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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
- Andrew Bacevich (The Petraeus Doctrine);
- Chris Preble (The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous and Less Free)
- John Mueller (How Dangerous Are the Taliban?)
- Mike Mazarr (The Folly of ‘Asymmetric War’)
- Col. Gian Gentile (Our COIN doctrine removes the enemy from the essence of war)
- 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)