More Commentary on COIN is Dead
SWJ Blog – COIN is Alive: Know When to Use it!
In his opinion piece, COIN is Dead: U.S. Army must put Strategy Over Tactics published November 22 in World Politics Review, Colonel Gian Gentile appears to base his argument on the premise that COIN is not a strategy, but rather a collection of methods and tactics. Given his extensive combat experience and his impressive academic accomplishments, it is clear why his analyses of recent operations carry significant weight with leaders at all levels of our Army. However, I am unconvinced that his desire to reduce COIN from doctrine to a collection of methods and tactics is prudent at a time when we appear to be on the cusp of a scientific understanding of what fuels violent group behavior and the establishment of a strategic framework to determine when and where COIN may be best applied.
The scientific approach to the study of war has resided in the backwaters of military theory since the years immediately following the First World War. However, recent advances in evolutionary biology led by Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson are providing insights to what generates warlike behavior within, between, and among groups of the social species, including our species Homo sapiens. Today, evolutionary behavior can be rudimentarily characterized by adaptations that are considered either beneficial toward the individual and their kin, or to a larger group or even a species….
Rethinking Security –COIN-Ish Thoughts
….First, it is a bit too soon for us to hail or mourn the death of COIN. What this represents is the end of COIN as practiced and theorized by elements within the Army and Marine Corps from 2006-2010, just as the Kennedy-era idea of counterinsurgency within elements of the US defense establishment died with Vietnam. The United States has faced insurgencies, terrorists, armed rebellions, guerrillas, partisans, and irregular raiding forces since the early days of colonization. It will continue to do so in the near future as long as American allies, clients, and proxies face irregular threats, although the shape of the response will vary.
Second, COIN, for all of the heat and noise about it, is still rather poorly understood in Iraq and Afghanistan. So much of the debate is weighted down with external baggage, mainly because it was never entirely about Iraq or Afghanistan. Rather, the COIN debate was often a proxy for many different political, professional, interdepartmental, and other battles within the United States political and defense establishments. Ollivant’s paper, and newer research highlights significant uncertainty to cause and effect in both sides of the COIN debate that will likely not be definitely settled soon.
Colin Clark (AOL Defense) –U.S. Military To Scrap COIN; Focus on Pacific, Says Vice Chairman
Omaha: The United States, which rushed to replace and rebuild its ability to wage counter insurgency warfare over the last decade, must plan for a new future in the Pacific and leave COIN behind.
“We are not likely to have as our next fight a counterinsurgency,” he said. While America has been teaching its troops Arabic and other regional languages, training them how to win friends and influence people at the village and provincial levels, “the world has changed,” Winnefeld said. America’s enemies and competitors are “coming up with new asymmetric advantages. They’ve been studying us closely…,” he said. So, “we need to avoid the temptation to look in our rear view mirror.”
Our future conflicts, the vice chairman said, will probably occur “in a far more technically challenging environment.” As he described it, the fight will be much closer to a conventional military conflict, characterized by “intense electronic warfighting,” swarm attacks and cyberwar.
All this is occurring as 20th century’s warfare, characterized by state clashes over “nice bright Westphalian borders” fades to black. Now, “borders are simply fading away,” with cyber best exemplifying this trend. “The border between near and far…has been obliterated by the Internet…,” the admiral said. The border between public and private is fading, as is the divide between companies and countries, with “some companies acting as countries” and some individuals being used by countries as “proxies.”
It is extremely difficult to free military bureaucracies, which are budget-centric, turf-conscious and institutionally track career incentives to the former, from the tyranny of either-or thinking. Bureaucracies as complex organizations are sustained and steered culturally by cherishing and reinforcing simple narratives.
A very few astute individual leaders can shape changes in the organization’s outlook while counterintuitively using the reforms a career accelerant. CIA Director General David Petraeus is both widely admired and bitterly disparaged for having pulled off this rare neat trick with re-establishing COIN within the US Army while rising to four stars, theater and combatant command and Washington “player” status.
Normally, institutional change-agents are like Colonel John Boyd, mavericks, who opt to do something important at the career cost of being somebody important. They try to create something new, sometimes do, but metaphorically perish in the process.
Most members of any organization, civilian or military, simply go with the flow and color within the lines they are given.
November 25th, 2011 at 9:05 pm
So really, this COIN thing is about finding ways to develop and nurture subcultures of warfare within and amongst the services. This cuts to the heart of why we maintain separate services, branches, different tactical air forces for each service, 2 different navies (the USN and USCG), not to mention the different and varied approaches to doctrine in the military. We should consider this when the budget-cutting scalpel—nay—-axe comes out. Much as the defense unification efforts of the late 1940s showed, efforts at streamlining and reducing redundancy are often little more than bureaucratic warfare against The Other Way of fighting. In the 1940s the enemies were the Marines and Carrier Aviation. Today it seems the enemy are COIN practitioners.
This isn’t to say that COIN doctrine represents a strategy–rather its still just a group of tactics and techniques that might occasionally reach into the realm of operational art in terms of scale and effect. But that doesn’t mean that the COIN corpus of knowledge is any less valid than other tactics and techniques. A germ of COIN ought to be kept for the day we may need it again. You never know when that will be.
Hopefully Petraeus managed to develop acolytes to keep and maintain the COIN school, even as the US feels the effects of the coming defense budget bomb and as we shift to the Pacific theater. Boyd’s acolytes were successful in similar times after the Vietnam war. Will we have equal success now? I hope so, but I’m not terribly optimistic.
November 25th, 2011 at 10:58 pm
"We should consider this when the budget-cutting scalpel—nay—-axe comes out. Much as the defense unification efforts of the late 1940s showed, efforts at streamlining and reducing redundancy are often little more than bureaucratic warfare against The Other Way of fighting."
I like to call that armed services tendency to try and eliminate rival doctrines, mission roles and entire services "systematically increasing the probability of a future catastrophic American defeat".
When an enemy acheives nearly 100 % surprise and sinks most of your capital ships and damages the rest, it is nice to have a fleet of carriers that the dreadnought-cruiser-battleship admirals fiercely resisted during the entirety of their careers. It’s a life preserver to have a land arm with a different organizational structure, armaments, warfighting culture and specialized skills from the other and it is smart not to lock up all forms of aerial power under the authority of the USAF, or one parochial subculture within it. Or to separate nuclear launch authority from the military that has physical custody of the warheads. These are disaster-preventers, not wastes of money ( each service wastes money and would continue to do so unless acquisition systems and appropriation process change).
Ideally, COIN should not be shelved and forgotten but studied for lessons learned and new ideas developed to try so when COIN needs to be used someday – and it will- we are not just coming at the enemy with our old TTP playbook
November 26th, 2011 at 12:47 pm
NTL, we can’t get hamstrung by the existing FM 3-24 manual, modern counterinsurgency, and our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan (not really small wars). In the smallest option for military intervention, we could send in one advisor (TE Lawrence) up to a x, y, or z advisers. The number of advisors and what they are doing is equally important. We also have to consider who is conducting the COIN. In both Iraq and A’stan, it was the tendancy of the US to do the work. That is usually counter-productive. Also, we usually get too transfixed with the military option. For a better mixture that takes in Gian Gentiles’s call for strategy (ways, ends, means), I would suggest looking at Plan Colombia.
November 26th, 2011 at 12:50 pm
Also, it may be time to consider 1. when is it proper to intervene to assist to build up a military to prevent a small war and 2. if a conflict erupts, then perhaps we don’t intervene until AFTER the violence passes it’s breaking point. We simply have to have both the tactical and strategic patience to let the situation playout. Of course, that’s assuming that we decided that we need to continue to intervene in others’ affairs.
November 26th, 2011 at 10:22 pm
"For a better mixture that takes in Gian Gentiles’s call for strategy (ways, ends, means), I would suggest looking at Plan Colombia." Really? To me Colombia looks too much like the Old West. While great as an insurgency-killer, coming up from the south, it is not a great advancement in "civilization". On the other hand, the much forgotten Philippines, soon to be in the "operational" area of our Special Operating Forces, a better End?
November 26th, 2011 at 11:10 pm
Just saying, by the pictures on my Facebook feed :))
November 27th, 2011 at 1:29 am
Larry- agree on Philippines. Disagree on Colombia- Org structure and tasks for political advisors to include judicial and economic reform make it an interesting one to study. Also, limits on military roles and capabilities.
November 27th, 2011 at 1:39 am
Hi Mark, nice piece.
What I find interesting is that the author is basically saying our next war will be with China.
“Our future conflicts, the vice chairman said, will probably occur “in a far more technically challenging environment.” As he described it, the fight will be much closer to a conventional military conflict, characterized by “intense electronic warfighting,” swarm attacks and cyberwar.”
Who else fits this bill?
November 27th, 2011 at 4:44 am
Translating the Vice Chairman’s message, IMHO he means the potential enemies are:
1. (First, Second and Third)The Land Arms of the US military whose COIN wars’ immense supplemental appropriation needs have "starved" the Navy-USAF big ticket weapons programs for the past decade . See the whole saga of F-35/F-22/LCS and the Army’s own FCS. There will be an al out battle to protect Navy-USAF programs from the budget axe.
2. China (fabled Near Peer competitor) – how the US and China will fight a major war without collapsing each other’s and the global economy gets left unexplained. Chinese superhawks can’t explain it either but they can get the CCP politburo to budget for it.
3. The Aspiring Regional Hegemons of the Moment and heavily militarized rogue states
Pride of place goes to Syria, Iran and North Korea in that order. Outlier candidates include Pakistan (this would be fiercely denied by the DOD-JCS but Pakistan richly deserves listing by any emprical standard of irresponsible state behavior) Venezuela and Burma, the latter of which which is trying to get out from under this cloud of late. Further (much further) out in terms of probability are a hypothetical Islamist dictatorship in Turkey that exits NATO or Egypt that breaks it’s peace treaty with Israel and renews hostilities.
Basically, these states do not have to constitute an existential threat but have just enough air defense and hardened command and control to make their airspace "non-permissive" to US/NATO.
The Vice Chairman, however, ignores the largest non-nuclear, immediate-short term potential security threat to the United States – a collapse of Mexico and spread of narco-insurgency to the American southwest and urban centers. A low tech, COIN-CT type threat.
November 27th, 2011 at 1:27 pm
The basic argument to my piece was about American strategy and a call for a critical look at what the last 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has gotten the United States in terms of strategic gain. In my view, little to nothing. Oh sure one can point to this operational success (e.g., Surge in Iraq) or some tactical successes (e.g. Sadr city 2008 or south eastern afghanistan 2010) but those are just that: operational and tactical successes. Yet they have not been brought together to form any kind of strategic and core policy aim. To be sure senior army leaders are fond of tutoring us on the need for "poltical patience" to allow the tactics of pop centric coin to work, but that tutoring is essentially a militaristic one which excludes the real need for policy to consider time as an essential element of strategy. The damage done by Coin after all of these years is to place the dictates of the tactics of coin over strategy and policy.
So to sum up what is dead is the idea that Coin as an operational method over the last 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has achieved any appreciable strategy or policy gain. It has not. Yet army leaders and some policy makers still cling to these wars as a trove of lessons learned for the future. This to me is tantamount to having the British after the disastorous Galipoli Campaign in 1915 saying afterwards that in fact it was a success and it offered many lessons for the future.
thanks mark for highlighting my piece on your excellent blog
November 27th, 2011 at 6:18 pm
Congrats on your piece – it made a large wave last week!
"So to sum up what is dead is the idea that Coin as an operational method over the last 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has achieved any appreciable strategy or policy gain. It has not."
The perception among civilian politicos is, I suspect, that COIN /surge was an operational tourniquet on a severe military wound that averted an enormous policy disaster for the US and a political crisis for the Bush administration at home ( outright defeat and forced withdrawal from Iraq by rising antiwar sentiment in Congress). This would not be a strategic viewpoint but I think it is a rough approximation of what is believed by many influential ppl who operate with a short-term political calculus and little genuine interest in the details of military affairs. There’s a cognitive/cultural gap between the political class of elected officials and staff and the military and related civilian national security strategists.
"Yet army leaders and some policy makers still cling to these wars as a trove of lessons learned for the future. This to me is tantamount to having the British after the disastorous Galipoli Campaign in 1915 saying afterwards that in fact it was a success and it offered many lessons for the future."
Well….Gallipoli held the lesson of how not to conduct a major campaign based on an amphibious invasion! 🙂
Failure is a good teacher but an expensive one
November 27th, 2011 at 10:03 pm
I’m glad America is coming home. We can reclaim the purity we lost in World War I. Once again, we can be unspotted before the world. The U.S. Army can return to its original role as a pop-centric constabulary focused on bringing civilization to wild savages living in remote regions…oh wait.
November 28th, 2011 at 4:40 pm
As we go into the COIN rewrite conference next week – what a great time for this debate and provocation of thought. Truly, COIN is part of the playbook which you use to accomplish a larger strategic goal.
However, while I agree wholeheartedly with Gian’s position, I feel sympathy with those who fear we will "lose" COIN skills all over again and be forced to relearn them at a later date, in another conflict, with another price tag in blood. Their fears are not without merit – the truth of the matter is that we actually had a COIN pub going into Iraq and Afghanistan – indeed, a fairly good one. Even the old 1978 Marine Corps manual for the infantry company possessed a COIN section. Sure, both examples were dated – very focused on Mao and People’s Revolutionary War – but the classic COIN principles, expressed by those such as Manwaring and recently reiterated in the RAND study "Victory Has a Thousand Fathers," were evident. Did those pubs help us? Apparently not – we had to "rediscover" anew what we had once already learned and taken the time to codify.
So this then is the real fear, and the reality. Because we can only guess about what future conflicts will look like, and because we only have so much time and money, we are forced to pick and choose which skill sets we keep, which we archive, which we discard. Will the US ever commit significant forces into a jungle environment again? Probably, but the remnant of the skill set is a publication last updated in 1982 and a small slice of "Jungle Warfare Training Center" in Okinawa maintained by the Marine Corps. Or combined arms maneuver warfare? Twice in ten years this was trumpted as dead, we would never deploy tens of thousands of ground troops in large division and corps formations – but we did. Where is that skill set now? Or amphibious warfare – we conduct amphibious operations all of the time, but most of the Marines on active duty at the moment have never been on ship.
The real issue is not whether COIN is so much dead or alive, or whether high intensity conflict is dead or alive, but what we feel the future holds and how firmly should we continue to grasp on to this or that particular skill set. You can’t do everything well, you can’t do everything even half-assed…risk must be accepted, resources must be massed. This is the crux of the question…
November 29th, 2011 at 2:59 am
I had not realized the COIN re-write was coming up that quickly. There’s a lot from the last decade to digest and put into context with the larger historical picture. A few thoughts on your comment:
"The real issue is not whether COIN is so much dead or alive, or whether high intensity conflict is dead or alive, but what we feel the future holds and how firmly should we continue to grasp on to this or that particular skill set. You can’t do everything well, you can’t do everything even half-assed…risk must be accepted, resources must be massed."
My suggestion would be to formally de-couple the tactical skills of COIN from seamless association with the Maoist model as a strategic paradigm. Insurgency is more likely to be subnational or transnational because it’s a cheaper, faster and easier scale on which to wage war as a means to another end ( establishing a TAZ, protecting illicit trade networks, punishing local rivals, sectarian/ethnic autonomy, secession etc.) than a multi-decade task of taking over a nation-state. Most of those problems are more affordably tackled with FID assistance and some combination of CT and air power. COIN then becomes another "normal" tool for executing a campaign, like combined arms, instead of a strategy substitute or being demonized and erased.
Where an insurgency *is* following a Maoist model then the strategic question can more easily be identified kicked upstairs from the uniformed military to the NSC level because it is really there that we should be deciding "Can we live with these ppl winning? What are we willing to pay to stop that outcome?". A majority of regimes that have an indigenous insurgency frankly earned it through elite self-dealing and autocratic repression. Stinginess with aid and diplomatic tough love should condition greater future aid to the client first removing their worst abuses. Our tendency to play Santa Claus too soon is counterproductive.
November 30th, 2011 at 4:52 pm
I think we are in violent agreement…there are many "given ends" for choosing insurgency as a "means" – it may be to overthrow an existing government or social order, or it could be more limited to autonomy, secession, grievance mitigation, etc. In any event, just as light infantry would choose to face armor in wooded hills, a weak opponent might choose insurgency as the best means available to meeting their goals. Within this context COIN is also a tool – one among many. How sharp do we keep this tool, or do we put it back in the barn for another time – that remains the question. In my humble opinion, which is Marine, expeditionary, and small wars centric, we spend a lot more time in the realm of small wars than we do on the tidal flats of Tarawa, ergo COIN should remain in good repair in the toolbox.