Gates on COIN: what was really said?

There has been ample coverage of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ final speech to the West Point cadets last Friday, with much of the attention focusing on an apparently growing disenchantment with counterinsurgency, a theme previously touched upon on this blog.

For obvious reasons, the quotation that got the most play in the press was Gates’ quip that any future sec-def who advises the sending of ‘a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined”’. This sentence has been picked up upon as a candid admission by a straight-talking and possibly repentant Secretary of Defense, wishing to use his last appearance at West Point to highlight the folly of ongoing campaigns. In reality, the statement has been taken out of its context and therefore risks being misinterpreted, along with the rest of the address.

At the Washington Post, Greg Jaffe interprets these lines by Gates as signs that the Army ‘will not engage in large-scale counter-insurgency wars like those in Iraq or Afghanistan’. He picks out another sentence from the speech to back up this theme:

Gates said he was not advocating the Army should become a counter-insurgency or nation-building force. ‘By no means am I suggesting that the Army will, or should, turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary – designed to chase guerrillas, build schools or sip tea’.

At the New York Times, Thom Shanker sees Gates’ speech as a blunt warning to his audience ‘that it would be unwise for the United States to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the chances of carrying out a change of government in that fashion again were slim’. Here Shanker refers to Gates’ statement that ‘the odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq – invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country – may be low’.

Clearly Gates said many of those things and the coverage is in that sense more or less correct. The problem, however, is that these articles are giving far too much attention to the hedges used by Gates to qualify his main argument, rather than to the argument itself. Read the whole section of the speech and see what you think:

The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest. And one of the benefits of the drawdown in Iraq is the opportunity to conduct the kind of full-spectrum training – including mechanized combined arms exercises – that was neglected to meet the demands of the current wars. Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements – whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere. The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions. But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.

The bottom-line seems to be that Army will mostly be playing a supporting role to the Air Force and Navy in future ‘high-end’ expeditionary operations. In other words, this had nothing to do with counterinsurgency, or with ongoing campaigns.

But what of this other statement, where Gates says he isn’t ‘suggesting that the U.S. Army will – or should – turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary’? Does this not mean that Gates is joining the growing chorus of counterinsurgency critics, spelling the end of this latest fad? Not quite. Again, this sentence is merely a hedge used to qualify a main point. Note the ensuing sentence, starting with that inevitable conjunction, ‘but’:

But as the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size, and cost of its heavy formations to those in the leadership of the Pentagon, and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who ultimately make policy and set budgets.

This is pretty much the same message as above: while a draw-down from Afghanistan offers the Army welcome opportunities to revisit its conventional capabilities, its future role and configuration for large mechanised warfare will become more difficult to defend as budgets decline. If anything, Gates seems to be suggesting that the Army’s future is more likely to involve various types of ‘irregular’ or ‘advisory’ roles, like those it has been used for in recent campaigns.

But what then of that third sentence, where Gates states that ‘the odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq – invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country – may be low’. Again, the press seems to suggest that this was some sort of warning against future counterinsurgency campaigns, or an admission that these operations were mistakes that will not be repeated. But note the language that follows and the critical recurrence of that good old conjunction:

But in what General Casey has called “an era of persistent conflict,” those unconventional capabilities will still be needed at various levels and in various locations.  Most critically to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly – and controversial – large-scale American military intervention.

Rather than foretelling the death and irrelevance of counterinsurgency, Gates seems to be suggesting that the skills and capabilities that recent campaigns have called for will also be critically needed in the future, ‘at various levels and in various locations’, and that they must therefore be institutionalised. To a large degree, he is arguing for the relevance of continued counterinsurgency training and education, not their demise.

The problem with the coverage of this speech is that it combines hedges and qualifying preambles from disparate parts of the address and paints a picture of a Secretary of Defense disenchanted with counterinsurgency, and repentant about ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Too much attention is given to the shaping of the arguments rather than their intended thrust. A closer read of the address reveals a very different, and very important message, one that is unfortunately struggling to get out.

You can read it for yourself here.


30 thoughts on “Gates on COIN: what was really said?

  1. TJM says:

    I wonder if the attention placed upon the “head examined” remark has caused everyone to completely overlook the bulk of Gates’ speech and to therefore misinterpret the purpose and the central message. The transcript clearly states 3 issues that he wanted to address.

    * The future of conflict, and the implications for the Army;
    * How best to institutionalize the diverse capabilities that will be required; and
    * The kinds of officers the Army will need for the 21st Century, and how the service must change to retain and empower those leaders.

    The first two points lay the foundation to address the 3rd point – which he spent half of the speech addressing. The text of the speech also suggests that this was really what he wanted to focus on…

    Which brings me to the third and greatest challenge facing your Army, and frankly, my main worry. How can the Army can break-up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most-battled tested young officers to lead the service in the future? After the major Afghan troop deployments end in 2014, how do we keep you and those 5 or 10 years older than you in our Army?

    I agree with David Ucko that the SECDEF was not conveying that he is “disenchanted with counterinsurgency, and repentant about ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.” But I am not so sure that he was “arguing for the relevance of continued counterinsurgency training and education, not their demise.” While he was certainly arguing for improved training and education, I see no evidence that COIN or any other specific operation was his focus. Rather, he levied harsh criticism at the US Army’s horrible personnel management system and policies, identified the soul-crushing aspects of career progression, and highlighted the reasons that the Army not only fails to retain enough quality officers, but actively drives them away.

    The message that I took away from the speech was that the Army needs to invest more wisely in its leaders, because we have re-learned for the umpteenth time that intelligent, agile leaders are more valuable than machines. Rather than investing in hardware or new whiz bang systems, we need to better develop our leaders, get more out of them, and retain them, while finding ways to retrain or remove the poor performers. The discussion about future wars was intended not to justify less hardware for the Army, but to justify greater emphasis upon leader development.

    • That’s a fair point, TJM.
      I was thinking of his emphasis on language learning, etc., which I took as being COIN-related to some degree. But it is true: COIN can’t claim exclusivity to language training and the related forays into non-military fields, even if these have received a lot more emphasis in the last seven years of COIN than beforehand.

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  3. Jon Huntoon says:

    My take is that it doesn’t matter what KOW or any other blogger/critic thinks.

    How did the cadets understand his words?

  4. Michael says:

    Sounds a lot like what he is trying to say is ‘The military is a balancing act. The tankes are broken, got it—so are the planes and ships. Going to need them if Korea goes belly up and turns ugly, so be prepared to do a little bit of everything, with less money to do it.’

  5. Jon,
    I would argue that the cadets were not the audience; they were the backdrop. Secretary Gates seemed to be speaking most directly to the Army as an institution, particularly its senior leadership, which is why the media is picking up on the wrong cues, not realizing – or ignoring – the thrust of his argument (which David accurately captures in his post).

    Thanks for picking up on my tactical pause after live-tweeting the speech on Friday with this analysis. The thing I wonder about now is, how does one operationalize Gates’ descriptive assault on the “bureaucratic constipation” of the Army’s personnel system into actual change that retains talented leaders?

  6. Formerly Grant says:

    It’s not that strange, the media needs break it up into nice bits to be inserted into articles and most people don’t really bother to check an entire speech for its content.
    In any case I suspect that the U.S military is giving up on COIN regardless of what Gates may have said.

  7. Phil Ridderhof says:

    The Marine Corps is still picking over Gates’ addresses last year on the future of the service and now I suppose the Army will be doing the same. In looking at the whole speech, I came away with the impression that the primary emphasis was on the personnel system changes that are necessary.

    This is well trodden territory. The answer to an overly centralized bureacratic system is to decentralize and provide more flexibility. This in turn, requires changes in legislation (the services only have so much authority to make changes). Also, a decentralized system will be more personalized and will result in accusations of favoritism and “old boy networks.” Every solution begats a new set of problems.

  8. Charles says:

    At last there’s someone who isn’t declaring an end to large-scale warfare, which it seems most analysts are doing these days. COIN has its place, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t mean it needs to be the focus – on the other hand, a massive army required for both capturing and holding large areas of land doesn’t necessarily need to be the focus either. I think the Army’s new motto (for any country these days) should be: More with Less.

  9. I think SECDEF Gates’ message was clear, inasmuch as it can be when he addresses the President indirectly:

    1. Getting involved in lengthy military operations in third-world countries is a really bad idea. These operations tend to be costly and bloody, and they don’t really give us any good return on the investment.

    2. A large standing Army is simply too expensive to maintain, especially given it’s excessive bureaucratic waste and top-heaviness. The Army doesn’t need to do more with less; it needs to do less with less. The Army should be reduced to a fiscally manageable size. The trade off is that the active duty Army will only be good for a “core” around which the Army can be expanded in the case of a full-scale conflict. The US national security strategy must accept risk with respect to a small Army. However, with the biggest threats to the US being the deficit and Mexican drug cartels, a small Army seems to be a prudent risk to take.

  10. It seems to me that Gates really said nothing new, and that’s why the speech was misinterpreted. Basically: “We have learned from the strategic mistakes made in trying to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can’t just change everything we’re doing or are planning to do in the future. Our existing capabilities will be needed and are here to stay.”
    The problem with such talks is that the media is looking for a new spin on an existing topic that has already been reported on extensively. However, when politicians take a gazillion sentences to make a simple point, it is, in a sense, their own fault.

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  12. “Gates seems to be suggesting that the skills and capabilities that recent campaigns have called for will also be critically needed in the future, ‘at various levels and in various locations’, and that they must therefore be institutionalised.”

    This is no different from the situation in the UK, for although it is looking like the army may be reduced to 80,000 post 2015 a core component of the 2020 force structure will be the five large multirole brigades designed specifically around the 6 month / 24 month harmony guidelines necessary for protracted and nasty COIN wars.

    No, the message here is that it should not come to dominate the available capability the Armed Forces are able to deploy, and this is a lesson that has evidently been learned in Britain if the retention of a RN Marine Commando Brigade alongside 16AAB in addition to a carriers and amphibious assets.

  13. Callum Lane says:

    Chicken or Egg?

    I think the UK Army is leaning heavily towards the 6 month / 24 month harmony guidelines in order to justify a ‘six in the mix’ force composition (5 x Multi-role Bdes and a Specialist Bde). I do not think that 6/24 is necessarily the optimum or even necessary harmony level for COIN operations.

    • how much do they want the specialist brigade?

      in my opinion they will be quite keen to keep one, even if it doesn’t end up exactly like 16AAB is now, because they will want to be part of rapid-interventions alongside the RN’s marine brigade.

  14. Callum Lane says:


    Keeping two specialist (and rapid intervention) bdes makes sense from a commitments perspective as well.

    Plus there are inter-service political reasons – an Army parachute bde keeps the airforce in planes and provides a counterweight for any plans for RN/RM expansion – not that I am saying that the UK MOD is hampered by inter-Service rivalries!

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  16. Pete says:

    Thanks for your analysis of this speech. Secretary Gates has a very careful and nuanced manner of presenting his ideas. His style does not lend itself to a quick analysis for editorial deadlines or cable news sound-bites.

    What really made me smile as I read the speech was the part about managing personnel. I’m currently serving in the U.S. Army, and retaining talented officers and NCOs is a topic of constant thought and discussion among my peers. I take great comfort in the leadership of Secretary Gates, particularly when he encourages people like me to step outside of the normal officer career path and pursue goals such as graduate education, academic fellowships, foreign experience, etc. I would like to think that the general officers who have received third and fourth stars during his tenure have similar views about the makeup of a strong and vibrant officer corps.

    • I hope you are right. I think a lot will depend on the Army’s future direction post-Gates, and perhaps more importantly, post-Afghanistan.

    • To temper your optimism, the concern I have as someone in the same situation is that encouragement from the top to go off the beaten path is not the same as actual changes to the bureaucratic processes of promotion to reward such unorthodox career choices.

      That Secretary Gates thinks it was a good idea for me to go to grad school is nice, but will the promotion board of senior officers that actually looks at my file? Certainly there are those three- and four-stars that do value broadening experiences (GEN Petraeus and GEN Dempsey, to name two), but senior leaders have to get those between us and them on board…

    • Pete says:

      Capitano, trust me: tempering my otherwise optimistic outlook is quite easy for the very reason you mention. You are spot on. I did go to grad school…and my “career manager” made sure I paid for it when I returned to the force.

      Navigating the bureaucracy since then has been challenging at times but also formative and educational. Something has to give eventually with the way in which we manage our professional Army. Hopefully that happens while we’re still serving.

    • TJM says:

      Heh. I embraced the Petraeus article. Unsatisfied with the limited educational options that the Army offered me, I thought I was going above and beyond the call by choosing to ETS, pay my own way, get two advanced degrees in 3 years, and take the opportunity to get into better physical condition than I was in at ETS. But policy changed and now I’m not allowed back in. They’re not taking Infantry Officers back. Nor am I even allowed to go the OCS route and start over at 2LT. But the good news is that I am allowed to enlist. So maybe some day when you’re an S3, I’ll be your driver.

  17. Michael says:

    Well, I can’t say much for the US Army, but as for the USN, there is a something of a tension between the people who believe that any moment spent on land studying is a moment you could have chosen to be at sea, and those that think getting some sort of broadening education is important. The tension is so great that getting an MA (on the Navy’s time and dime) is considered a real career retardant, or at best neutral, even if you do it at the Navy’s own rather prestigious graduate school, The Naval Postgraduate School. The sole exception to this rule is the Naval War College, which is sort of thought of as a necessary evil.

    Meanwhile, if you get your MA on your own dime (and more importantly, time) it is a good thing career wise. The key there is that it only sort-of matters where or what you did it in. Considering the number of MBAs from for-profit institutions (Phoenix, Webster, Kaplan, Liberty, etc.) I’ve seen over the years I’m guessing that is the preferred route to checking the box.

  18. Michael, TJM, Pete and Cpt. H., thanks for sharing your perspective on this issue of personnel, one of the key issues in Gates’ speech. I tend to share my co-blogger’s pessimism about the effect of a speech by the Sec-Def, even a charismatic and popular one like Gates, on what happens in the heart of the Army. But at the very least he tried, and as Captain Hyphen put it in an earlier comment to this post, the audience was as much the cadets at West Point as it was the broader military, so this may have some longer-term ripple effects.

    But against such tentative signs of change it is sobering to read your first-hand accounts of how obtaining civilian degrees has either had no impact, or a negative one even, on a military career. That quotation by Thucydides about scholars and warriors still rings true, even though it doesn’t seem to have much bearing in the real world.

    Hopefully Gates’ speech, much like Petraeus’ article, won’t just encourage a lot of young soldiers to ‘look for those experiences and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions’, but also help turn the Army into an institution that will reward such entrepreneurialism. Continuing the debate is one way of reaching this end, but it will also require well-placed leaders in the bureaucracy to push it in the right direction. Gates’ words fuels the discussion and sets the tone, and it is critical it does not die down when he is succeeded. It is also critical the draw-down from Afghanistan does not engender any complacency about ‘business as usual’ – the Army and nation will always need broad thinkers to join and lead its armed forces, whether the US is at war or in a time of relative peace.

  19. Charles says:

    So, after deciding to read the speech myself, I started wondering about above comments relating to how Gates was not only speaking to the Cadets, but to the military as a whole. I suggest you read the speech yourself, particularly the first few paragraphs – I think it may clear this point up.

    To me his speech simply reads that the Army should now be preparing for what it has been doing for the past 50 years: A little bit of everything. Rather than remaining a large conventional Army, it should incorporate all elements of warfighting and peacetime duties, so that it can be a flexible, useful force.

    And it’s only taken them this long to figure it out. Good luck, I will be watching with interest…

  20. Ciera Fales says:

    Fantastic analysis . I Appreciate the details ! Does someone know if my assistant can access a template IRS 1040 – Schedule E example to complete ?

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