Friday, January 6, 2012

Five myths about the Defense Strategic Guidance

Few forms of writing are consistently more satisfying than "five myths" pieces, so I'm going to use that format to respond to some of the mistaken but widely-drawn conclusions about the document released yesterday.

(Just kidding, Daveed. I hate listicles, too. But it was too easy!)

Myths 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5: COIN is dead.

See yesterday in this space.

COIN isn't dead. The administration isn't going to foreclose any policy options through force-structure and budget decisions; it's simply willing to accept greater risk with regard to manpower-intensive, extended land operations than in the area of operational access, strike, and power projection. This is eminently reasonable.

Here's what the announcement about extended stabilization operations and force sizing really tells us: the president does not share his predecessor's view that invasion and subsequent pacification of potentially threatening states is the most cost-effective way to achieve our near-term national security objectives. He does not seem to view such operations as fundamental to the defense of American life, and he does not envision undertaking such an effort in the foreseeable future. Um, duh.

Wait, just because the president foolishly committed to an oversold counterinsurgency construct in Afghanistan – because he failed to show decisive leadership and was instead outmaneuvered by a condominium of disseminators, well-intended ignorants, and crazy-eyed jingoists; because he backed himself into a political corner by campaigning on escalation, then resignedly adopted a policy course he seemed to know was a mistake; because he chose an inappropriate method that jibed with the zeitgeist in order to achieve unrealistic or even unnecessary objectives in a war he desperately wants to end – all of that convinced you that global counterinsurgency had suddenly become a containment-esque pillar of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus?

This is a guy who made a speech almost ten years ago in which he announced "I don't oppose all wars ... What I am opposed to is a dumb war." (The "dumb war" in question was the preventive, purportedly transformative invasion of Iraq, which was still months away.) This guy is the president now. And you think it's news when his Defense Department issues guidance that essentially says "global counterinsurgency is not U.S. foreign policy"?

COIN isn't dead. It's a method. It's an operational concept. It's a tool in your kit. It's all of those cliches about the various things that the military can do when necessary, but it's not the hammer for every nail. The president has known that all along, and you should have too. We all should wish he'd had the balls to admit that he knew it in 2009, but here we are.

God forbid such a thing should happen, but imagine U.S. forces are employed for regime change in an unstable part of the world, one where heavily-armed and politically unpalatable states and factions are competing for influence and prepared to take advantage of a vacuum. Imagine that the regime being changed had pursued nuclear power, perhaps had some fissile material and a rudimentary weapons program. Imagine that the then-president is unwilling to leave the post-war stability of that country up to chance, that he determines it's necessary for American troops to hold ground and secure sensitive facilities, to pacify the country until both the U.S. government and the indigenous population can have a modicum of confidence in political transition, that he lacks the abiding faith of those who advocate capacity-building and the indirect approach.

Do you imagine, in this scenario, that the president will enact his preferences with Air-Sea Battle?

COIN isn't dead. COIN isn't even dying. It has merely ceased to be easily mistaken for the foreign policy of the United States.


  1. Oh Gulliver, Mark Twain disagrees with you,

    "You ask me about what is called imperialism. Well, I have formed views about that question. I am at the disadvantage of not knowing whether our people are for or against spreading themselves over the face of the globe. I should be sorry if they are, for I don't think that it is wise or a necessary development. As to China, I quite approve of our Government's action in getting free of that complication. They are withdrawing, I understand, having done what they wanted. That is quite right. We have no more business in China than in any other country that is not ours. There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it -- perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands -- but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector -- not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now -- why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation."

  2. Gulliver, great post (as per usual).
    It is true that COIN is a tool in your kit. My concern is not with the size of the force as much as with its ability to wield this tool when necessary. On the back of a decade of operational experience, the notion of this proficiency disappearing may seem absurd, but unless active steps are taken to institutionalize various adaptations and ad hoc solutions to operational demands, I fear a lot of a good thinking and initiative will fade away.

  3. Mike -- Surely you understand this post isn't about foreign policy preferences.

  4. Gulliver,

    You're about 3 years behind the curve. Watch this TED Video.

    The reform needed in the military is NOT at the tactical level- we got that stuff down pat- at least the good leaders do. We gotta fix the operational level bureaucracy- organization, personnel, leadership, processes, and structure. Actually, those were ALWAYS the real lessons from Vietnam. It wasn't COIN tactics.

    Moreover, we have to redefine how we interact with other states. To counter cyber threats, for instance, does not take a huge bureaucracy. To help train foreign armies, for instance, does not take a huge bureaucracy. To protect air and space, for instance, does not take a huge bureaucracy. See the trend?

  5. Mike -- I'm not sure who you're having a conversation with, but I'm sure it's not me. Neither of your comments have anything at all to do with the substance of this post. I don't dispute the things that you're saying, but I can't see how they could possibly be considered relevant.

  6. Gulliver,

    I'll be a bit more blunt. COIN as practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan is dead. We will not be occupying another country in the short or near term.

    That does not mean we do not capture lessons and conduct extensive reform measures, but what we did over the last decade was ridiculous- too costly with too little results.

  7. And it seems that you remain confused on even what countering an insurgency is. Since you want to now use the term operational method, at least listen to a Nobel Laureate.

    As John Maynard Keynes said, “it is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique for thinking, which helps the possessor to draw correct conclusions.” Simply put, it is only a guide towards understanding history and human nature.