It’s a Post-, Post-, Post-COIN World
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.
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:
- America has infinite tolerance for distant, expensive COIN campaigns.
- The U.S. military enjoys participating in same.
- 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.
- We have lots of money left to pay for such adventures.
- COIN campaigns reliably work.
- 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 Policy.com:
“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.