In the decade during which the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have defined in large measure American (and Western) military activities, the matter of COIN has received no small measure of consideration and discussion. It will be for future historians to hash out the assessments of what was done. Here I only wish to consider the effect of the American military’s efforts as a counter-insurgent and how this will influence the armed forces in the decades to come.
These musings first arose in response to a recent article by Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times (27 May), “West Point is Divided on a War Doctrine’s Fate,” which highlights the Army’s internal debate over the issue, as played out in the halls of the institution’s oldest academy. When asked what had been gained from the COIN doctrine and the strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan it had inspired, with particular attention to the costs and the scope of the efforts, Colonel Gian Gentile, military historian, professor, and a veteran of Iraq, offered a succinct response: “Not much.”
There is no shortage of voices within West Point, the Army, the American military establishment, and in the commenting population at large to offer all manner of contrasting opinions to those of Colonel Gentile, but it is his position that spurred my thinking. His opinions in this matter are important, but I have trouble reading them as quite so black and white as his comment suggests.
First, his judgment in this particular piece seems more a critique of the guiding policies regarding Iraq and Afghanistan rather than a wholesale denial that sound COIN doctrine and strategy have any value. That is, the problem has really been with the choices to commit not only to regime change but also extensive state building in each country. The case for the latter choice was arguably weak, especially for Iraq, but that is a different matter from whether COIN is or was a sensible military strategy to pursue. Thus, the lack of success in either conflict ought to accrue to bad policy and not doctrinal errors.
Second, one must ask what would have resulted in either of those campaigns had no COIN effort been implemented. The lack of a rousing success for COIN does not necessarily mean that conventional strategies and tactics would have brought better results. In fact, given the difficulties there have been even in a COIN-dominated effort one can plausibly argue that conventional approaches would have proved even more damaging to the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so, I certainly do not think it sensible that the COIN baby should be tossed out with the water as the interventions wind down. I am no blindly worshipful disciple of John Nagl, but his comment in the article is spot on: “Does COIN work? Yes….Is it worth what you paid for it? That’s an entirely different question.”
Third, understanding a bit about the broader scope of his position, Colonel Gentile’s significant concern is with the effect upon the Army as a whole and his concern that COIN will overtake the institution to the exclusion of other forms of warfare. I agree with him that a wholesale reorientation to and adoption of the capabilities for COIN warfare as the Army’s sole purpose would not be wise. However, by the same token, a narrowly construed focus upon and strict adherence to conventional warfare is equally wrong-headed. Unless there is an extant enemy or war impending it is best not to pigeon-hole military capabilities. In this critique his may resonate more than people are considering, a point for consideration below.
Beyond arguing for a particular understanding of this piece of history, the article leads me to consider the influence and implications of the history. As it is the path that was chosen, what can we make of the decade since COIN became the strategic and tactical cause célèbre of American military defence policy?
The foray into COIN with an earnestness never before seen (at least not in the American military establishment) should have been a valuable interlude for the American armed forces. To think through an unfamiliar form of warfare is an exercise which can benefit military capabilities as well as the intellectual depths, flexibility and creativity of the personnel.
The latter effect cannot be doubted. The former inspires reason for pause, if not concern.
Let us consider the good news. Taking only the internet activity as the indicator, American military personnel have made great use of the opportunity created by the rise of COIN. The discussions, debates and ideas generated from the need to adopt and adapt to a new doctrine as well as the specific concerns arising within each theatre (and down to even more localized fronts within each) has been nothing short of spectacular. Truly, impressive stuff, whether it was in information sharing, ownership and refinement of the doctrine to reflect lessons’ learned, or increased interest and inclination to look to the broad historical record on the subject for further knowledge or understanding. Additionally, the COIN years, if approached correctly, could help the process of anticipating the next form that asymmetric warfare will take. Even if not, the mere exercise of imaging such possible forms will improve the capabilities to adapt when that next challenge does arise. Finally, even Colonel Gentile’s critique of the rise and influence of the newest iteration of COIN doctrine is part of this intellectual flowering within the armed forces. Whether his position is correct or widely held is less important that its existence or the furthered discussion on the matter that it has impelled.
Why am I concerned about the future effect of this experience in COIN? On several fronts I see evidence of disturbing trends. Consider the matters of casualty and discomfort aversion. Iraq and Afghanistan have seen nearly unimaginable efforts to soften the experience of war, at any cost, while endeavouring mightily to limit (also at any cost) American exposure to harm. With respect to the matter of comforts, the logistics costs have been astronomical, and they are likely to be unsustainable in the future. More worrying have been the step taken to limit risk to American personnel, the worst of which has been the rise of the UAV as a weapon of war. I have not quite given over to Doctrine Man’s fear of the rise of SkyNet, but the increased reliance on these weapons is troubling enough in non-apocalyptic scenarios. Taking only one aspect of this issue for consideration to believe that we can fight wars without incurring risk for the personnel is foolish beyond measure. I particularly fear that should we limit the exposure to the military we will simply invite our enemy to target the homeland and population. I do not (as I feel I must constantly repeat) despise or hold cheaply the lives of those in uniform, but neither do I believe we must make them so precious as to become useless or irrelevant. Cold fact though it may be, better the armed forces than the Sears Tower. Finally, having given over fully to COIN in the past decade, there is no denying the loss of certain military capabilities. Taking one branch as an example, artillery is practically a lost art. Where there existed a broad spectrum of capabilities in mass and maneuver, application in Iraq and Afghanistan has narrowed usage considerably. Furthermore, officers who entered that field at the start of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and now represent the newest generation of field-grade officer, have limited experience in their military specialty. And artillery is not the only area in which ground has been lost. How the armed forces will deal with these deficits, especially with this critical weakness at the middle ranks of leadership, is a matter of no small concern.
Beyond these are even deeper, more troubling issues. The real problem for the armed forces and the defense intelligentsia, with respect to COIN and other issues, will be the consequences of perceived defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Across the Atlantic, to the other Times, the concerns and ideas of a British journalist coming to terms with his country’s participation in OEF (“The Army hasn’t pulled out. So why have we?” 14 July 2012) give me pause. In this opinion piece filled with pathos regarding the individual experience and cost of war for British personnel, Matthew Parris’ concluding remarks should be considered in the American case as well. Pointing out that “there is decency in losing a war well, in facing up to a mistake,” he goes on to argue that “we can learn, can’t we?”
But can we? While I don’t fully agree with the totality of his opinions as to the specific mistakes and the lessons to be taken, for the American side of things, certain aspects of our character in war give reason for concern in this area. Simply put, we do not lose wars well. America ad Bellum, the manner in which we go to war, is extreme in the existential terms in which wars are written. For a public not generally inclined to war or conflict as a matter of course or rational policy, support is usually generated by casting the struggle as a necessary and noble cause. This works well for getting the people behind a policy, but it makes defeat difficult to sell or accept. Furthermore, we are generally not good at admitting mistakes and tend to seek external sources for blame. And so, the most common popular explanation for events in the Vietnam War is that the media was to blame for defeat, an explanation which defies every effort to be put down as it sensibly should. These characteristics do not bode well for the quality of future analyses or the lessons that will be learned from these conflicts.
What hath COIN wrought, indeed.