Monday, January 16, 2012

Up is down, left is right, and COIN is FID

This is a new one: foreign internal defense is the real counterinsurgency.

That's what retired colonel and CNAS non-resident fellow Bob Killebrew writes, via Tom Ricks.
As U.S. combat forces have withdrawn from Iraq and are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014 -- just twenty-four months from now -- various defense thinkers and publications have declared the U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency (COIN) over. Actually, nothing could be further from reality. The real story is that COIN is still very much alive, in Iraq, the Philippines, Colombia and a dozen other places where the U.S. still has interests and that, in Afghanistan at particular, the United States is moving, finally, into true counterinsurgency.
It's ironic that Ricks smilingly identifies Killebrew as a representative of "Best Defense department of doctrinal affairs" when this interpretation is antithetical to the one codified in U.S. doctrine. Yes, counterinsurgency is still alive. (Indeed, it will never die, or at least not for as long as insurgency exists, because it encompasses all actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.) And yes, it's true that the U.S. is supporting partner nations' counterinsurgency efforts around the globe – including in the countries COL Killebrew has cited – through a suite of activities and operations that can be grouped under the rubric of foreign internal defense. But it's goofy to call this "true counterinsurgency"—it may be the truly effective reorientation of our security policy toward historically-proven best practices for third-party support to partner-nation counterinsurgency (though that's a bit wordy and something of a tautology, I suppose), but you can't call it "true counterinsurgency." To do so is the doctrinal equivalent of declaring that black is white.

Current American counterinsurgency doctrine is built around a construct of significant U.S. troop presence and extended stability operations. This makes sense, of course, because it's U.S. military doctrine: that is, a codification of best practices for the conduct of operations by U.S. forces. The preface to FM 3-24 (pdf) recognizes this fact:
A counterinsurgency campaign is, as described in this manual, a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations. It requires Soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies.
COL Killebrew's comments aren't about U.S. military doctrine, but U.S. foreign policy: he's arguing that the most effective way for the U.S. to aid the counterinsurgency efforts of a partner nation is to indirectly augment the offensive, defensive, and stability operations of the host government rather than to undertake those operations independently.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the destruction of both governments made it necessary for us to take on major combat roles while we rebuilt the security forces. While the performance of our troops was superb, our initial effort to re-form both the Iraqi and Afghan armies was grudging, too limited and far too slow. In our we'll-do-it culture, we forgot that so long as U.S. forces are carrying the bulk of the fighting in somebody else's insurgency, we are delaying the time when the host government starts fighting the "real" COIN campaign and we provide assistance and support, which is the Americans' real role in COIN.
While this sentiment is extremely palatable to a lot of people in the wake of our bloody and expensive involvement in two manpower-intensive operations, we should acknowledge that it's an attempt to move the goalposts (COIN hasn't really failed, we've just been doing it wrong). Who cares, though, right? Well, it's also a way to whitewash the very real limitations of a more indirect, FID-centric approach and to avoid addressing the really important question: whether involvement in these conflicts, either directly or indirectly, is actually delivering any real security to Americans.

FID is better policy because it's cheaper, less risky in terms of human life and possible escalation, and potentially more effective (by limiting the additional inflammatory complications of visible U.S. troop presence). And if you're a 50-year old guy trying to help the Cowboys win football games, it's probably a better idea for you to become a defensive coordinator than to try strapping on the pads yourself. But FID isn't "true counterinsurgency" any more than standing on the sidelines with a headset and a clipboard is "true football."

I agree with Killebrew that counterinsurgency isn't going anywhere, as I've written before. And I agree that American security policy will likely shift in the direction of indirect approaches and smaller-footprint operations. But it's confusing and obfuscatory to suggest that these trends are one and the same, or that the latter shift does not constitute a rejection (or at least re-thinking) of counterinsurgency as it's been sold to the public. We haven't just been doing it wrong—we've been wrong to do it.


  1. Target Gulliver!!! We have to move past FID as well. Next stop, swarming!!!

  2. Gunner re-engage, target again G-man!

    agree, anyway as i said in a response to his article, I stopped taking him seriously when he made Iraq and Afghanistan sound like victory parades for the US. Killebrew like CNAS blows with the wind, and now the wind is saying no more big coin, so he falls in line say true coin is FID.

    But you are right, strategy could in theory and practice employ pop centric coin and if it mades sense from the angle of strategy that too would be true coin as well.


  3. Here's a good primer for the next conversation

    At what point does reality completely overwhelm the neatly, beautifully constructed theories we’ve used to explain it?

    Read more: