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May 01, 2009

Blogging Nagl - Whose Vote Counts?
Posted by Michael Cohen

One of the arguments that you hear from many COIN-advocates about the need for the US military to devise counter-insurgency expertise is that this is the future of military conflict. Even though counter-insurgency is not necessarily in the American military's comparative advantage; even though there is limited political will for long-term counter-insurgency operations we need to prepare because as John Nagl puts it in this month's Washington Quarterly "the enemy gets a vote."

It would certainly be preferable if the U.S. military could simply focus on what it does best, ignore other contingencies, and dictate the terms of every engagement. Unfortunately, that world does not exist.

. . . The history of the past sixty years demonstrates that we will not be able to dictate when, where, and how wars are fought. Doing more of what the U.S. military ‘‘does best’’ is not the answer to all of the challenges that will be forced upon us.

Well sure that is true, but the US government gets a much bigger vote; and how we use our military should be determined by what America's civilian leaders determine is in the country's interests. 

The COIN-danistas deterministic notion of future military conflict is particularly hard to reconcile with Nagl's later point that "U.S. conventional military capabilities still qualitatively outstrip those of potential adversaries to a significant degree. Such capabilities are too costly and infrastructure-intensive for most countries to develop, purchase, or field. Instead of playing the U.S. game, current and potential enemies have turned to asymmetric approaches designed to neutralize our strengths and exploit our relative weaknesses."

Well wait a minute here - if no country can qualitatively match the United States and if our enemies only approach for confronting the United States is through asymmetric approaches then wouldn't this suggest that the United States has a rather fulsome capability to decide when, where and how to fight wars?

Take Afghanistan, for example. We were attacked on September 11th and rightly saw the necessity of a military response. Now there were many specific ways we could have responded; a large military footprint (which would have been prohibitively difficult and expensive both in money and lives) or a combination of air power, special forces and the use of local militias.  Indeed, we were precisely capable of determining, as a country, how we fought Al Qaeda and the Taliban. And there was almost no chance that we wouldn't be successful in dislodging the Taliban from power and degrading Al Qaeda's capabilities.

In Iraq, there were many opportunities for how to deal with Saddam Hussein - diplomacy, a stronger sanctions regime, air power and finally invasion and occupation. We of course chose the worst possible option, but the point is that Saddam didn't get a vote at all. How we responded was a decision completely at our disposal.  Finally, consider the Balkans. There was a widely held view that Serbian aggression in Bosnia and later Kosovo represented a threat to our regional interests there. But the United States didn't engage militarily until 1995 and we chose to utilize our air power backed by diplomacy. We used our own determination of our interests and capabilities to decide how we intervened there.

The simple fact is that the United States has an enormous ability to determine precisely where it fights wars, when it fights them and how it engages the enemy. It is perhaps America's greatest comparative advantage as a military power.  Indeed, it is deeply ironic to consider that we are, by and far, the world's most powerful country, uniquely capable of shaping world events - yet we act as though our behavior on the international stage is crucially shaped by the actions of others. Perhaps the best example of this was the Bush Administration's constant reminder that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda wanted to set up a caliphate across the MIddle East.

So what?

Our actions need not be shaped by the rantings of sociopath, but by a cool and calculated determination of the threats we face and the best means of confronting them. If the civilian leadership determines, as it did after the Vietnam War, that the US should avoid long-drawn out engagements with unclear political goals and a not easily defined exit strategy than we have the power to execute on that policy.  If they decide we simply shouldn't fight counter-insurgencies and use our military for nation building then, we as a country, are more than able to adopt that approach.

As this wonderful movie clip from my youth reminds us, sometimes the only winning move is not to play.

In the end, perhaps Nagl is right that our enemies get a vote. But the United States gets a veto.


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It would certainly be preferable if the U.S. military could simply focus on what it does best, ignore other contingencies, and dictate the terms of every engagement. Unfortunately, that world does not exist. . . . The history of the past sixty years demonstrates that we will not be able to dictate when, where, and how wars are fought.

Nagl is obviously ignorant of history and so he isn't worth any attention. He puts forth a common misconception, that wars just happen as natural events and there's little we can do about them except fight them. The US invasions of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan never happened, somehow. These wars were just events that were forced upon the US. Baloney.

The United States does have an option in avoiding COIN war in that insurgents are not dire threats towards the United States. What Nagl seems to have ignored is that fact that the Vietnamese, Afghans, and Iraqis have resorted to insurgent campaigns against their opponents is because they do not a have strong conventional force that could pose a threat to any industrialized country. Do to these lack of conventional forces, insurgent groups are not a direct threat to the United States or its military.

I didn't read far enough.

Comment 1: As you said, Michael.
we are, by and far, the world's most powerful country, uniquely capable of shaping world events - yet we act as though our behavior on the international stage is crucially shaped by the actions of others.

So I guess my question is, given the strategy you're proposing, what would you have done after 9/11 -- not invade Afghanistan?

Nick, don't ask any silly questions like that. Their answer is yes. Their answer would be to use highly technical weapons, Special Forces direct action, and assassinations. Think along the lines of perhaps 63 cruise missiles or something like that. This has proven to be effective in stopping al Qaeda before, so why not in 2001? Supporting those who would change their countries in ways that would preclude their being safe havens for the likes of AQ simply doesn't fit with their plans. Globalization is a passing fad; keep thinking along the lines of 18th and 19th century imperialism, because that's what's really going on here.

Don Bacon, John Nagl is very well versed in history and has and will receive plenty of attention. This will continue to drive you insane, but I've looked at your website and it's not a very long journey for you to complete the trip. I'm waiting for you to post about alien abduction and body probes.

Peace, I'm hoping that you are enjoying the Society of Smedleys. I would like to remind you that the only entity to have ever bombed a major city in the United States was a non-state actor, and the only US warship seriously damaged by external action since WW-II was the USS Cole. I would say that is not a threat, but history of damaging both the United States and the US military. If something has to be an existential threat to qualify, only then are you correct.

Mr. Cohen, for a man with your credentials, I'm truly disappointed in your analysis. It appears to me that you reached your conclusion first and then built your case around it. In reading the comments, I'm not surprised at the following you're attracting being a fringe element with extreme and exclusive views. When those who are your ardent supporters are likely the types who would have you fleeing a barstool with rolling eyes to escape their rants, you might be on the wrong track.

Thankfully, the school of thought which includes such people as Michele Flournoy, John Nagl and David Kilcullen have the ears of the administration. In taking on the likes of Nagl you are well out of your league and history will take little note of your ill-conceived criticisms. So, you have no traction and your recent "COIN" studies are not going to gain you much credibility in the center... or the center-left from the way it looks. You may wish at this point to reexamine your position, but it looks pretty much like you're committed. I have not been a follower of your career or your writings, and this representation of your thought leaves me singularly underwhelmed.

I like to think I'm a reasonably perceptive guy, but the reason for Michael Cohen's vehemence on this subject has escaped me.

He appears to believe Col. Nagl thinks American forces should be fighting counterinsurgency wars everywhere, which I don't think Nagl does, and that a counterinsurgency capability and a robust developmental aid program outside the military are mutually incompatible. There may be people who do believe the latter, but I don't think Nagl is one of them (though his WQ article does dwell on the relevant civilian agencies' limited capabilities and interest in foreign development assistance in dangerous parts of the world).

It is, by this time, gospel within the counterinsurgency community that the American military leadership's decision after Vietnam to not think about counterinsurgency warfare because we were just never going to do another Vietnam was a dreadful error. The lack of a counterinsurgency capability, and of military leaders able to understand this kind of warfare, did not prevent and may have contributed to the unfortunate episodes that followed the commitment of American military power in Lebanon in 1983 and in Somalia ten years later; it may have contributed as well to America's distasteful association with a suppression of the El Salvadoran insurgency in the 1980s that was vastly bloodier than it need have been. Of course, lack of a counterinsurgency capability wasn't much help in Iraq either. I understand, and agree with, the point that the Iraq invasion shouldn't have been undertaken in the first place -- but we didn't have the capability, and the invasion was decided upon anyway.

Perhaps I have misunderstood his argument -- I hope he will say how, if this is the case -- but Cohen seems to be contending that the military leadership after Vietnam had it right; even the existence of the counterinsurgency capability Nagl calls for presents a dangerous temptation for America to get into more wars. No more Vietnams, as the generals of the 1970s might have said; if some country's government is threatened by an insurgency, even one dangerous to us, we should respond with options on a spectrum between indifference and a vigorous infusion of foreign aid distributed by defenseless civilian specialists. This seems rather feckless to me, a declaration that what we want is what will be, and that what we don't want we'll just not think about.

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Every "COIN" argument is based on sand because the language is wrong. The US military, in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and by proxy in Somalia, has been used to overthrow governments (or in Vietnam substitute a regional government) and then occupy the countries involved. Using correct language, that's overthrow (insurgency) and occupation. The armed resistance of the natives, an entirely useful pursuit, and something that most of us would do in similar circumstances, is the real counter-insurgency.

So all the "COIN" talk is just that, talk, and has no real meaning in the real world where men fight foreign occupiers and "nation-builders." Until these "experts" drop the "COIN" subterfuge and talk about real issues using real language -- overthrow and occupation -- there can be no sensible discussion. For Americans not to realize what the rest of the world can plainly see as foolhardy US aggression is stupid.

The real evidence of the falsity of this discussion is the abject failure of the US military to have any useful effect except the killing, injuring, torturing and displacement of large numbers of foreign peoples, most of them women and children, along with the resulting regional instability. We should remember that these actions constitute illegal war crimes, and calling them "COIN" doesn't help.

See what I mean, Mr. Cohen? When those most fired up in a positive way by your ideas are basically doing a brilliant imitation of John Candy's character in "Volunteers," you are probably on the wrong track.

Don Bacon; for a man who accuses others of having no grasp of history, it's time for you to get an opposable thumb. Of the countries you listed in your latest rant, only Iraq actually became an occupation. In an occupation, the occupier actually performs the governance. It's part of meeting the definition of "occupation."

Somalia had no government, and American forces were not attempting to install one at all. Our goal there was to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid during an artificial famine. This became some bizarrre form of law enforcement and degraded into a free-for-all led by criminal groups who used the HA as their sway over the people.

The mistakes of Vietnam had nothing to do with our being an "occupier." There was a legitimate, if extremely corrupt, government that we were attempting to prop up. You lose again.

Afghanistan was in the midst of a civil war in which the "good guys," or Northern Alliance, were squeezed into a fairly small area. Aided by foreign fighters (your lack of apparent knowledge of the foreign, Pakistani and Arab, influence in that fight demonstrates an inability to perform any research greater than follow news links,) the Taliban were in de facto control of most of Afghanistan. Very few governments recognized the Taliban government as legitimate. The Afghans have an elected government and a constitution. They are recognized by the world as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Once again, this does not meet the definition of "occupation."

Millions of refugees who had been displaced and fled Afghanistan, mostly to Pakistan, have returned since 2001. So many returned that the Afghans actually had to have a ministry to deal with them. Three strikes, Don.

The use of words inappropriately in an attempt to play on their emotional impact is called propaganda. Mr. Bacon, you are a sad and bizarre character. It's time to loosen the collar on your Mao jacket, grow some thumbs, and start from scratch reading something a little different. Or, you can try actually going to one of these countries... may I suggest Afghanistan, since it is the one that I have intimate knowledge of?... and get a clue.

And Mr. Cohen... again I caution you to look at those who are attracted to your argument and give it a rethink. Perhaps you need to spend some time with Nagl, or perhaps you need to gain access to a tour of Afghanistan yourself. The measure of your ability to grasp the concept, into which you have chosen to delve in multiple pieces here, will be if you get overwhelmed by the whole thing and start tearing your hair out and screaming that it's impossible. Many of our own officers do.

Sadly, I think that this is just a passing fad for you. Next week you'll be on about something else, probably. This topic has been just a momentary fascination for you, and your arguments show it.

Old Blue,
First, I find your ad hominem remarks most amusing. Of course they are a sure indicator of a lack of a logical position, which makes them more amusing. Now some History 101 for you, a subject as difficult for you as it is for Nagl, apparently. (You may even BE Nagl, for all I know.)

Somalia, recently, did have a government which the US overthrew with its Ethiopian proxy (now departed). It is now unsettled.

The South Vietnam government was an illegal entity, involving the plucking by the US of Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem out of a New Jersey seminary (really!!) to rule the southern part of Vietnam for the US in violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords. You really need to educate yourself on Vietnam; 54,000 US troops died there (plus millions of Vietnamese).

In Afghanistan, the US is in a military occupation where its corrupt puppet Karzai is widely called "the mayor of Kabul." He exercises no control outside the capital, and currently on thin ice with the US. He wasn't invited to Obama's inauguration and the US wants to replace him because he is so corrupt and ineffective. If you don't think the US calls the shots there you're naive. Karzai's complaints about he wanton US military killing of Afghans has gone unremarked, for example.

The US military occupation of Iraq, one you acknowledge, has no end in sight.

In all of these places the US military occupiers fought/fights against indigenous forces who are the true counter-insurgents, because it is the US that overthrew their governments (or, in Vietnam, replaced their government in a region of the country). Call the natives freedom fighters (as in France, WWII) if you prefer, but they are not insurgents.

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