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On COIN and an Anti-COIN Counterrevolution?

Had a pleasant and interesting email conversation with the always thoughtful Dr. Bernard Finel of The American Security Project ( that link is the blog, here is the main site for the org). Dr. Finel has been blogging vigorously and very critically of late about COIN becoming conventional Beltway wisdom, a premise he does not accept nor believe to be a useful strategic posture for the United States. It was a good discussion and one that I would like the readers to join.

Due to space limitations, I’m going to give the links and some small excerpts for each of Dr. Finel’s posts, but I strongly recommend reading his arguments in full before going on to my assessment:

Did we Really Ever Have an Afghanistan Debate?

The issue isn’t that people like Exum haven’t considered the issue individually.  I am sure he has.  Many others have also considered the issue, and many have shared their concerns with one another, but it has been, for years, in the context a shared consensus that has actively sought to exclude real disagreement.  It is not about doing due diligence on the policy, it has been about reinforcing the group identity about supporters of expansion of the war in Afghanistan.

The Incoherence of COIN Advocates: Andrew Exum Edition 

But unfortunately, the prerequisites are actually virtually impossible to achieve.  The Afghan government does not have the tax base, infrastructure, expertise, or – significantly – the inclination to build the kind of military and institutional capacity that our strategy requires from the local partner.  Furthermore, the desire to curtail corruption runs counter to the desire to secure the cooperation of provincial leaders.  We are setting the Afghans up to fail.  And unfortunately, setting the Afghans up to fail is a win-win scenario for the COIN theorists.  If, by some miracle, the Afghan government is able to meet our needs, we will claim credit for having given the Afghans a model to achieve.  If the Afghans fail, then any negative consequences will be the fault of the Afghans.

Important Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan

Defeating the current “population security” focused COIN approach is not that hard conceptually.  All the insurgents have to do is reverse the dynamic, by making a U.S. presence synonymous with increased violence.  The logic of population security then forces the counter-insurgent to move the population into more secure locations – minimally with checkpoints and controls over movement, but historically often also into fortified camps or villages (which quickly take on the characteristics of a prison).  Either way, the costs of the American provided “security” begins to look worse than the risks from the insurgents, who – if they are smart – are looking for little other than tolerance from the population.

Tom Ricks and COIN

So, I am confused.  Does Ricks think that the new COIN doctrine works, but is not always well implemented?  Does he believe that it produces short-term security improvements, but no long-term political benefits?  Does he think COIN is a failed doctrine, but nevertheless the best chance we have to rescue bad situations? Is he a closet COIN skeptic, but under pressure to toe the party line at CNAS?

Widening the Debate on COIN

Fourth, it behooves those of us who would like to see the debate transformed to actually include a list of potential alternate experts.  With all due respect to Matt Yglesias (Politico Only Knows Conservative Experts), who often writes about how progressives are often labeled as something other than “serious,” he’s not on the list.  He’s smart, but if I were putting together a list of people I’d like to see advising McChrystal, he wouldn’t be on it.  But here is who I would like to see on it, along with a representative example of their arguments:

  1. Andrew Bacevich (The Petraeus Doctrine);
  2. Chris Preble (The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous and Less Free)
  3. John Mueller (How Dangerous Are the Taliban?)
  4. Mike Mazarr (The Folly of ‘Asymmetric War’)
  5. Col. Gian Gentile (Our COIN doctrine removes the enemy from the essence of war)
  6. And even… if I may… little old me (Afghanistan is Irrelevant)

At the very least… McChrystal would benefit from having some members of this group formally “red team” his evolving strategy… before the Taliban does

In the last post, Dr. Finel cites a blogfriend, Fester at Newshoggers, whose post merits inclusion here- Closing the Overton Window on COIN.  Nothing wrong with red-teaming ( add John Robb to that list).

I shared my initial reaction with Dr. Finel and have continued to think about the subject of COIN and the anti-COIN banner that he and others like Col. Andrew Bacevich and Col. Gian Gentile have raised.  Here is more or less what concerns me in this debate.

First, it is not my impression that Andrew Exum is trying to set up a blame-shifting scenario with the Afghans to vindicate COIN. Exum may not always be correct, I certainly am not, but his written arguments strike me as straightforward and inellectually honest even when I disagree with them ( such as his predator op-ed with Dr. Kilcullen). Some of the questions re: Afghanistan/COIN/Iraq are speculative/experimental in nature and do not come with a hard and fast answer until a policy or tactic is implemented, tried and evaluated.

Has the debate been closed or limited to those in favor of intervention? I don’t think so, though one side was better organized and more effective at addressing concrete problems. I’m certain Dr. Finel is referring here to the broad community of defense intellectuals-military theorists- national security think tankers and the MSM figures covering that ground rather than the public at large, but even there, COIN gained policy ascendancy because:

1) The  “Big Army, the artillery, B-52’s and Search & Destroy=counterinsurgency” approach proved to be tactically and strategically bankrupt in Iraq. It failed in Mesopotamia as it failed in the Mekong Delta under Westmoreland – except worse and faster. Period.

2) The loudest other alternative to COIN at the time, the antiwar demand, mostly from Leftwing extremists, of immediately bugging-out of Iraq, damn the consequences, was not politically palatable even for moderately liberal Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans.

If there was a third alternative being effectively voiced at the time before “the Surge”, please point it out to me, I am not seeing it.

Fast forward to today. The problem with COIN is that it is an operational  “How to”doctrine whose primary advocates are very reluctant to step up and deal with formulating a strategic, global, framework for the use of COIN.  Or if they are contemplating the strategic “Why/When” angle right now at CNAS, they are not yet finished doing so. Possibly, some of the reluctance to deal with the plane of strategy stems from most COINdinistas coming from a professional “Powell Doctrine” military culture that emphasizes -no, indoctrinates – thinking at the tactical level and demands that strategic thinking be studiously left to civilian policy makers. Getting a coherent operational paradigm in order, proselytized and grudgingly accepted by the DoD establishment was no small achievement by the COINdinistas. It’s huge.  Unfortunately,with a few exceptions, our civilian policy makers and even moreso our political class are collectively not up to the task of strategic thinking by education, training and political culture (to say nothing of formulating grand strategy) they do not like making choices, accepting risks, setting realistic goals or even think in these terms. Nor is our media making the sort of intellectual contribution to public policy debate that Walter Lippmann made in critiquing George Kennan’s early advocacy of Containment

The critics of COIN, such as Col. Bacevich are largely arguing for a non-interventionist foreign policy as a strategic posture ( a well argued example of that school of thought would be Dr. Chet Richards’ latest book If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration) for the United States, largely waving away the messy tactical and operational realities. Such a position has legitimate pros and cons that deserve being debated on their own merits for the future but for our current difficulties their advice amounts to closing the barn door 8 years after the cow wandered away. It may be time to leave Iraq; Afghanistan, by contrast, presents unsolved problems with al Qaida’s continuing as a functional organization in Paktia and in Waziristan-Baluchistan across the border in Pakistan. While circumstances do not require our turning Afghanistan into the Switzerland of the Hindu Kush, al Qaida is not business that we should leave unfinished.

Debate is healthy and helpful and critics of COIN improve the doctrine by their articulate opposition. America’s problems are a seamless garment that need solutions from the tactical level where practitioners and shooters live, up to the world of strategy and grand strategy inhabited by statesmen and national leaders – who have yet to provide the clear and coherent policy objectives that our military requires to be most effective.

Comments, criticism, complaints welcomed.


Exum responds to Bacevich on the need for an Afghanistan debate. Good post. (Hat tip to Arabic Media Shack)

13 Responses to “On COIN and an Anti-COIN Counterrevolution?”

  1. Dave Anderson Says:

    Zen — thanks for the h/t.  I’m mainly puzzled between the tactical/operational and strategic aims disconnect that COIN advocates are hand-waving aside. 

    As Bernard has noted, COIN in Afghanistan will require a local army that is 3x its current size, well trained, well disciplined and utterly incapable of being supported by the state, a five to ten year extended American combat deployment, significant US public support and a few dump-trucks worth of money.  And those are just the pre-conditions for success which is moving towards a maximalist Switzerland on the Hindu Kush or at least a modern, functioning multi-ethnic nation state with a moderately strong central government and no drug trade. 

    My position has been we are moving away from a broadly supported political/strategic goal — crush the capacity of AQ to conduct long-distance mass casualty strikes from base camps in Afghanistan (which almost everyone reports we have achieved) to far more amphorous goals with high price-tags and low expected pay-offs. 

  2. Read the newest Zenpundit post; one of his best! « Fabius Maximus Says:

    […] post; one of his best! Filed under: Geopolitical news — Fabius Maximus @ 12:00 pm On COIN and an Anti-COIN Counterrevolution? – An email discussion (or interview) with Dr. Bernard Finel of The American Security […]

  3. Must Read Posts « Arabic Media Shack Says:

    […] Read Posts Posted on August 7, 2009 by Rob First I want to highlight this post at Zen Pundit, one of the best posts I’ve seen writen on COIN in a very long time.  […]

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Dave,
    There’s hand waving going on on both sides at different levels of conflict. That’s actually part of the problem here – the two sides are, to an extent, talking past one another about different things, all of which are important and all of which need to be addressed.  It’s that the COIN guys have succeeded in addressing operations which makes our national deficit in strategic thinking look worse in comparison.
    I’m not sure they are all that far apart on some points either, or at least not as far as some of the angry rhetoric might imply. Kilcullen, Nagl and Exum are not crusading interventionists, roaming the Earth, looking for monsters to go slay. They are insisting that it be done well where we are already engaged.
    Finally, I am not in favor of broadening our goals in Afghanistan to the standard of platonic state-building. Afghanistan is a country where "good enough, a fair amount of the time" represents the the realistic Six Sigma. Why harness COIN, a useful tool in the right circumstances, to the unacheivable? ( Not sure if the COINdinstas want to do that either – political yardsticks tend to get defined at the WH/NSC level and then roll downhill).
    Thanks to FM and Arabic Media Shack for the links!

  5. zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » On COIN and an Anti-COIN Counterrevolution? « The Image Says:

    […] via zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » On COIN and an Anti-COIN Counterrevolution?. […]

  6. Joseph Fouche Says:

    This debate starts out with the major protagonists pre-positioned. The major participants in this debate had their ideological hatchets preset decades ago. The course of events, 9-11, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, and their zig-zagging course, is instantly bent, squeezed, and contorted to fit the preexistent narrative. If you are congenitally averse to a strategy of forward-leaning engagement with the world, you are going to be allergic to anything that seems to reinforce the attractiveness of that option. If you hold the opposite perspective, any tool that makes a forward-leaning strategy more attractive (or possible) will come as a liberating wind.

    COIN, as a manifestation of operational, is a strategic instrument. Mastering it is a prerequisite to having a military that can handle a comprehensive range of threats. Being able to play small ball denies enemies the ability to hit you on the low end as much as conventional and nuclear capacity denies them the ability to hit you on the high end. Opening a hole in your defense posture just because you feel it tempts the Madeline Albrights of the world to ask what these magnificant armed forces are for and go adventuring abroad in search of monsters to destroy is just as stupid as unilateral nuclear disarmnament. The United States dropped out of the COIN game after Vietnam and the only result was that the adversaries of this nation found a new vulnerability to hit during the ensuing 50 years. The successful demonstration of COIN competence has important defensive implications as well as the offensive implications that many fear.

    The earliest codes of common law not only punished the perpetrator of a murder but made sure the murder weapon was punished as well. In a similar spirit to the primordial Anglo-Saxons, many want to punish COIN, the tool, along with the tool user. To castigate COIN because of its tie to policies that one side of the debate oppose reminds me of those who oppose the right to bear arms because guns can be used to kill. The answer is the same: COIN doesn’t kill people. P0litics kills people.

  7. Ed Beakley Says:

    Zen, good post, well worth tracking.
    Joseph, very well said.
    I’ve been tracking "this"  opertational thread – if you will – under various terminologies -unconventional warfare, hybrid warfare, irregular warfare, 4GW, the "Crusaders Vs. the tradionalists," plus ops in Afghanistan – and the people – Nagl, Gentil, Hoffman, Kilcullen, Exum, et al. -on Small Wars Journal, Center for Complex Operations (@ NDU),  CNAS, and Abu Muqawama for sometime.  My interest – to discern possible impact of 1) future force make-up decisions (DOD COIN, hybrid focus, etc) and 2) doctrine/TTPs evolving on the risk management equation on the homeland side.

    As quick and of obvious concern example: Impact on National Guard disposition, mission, and training.

    The various website/blog articles and discussions – at least for me – when taken as a whole present a very complex picture. Indeed, though obviously important, sometimes the discussions on Afghanistan and COIN mask the longer term potential problem sets, and sometimes the real subject seems to get mixed. (I have some issues following Bracevich, and have problems with the hard anti-4GW, Boyd context in SWJ)

    Through out it all, there appears to be this hard core mind set that "war" is the only operative word needed, our war today is no more complex than any other, and therefore use of definers "hybrid," 4GW, etc is not only unnecessary but just wrong.  My reading of Max Boot, Nagl’s "Learning to Eat Soup…," Gen Rupert Smith’s "Utility of Force," and Kilcullen’s "Accidental Guerrilla," all tell me something about this "war-is-war" dog might not hunt.

    Mark, hope you intend to keep tracking this.

  8. UNRR Says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 8/8/2009, at <a href="http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/">The Unreligious Right</a>

  9. Jonathan Rubinstein Says:

    Our country is divided, bankrupt and both parties command little respect, even if we have made ourselves dependent on them.  Our national leadership commands no respect and who listens to them?  Clinton was a fool, Obama postures in foreign affairs.  We need an entirely new national security doctrine, not since 2001 but since we accepted OPEC turning our victory in WW2 -cheap oil, into a drug habit that has turned us into debtors.  Do not believe America is finished but thank the lord the American Century is.  We have fought four wars in Asia that has brought us nothing.  We need a national security doctrine that sustains our economic development on sound principles, supports our reindustrialization.  We need a complete overhaul of the Pentagon, our force structure, weapons development and acquisition.  In short, we need to throw the imperial presidency overboard.  We have no border with Mexico, it was abolished by Carter then formalized in NAFTA.  We need to regain control of all our borders, encourage immigration lawfullly, end bilingual education and require English be learned by all immigrants, and even Americans.  If we do not we will become a Banana Empire, powerful, dangerous, blind.  We have a great and talented people, who need to throw off the shackles we have imposed on ourselves, cut Washington down to size by taking a lot of their taxing authority away.  Once the source of progressive hope for many, it is now a nest of special interests, deeply flawed and corrupt.

  10. Afghanistan Links « OnParkStreet Says:

    […] 3. “Did We Really Ever Have an Afghanistan Debate?” – via zenpundit […]

  11. onparkstreet Says:

    "If in the long run we are the markers of our own fate, in the short run we are the captives of the ideas we have created. Only if we recognize the danger in time can we hope to avert it." – Hayek.

    Okay, okay, I know, the above comes from a totally different discussion, but it struck me on reading it again. Something about the current environment makes me want to read the stuff……

    I always thought, perhaps naively, that because much of the Obama campaign rhetoric last fall was dedicated to how we were in danger of losing the Afghanistan war (the ‘good’ war) because of insufficient resources (wrongly diverted to Iraq), that he would do just that if he won the election. Dedicate more resources. Are his advisors stuck in a kind of mental trap because this is what they have been arguing for so many years? Or am I being unfair and overly simplistic?

  12. Ed Beakley Says:

    On the really good analysis/comment side, if you and your readers haven’t discovered yet, there is a very dynamic dialogue on COIN and "why fight in Afghanistan?" on the CNAS/Abu Muqamama blog (http://www.cnas.org/blogs/abumuqawama/2009/08/afghanistan-strategy-dialogue-day-three.html#comments).  Overall context includes either direct quote or refs to former Ranger Andrew Exum, Army Col Gian Gentile, Col Andrew Bacevich, David Killcullen, Col John Nagl, and some others who appear very knowledgeable and/or involved, but are unknown to me.At a different but closely related level is the on-going dicussion at organizations like CNAS and Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University on the "what next mix"  –  COIN, conventional, unconventional, hybrid, fourth generation warfare, iregular warfare  – roles and missions and capability needed as  we move further from 9-11. In a different context, what and how those decisions might impact us on the homeland side is offered on my Project White Horse Forum: http://blog.projectwhitehorse.com/2009/08/08/eei-10/ – Thinking about War: Mitigating and Accepting Risk

  13. HOT5 Daily 8/8/2009 « The Cyber Lifestyle & Tech Blog Says:

    […] Has he called the Code Pink morons who harassed Marines in Berkeley political terrorists? 3. “On COIN and an Anti-COIN Counterrevolution?” Interesting and detailed exchange with Dr. Bernard Finel of The American Security Project. […]

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