WPR: “Counterinsurgency in the Post-COIN Era”

Summary:  A special issue of World Politics Review reveals the key problems facing the US military.  They provide little meaningful analysis, let alone solutions.  But these articles provide a start for the necessary reevaluation of our fantastically expensive military, foundation for our mad and unprofitable empire.

Counterinsurgency in the Post-COIN Era“, Special Feature Report of the World Politics Review, 24 January 2012 — Subscribers only (well worth the money for anyone in terested in geopolitics).

The Obama administration’s recently released Defense Strategic Guidance has officially brought the COIN era to a close. But debates over counterinsurgency’s accomplishments in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as its role in America’s future national security posture show no sign of letting up. Steven Metz, Bing West, Michael Mazarr, Crispin Burke and Andrew Exum examine lessons learned and the path ahead for COIN.

These articles are well worth reading.  They show signs of learning from our decade of experience with counter-insurgency.  But their oddities are more interesting, with their myopia or disinterest about critical aspects of US national security policy.

  1. Ignorance, even disinterest, in history (described by Colin S. Grey (Prof Strategic Studies, U Reading) in Nuclear Strategy and the National Style (1986).  Especially the dismal history of COIN by foreign armies against local insurgents (details here).
  2. No expression of surprise that we’re re-learning lessons about COIN previously learned from the Philippines and Vietnam Wars (our failure to retain dearly-bought lessons is among our most serious problems).
  3. No expression of surprise that we’re learning lessons that should have been obvious from the start, or interest in why we didn’t see these things before our latest COIN.
  4. The domestic roots of US foreign policy (typical of imperial powers, and a contributor to their decay).
  5. Little interest in the accurate description of threats to the US.
  6. The priority given to institutional preservation in a world lack sufficient threats to justify current DoD funding.

(1)  Counterinsurgency and American Strategy, Past and Future” by Steven Metz (Prof, US Army War College) — Excerpt:

The most important thing the United States learned — or relearned — over the past decade is that counterinsurgency is extraordinarily difficult and expensive, and its outcome is seldom decisive, unambiguous or fully satisfying. It is important to distinguish here between counterinsurgency support, where a functioning government and security apparatus exist but have shortcomings of some sort that allow an insurgency to coalesce, and counterinsurgency, where the US is, for some period of time, the dominant player as it attempts to create or recreate a state.

Why did we need to re-learn something so well proven by dozens of failed attempts by foreign armies around the world?

Ultimately, American involvement in counterinsurgency requires that the United States either be willing to re-engineer a flawed system — something that takes decades of expensive, intensive involvement and even then may prove impossible — or be willing to accept an outcome that looks nothing like victory in the traditional sense and which may give the United States little additional security. Neither seems likely, especially since at the broad strategic level, the benefits of large-scale counterinsurgency are seldom worth the costs. … Now the US has relearned just how difficult and expensive swamp-draining is. While counterinsurgency might be an effective part of a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, it is one of the least efficient imaginable.

Nicely said.

As we have learned over the past decade, the U.S. military, the intelligence community and, to an extent, other government agencies can adapt to counterinsurgency as well as any in history. While critics sometimes deride the slowness with which the U.S. military adapted to counterinsurgency in Iraq between 2003 and 2005, no military has ever done it better and quicker.

Nobody can retain their status as a serious American geopolitical expert without the ritualistic profession that “We’re number one!”  No evidence need be given, of course.

In the meantime, counterinsurgency support is likely to remain an important part of U.S. strategy. The challenge for the U.S. military, particularly the Army, will be retaining the ability to advise and train partners while avoiding any trade-off in war-fighting capability during a time of downsizing. The Army will probably be able to manage when it comes to supporting functioning partner militaries, but it might be hard-pressed to create a partner military from scratch, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nicely said.

In the broadest sense, the U.S. military must find a way to mothball its counterinsurgency capability rather than abandoning it outright. If done with skill, this will enable the United States to revive its counterinsurgency skills if they are needed again.

Quite realistic.  Let’s mothball our capability — without learning anything about why it failed — since in another generation or two we will repeat our mistakes of the past decade.

(2)  Counterinsurgency: A New Doctrine’s Fading Allure“, by Bing West (former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine. He has embedded more than two dozen times with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. His most recent book is The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan) — Excerpt:

The first page of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ Field Manual 3-24, “Counterinsurgency,” states, “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.”

A great start, quoting the most preposterous sentence ever written in a US military field manual.  That people didn’t laugh shows our delusional hubris.

Academia and the mainstream press applauded the military’s enlightenment. Normally intended for officers preparing to lead forces in combat, the COIN manual became the first military field manual to be reviewed positively by a Harvard professor in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. The military, which heretofore had enjoyed predominantly conservative support, was now feted by liberal commentators as well.

A powerful observation.  The militant American public puts the Left at a disadvantage, so they lust for wars they can support.  Good wars.  Which our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were, for a long time.

(3)  COIN: The End of the Diversion” by Michael J. Mazarr (Prof at the National War College) — Excerpt:

But if COIN is no longer considered the future of U.S. military operations, what definitive lessons, if any, have we learned from its decade of prominence?

For one thing, we know that outsiders can’t run a successful COIN campaign on behalf of the local government. Insurgencies and uprisings are best dealt with by the host government fighting the war largely by itself, while receiving aid, training and some special operators — or relatively small numbers of troops — from outside sponsors. This is what happened in the Philippines (especially in the 1940s – 1950s), El Salvador and Colombia. However, if the war goes badly, the sponsor is often unable to keep itself from taking over the fight and throwing its armies into the fray. This is what happened in Afghanistan (both the Soviet and American versions), Vietnam and, for a while, Iraq.

Once there, the outside power quickly goes about the task of trying to build up the local army and police, but it soon finds itself faced with crippling dilemmas. One is the “dependency syndrome”: With the sponsor fighting the war, the host government has little incentive to commit itself to reforms. A second dilemma is the “occupier syndrome”: The overpowering bulk of heavily armed units, street-clogging convoys and land-obscuring bases inexorably transforms the outside power from a protector into a dominating occupier. Before long, its presence offends national pride and leads even the political leaders on whose behalf the sponsor is shedding blood to repeatedly condemn its operations.

A final dilemma in the interventionist version of COIN is that military force turns out to be both necessary and destructive to success. To beat a guerrilla force, it is essential to make enemy combatants feel oppressed and vulnerable — so hounded, in fact, that they cannot imagine persisting in their cause for even another week. This punishment vector is where militaries are most comfortable, as we see in the “night raids” in Afghanistan. But although these raids appear to have a powerful effect, the perception that we are killing our way to victory alienates local public opinion. Current U.S. doctrine’s emphasis on population protection, economic development and community outreach suggests that, when faced with the choice, the counterinsurgent should favor popular opinion over kinetic effects. But in practice, the choice is never as clear-cut as that.

Meanwhile, military pressure alone, no matter how it is applied, cannot resolve insurgencies, which are, as Douglas Ollivant has written about Iraq, “fundamentally a political problem that the U.S. lack[s] the capability to resolve” from the outside.

… It suggests that a leading priority for U.S. defense policy must be to figure out how to manage continuing threats in a “post-COIN world,” while building new models for promoting U.S. interests in unstable contexts: in Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan as U.S. troops draw down; when we are threatened with terrorism; when a friendly government is imperiled by insurgents.

In the absence of large-scale counterinsurgency, what do we do? The contours of an energetic alternative are easily imaginable: expanded training missions; continued emphasis on special operators as partners for friends in trouble; drone strikes and special forces raids against high-value terror targets; and a serious, mature effort to build a truly effective civilian assistance and capacity-building program, which, amazingly after a decade of expeditionary wars, we cannot remotely claim to possess.

Nicely said.  But this requires a far smaller military than we have today.  That’s the unspoken dilemma on which US defense policy has become hopelessly broken.

(4)  Like It or Not, Small Wars Will Always Be Around” by Crispin Burke (Major, US Army) — Excerpt:

But despite the temptation to avoid future interventions, contingencies don’t always conform to strategic theory. Like it or not, manpower-intensive stability missions have a peculiar way of finding us. Indeed, America has repeatedly tried to swear off large-scale interventions, to little avail.

This is a child’s excuse.  These things just keep happening!  Why does the US military, vastly larger than required to fight any combination of actual enemies, find itself repeatedly engaged in pointless manpower-intensive missions?  Fortunately for the Major’s career, he veers off to discuss other subjects.

Counterinsurgency, to its detriment, was also reduced to caricatures invoking the winning of hearts and minds (see “Easter Uprisings” by Carl Prine at Line of Departure, 23 April 2011).” Despite the cliché’s shortcomings, it has one important benefit: It makes war more palatable [see “Literacy As a Matter of Life and Death“, William B. Caldwell, IV (Lt Gen, US Army), Huffington Post, 13 September 2010] to domestic audiences.

Again we touch upon the great but hidden truth: the point of our military is to justify its existence.  Threats are imagined (missile gap, bomber gap, al Qaeda’s global power) and wars fought with the primary goal of institutional self-preservation.

(5)  Amid COIN Debate, U.S. Army Struggles to Find Its Way” by Andrew Exum (Captain, US Army, retired; now with the Center for a New American Security) — Excerpt:

The arguments against counterinsurgency have not changed: It does not work; it is too expensive; it should not be executed by conventional forces; the historical data suggesting its success is flawed; it prioritizes tactics at the expense of strategy; and the resources devoted to training military organizations to fight counterinsurgency campaigns erode the skills required to fight other campaigns.

Exum alone of all these experts dates state the obvious.  Fortunately he immediately turns away from these unpleasant realities into pleasant myths.

Many — though not all — of these claims have some merit. Counterinsurgency, when one has the option, is indeed best executed by special operations forces rather than general-purpose forces. And the success rate for counterinsurgency campaigns fought on behalf of a host nation, as the United States has done in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, has never been very high. But contemporary U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine was developed as a pragmatic response to the maelstrom of violence in Iraq in 2005.

… And despite the many claims of its demise (see “COIN is Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics” by Gian P. Gentile, WPR, 22 November 2011), counterinsurgency is not dead — far from it. This is in part because insurgency itself remains stubbornly alive. More than 80% of the conflicts fought since the end of the Napoleonic Era have been civil wars or insurgencies. And although recent scholarship suggests the means used to fight civil wars since the end of the Cold War have been increasingly conventional in nature, it is safe to assume that armies will continue to be called upon to counter insurgencies long after the United States ceases military operations in Afghanistan.
The U.S. military understands this reality,

It might not work, but since insurgencies exist we will continue to add to the long history of failed attempts by foreign armies to defeat them.

And it was only natural that, as the United States began to draw down its operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, the American people and their legislators would ask why, exactly, the United States needs to maintain so many ground forces? Surely we are not considering occupying yet another country?
Unforgivably, the U.S. Army has no answer to those questions. … Unlike in the years after the Vietnam War, for example, today’s Army does not have a clear threat against which it can plan.

… Two mission areas are certain to see growth: direct-action special operations and security-force assistance. But special operations will remain the preserve of highly selective units operating jointly.

… the broader issue for the U.S. Army is that no one has the slightest idea how the Army should fit into any strategy currently being considered by America’s political leadership. And if the Army does not come up with one soon, mothballing counterinsurgency doctrine and training will be the least of its worries.

Exum confronts the great threat which obsesses the Dept of Defense.  On that note the WPR special issue ends, with the same problem DoD faced in 2000.

For more information: about COIN

Other posts about COIN

  1. More paths to failure in Iraq, 16 December 2006 — Myths about COIN in Iraq
  2. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  3. No coins, no COIN, 6 October 2008
  4. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  5. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  6. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard.  She examines the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  7. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010

3 thoughts on “WPR: “Counterinsurgency in the Post-COIN Era”

  1. I’ll add this quote of Col. John Boyd’s, since it states the matter explicitly:

    “People say the Pentagon does not have a strategy. They are wrong. It does have a strategy. It is: Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.”

  2. Forget counterinsurgency. What’s always more important to adaptive rate are healthy methods for counter-stupid-policy.

    We have exploding group options, and drastically need to accelerate our rate of exploring them.

    Maybe call it Counterludditency?

  3. I’d just like to say the biggest problem America faces in respect to its military, is that it takes it far to seriously for a democracy.
    Take a leaf from the other democracies around the world, cut backs, cut backs, cut backs.
    Take the military out of the limelight, no more bags of cash and fancy aircraft carriers, that only serves to feed the ego.
    Pretty soon the military will assume the hounded and persecuted posture considered normal in the rest of the west, where rear Admirals peer fearfully from between fingers during defense reviews.
    Like this whole Coin thing is ridiculous, since when does anyone care how the military fights in a given situation, the British are in the same position (actually worse as they and not as well equipped) but those guys don’t spend gallons of in non military publications about the wonders of their brand of fighting/hugging. They mostly sit around and talk among themselves about what works and doesn’t, this doesn’t seem to happen in the states, where there are two factions(!) fighting it out in public about the merits of hugging /fighting. In the rest of the world this would be a issue to resolve internally within the military.
    Its just weird, the whole deal is down right odd viewed from the perspective of everywhere else…

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