There has been, for years, an ongoing debate in the defense and national security community over the proper place of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine in the repertoire of the United States military and in our national strategy. While a sizable number of serious scholars, strategists, journalists and officers have been deeply involved, the bitter discussion characterized as “COINdinista vs. Big War crowd” debate is epitomized by the exchanges between two antagonists, both lieutenant colonels with PhD’s, John Nagl, a leading figure behind the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual and now president of the powerhouse think tank CNAS , and Gian Gentile, professor of history at West Point and COIN’s most infamous arch-critic.
In terms of policy and influence, the COINdinistas ultimately carried the day. COIN advocates moved from a marginalized mafia of military intellectuals who in 2004 were just trying to get a hearing from an indifferent Rumsfeld Pentagon, to policy conquerors as the public’s perceptions of the “Surge” in Iraq (masterminded by General David Petraeus, Dr. Frederick Kagan, General Jack Keane and a small number of collaborators) allowed the evolution of a COIN-centric, operationally oriented, “Kilcullen Doctrine” to emerge across two very different administrations.
Critics like Colonel Gentile and Andrew Bacevich began to warn, along with dovish liberal pundits – and with some exaggeration – that COIN theory was achieving a “cult” status that was usurping the time, money, talent and attention that the military should be devoting to traditional near peer rival threats. And furthermore, ominously, COIN fixation was threatening to cause the U.S. political class (especially Democrats) to be inclined to embark upon a host of half-baked, interventionist “crusades“in Third world quagmires.
Informed readers who follow defense community issues knew that many COIN expert-advocates such as Nagl, Col. David Kilcullen, Andrew Exum and others had painstakingly framed the future application of COIN by the United States in both minimalist and “population-centric” terms, averse to all but the most restrictive uses of “hard” counterterrorism tactics like the use of predator drones for the “targeted assassinations” of al Qaida figures hiding in Pakistan.
Unfortunately for the COINdinistas, as George Kennan discovered to his dismay, to father a doctrine does not mean that you can control how others interpret and make use of it. As the new Obama administration and its new commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal conducted its internally contentious review of “AfPak” policy in 2009 on what seemed a geological time scale, the administration’s most restless foreign policy bigwig, the Talleyrand of Dayton, proposed using COIN as nation-building on steroids to re-create Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan as the secure, centralized, state that it has never been. Public reaction to this trial balloon was poor and the administration ultimately pared down General McChrystal’s troop request to 30,000 men, hedging a COIN based strategy toward policy suggestions made by Vice-President Biden.
So, COIN still reigns supreme, albeit with trimmed sails?
We are forgetting something important about the ascendancy of COIN. It was not accepted by a reluctant Pentagon and the Bush administration because COIN is a very effective operational tool in the right strategic context – although that is certainly true. Nor was it because the advocates of COIN were brilliant policy architects and advocates – though most of them are. COIN became the order of the day for three reasons:
1) The “Big Army, fire the artillery, fly B-52s and Search & Destroy=counterinsurgency” approach proved to be tactically and strategically bankrupt in Iraq. It failed in Mesopotamia as it failed in the Mekong Delta under Westmoreland – except worse and faster. Period.
2) The loudest other alternative to COIN at the time, the antiwar demand, mostly from Leftwing extremists, of immediately bugging-out of Iraq, damn the consequences, was not politically palatable even for moderately liberal Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans.
3) The 2006 election results were a political earthquake that forced the Bush administration to change policy in Iraq for its own sheer political survival. COIN was accepted only because it represented a life preserver for the Bush administration.
We have just had another such political earthquake. The administration is now but one more electoral debacle away from having the president be chased in Benny Hill fashion all over the White House lawn by enraged Democratic officeholders scared out of their wits of losing their seats next November.
Republican Scott Brown, the winner in a stunning upset in Massachusett’s special election for Senator, certainly had no intention of undermining President Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan. To the contrary, he is for it in a far more muscular manner than was his hapless Democratic opponent. But that’s irrelevant. What matters is that in all the recent elections, Democrats have been clobbered by a “Revolt of the Moderates” – socially liberal, fiscally conservative, independent voters who came out in 2008 for Obama and are now shifting radically away from him. For the next year, politicians of both parties will be competing hard for this bloc which means “deficit hawks” will soar higher than defense hawks.
America’s nine year drunken sailor spending spree is officially over.
Defense experts have long known that the post-9/11, record DoD budget expenditures were not going to be politically sustainable forever and that either a drawdown of combat operations or cancellation of very big, very complicated and supremely expensive weapons platforms or some combination of both would eventually be needed. That eventuality is here and will increase in intensity over the next five years, barring an unexpected economic boom. Spending $60 billion annually on Afghanistan, a nation with a GDP of roughly $20 billion, for the next 7 years, is not going to be in the cards. Not at a time of 10% unemployment, when the Congress will be forced to cut Medicare, education, veterans’ benefits, eliminate COLAs on Social Security or raise the retirement age and income taxes. Who is going to want to “own” an ambitious “nation-building” program at election time?
There is a silver lining here. Really.
COIN is an excellent operational tool, brought back by John Nagl & co. from the dark oblivion that Big Army partisans consigned it to cover up their own strategic failures in Vietnam. As good as COIN is, though, it is not something akin to magic with which to work policy miracles or to substitute for America not having a cohesive and realistic grand strategy. Remaking Afghanistan into France or Japan on the Hindu Kush is beyond the scope of what COIN can accomplish. Or any policy. Or any president. Never mind Obama, Superman, Winston Churchill and Abe Lincoln rolled into one could not make that happen.
Association with grandiosely maximalist goals would only serve to politically discredit COIN when the benchmarks to paradise ultimately proved unreachable. Austerity will scale them back to the bounds of reality and perhaps a more modest, decentralized, emphasis. COIN will then become a normal component of military capabilities and training instead of alternating between pariah and rock-star status inside the DoD.
Austerity may also force – finally – the USG to get serious about thinking in terms of comprehensive and coherent DIME-integrated national strategy (Ok – this is more of a hope on my part). Instead of having every agency and service going off in its own direction with strategic nuclear arms reductions being proposed out of context from our conventional military obligations and urgent security threats we might stop and look at how the two fit together. And how these should be in sync with our fiscal and monetary policies and our need to deeply invest in and improve our unsteady economic position in a very competitive, globalized world. The latter is of much greater strategic importance to national security than Afghanistan or whether or not Israel and Hezbollah fight another mini-war.
We are all COINdinistas now. Instead of being controversial, COIN having a secure place in our operational arsenal of ideas has become the new “conventional” wisdom; it is past time to look at some of the other serious challenges America has ahead.