Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Was Counterinsurgency Worth It?

With all due respect to my friend Christopher Preble, I think we are giving Counterinsurgency in the broad sense a bad name that could do long term harm to our military.  I think the more appropriate question(s) is was the US strategy worth it? Or was the US strategy correct and effective?  Or, did we appropriately adjust strategy assuming we assessed the problems and threats correctly as they were evolving?    

COIN is a necessary capability in which we must maintain proficiency within the complete spectrum of US military capabilities.  I think it is appropriate and necessary to question how we did things, how we developed and applied the doctrine but we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater and as we did in 1975 and toss COIN out the window and purge it from our schools and training organizations because we may have had the wrong strategy and policies.  The real focus must be on the strategic questions.  COIN is merely one method or way to support accomplishment of the strategic ends.  It is not the strategy.  We should not have a COIN strategy or even a COIN campaign just as we should not have UW strategy or UW campaign or a Major Combat Operations Strategy or a Major Combat Operations Campaign.  None of our doctrinal terms should be in the "name" of the strategy or in the "name" of the campaign.  Our strategies and campaigns should be described in plain language without resort to military jargon (COIN, UW, MCO, FSO, etc) and describe ends, ways, and means, and tasks and purposes in ways that are understood by senior policy makers and political leaders, military professionals, our friends, partners and allies and the general public.  If we cannot explain it in plain language it is very possible that we cannot succeed.

 We really need to focus on our real weaknesses: strategy and policy and the proper communication and implementation of them.  If we get those right the military will effectively support them.

I think the argument that GEN Petraeus felt he had to "drive a wedge in Army and mainstream thinking and broaden the official definition of war" is really an indictment of our incorrect and poor strategy.  Had we developed a strategy that called for the methods of COIN our military would have adapted a lot sooner.  But, according to the popular narrative anyway, GEN Petraeus had to drive the change in strategy from the bottom up (though as we know there were many units in the Army and Marine Corps who were practicing effective COIN long before FM 3-24 was even conceived).  

And in regards to an "official definition of war" I think it is interesting to note that in the Joint 1-02 DOD Dictionary Military and Associated Terms there is no definition of war.  There are definitions of insurgency and terrorism but no definition of war.  I looked back as far as the 1994 edition of JP 1-02 and war was never defined; however, insurgency and terrorism are defined in every edition.  So I cannot find an official definition of war in our doctrine.  Therefore I guess the best thing is to stick with the enduring definition of the nature of war: "War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.  As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity – composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone."  This definition defines the nature of war whether it is revolution or insurgency or civil war, terrorism, or state on state or state on non-state actor.  But I digress.

Was Counterinsurgency Worth It?
This article appeared in US News and World Report Online on March 7, 2013.

On Feb. 23, 2006, over one hundred invited guests gathered at Fort Leavenworth to discuss the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine, COIN for short.

The need for such a doctrine was becoming more evident by the day. The war that was supposed to have been a “cakewalk” had turned into a brutal, deadly slog. The war’s advocates had sneered at the suggestion that a large-scale U.S. presence would be required in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s ouster. Three years later, more than 140,000 U.S. troops remained in country, and the last quarter of 2005 had been one of the deadliest since the start of the war.

It would get worse. The day before the group convened in Kansas, Sunni terrorists bombed the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite shrines in the world. The attack would plunge Iraq ever deeper into a sectarian war, with U.S. troops stuck in the middle.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan recounts the discussion among the current and former military officers, academics, policy scholars, and journalists in his latest book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. The group was there to share their honest assessments of a draft field manual on COIN with its authors, chiefly John Nagl, whose book on the British experience in Malaya, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife had become a COIN cult classic, and Conrad Crane of the Army War College. According to Kaplan, “No one in the Army had ever gathered such an eclectic crew in one place for any purpose, certainly not to vet a field manual.”
If we aren’t prepared to invest the time and money—and risk the lives of our troops—then it is better not to become involved in the first place.”

But David Petraeus wasn’t just any American general. He wanted, Kaplan explains, “to drive a wedge into mainstream Army thinking, to broaden and overhaul the official definition of war.” He and his fellow COIN true-believers would wage their own insurgency, of sorts, a low-level information operation aided by friendly journalists whom he cultivated with great care.
(Continued at the link below)

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