Countering the COIN Fad
Posted by Michael Cohen
Today's must read piece is the op-ed from Sunday's Washington Post by Celeste Ward on the fad of counterinsurgency:
This is exactly right. I would in particular hammer on the last point that raises the issue of military strategy versus tactics. A line you hear quite often from COIN advocates is that counter insurgency is difficult and we shouldn't do it - but the military has a responsibility to be ready to apply COIN strategy if our elected leaders demand it. But of course the veneration of COIN goes beyond this rather minimal application. Many seem to view COIN as the future of war and based on the "success" of COIN in Iraq, they seem to believe that the United States is uniquely positioned to do it . The question for many COIN-danistas seems to be not whether and when we should do counter-insurgency, but how the US can do it more effectively. I thought Justin Logan captured this idea very nicely a few months ago:
The military needs to be making clear to the civilian leadership precisely how difficult counter-insurgency can be and why they should think twice about trying to implement such an approach.
But of course that's not exactly occurring - as the myth-making narrative of the Iraq surge makes clear. Ward does a nice job deconstructing that argument as well, pointing out that not only were COIN-tactics being utilized prior to the surge in 2007, but that the "success" of the surge is a dubious one at best:
So why did the Iraqis stop the carnage and start deal-making by 2007? We don't fully know. A number of accounts give a nod to the Sunni Awakening and the cease-fire by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Nonetheless, the prevailing interpretations of the surge narrative -- even competing ones, which tend to differ mostly over claims of paternity -- put the Americans in the driver's seat of history. The assumption seems to be that the United States, its leaders and the tactics it employed are primarily responsible for the events on the ground.
But the decisions of the Iraqis themselves surely made a material difference. They stopped fighting, whether due to political calculations, fear or exhaustion. The full story of Iraqi motivations and perceptions has yet to be told. Meanwhile, sectarian maps of Baghdad show a clear pattern over time: Sunnis and Shiites progressively moved into separate enclaves, by choice or by force. By the time of the surge in 2007, mixed neighborhoods in the city had nearly disappeared, as the respective sects moved into areas populated by their own. The conflagration of sectarian violence might have been poised to burn itself out anyway.
As I've written here many times the clearest and most unambiguous lesson that we should draw from the war in Iraq is that we should never get involved in such a war again - and that any benefit we accrue from invasion, occupation and nation-building will almost never be worth the cost.
The fetishization of COIN is not the way to accomplish that goal.