Gentile: COIN is Dead, Long Live Strategy!


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:

COIN is Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics

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”.

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