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January 11, 2012


It’s a Post-, Post-, Post-COIN World

by Mike M

Arguably the best single line from the new defense guidance was the one that recognized one of the most obvious facts of American strategic-political life:  The era of post-9/11 full-scope COIN is over.  “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations,” the document declares, without much elaboration.

Amen, brother.

We have learned a lot of things since 2001, but some of the burning truths of the post-9/11 era would not appear to be:

  1.  America has infinite tolerance for distant, expensive COIN campaigns.
  2. The U.S. military enjoys participating in same.
  3. U.S. combat forces, for all their unquestioned competence and courage, are the ideal instrument to shove into alien lands to root out insurgent groups tightly nested into fantastically complex tribal societies.
  4. We have lots of money left to pay for such adventures.
  5. COIN campaigns reliably work.
  6. There are no alternatives to full-scope COIN to keep ourselves secure from the one threat that motivated this whole decade-long misadventure—terrorist groups with global reach.

And so forth.  Bottom line, it is time to move on.

And so one has to wonder about comments like the following, in response to the guidance, from Paul Miller, writing at the Shadow Government blog at Foreign

“The abandonment of a decade’s worth of investment and grinding experience in stability operations is a dangerous risk that willfully ignores the realities of the contemporary security environment.  Weak and failing states, and the rogue actors who operate within them, represent a real threat to regional and global stability.  In response, the U.S. and UN have launched more than two dozen stabilization and reconstruction efforts between them since the Cold War—averaging about one per year—and there is no sign that demand for such operations is easing.  We have gradually and painfully improved our ability to execute such missions, and they are a real contribution to U.S. national security.  Cutting back on stability operations now will throw away our hard-fought gains and expose us to new risks from across the globalizing, fragile world.”

Well, the guidance doesn’t say “abandon,” for one thing—it says preserve, but in embryonic form.  Such an approach is possible.

Weak and failing states represent a threat … mostly to themselves.  We need to pound this hoary conventional wisdom into the dust.  The United States is not going to be sending Marine brigades into Yemen, Somalia, or any other WAFS.  We will deal with the threats they disgorge to the extent they intersect our interests—piracy, terrorism, internet hoaxes.  We have neither the knowledge, nor the effective tools, nor the resources, nor the patience to rebuild these societies, except as fairly light-touch “advisors” on the old model.

Only by counting dozens of relatively benign UN stability operations can you get to “one per year.”  Counting the large-scale COIN misadventures we’ve embraced since 2001, I get to:  Two per decade.  The list of COIN adventures that have substantially benefited U.S. national interests since 2001:  Zero.  The value of a new doctrine that says we’ll now steer clear of such black holes of national attention and resources:  Priceless.

Have we indeed “gradually and painfully improved” our COIN IQ?  Sure, in some ways.  But why is it, then, that we can’t seem to get the aid/stabilization connection right?  Why don’t we know what to do about a safe haven next door?  Why haven’t we been able to resolve the fundamental dilemma of night raids?

Why haven’t we won, for God’s sake, fighting 20,000 or so Taliban, to take just Afghanistan as an example, after a decade, with all this progressive improvement under our shiny belts?

The more common line I hear from folks is “We haven’t fought ten years of war.  We have fought a one year war, ten times.”

None of this is to deny that lessons are being learned.  Courageous captains and majors have tried hard to set up online learning environments to trade best practices.  The campaign in southern Afghanistan has cleared away a lot of Taliban.  And so on.  But really, to propose all of this as a linear improvement toward expertise that we now risk “losing” is an astonishing stretch.

We have to face it.  America is not built to fight other people’s grinding local wars for them.  We should not do it.  Any doctrine that says we should avoid such wars is for the best.

And you begin to tote up some of these quiet but directional strategic judgments in defense—out of Iraq, it’s in our rear view mirror; yes, dammit, a timeline for Afghanistan; it’s time to let our gay fellow citizens serve openly in the military; let’s get past COIN.  On at least on a half-dozen fronts, as basic choices pass their desks, the Obama folks manage to make the right call and do it in a way that avoids a debilitating debate.  Something to note, perhaps.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jon Wong
    Jan 12 2012

    Somehow, I don’t think COIN will be left in any embryonic/inactive state. Despite the legions of officers and NCOs who have drank the COIN Kool-Aid and have relevant COIN experience (and I count myself among them), keeping COIN in the freezer just isn’t possible because COIN cannot taught. It can only be experienced. Unless we intend for our conventional forces to undertake the same mission sets as our Army Special Forces did in the pre-9/11 era, we are deluding ourselves by thinking that we keep COIN around. I submit that COIN must be painfully re-learned every time we decide to use it (and I’m not saying that it is a good idea).

  2. Monk
    Jan 15 2012

    Amen. As Jon states, one can only glean so much from a ‘lessons learned’ file. Experience is the true education–and I hope no one suggests we should keep COIN activities alive in order to keep the capability alive–a capability that has proven less than adequate. Our Special Forces are designed and trained for such efforts–and that is one of the aspects that makes them special. But a conventional force to engage in such efforts as a matter of course is unrealistic and counterproductive. Granted, if we had not gotten distracted in Iraq, and had put those resources towards the COIN effort, military and civil, in Afghanistan in 2003, we would indeed be examining an entirely different palette today.

  3. Matt J
    Jan 17 2012

    We’ll retain a great deal of institutional memory on COIN (at least within those parts of DoD and the government at large that have actually adapted in any significant way to its demands over the last decade). It’s not likely, as Jon observes, that we will consciously invest in a significant way to retain any kind of IW capability in our conventional forces. In the absence of any strongly mandated, paradigm-shifting strategic guidance, the services will instead, in time-honored fashion, shrink their focus to preferred, traditional core competencies under budget pressure.

    A point that comments such as Paul Miller’s miss in lamenting our “abandonment” of ten years’ COIN experience is that there are many different kinds of COIN. COIN following invasion by an external actor (particularly one with the kind of overwhelming global stature the U.S. even now enjoys) looks a lot like conquest, and since COIN is fundamentally a fight over the legitimacy of governance that puts you on a tough road right from the start. Regrettably, that’s the business we took on over the last decade in both Afghanistan and Iraq. COIN conducted on a smaller scale in support of a host-nation government with the will to reform itself enough to govern effectively and legitimately remains conceivable (I think this is what Mike means by “fairly light touch ‘advisors’ on the old model”), and much of the individual knowledge our people will retain in the normal course of things will be relevant to any such efforts we may choose to undertake in future.

    Mike’s central point, paraphrased roughly as “we are bad at [large-scale] COIN, engaging in it produces extremely limited strategic benefit, and we should never do it again,” is spot-on as the bottom line of the last sorry decade. The significant tactical progress some parts of our military have made in conducting these operations has not been consistently matched by similar competence or commitment across the full spectrum of governmental capabilities which have to work in harness with the military to produce lasting political outcomes (in war generally, and COIN particularly). Mike’s numbered point 1 suggests that popular support has been a problem; respectfully, I don’t believe it, though many have argued similarly. The all-volunteer force and the borrow-it-all fiscal plan have ensured (as intended) that the American public fundamentally does not care all that much about the progress of our military adventures. If they did, they wouldn’t have given us as much time as they have. Greater problems have been lack of overall all-of-government competence, the basically intractable nature of the challenge once it’s been defined as “influence the behavior of individuals by changing the social milieu that produces them,” or, more accurately, both together – bad strategy married to incompetent execution.

    I am not convinced that the nature of the current or future global environment is or will be such that we will, willy nilly, have to engage in large-scale COIN to defend our fundamental interests. There are smarter, less expensive, and likely more effective ways to do that, even given the complexity of the challenges we’re likely to face. Even those who don’t agree with me on this need to ask themselves very soberly why we think we’ll be any better at large-scale COIN the next time we attempt it than we have proven to be to date.


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