Thursday, December 8, 2011

Baby, Bathwater, etc.

I’m taking this quick break from my blogging break because of the recent tenor of the somewhat tired “COIN debate.” It seemed to me that the discussion was going to move forward beyond its normal hostilities, but I’ve noticed a bit of a crescendo in the rhetoric this past month.

It seems to me that the discussion on what place COIN has in the United States’ toolkit should bifurcate into two very separate discussions, unlike where it is now. First and foremost as our forces reset in the wake of two lengthy land wars and in the face of declining resources, we need to examine how COIN fits into the Army and Marine Corps operational plans, what tactics we’ve learned should be kept, and what didn’t work. Second, we need to examine when COIN should be used as a strategy – loosely defined as the application of COIN tactics within an operational environment - and when it shouldn’t. These are two very, very different discussions.

I don’t want to talk much on the latter now as that seems to be where most of the contention is. It’s also so very unique to each intervention. I will go so far as to say that civilian agencies, facing as much if not more pressure to downsize, are unlikely to maintain significant capacity to respond to widespread COIN campaigns. And all this in spite of their utility in such campaigns as well as the fact that after 10 years of war they don’t much have the capacity now. The military on the other hand has executed COIN campaigns, at its most simplistic, as a collection of “COIN tactics,” considering strategy as the sum of the many individual campaigns occurring at the division level and below. If the tactics are maintained, it could be argued that the DoD could scale up to meet a national need to execute a COIN strategy and I’m not so worried about that. I’d also argue that a military COIN strategy is much more about styles of command and control than it as about tactics, but that's another subject. Also, as the veneer of COIN as “graduate-level war” or kinder, gentler war has eroded, future conversations should be considerably more honest than they have in the past 5 years. At least I hope so. Regardless, I feel that this discussion is about the application of assets which vary from conflict to conflict and should center around actual national interests.

Which leaves the first discussion, in my opinion the more important of the two in the short term. As Ex posted this week, the United States has learned a lot in the past 10 years on how to do COIN effectively and to adapt when it’s not. This knowledge has come at a great cost and we’ve learned from the past that the likelihood of our needing this set of tactics in the future is fairly significant. Even the most ardent high-intensity proponents should recognize that the types of operations conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan are very similar to Phase IV operations. We may not want to call it COIN at that point, but if we were to engage a near-peer competitor and were compelled to conduct regime change, we better have an idea of how to control and govern the population until we can get local forces and governance up and running. (This point ties into Gulliver’s post yesterday that SFA and COIN-type operations need to go hand-in-hand.) If we had any clue sitting in Baghdad in April 2003 of what we were about to face in the coming years, I’d like to think we have done things differently. And those things would have resembled what was done in post-2006 Iraq (and previously in smaller units going back to 2004).

Before 2005, Army training focused almost exclusively on Phase I-III operations (not universally, but predominately). I agree with critics like Gian Gentile that we need to get back to our warfighting roots: gunnery and maneuver warfare. But we need training exercises to train what soldiers will face after the end of major hostilities. In my mind, Phase IV tactics are at least the fraternal twins of COIN tactics. And therefore cannot be ignored since the achievement of national objectives rarely ends with the fall of statues. Many of the things we’ve learned, and relearned in many cases, in the past 10 years will apply on future battlefields whether we execute COIN strategy or more “traditional” strategies.

So as we go forward with these important and impassioned debates, let us keep some perspective. There is COIN as strategy and there is COIN as tactics. I firmly believe we cannot lose the latter. It wouldn’t break my heart to jettison the former. But as the title of this post suggests, don’t confuse the two. We don’t want to jettison that baby we know we’ll need some day because of the dirty, tepid bathwater it’s been steeping in these past few years.

10 comments:

  1. Here's a third consideration. We should spend some reexamining these fights to make sure we really understand what we're doing. For example, during the Cold War period, in regard to context, perhaps we should stop looking at the failure of the Army to transform organizational/conduct COIN and instead examine that the people were resisting colonialization? If we start looking at these wars from that perspective, will it change how we approach them? If we look at Iraq and Afghanistan as people resisting modernization, then could that change how we approach the problem in the future? Given the time we've put into this and the costs, I think it is worth talking about.

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  2. It's hard to see someone arguing for discarding hard-won COIN TTPs. At the same time, if those TTPs merely culminate into an amalgamation of nominal "best practices" which ultimately in fact have no strategic impact (a strategy of disjointed tactics with no cumulative effect), then possibly they are not really best practices? Perhaps the question is the method of inquiry: inductive reasoning as to "what seemed to work best" versus a deductive approach starting from, "What is the desired endstate, and proceeding from grand strategy through tactics, what are the best TTPs?" On perhaps a side note (or not), I'm not sure where MikeF's comment fits into that - or perhaps more precisely, where my comment fits into MikeF's - but it is hard to object to reexamining COIN from the perspective of those who are not "COINers" (counterinsurgents). And, of course, there's nothing that says both routes of inquiry - asking what TTPs worked best, and asking given a well-defined grand strategic endstate, what TTPs ought to be employed - cannot be pursued profitably.

    ADTS

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  3. MikeF:

    Both this - http://stathis.research.yale.edu/documents/Report5-06.pdf - (in getting to those who opposed colonization, although I'm not sure the word "colonization" is appropriate here) - and this - http://www.amazon.com/Fighting-Democracy-International-Comparative-Perspectives/dp/0691140049/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1323417017&sr=8-1 - might be of interest to you given what seems to be shaping up as your research agenda(s). There's also David Elliott and his wife's RAND Vietnam-era debriefs of VC prisoners/defectors: http://www.rand.org/search.html#eyJxdWVyeSI6ImRhdmlkK2VsbGlvdHQifQ==, which I supposed is incorporated into this magnum opus - http://www.amazon.com/Vietnamese-War-Revolution-1930-1975-Institute/dp/0765606038/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1323417167&sr=8-1.

    Best
    ADTS (always glad to heap more reading on your already overflowing list)

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  4. Thanks much ADTS. Keep them coming. Jason, one could also argue (as Peter Feaver has started) that Bush's initial GWOT was much closer to Grand Strategy than this constant COIN we've been doing the last six-seven years. And yes, you and I know that we were doing COIN back in 2005 and 2006. We've got to start talking about ends, ways, and means.

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  5. Or codify the Long War as a strategy of disjointed tactics with no cumulative effect.

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  6. Here's another way to look at it, and the insanity is that the only recent policy advisor to explain it is Paul Wolfowitz of all people. FID/SFA are merely tactics. Plan Colombia, while employing FID, was a strategy. Applying FID/SFA to A'stan is not the same thing as a strategy.

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  7. Mike - the analogy is a great one. And it should always (in my mind) come back to ends, ways, means - something we haven't been doing all that well in the past years.

    As far as assessing local conditions (ie, views of the locals) and drivers of conflict, that should be part of both tactical and strategic planning. I don't think we've done so great a job of it yet - especially at the strategic level.

    This is why I'm not sure that your deductive approach works, ATDS. The use of local COIN-type tactics does not aggregate to a total strategy, as we've discussed. That's the problem we've had in Afghanistan. It's also somewhat easier to assess and address local interests at the village or district level than trying to make what are essentially generalities across provinces or entire countries.

    The TTPs we've learned and relearned need to be codified into the doctrine of elements at brigade and below. That's where the fight is, that's how they're trained. If these TTPs are re-billed as PhIV TTPs instead of COIN we keep them in our doctrine, we make our maneuver forces more effective (again, see Iraq 2003 on why there's more to maneuver warfare than putting steel on target), and we get rid of the COIN connotation that are driving some people to suggest that we need not worry about these TTPs.

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  8. MikeF:

    If you're still reading, then:

    http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.polisci.4.1.139

    Best
    ADTS

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  9. I can't help but view this whole argument over whether COIN is worth maintaining as tactical competency or strategy is symptomatic of the greater problem of a lack of clear strategic and grand strategic thinking/innovation. In the void left by that lack, COIN has become fetishized and familiar. (I'll put aside my own doubts that COIN has been truly institutionalized at the conventional level beyond useful buzzwords in briefings). COIN has always been a tactical approach to pull out of the toolbox based upon strategic necessities, and it should remain so. But I don't see the issue now so much as keeping COIN in the toolbox, as it is leadership and punditry clinging to the familiar as time passes and still no overarching strategic guidance is articulated.

    It is very difficult for any organization to make any sort of long-term decisions about the makeup of the toolbox when you're not sure what you will be asked to accomplish. Completely reasonable to cling to the familiar and fight your budgetary battles based upon the missions you've been ordered to fulfill recently rather than based on a WAG of what the political leadership will ask for next.

    Alas, perhaps this problem is inherent to democracy with its constantly changing governments, but civilian leadership owes it to their military and intelligence services to articulate strategic vision much better than they currently do with that rubbish NSS.

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  10. Jason, what tactical COIN lessons do you think were learned over the last ten years? On the company and platoon level, outside of implementing new technology, I've yet to find anything new that was not addressed in either to old infantry platoon manual, scout platoon manual, tank platoon manual, or FID manual.

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