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April 07, 2009

The Trouble with Counter-Insurgency Redux
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the excellent Abu Muqawama blog, my new friend Andrew Exum has responded to my post of a few days ago about the trouble with counter-insurgency. He says that my argument "ends up ignoring the great many of us who never want to fight another counter-insurgency campaign again but still think it's a damn good idea to have the doctrine and best practices handy."

I'm sorry, but I simply don't buy this argument and I think it minimizes the deleterious impact that a focus on COIN could have, not just for the US military, but for US foreign policy, writ large.

Look, if COIN-dinastas don't want to fight counter-insurgencies and there is growing evidence that both in the US and overseas this sort of military doctrine is simply not politically viable, why then were COIN advocates pushing for a rather fulsome and ambitious counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan? This wasn't a case of having "best practices handy" it was a case of advocating for what Exum calls a doctrine and making it the strategic foundation for our continued involvement in Afghanistan. Andrew says that my problem is with policy not military doctrine; and to some extent he is correct - I want our civilian leadership to fundamentally reassess the threats we are facing and think about how our military should be repositioned in order to most effectively confront these challenges. But as I'm sure Andrew knows, if you're not careful military doctrine can quickly evolve into a national security policy.

Quite wisely, President Obama rejected a full-throttled counter-insurgency policy in his Afghanistan review, but you have still advocates like Michele Flournoy at DoD arguing that the President's plan is "very much a counterinsurgency approach" so I hardly think this debate is over. I worry if in 18-24 months when we are reassessing our Afghanistan policy that the COIN-dinastas will try again to convince the President that we need to use our military to turn Afghanistan into something close to a stable and democratic state. Quite simply, those of us who think that COIN is a bad idea should not be sitting back and trusting that COIN-dinastas really don't want to fight counter-insurgencies and so thus it ain't going to happen.

And when you have folks like John Nagl (King of the COIN-dinastas) arguing that the security challenges of the 21st century require that our military be able to “not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies" well that suggests an entire transformation in how our military is trained and the doctrine that underpins future operations. It seems worth noting as well that Nagl and many other COIN advocates believe we are fighting a Long War with extremists. I don't.  And I definitely think the best means of confronting this security challenge is not our regular Army, but instead a confluence of law enforcement, diplomacy, long-term development, foreign assistance and low-intensity military operations. Where I get most concerned is the belief by COIN fans that the military should be at the end of the spear.

This may be where the greatest danger lies in embedding counter-insurgency doctrine in military planning - the militarization of American foreign policy. Take for example, over at World Politics Review, Judah Grunstein's push back on my critique of COIN:

One of the COIN-inspired transformations of the army is to expand its skill set to include aid and development functions that were previously squarely in the civilian sector. The logic being the sooner reconstruction can begin, the more quickly hearts and minds, as well as territory, can be secured. In the event of conflict, this capacity, which only the Army can play, will be absolutely necessary.

This is the logical outgrowth of the COIN argument and it's one that I find deeply troubling. It is simply incorrect to say that only the Army can perform post-conflict reconstruction and I'm utterly unconvinced that its proper for the US military to be expanding its skill set to include aid and development functions. Isn't this why we have a civilian agency dedicated to aid and development?

Now as some of my friends at the Pentagon often remind me AID and State, as currently formulated, are not as well positioned as they should be to play these roles. But the solution is not to outsource this stuff to the military, it's to build up capacity at civilian agencies so they are better able to play their assigned roles! One of the reasons the military has taken on responsibilities that used to be restricted to civilian agencies is that they were given the responsibility at the outset of the Iraq War - and under the Bush Administration the capacity of our civilian agencies was allowed to diminish.

In the end, this is perhaps the greatest problem I have with counter-insurgency doctrine, and the most intractable divide between myself and COIN-danistas: embedding COIN in military doctrine is not a benign exercise. It risks shifting power dramatically and perhaps irreversibly toward the military and away from civilian agencies - and it provides a rationale for ever-expanding military budgets. Considering that the greatest security challenges facing the US in the future will come from non-state actors and transnational threats - and thus best confronted by the non-military elements of our national security toolbox -- the result could be a US national security and foreign policy apparatus that is ill-prepared and badly positioned to confront them.


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» What are the risks of counterinsurgency? from Greg Sanders
Some of the pushback against Gates' Defense proposal is that he's shifting too far from conventional warfare to counter-insurgency. This is sometimes described as fighting the last war despite the fact that the wars are still ongoing and the programs... [Read More]


A good column by Steven Walt today on the Af-Pak and Al Qaeda issues:

I am glad someone is thinking about this problem, but I am somewhat astonished that you would posit 'low-intensity military operations' as a way to combat al Qaeda and its ilk, yet in the same sentence say that the US military would not be in that fight. What are you talking about? The work that CIA operatives and Special Forces teams did in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001? Are you suggesting we take Special Forces out of the military--and give them to what agency? Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Dan, you read me wrong. I would never suggest that the military should not be involved in low-intensity operations. In fact, I share your view about the effectiveness of CIA operatives and Special Forces. My argument is that these guys should not necessarily be the end of the spear in confronting security challenges, but part of the mix.

Michael, you are correct. Soldiers, teen-age recruits, can't be trained to be both killers (which an army needs) and diplomats/builders able to reform a society. The two are incompatible, which is why the Iraq occupation (for one example) has gone on for so long. The liberators became oppressors and fostered a severe resistance.

This of course highlights the immensity and impossibility of what American Exceptionalism is trying to accomplish in the world, currently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

from the archives:
Our problem is that any time something needs to be done, we have a feeling we should rush in and fill the vacuum and do it ourselves. You know what happens when you do that? First of all, you can't do it, because it's not our country, it's their country. And the second thing that happens is they don't develop the skills and the ability and the equipment and the orientation and the habit patterns of doing it for themselves. They have to do it for themselves. There isn't an Iraqi that comes into this country and visits with me that doesn't say that. They know that. They know that they're the ones that are going to have to grab that country. And it's time.--Donald Rumsfeld, Nov 29, 2005

People will never be able to get their arms around this subject if they are not honest about the state of civilian government agencies' capacity to do the kind of things that counterinsurgency advocates in the military say need to be done.

This didn't start with Iraq. It didn't even start with George W. Bush. It started during the Clinton administration, which means civilian agencies' capacity to do long term development and even basic humanitarian relief has been degraded for well over a decade now. During this time the military has been called on to step in, over and over. Those who would prefer more traditionally civilian functions to be under the exclusive purview of civilian agencies need to do better than just complain about counterinsurgency theory. They need instead to come up with a plan to fight the battle Bill Clinton chose not to, and make the State Department, AID and other civilian agencies capable of doing the things we are now asking the military to do.

Apart from that, Cohen ignores something that Exum clearly takes for granted, always a good prescription if what one wants is a dialog of the deaf. The military had this discussion over how to deal with insurgencies already, and ended it some 35 years ago, after Vietnam. When that war ended the American military decided it never wanted to fight another one like it, a decision that among other things helped produce the Iraq disaster more junior officers like Exum have now lived with for most of their professional lives. To Exum this is a lesson; to Cohen the lesson is the same one the American military leadership learned decades ago from Vietnam -- just don't fight, or prepare to fight, wars you don't want to. Exum is the one who is right about this, and until Cohen comes up with an alternative that is more than an aspiration it isn't even close.

Zathras, your point would have some validity if the US went into Iraq intending to do counter-insurgency. It of course did not. The lesson from Vietnam was don't get involved in counter-insurgency, guerrila-type conflicts. The people who forgot that lesson was the political leadership not the military.

Most COIN experts such as Thomas Nagl cite the supposed sucsess of the British in Malaysia in the forties and fifties as an example of a success COIN operation. In fact Nagl even used the British army operations in Malaysia as an example of how to implement COIN warfare in his book "Learning How to Eat Soup with a Knife." However the British were successful because the insurgents in Malaysia were ethnically Chinese while the other 90% of the population are Malaysian. Therefore it was easier for the British to find a political solution to the conflict.

Exum's whole point, and mine, is that intentions matter less than capability. Of course the American military didn't enter Iraq in 2003 intending to do counterinsurgency; it assumed it would not, an assumption made much more easily because it didn't know how. A military that lacks a capability does not have abundant incentives to study situations in which that capability might be needed.

Every major public account of the war in Iraq refutes Cohen's contention that it was only the political leadership, and not the military, that forgot the lessons of Vietnam. There is a reason that the intellectual discussion of counterinsurgency within the military has been led by lieutenant colonels, majors, and captains; the general officers who ran the ground combat services didn't have a clue as to how to fight that kind of war. I understand Cohen's point; he believes the United States should not have entered Iraq (I agree), thinks we shouldn't commit to remaking Afghan society (I agree), and draws from these premises Donald Rumsfeld's conclusion that the military should stick to killing people and blowing stuff up -- which is just nuts, not only given the kind of wars we are fighting now but also given the badly degraded capabilities of the relevant civilian departments and agencies.

Again, the mind-set required of soldiers, to close with and destroy the enemy, is incompatible with making nice with the natives to win their hearts and minds. This is a proven fact. Destroyers make poor rebuilders, and Special Forces aren't the answer either except as a ploy to keep the action in the military rather than shift it to where it belongs, to civilians or, even better, as Rumsfeld suggested, to the natives.

recent news report:
A complement of civilian advisers from the State Department, USAID and other agencies that a White House aide said totalled in the “hundreds” will join them [additional troops] to help strengthen Afghan governance and economic development to cleave the Afghan population from an insurgency that has gained in strength for the past two years.

Again, the mind-set required of soldiers, to close with and destroy the enemy

Again, the mind-set required of soldiers, to close with and destroy the enemy

De dagen zijn veranderd, aangezien er wat vrij van de kostendiensten voor de Internet verkopers zijn om hun zaken voor reusachtige consumenten zoals beleid methodisch te bevorderen en in werking te stellen rejse watches.

Great comments! You are so nice, man! You never know how much i like'em!

Yes, that's cool. The device is amazing! Waiting for your next one!

Now that there is no `looking back’, Pakistan’s Army needs to understand the first basic lesson of counter insurgency that anti-militant operations are not just about picking troops from one front and deploying them for operations in the affected provinces; but a more serious function of force generation and employability.

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