make enemies faster than they could kill them.” I continue to advocate what I originally wrote in my book Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, in 2002, that we need to remain an expeditionary army where our focus is in powerful in and out operations, punishing our foes, leaving a calling card, that if they return and or repeat their actions, we will return with a vengeance. We have an overall culture that is impatient, long term occupations, especially of Islamic countries, do not work, and our own fiscal issues do not allow us to waste trillions of dollars in making countries in our own image. That is just a harsh reality. In this I am in total agreement with my friend COL Gian Gentile at West Point, and Dr. Andy Bacevich at Boston University. Many people have responded to me before and said, “but you believe in the 4 Generations of War.” Yes, but one must understand one’s own environment as well as that as potential opponents, and while the world is going the way of 4th Generation Warfare, our best solution is to move from a 2nd Generation to a 3rd Generation force to better understand and cope with a 4th Generation world. Given those factors, it is best we avoid such situations. Good strategy places one’s forces in the best position to win (I respect the fact that people do not agree with the generations of war).
Rolling Stone Article’s True Focus: Counterinsurgency By TIMOTHY HSIA
“COIN doctrine [is] an oxymoron.”
– Chief Adm. Eric Olson, U.S. Special Operations Command
The Rolling Stone profile on Gen. Stanley A. McChyrstal has made civil-military relations a national debate. But an equally important question raised by the article is the limitations of counterinsurgency, or COIN. The article by Michael Hastings article should not be read simply as a profile of a general but also as an indictment on counterinsurgency and the growing dissatisfaction inside the military with COIN theory and its practice in war (though General McChrystal’s replacement on Wednesday, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the leading proponent of counterinsurgency, seemed to indicate there would be no immediate shift away from the strategy).
Those in favor of continued resolve in Afghanistan argue that counterinsurgency is a manpower intensive strategy which requires broadened time horizons, and that it is the approach that will finally correct previous missteps made in Afghanistan. Hastings writes, “COIN … is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military’s preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states.”
He states that counterinsurgency has “quickly gained a hardcore following of think-tankers, journalists, military officers and civilian officials. Nicknamed ‘COINdinistas’ for their cultish zeal, this influential cadre believed the doctrine would be the perfect solution for Afghanistan.”
Critics of Counterinsurgency
While counterinsurgency has gained a large following there is nonetheless growing dissatisfaction with the strategy within the military. Soldiers at the squad and platoon level have begun to chafe at what is perceived to be overly restrictive rules of engagement. Additionally, counterinsurgency has become a target for critics like George Will, Col. Gian Gentile and Andrew J. Bacevich. These detractors have pointed out contradictions and weaknesses related to a counterinsurgency approach to foreign policy and also how it is implemented in combat. To these critics, counterinsurgency is a foolhardy commitment that weakens America, because it invests too greatly in regions which America will be unlikely to recoup its costs, and also because it weakens the nation’s ability to wage conventional wars.
In September 2009, Mr. Will, the columnist, wrote that it was “time to get out of Afghanistan,” and that counterinsurgency was an impossible mission. “The U.S. strategy is ‘clear, hold and build.’ Clear? Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how…”
The counterinsurgency proponents point to Iraq and the Iraq surge as examples of the ability of counterinsurgency to revolutionize war and a host nation’s society. To these counterinsurgency proponents, the narrative of the Iraq surge goes: America increases its troop presence, troops adopt the idea of winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, and Americans help Iraqis rebuild their country. Colonel Gentile, a history professor at West Point, writes that this narrative suffers from numerous and irreparable defects.
“Its reading of the past … grounded in the cliché that ‘hearts and minds’ program ‘won’ the war in Vietnam, is a self-serving fiction. Its version of the more recent past and even the present is contrived and largely fanciful, relying on a distorted version of both to tell a tale in which U.S. forces triumphed in Iraq in 2007 and did so despite the misguided efforts of their predecessors even a year before. More than anything else, the surge narrative stakes a claim on the future, instructing us that its methods of counterinsurgency will be uniquely suited to the next war and to the one after that.”
The Ugly American That Is Counterinsurgency
This narrative of counterinsurgency coming to the rescue of Iraq and the U.S. military not only places an undue emphasis on its supposedly transformative effect, but it is also an ugly American narrative that heavily discounts the role of Iraqis in saving their own country. The military troop surge, while important, could not have changed conditions on the ground were it not for the Sunni awakening, the reconciliation of Sunnis and Shias, and the decision by the average Iraqi to renounce violence in an try to steer his country away from anarchy.
On several occasions during the Iraq surge, leaders in my battalion gradually became aware that the Iraqis perhaps understood the American military better than the other way around. We believed at first that we had an unparalleled understanding of our neighborhoods and of the Iraqis who lived within them. The soldiers in the battalion patrolled its assigned neighborhoods continuously and at one point there was an attempt to document every Iraqi family in our assigned sector through fingerprinting and iris scans. Many gradually realized that not only were we collecting intelligence on them, but they were also observing our activities and collecting intelligence on United States military plans and operations. In fact, some soldiers commented that gradually it dawned on them that perhaps their understanding of Iraqis was vastly surpassed by the Iraqi people’s understanding of the American military.
Ultimately, we realized our knowledge of the area while vast was incomplete. In fact, in some cases, our unit found out that quite often the Iraqis we dealt with, like the Concerned Local Citizens or Iraqi Security Volunteers, were the ones playing us as a means to an end. Occasionally we would discover after talking to adjacent United States military units that we had been duped on who the actual power brokers in the area were. Moreover, soldiers often found it disconcerting when supposed allies such as CLCs, Iraqi Police or Iraqi Army soldiers suddenly get on their cell phones during a patrol. There was an ill feeling that perhaps many of the battalion’s missions were jeopardized because Iraqis with differing agendas had alerted other Iraqis who were aligned with their tribe, sect or cause.
The whole time we thought that it was us who were pushing the Iraqis toward peace and stability, but we gradually realized that it was they who were subtly shaping the regional landscape to their own means. They seemed to be already making plans for our eventual departure, and beneath the veneer of enforced peace was a mad jockeying of power, weapons and money between differing groups of Iraqis.
With our money and Western know-how, we were supposed to be guiding them toward a better peace. But behind their subservient front was a canniness, subtlety and understanding that they were the real power brokers and, in some cases, puppet masters. With our counterinsurgency mind-set, we initially came thinking that we knew where the pieces had to move to strengthen security and governance. But when we left, we realized that they were the chess masters and that we were only moving pieces to squares that they had designed all along.
Counterinsurgency presupposes the idea that America and its military can adopt and understand a culture in a blink of an eye. A belief that a region steeped with thousands of years of culture and custom can be remade in a few short years. Counterinsurgency is full of contradictions; for example, it requires the military to be both destroyer and creator. The military is not only expected to close with and destroy the enemy, it is now also responsible for building democratic institutions and providing essential services. Moreover, a basic assumption in counterinsurgency is that there is a legitimate partner in the process that sees eye to eye with Western ideals of progress. When theory meets reality, the United States finds itself tied to partners whose goals are divergent with American ideas of progress or democratic ideals.
It is often remarked that counterinsurgency is one step backward and two steps forward. This is the case if the United States has a partner in reconstructing a nation, but what if the partner is one which actually undermines American and coalition plans? Three steps backward with only one step forward?
Counterinsurgency missions are also hard to train. The military knows how to train on conventional tactical missions like raids, traffic control points, logistical resupplies and platoon level missions. But just how does one train a force for a counterinsurgency mission? How does one inculcate into soldiers a desire to win the hearts and minds of the local populace? Just how does one train the skills necessary to rebuild a nation? How does one train platoon leaders and company commanders to assume leadership of a region? Should the military focus less on military skills training such as marksmanship and first aid and more on areas related to counterinsurgency like agricultural development, electricity, water purification and rule of law?
Counterinsurgency is simply too undefined of a mission, and a mission set that in some cases can never be attained. Worse yet, it is a military mission which is difficult to impossible for the military to fully prepare, tailor, and train itself towards. Not only is COIN a mission too big for the military and for the nation to commit to, but it is also, according to Colonel Gentile, eroding the Army’s ability to wage a conventional war as core military skills in armor and field artillery have atrophied since the Army has become focused on counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency Is an Overly Ambitious Foreign Policy
Professor Bacevich, an international relations expert at Boston University, attacks counterinsurgency from a strategic and moral vantage point. He argues that counterinsurgency is a naïve and unwarranted belief in the ability to export Western values and institutions. Professor Bacevich believes that counterinsurgency is an outgrowth of the the neoconservative movement and the ability of America’s foreign policy, primarily military, to change and alter the history, traditions, and cultures of other nations. According to Professor Bacevich, when COIN is “stripped to its essentials … [it] is a call for Western-engineered nation building on a stupendous scale.” He said that instead of the all-or-nothing approach of counterinsurgency, the United States should move away from grand strategic designs that require COIN and settle instead on and settle on containment.
“Containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy. Ours is the far stronger hand. The jihadist project is entirely negative. Apart from offering an outlet for anger and resentment, Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk have nothing on offer. Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die — unless through our own folly we choose to destroy ourselves first.”
In the past few years, proponents of counterinsurgency have assured its detractors that counterinsurgency is America’s Balm of Gilead, a cure for America’s foreign policy that currently pesters America in countries like Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. While COIN has ridden a wave of popularity since the Iraq surge, there is a growing dissatisfaction amongst people inside and outside the military with counterinsurgency. In the long run, the real victim of Mr. Hastings’s Rolling Stone article might not be General McChrystal but counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency is the military’s equivalent of the financial sector’s relationship with collateralized debt obligation, or CDOs. In the past few years, financial and military leaders have embraced complexity and believed that uncertainty and complexity if properly managed and monitored could be controlled. Both COIN and CDOs have proponents who believe in taking giant risks in endeavors because of their belief in the triumph of intelligence and motivation over chaos and uncertainty. Animal spirits exist not only in the financial realm, but also in the military. Clausewitz labeled these animal spirits as uncertainty while soldiers today call it Murphy’s Law.
Counterinsurgency, like collateralized debt obligation, has led the military to a boom, and perhaps, it is also leading the military to a bust.