Will COIN go Gentile into that good night?
Colonel Gian Gentile at WPR argues that the US Army must put away tactical things of counterinsurgency and assume the responsibilities of strategy:
There is perhaps no better measure of the failure of American strategy over the past decade than the fact that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, tactical objectives have been used to define victory. In particular, both wars have been characterized by an all-encompassing obsession with the methods and tactics of counterinsurgency. To be sure, the tactics of counterinsurgency require political and cultural acumen to build host-nation governments and economies. But understanding the political aspects of counterinsurgency tactics is fundamentally different from understanding core American political objectives and then defining a cost-effective strategy to achieve them. If it is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past decade, American strategic thinking must regain the ability to link cost-effective operational campaigns to core policy objectives, while taking into consideration American political and popular will….
Dr. Gentile is spot on here, but with a caveat that a serving officer cannot readily state: the political class and civilian leadership
of the USG are failing to provide the American military with the appropriate grand strategic and policy guidance
with which to build the strategic bridge between policy and operational art. This is not a small problem.
The military cannot – and more importantly should not under our constitutional system – be the sole arbiters or enunciators of American strategy. The proper role of the senior military leadership are as junior partners working hand in glove with policy makers and elected officials to fit the use of military force or coercive threat of force with our other levers of national power to advance American interests at acceptable costs to the American people. If the military’s civilian superiors cannot or do not take the lead here in crafting strategy, the US military is unable to step into that inherently political vacuum and it would be an usurpation for them to try. Operational art is as far as they can go on their own authority while remaining on safe constitutional ground.
Rather than seeing the past 10 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as a potent reminder of war’s complexity and, more importantly, of the limits to what it can accomplish, the American military has embraced the idea that better tactics can overcome serious shortcomings in strategy and policy. The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said thousands of years ago that “strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory,” but “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Though still relevant, Sun Tzu’s brilliant formulation of the relationship between tactics and strategy is nowhere to be found in current American strategic thinking.
I fear the real stumbling block is that a coherent and effective national strategy is viewed suspiciously in some quarters as a constraint on the tactical political freedom of action of policy makers and politicians to react in their own self-interest to transient domestic political pressures. This view is correct – adopting a strategy, while an iterative process – involves opportunity costs, foreclosing some choices in order to pursue others. Having a realistic strategy to acheive specific ends with reasonable methods and affordable costs is generally incompatible with “keeping all options open”.
Even on purely domestic issues, which politicians have greater familiarity and expertise than foreign and military affairs, the debacle with the borrowing limit and the “supercommittee” demonstrate we have a political class in Washington that is virtually allergic to making choices or assessing costs clearly and honestly. They see even less well in matters of war and peace.
….Future threats for U.S. ground forces promise to be quite lethal, ranging from state-on-state warfare to hybrid warfare to low-end guerilla warfare. Constabulary forces based on light infantry and optimized for wars like Iraq and Afghanistan will be highly vulnerable and open to catastrophic destruction in this lethal, future environment. Instead, future land battlefields demand a ground force built around the pillars of firepower, protection and mobility. Moreover, this future ground force needs to be able to move and fight in dispersed, distributed operations in an age where the accessibility of weapons of mass destruction makes a ground force that concentrates vulnerable to annihilation. Much will have to change in order to transform the Army and Marines to ground formations of this type, but that transformation is critical, and it will not be accomplished if military thinkers remain obsessed with counterinsurgency tactics.
To build American ground formations for an unpredictable future, counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan offer very few strategic guideposts. To argue otherwise is to commit the U.S. Army and Marines to strategic irrelevance in the years and decades ahead.
I would guarantee that the US will be plagued with irregular warfare for as long as we have to co-exist with the rest of the world. What is probable, in my view, is that we are quite likely to face several different kinds of serious security threats at the same time – say, a terror-insurgency spilling over from Mexico coinciding with a possible conventional war with a regional power while also defending against a run on the dollar if China tries to “Suez” the US during a third country crisis. The luxury of different threats in convenient sequence is unlikely to happen and American military capabilities must be broad and adaptive.
Hat tip SWJ Blog