Hey Mister, Spare a COIN?


Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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4 Responses

  1. Avatar Roque Nuevo

    I’ve compiled the following list of quotes for the article you linked to that represent your position, that COIN “could succeed tactically and fail strategically. Which – if you are counting at home – is still failure.” If I’m missing something, then tell me so.

    But experts such as Gentile believe any progress was due more to a new US willingness to pay off Sunni insurgents. “I think we have a wrongheaded view of how the surge worked in Iraq,” he says.

    This is the most common critique of the anti war left of the surge and COIN doctrine. I fail to see why this is even a critique. “New US willingness to pay off Sunni insurgents” is an element of COIN strategy in the first place. Without COIN, I doubt that we would have done so, or even tried to form an alliance with them, in the absence of any “payoff.” More importantly, the “payoff” was not even the determining factor. The “payoff” came along with a new willingness to work with the insurgents instead of against them. This can only be attributed to COIN.

    “Victory now is a stable, somewhat democratic Iraqi government – whatever this turns out to be,” says Col. Pete Newell, who has served through all phases of the Iraq war. “Democratic is a very loose term – as democratic as you can be in this part of the world.”

    This assumes that COIN means democracy promotion. But that isn’t the case. COIN advocates a stable, legitimate government that can achieve security for the population as its goal. This can happen with or without democracy. COIN, then, is simply anti tyranny. It requires a government that is accepted by the people, regardless of democratic procedures and so forth. Although it does not mandate anything like “democracy” it does require tolerance of pluralism in society. This kind of tolerance is the minimum requirement for peace and security anywhere, as Europeans have known since the seventeenth century Peace of Westphalia or the principle of cuius regio, eius religio.

    “I think we have a much more realistic view than we did years ago,” says Newell. “But the question is, did we do a poor job of managing expectations? Now, for me and for a lot of the soldiers who have invested two or three years of their lives in this, [victory means] being able to walk out of the country knowing there is a viable security force and a government that is reasonably functioning.”

    This is only a restatement of COIN doctrine, not a critique of it.

    [Gentile] thinks the same thing happened to the Israelis in their disastrous war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006: their skills at “combined arms” – blending infantry, tanks, and artillery – had eroded because they had spent so much time carrying out counterinsurgency operations in the Palestinian territories.

    The conventional wisdom is that Israel lost the 2006 war against Hexbollah. I can only imagine that this is because of the power of Muslim/Hezbollah propaganda and its enablers in the Western media. Israel went to war to stop Hezbollah rocket attacks. Today, there are no Hezbollah rocket attacks. What’s more, Hezbollah is much diminished within the politics of Lebanon. This would count as success if success were measured in a realistic way and Israel was not involved.

    “It was at that CNAS meeting that I heard Nagl … describe that we are in a global counterinsurgency campaign. My head snapped back,” says Bacevich. “If counterinsurgency implies that we have to secure the people, that implies not only protecting them but providing them economic development, creating the institutions of good governance and the elimination of corruption, and that seems to imply that we have to do this everywhere. The phrase ‘protecting the people’ contains enormous ambitions.”
    He argues that if the US public and military become convinced that the way to defeat Al Qaeda means creating societies where they can’t operate at all, the US may have to engage in warfare of one kind or another for decades. “If we win in Afghanistan and we deny the jihadists Afghanistan as a sanctuary, is it then that we have to deny them Somalia, then move on to Yemen?” he asks.

    Nagl is not the only scholar to say that we are in a global counterinsurgency campaign. For example, this is the thesis of Bassam Tibi’s Political Islam, World Politics and Europe. Tibi is a German professor (Goettingen) of international relations of Syrian origin who has been writing about political Islam for forty years. His contribution to COIN doctrine is a “plea for a return to the open, tolerant, creative Islam that served as a beacon of progress for humankind a millennium ago. [from a blurb]”
    If the reality of the global jihadist insurgency means “warfare of one kind or another for decades,” wherever the jihadists take root, then what’s the alternative? Putting our head in the sand won’t work, as much as I’d like it to.
    If the alternative would be to “payoff” the Afghans, then what’s wrong with that? We could just buy their drug crops off them and so buy their loyalties. This is also in line with COIN doctrine, even if it isn’t in line with our absurd war on drugs—which isn’t in line with COIN strategy.
    Stephen Walt accuses the US of “putting the cart before the cannon” and argues for a “cost-benefit analysis” of COIN strategy:

    “Is it really worth doing all this to stop the kinds of things jihadis might be able to accomplish?” he asks. “Even if Al Qaeda could pull off a 9/11 every 10 years, which I think is asking a lot of them, it’s not obvious to me that committing the United States to a 10-, 20-, 30-year campaign to remake the politics of South Asia makes sense.”

    If anyone can be accused of confusing ends and means, it’s Walt. Why does he imagine that al Qaeda is incapable of “pulling off a 9/11?” This isn’t just some lucky break. A big part of the explanation is that our COIN doctrine defeated them in Iraq. Another part of the explanation is that we’re been hitting them in a variety of ways since 9/11 and they no longer have the ability to mount a strategic attack against us. In other words, it’s because our policy has been to fight a “global insurgency,” not to fight the “crime” of terrorism.
    I can’t see how Walt knows “the kinds of things jihadis might be able to accomplish” are limited to catastrophic attacks. Their goal is to impose Islamic law worldwide, as absurd as that sounds. If it takes 10, 20, or 30 years to defeat this goal for good, and establish “open, tolerant, creative Islam” in pluralistic societies, then what results would the “cost-benefit” analysis show? I can’t even see how scholars can arrive at any trustworthy analysis. What would be the benefits to us and everyone else if such societies were established instead of today’s atavistic tyrannies? They seem “immense” to me but I can’t imagine how anyone could arrive at a number to compare with “costs.”
    For example, imagine this debate happening circa 1860 in the US. Would Stephen Walt be arguing for a “cost-benefit” analysis of the abolition of slavery? Would he say that committing the US to a multi decade campaign to defeat the slave economy wasn’t “worth the cost?” Would he say that the US could just “contain” the slave economy of the South instead of “remaking the politics of the South?” From what I know of Walt, he would have supported these positions, as many Americans did back then. But he would have been wrong in 1860 and he’s wrong today.Report

  2. Avatar Chris Dierkes

    Well I can’t respond in kind to each and every one of those Roque. But basically as to the specific issue you raised that I wrote–i.e. how can a counterinsurgency military campaign succeed tactically and fail strategically (which is still overall failure)? Pretty simply actually. I recommend Abu Muqawama (Andrew Exum) on this point, himself a COIN advocate.

    Basically you win tactical battles but do not gain sufficient ground/legitimacy for a national government to take over. In the words of President Bush the surge was designed to give “breathing room” for Iraqi political reconciliation. That never happened, hence the surge failed strategically (i.e. politically) though it achieved some success tactically (i.e. militarily). I tend to take the Gentile approach and think that had more to do with the Sunnis being ethnically cleansed from Baghdad and hence losing the Civil War and us paying them off than the surge element. I think the lesson there is that guys on the losing side are willing to deal if its in their interests. In Afghanistan the guys we could/should be paying off it’s not clear to me they are on the losing side. If anything they seem to be on the upswing. And if the “surge” didn’t achieve the modicum of less violence in Iraq (the payments/ethnic cleansing did), then I have some real concerns about sending more troops to Afghanistan.

    But even if population-centric COIN with more troops could achieve (and no doubt it would) some real success militarily, I have a hard time seeing the political achievement to come in Afghanistan. Iraq had a much stronger tradition of a state–though its history is one of ethnic dominance as is now being replicated this time by Shia. Afghanistan doesn’t really have a history of a strong state, much less a pan-ethnic one. The democracy stuff isn’t the issue, it’s how you going to have a state that has legitimacy and is seen to be to the benefit to the major groups? Particularly when there are drug lords and insurgents all over the place?

    I think probably in the end Obama will send some (not all) of the troops McChyrstal asked for. They’ll win some battles, try to get Afghanistan so it is not a complete and utter disaster and then start the inevitable draw down. But likely Obama will lean to the Carl Levin plan–i.e. a kind of Baker-Hamilton for Afghanistan. More money/effort spent on training an Afghan Army/Police force, transitioning out of US battle zone stuff.

    Ultimately the dirty secret is that the US populace will only be against a war in sufficient numbers to put pressure on the politicians to end it if there is a high US body count. If they can pull into a training/assistance role (with or without an initial ‘surge’/spike in casualties), then that will make this war more “sustainable” as they say.Report

  3. Avatar Roque Nuevo

    OK, Chris Dierkes, for sure you’re smarter than I am and you’re a lot nicer person. Aren’t you the theology master? So I really don’t want to get into some kind of test with you: the odds are with you and besides even if I win I lose by beating up on such a nice, smart guy.

    For you strategic success (could it even be victory?) equals “sufficient ground/legitimacy for a national government to take over” or “national reconciliation.” Furthermore, you say the surge failed “strategically, i.e., politically.” So a strategic success is a political success. Am I doing OK so far?

    But lets look at Nagl’s intro to the book, The US Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which I assume you have by your bedside:

    Population security is the first requirement of success in counterinsurgency, but it is not sufficient. Economic development, good governance, and the provision of essential services, all occurring within a matrix of effective information operations, must all improve simultaneously and steadily over a long period of time if America’s determined insurgent enemies are to be defeated. All elements of US government—and those of her allies in this Long War that has been well described as a “Global Counterinsurgency” campaign—must be integrated into the effort to build stable and secure societies that can secure their own borders and of not provide safe haven for terrorists.

    I hope I’m not boring you too much. But if we’re going to be tossing around ideas, it’s important to have some sort of agreement as to what they mean in the first place. So, again, in “Chapter One” of the COIN Manual we find,

    Political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies; each side aims to get the people to accept is governance or authority as legitimate. […] Long-term success in COIN depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule.

    So, what you’re calling “strategic/political success” is pretty much what Nagl and the Manual call “government legitimacy” or “stable and secure societies” etc etc. So far, so good?

    In considering this, I have to say that you seem to be confusing the idea of a “strategic success” with the ideas discussed in the Manual. Its authors do not even use the word “strategic” in their definitions of success. This is because the strategic angle is a given: “defeating America’s determined insurgent enemies.” Whatever leads to this defeat is a strategic victory. A strategic victory, while not a final victory, means that we have achieved a better position than the enemy, or forced the enemy into a worse position, or both. This way, you’ll see that what you call political/strategic success (national reconciliation, etc etc) is really but one element of what would be an overall strategic victory, that is, improving our position vis a vis the enemy, etc etc.
    Are you still with me? Finally I can come to one of your main points:

    In the words of President Bush the surge was designed to give “breathing room” for Iraqi political reconciliation. That never happened, hence the surge failed strategically (i.e. politically) though it achieved some success tactically (i.e. militarily).

    Several problems with the above, especially in light of what I’ve explained above. First, the most obvious error is that you’re using the indicative preterit, “never happened” when the perfect aspect is required: “hasn’t happened yet.” It’s not over ’till it’s over, young fella! This is in fact the key point to have in mind here. The government of Iraq is an evolving situation, somewhat like our own in that way. I’m hardly up on the history of Iraq but in general I say that today’s government is the best one they’ve had so far. This would be in our strategic sense of being a government that rests on its legitimacy, provides security for its people, and does not pose a strategic threat to us. From what I gather, Iraq has been under some despot’s thumb forever. Whether they’ve been Sultans, Emirs, Caliphs, Grand Poobahs, or Dear Leaders, they’ve all governed “by the book,” Islamic law, Baathist doctrine or what have you. If a nation’s laws are based on whatever revealed wisdom, there can be no room for dissent; there is no respect for pluralism. Pluralism is that which without it there is no civilized urban life, or civilized respect among nations.
    Nobody is saying that Iraq today has these characteristics. But I think we can agree that it is evolving and furthermore, that it is evolving in that direction. To begin with, Iraq today has a “man-made” government, not one handed down by the deity. This in itself is a huge improvement. It is something that took Europeans centuries to achieve. A man-made government is by definition open to criticism, just as Iraq’s former governments (and Europe’s) were not. A man-made government is self-consciously evolving. People under these regimes are constantly looking for better ways to do things, which is impossible under Iraq’s former regimes.
    It’s just too early to render such sweeping judgments as yours. Things could go either way as of today. I happen to be pulling for my side to win this one. For this reason alone, I’m not calling it a failure yet. But if I wasn’t pulling for any side to win, or if I were just some impartial analyst, I would have the same attitude because I wouldn’t want to be caught making such judgments if in the future I turn out to have been wrong. Then my career as an analyst would effectively be over. I’d be the guy who said that man will never be able to fly, or whatever. I’d be some flack for programs to overcome a projected shortage in horses in the future. By then, my programs, and my reputation as an analyst would be horseshit.Report

  4. Avatar Chris Dierkes

    Given the definitions you are using I would say the idea of defeating insurgents is the goal or mission of counterinsurgency and the building of a legitimate state is the means (or prime strategy) whereby that goal is to be achieved. With military battles being tactics/kinetic events meant to help support the strategy.

    Counterinsurgency itself is a grand strategy in what it perceives to be this worldwide war against terrorism. By that I mean the idea that we invade various countries, defeat insurgents, and help build functioning states on the assumption that failed states are what cause terrorism (or at least are what terrorists can most easily exploit to launch attacks on the US/US allies’ homelands).

    COIN is simply a means to an end (defeating terrorism). Counterterrorism is another strategy to defeat terrorism. The two could go together or could be at odds depending on the situation (which is what Biden is arguing is happening vis a vis Afghanistan).

    Nagl (and Petraeus for that matter) is at least honest that the kind of thing he is talking about (really in the end nation-building) is a 10-20 year enterprise. Where I would disagree with Nagl is he thinks it can basically be done by the US alone (and/or with some NATO allies).

    If that kind of thing were to be done it would take what Thomas Barnett has argued for–a real multi-national enterprise. The Chinese, Brazilians, Turks, Kurds, South Africans, Pakistanis, Russians, all kinds of countries. But the US still I think sells these wars in terms of US-centric kinds of things (and hence no one else is really buying). See Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan as examples.

    But foreign policy is never divorced from domestic policy. That is foreign policy grand strategy/goals are never separate from the larger question of the political reality of the country as a whole. And here I find most American foreign policy types don’t really pay any attention to domestic concerns (particularly financial). And here is a point the Army Manual never raises. This is what the point Andrew Bacevich was making in the original piece I linked to. The Army Manual basically assumes an infinite resource base. The new COIN (like probably much of the old versions of COIN) is I think very weak on this point. At most David Petraeus has understood that the war has to be seen as trending towards good/victory or at least not be perceived as horribly awful in order that the civilian population doesn’t turn on the war–which was seen in his brilliant testimony and media blitz for the surge in Iraq.

    But I don’t see them thinking about domestic politics. They’re generals after all–they’re paid to conduct wars. But a President needs to think about things much larger than the concerns of war and generals.

    So even if you assume we can do everything the Field Manual lays out–that is assumes Afghanistan eventually will have a real state in about 15 years from now–can we really afford it? Where is the money going to come from? Are we just going to keep borrowing from the Chinese and/or print some more and keep devaluing the dollar so we can build an Afghan state so al-Qaeda can just move to Somalia? Or Yemen or wherever?

    When does it end?

    Remember bin Laden’s strategy: plant the flag of al-qaeda any and everywhere in the world, get the US to invade, and bleed them dry (financially as much if not more so than militarily although that way as well). To which I would add–and if the US manages to get that country roughly under control, just move to another one and start all over again.

    Would the US run out of money first or would al-Qaeda run out of host countries first?Report

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