Friday, June 24, 2011

Is COIN dead?

That's the contention of this piece in The National Journal, which runs with the subtitle "It isn't just people who are dying in Afghanistan. So is an entire concept of war." Michael Hirsh and Jamie Tarabay give a thorough accounting of the way the so-called "COIN narrative" has played out in policy discussions, but they fail to prove the contention that counterinsurgency's time has come and gone.

I'm not going to go into this in depth right now, because I'm on vacation (at least for 36 more hours). I've stayed away from Twitter and blogs for a week, and I didn't even listen to the president's speech on Wednesday. But consider for just a second what COINdinistas Dave Barno and Peter Mansoor's very different arguments tell us about counterinsurgency's place in America's future approach to warfighting. Here's Mansoor:
[T]here's not going to be any stomach in the United States for this kind of thing going forward... We're going to shy away from regime change or these really large-scale counterinsurgency conflicts. That's why you see, in Libya, the reluctance of the Obama administration to do more than what they're doing.
And here's Barno:
You're never [going] to see a conventional war ever again that doesn't not [sic] have a very robust irregular component to it. [Nice editing, NJ.]
What's missing from both men's vision of the future is any discussion of regime change -- narrowly-focused conventional warfighting missions -- absent a post-war cleanup: stability operations and counterinsurgency. The debate about Libya has been characterized by a decided reluctance on almost all sides to commit American military power to the acknowledged aim of ending Qaddafi's rule. Why should this be so? We have the tools at hand to kill Qaddafi, to destroy his army, to target the regime's resources and infrastructure and to make life very, very difficult for what remains of the government in Tripoli. Why won't we use them? The answer is simple: because we can scarcely conceive of using force to achieve our military objectives without then making an effort to shape outcomes in the postwar period. (I know of no individual, even among proponents of regime change, who believe that U.S. involvement should or can begin and end with the regime's destruction.) We can't even imagine a world where breaking it does not mean also buying it.

Of course, preventive or punitive raiding will always be a part of the spectrum of possible response to threat and provocation, but this has meaningful consequences: we must either accept that the security challenges of the future will be less amenable to solution with the military instrument, or we must struggle to retain (or one day regain) our appetite for expensive, time-consuming, manpower-intensive irregular conflict.


  1. It's especially hard to imagine a world where COIN exits stage left in US military plans, doctrine, and (even) training given the fact that an entire generation of company grade officers cut their teeth practicing COIN on multiple combat deployments, some before their battalion commanders even knew what COIN meant. I find it hard to believe that my contemporaries will simply dump this knowledge into the trash because some generals and politicians say that we shouldn't do COIN.

    After all, we know better than anyone that just because the leadership says we shouldn't perform certain tasks (i.e. nation building, COIN, etc.) doesn't mean that those same leaders won't turn around and ask you to do just that.

    An entire decade of soldiers and Marines are practitioners of COIN. It's not going away just because the National Journal says so.

  2. The post Vietnam experience disagrees with you, sir.

    Granted we lack the spur of a Soviet Union Fulda Gap scenario, but there's always China to be frightened of.

    Moreover, I think Libya represents something of a specialized case, more like Kosovo (where ground troops were also seen as a bridge too far) than anything else.

  3. I think a large part of the problem is the changing role of regime change in US grand strategy.

    For a long time, we were pretty much happy with shuffling around the elites, putting "our bastard" in power, and maintaining enough of the state's organizational capacity that it would be the promise, rather than the presence, of American troops that generally kept things going.

    We don't do coups anymore. We don't do conditional surrenders. We don't just change the regime, we liquidate as much of its bureaucracy and security capability as we can.

    As long as we still think we can't wage a war with a regime and leave it standing, or that we can't change leadership without a brand shiny new democracy, we will end up doing COIN and nation-building again.

  4. I think there are three scenarios. The first is that the military decides COIN is likely to recur, and therefore prepares for it. The second is that the military decides COIN is likely to recur, but is too onerous to conduct, and therefore chooses not to prepare for it.

    The third is, simply, that the military decides COIN is unlikely to recur, and therefore chooses not to prepare for it. One variable is whether the military considers COIN likely to recur. Another variable is how "the military" "decides," as obviously there is no singular military. More importantly, there is the matter of, first, civilian intervention. It may not matter, per se, what the military decides - change (or continuity) may be forced upon it. Finally, what internal variables - e.g., desire for budget shares, desire to stay relevant,* machinations of promotion boards - determine how a military behaves?


    * I'm thinking of the WSJ article Starbuck/WOI posted from the WSJ.

  5. ADTS,

    We would normally say that the US military does not make the policy. Instead, we simply follow the policy of our civilian masters; however, I think that there is sufficient evidence that in the post-Cold War era the military has driven the bus through our hypothetical encouragements of better war. Sometimes air power; sometimes what you're calling COIN. This so called COIN is regime changed followed by stability operations. It's semi-colonialism, pseudo-occupation, and I'm not using those terms in a bad sense just trying to describe what we did. Either way, we've used primarily military might to try and promote democracy and capitalism abroad.

    I'm going to test my idea that we've strived for the better war in the past two decades in an upcoming book review. If I'm correct, then we're going to see a shift to push for a better peace in the next decade.

    However, what happens if Iraq implodes in the next decade after we leave? I continue to look at Diyala Province, an area where grievances and emotions run high. In my opinion, it's even more important that we understand what we did, learn from our past, and determine a better way.

  6. Mike:

    PART I

    I was thinkiing of Posen, "The Sources of Military Doctrine" with respect to "civilian intervention" - e.g., the RAF pre-WW II preferred to prepare for bombing rather than on building an integrated air defense system, until the civilians forced the task upon them (if one is to accept Posen's account). Maybe, for example, the military may wish to refrain from COIN in the years to come, and the civilians will refuse to let them; or conversely, the military may wish to maintain COIN in the years to come, and the civilians will refuse to let them. And, of course, there's nothing that says the military and the civilian leadership - itself dichotomized between the Executive and Congress - can't find themselves in fundamental agreement over ends and means.

    I think "The executive policy determines what to do, the military determines how to do" is largely, but far from completely accurate. The military can, for example, footdrag and utilize its other various institutional advantages (e.g., being the most respected institution in the US) to achieve its goals (e.g., say, being obstructionist about embarking on a war). The military is extremely powerful in that in many ways, blogs and think tanks and civilian oversight (executive and congressional) notwithstanding, it holds a near-monopoly on knowledge (very broadly construed) related to things military. My point, though, was and is that this is in some ways a two-player game (at minimum).

    I was also really trying to expose a few variables. The first is, does the military react to external threats or internal organizational dynamics? In the post-VN rejection of COIN (if that is what accepts occurred), there was the factor of a competing demand, e.g., the Soviet Union Fulda Gap scenario. Here, while there might well be a reprise of the Israel Hezbollah 2006 conflict, it is unclear whether any existential threat currently exists. Absent such an external stimulus, it remains far more ambiguous as to whether the military will choose to reorient itself, and in what direction. In a way, the military will get to define its environment for itself.


  7. Mike:


    The second variable is organizational behavior. Assuming organizational behavior is important, and may be at cross purposes at times with the external environment, what dynamics of organizational behavior are relevant? Again, I thought Starbuck/WOI's WSJ link about the future of the USMC was instructive. It's an example of an organization trying to ensure it is not marginalized or made irrelevant. It is defining its environment. Another thought that comes to mind is money. Given shrinking budgets, what strategies are most advantageous for the services? Similarly, if organizations perpetuate themselves via their people, toward whom are promotion boards now biased?

    Simply put, what does the military try to maximize, and in this particular instance, exactly how will it display maximizing behavior?

    I think your observation about Iraq imploding is an acute one. Needless to say, one would like a COIN doctrine to have a more lasting effect than such an implosion would imply. I wonder whether the emotional salience of an event like that occurring would serve to point the need toward a new COIN doctrine. Presumably, yes. But then again, if everyone's attention is focused elsewhere by then, the prospect of an implosion creating a perceived need for a new COIN doctrine is much less.

    Your point about COIN really being post-regime change SASO is also a good one. Here one, I suppose, gets into the terminological and conceptual overlapping between competing acronyms. I, for one, agree that that's a fair descriptor of what has occurred. I am trying to think of a case of "pure" COIN and "pure" SASO, and the cases I'm thinking of (VN, contemporary Philippines) have FID and/or SFA attaching as well. As for promoting democracy and capitalism abroad, are you arguing that those are the reasons we've brought about regime change? Or rather, as I think might be the case, that when we do engage in "foreign entanglements" and do happen to employ our COIN doctrine, we happen to try and promote democracy and capitalism as part of it?


  8. ADTS, we've covered a lot of ground in the last three posts. I don't have an immediate answer or reply, but I'm left with two questions,

    1. What do we want the world to be like in 50 years?

    2. What is the proper structure for our foreign policy arm (DIME-FL) needed to achieve these aims?

    Looking back at the early 1990's writings, I'm not sure any of those thinkers would be happy with the way the world turned out twenty years after the Berlin Wall falling down.

  9. Mike:

    Good questions all and alas I am bereft of easy, or at least good, answers. My answer to number 1) started to sound like a politician's speech, so I'll discard it. Fortunately, I think the following does actually touch, in a way, on force structure, although I have to confess ignorance to the -FL modifier to the DIME acronym. Hence, apologies in advance, for the following will probably be somewhat of a stream of consciousness.

    I think the big question is, do we prepare ourselves for, and define the world in terms of, state-centric threats or non-state actors, and what weight do we assign to the components of national power, i.e., DIME? This determines whether one should concentrate on the rise of China or the rise of drug cartels, say. The last ten years have been spent fighting conflicts that, while I won't say weren't prepared for or anticipated, were not on the agenda of traditional or major IR theory, which is state- and great power-centric. Hence there may be an absent dominant theoretical perspective in the academy today by which to understand what is actually occurring in the world at present. That isn't to say there aren't scholars who haven't, especially over the last decade, done nice work on counterinsurgency or insurgency or non-state actors generally speaking. It is to say, rather, that there is no dominant, paradigmatic magnum opus that consolidates ideas about non-state actors and non-state-centric theories of international politics in a coherent and expansive way.

    Yet even international relations as it is, rather than as one might want it to be, remains relevant. Tom Ricks's blog today, about how much the services' budgets will be cut, quickly became a discussion of the rise of China. I consider myself, probably, an offensive realist (states are never content with the status quo). Yet even I was struck by how blithely commenters - and I read that those who read blogs are either in the top 10% or top 1% (!) of the population in terms of staying abreast of the news etc - imputed ill intentions to China and its rise. So maybe the tilt I had in my last paragraph - toward a non-state-centric theory of international politics - is unwarranted, or at least needs to be modulated. Although one could interpret what I read, and wrote, differently: I'm emphasizing aspects of national power other than "E." Why, ceterius paribus, should I be dismissive of Chinese-US economic relations?

    I'm still struck of when I was in college at UChicago, and took John Mearsheimer's "Great Power Politics" class (prior to his book being published). I distinctly recall him saying - having no predilection, of course, that 9/11 would occur, but nevertheless remembering the guffaw - that "Islamic fundamentalism - now there's a threat." If only I had a tape recorder. And I can't think of Mearsheimer without thinking of him and his "Back to the Future" (Europe is war-prone absent a bipolar world). He has his caveats and sticks to them, but I find it hard to think that his prediction has been disconfirmed: it's been 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell, and Europe has not gone to war with itself, even if the EU or EMU might be on shakier foundations.

    I'm curious, if you care to reply: what early 1990s writers or thinkers do you have in mind? The ones that come to mind are Fukuyama, "End;" Kaplan, "Coming Anarchy;" Huntington, "Clash;" and Mearsheimer, "Back." Since only Fukuyama predicted a relatively utopian future - and even this, as Richard Betts noted in a recent Foreign Affairs essay was a more subtly couched prediction than most realized - I'm not sure how disappointed in their predictions the remainder would be.


  10. I realized that my thoughts in the last comments were more from what I had remembered as feeling rather than what I had read. At the time, I had only read Huntington and Friedman. Over the last four years, I’ve read the theoretical constructs of both the neo-conservatives and liberals. My feelings were mostly framed from my economic studies at the time- 1. Greenspan is a God. 2. Because of the Internet revolution, the markets will never fail, 3. Capitalism has won. Obviously, I spent my twenties trying to understand why most of those assumptions were wrong. In 1998, I actually wrote a paper stating by 2010, the world would only have three currencies: dollar, euro, and the yen.

    Today, I wonder if Europe has replaced its political treaties of Pre-WWI with economic treaties that could dismantle just as easily in a crisis. China will have as many internal issues as their people prosper as they will have increased demand for natural resources. Mexico and the rise of the drug cartels, well I just don’t know.

    I honestly believe that in order to understand our place in the world, we must first understand ourselves and determine what we can and cannot control. This takes us back to where the post started.

    I appreciate the back and forth. I think that my next blog entry will try to tackle force structure.

  11. Mike:

    PART I

    I appreciate the back and forth as well. (Why else would I participate in it otherwise?)

    To answer your question head on: I think we control very, very little. We do not control the world around us very much (how much force does it take to alter governance structures in other lands?) and we are often stymied by the structures we ourselves have erected (i.e., form of government). Foreign policy is made for one rather than by one. The international system determines who one's potential adversaries and allies will be. The domestic political system - e.g., pork - determines what one's force structure will be. That is not entirely accurate. I like the quote from Bismarck that came at me after I posted previously, from the end of Kennedy's "Rise and Fall:" something like "We are adrift in the river of history, but we can still paddle." I am not a skilled poet, so excuse the sloppy metaphor, but I think the question is what is the strength and shape of the river, and how powerfully and well can one paddle?

    I agree with all your second paragraph entirely. The EMU and perhaps the EU could dismantle; whether China can survive a transition to capitalism without serious breakdown (Google "Murray Scott Tanner" and/or check his article on The Washington Quarterly website) is a very open question to me; and while I don't think the cartels present such significance as the prior two issues - I had raised them more as an illustration of a foreign policy problem that may be overlooked, or which the US may be ill-suited to handle - I concur that they do constitute a problem, and one whose future and possible resolution is ambiguous.

    My grouping of Kaplan, Huntington, and Mearsheimer was, I think, prompted by an old (as in mid-90s) Foreign Policy article comparing the three and concluding, in essence, "Cheer up, sport! It's not so gloomy." That said, I think the four of them (including Fukuyama) do put forth "big ideas," quite possibly *the* big ideas of that point in time.


  12. Mike:


    I had overlooked Friedman even though I liked "Lexus." I think in some ways, Friedman, not being an academic, is far too dismissive of academic literature in his opening. Yet at the same time, perhaps he is accordingly unencumbered by academic constraints and blinders. He may thus be more (implicitly) receptive to the idea of DIME and viewing a state's power in its totality, and to non-state-centric ideas as well.

    I think the 1990s were somewhat like the 1950s (or not?): a period when American power seemed unparalleled and invulnerable - once more, triumphant. Fukuyama's argument was, indeed, that there fundamentally was no superior alternative to liberal democracy toward which mankind would evolve in the future; in other words, this was as good as it was ever going to get. Moving away from Fukuyama, there were no states that were peer competitors and non-state actors failed to register as a threat. Perhaps in the absence of compelling or demanding "high politics" - i.e., security - a focus on "low politics" - i.e., economic and environmental issues, for example - was more natural.

    To return to my first paragraph (the one with the silly metaphor) and your overriding question, I think taking on force structure is a heroic task. To me, there are just too many variables. Ten years ago, the news about Bush's foreign policy revolved around his handling of a downed EP-3 in an arguably ascending hegemon. The last 10 years have revolved around MENA and South Asia, and non-state actors. Who's to say the next ten years will not see Africa or Southeast Asia take center stage?

    And I think there are internal constraints on force structure beyond just the external threat environment, even excluding the simplistic reference to pork made above: budget shares for each of the services, so far as I understand, always remain roughly constant. (Indeed, I think if there is one analogue that seems particularly apropos for force structure, it's budgeting.) Or for another example: even if one regards the USMC as superfluous, good luck trying to alter or eliminate or fold it into the other services.

    To me, if one wanted to think about force structure, there is probably enough state-centric material on military power strictly construed in the ether. To really view the non-state-centric matters of importance, if for nothing else than as a useful corrective, reading "The Coming Anarchy" and perhaps "Was Democracy Just a Moment" is possibly worthwhile the same goes for how Friedman conceptualizes a state in "Lexus."


  13. ADTS,

    Here's Part One.


  14. Mike:

    Thanks - Got it, and will eagerly be on the lookout for the successors.