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.