Tools vs. Strategies: Or, Why “An” Alternative to COIN is Not “THE” Alternative

Dr. Bernard I. Finel has an important and provocative article in AFJ challenging the current operational primacy of COIN in Afghanistan and Iraq that has stirred a great deal of backchannel and listserv discussion, but not nearly enough open commentary in the blogosphere. I checked an unscientific sampling of COIN blogs and did not find much discussion of Dr. Finel’s article, except one comment at SWJ Blog by respected SWC member Ken White, who called it  a “well stated and logical essay” with a “valid premise”. Finel’s article merits greater attention and debate:

An alternative to COIN

The U.S. military is a dominant fighting force, capable of rapid global power projection and able to defeat state adversaries quickly and at relatively low cost in American lives and treasure. Unfortunately, American leaders are increasingly trying to transform this force into one optimized for counterinsurgency missions and long-term military occupations. A fundamental problem with the adoption of population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine as an organizing principle for American military operations is that it systematically fails to take advantage of the real strengths of the U.S. military.

It is true that not all political goals are achievable through the use of conventional military capabilities. However, “victory” in war is not dichotomous, and the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan – often seen as proving the necessity for COIN-capable forces as well as a commitment to nation-building – demonstrate in reality that the vast majority of goals can be accomplished through quick, decisive military operations. Not all political goals are achievable this way, but most are and those that cannot be achieved through conventional operations likely cannot be achieved by the application of even the most sophisticated counterinsurgency doctrine either.

As a consequence, I believe the U.S. should adopt a national military strategy that heavily leverages the core capability to break states and target and destroy fixed assets, iteratively if necessary. Such a strategy – which might loosely be termed “repetitive raiding” – could defeat and disrupt most potential threats the U.S. faces. While America’s adversaries may prefer to engage the U.S. using asymmetric strategies, there is no reason that the U.S. should agree to fight on these terms.

This essay argues the U.S. can largely defeat threats using conventional capabilities, and that what encourages a desire to engage in long-drawn-out asymmetric conflicts is not the elimination of threats, but rather the unattainable goal of trying to prevent threats from emerging in the future.

Read the rest here.

First, I have some sympathy with Finel’s position that COIN operations generally do not maximize the utility of America’s military comparative advantages and extended nation-building via COIN is a costly investment. Dr. Finel is correct here. I’m certain even David Kilcullen would agree with Finel that America trying to do heavy footprint, pop-centric COIN everywhere and anywhere is unwise and too expensive. We need to sync our military might with our political will as well as our wallet.

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