March 22, 2009

COIN as Doctrine and Strategy

I just noticed this post written by Eric Martin criticizing the COIN community -- and me especially -- for promulgating COIN doctrine and then ducking responsibility when policy-makers formulate COIN strategies based upon that doctrine. Essentially, Martin's argument is that it's no use me complaining COIN is doctrine and not strategy -- some of the very same theorists who have advocated on behalf of population-centric COIN are now advocating on behalf of strategies which employ COIN. And I encourage you all to read this as a counterpoint to many of the arguments I have advanced of late. At the end, Martin writes:

Given the costs, the requisite dedication of time and resources, the grandiosity of the goals and, relatedly, the uncertainty of the outcomes, as well as the inefficiency of the long-term occupation model as a means of preventing subsequent terrorist attacks, I'm tempted to simply quote Andrew Exum: "No one who really understands COIN wants to do it." Seriously. So maybe we shouldn't.

I'm going to try and respond to that quickly. First off, we agree that COIN -- as a strategy -- is difficult, expensive, and best avoided. But in formulating policy, one must first decide what interests are at stake and how best to protect those interests. As much as it may stink, a population-centric COIN strategy may be the best way to protect U.S. and allied interests and advance policy aims.

The key arena here is Afghanistan. Going forward, is a population-centric COIN strategy the best strategy to advance U.S. and allied policies and to protect U.S. and allied interests? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. As I have argued many times, the community of theorists and practitioners who work on COIN are divided on this question. Even in the hallowed halls of 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue, there exists a whole heap of disagreement on this issue. The COIN community is no monolith, and although most people in the community will agree (at least in hindsight) that a population-centric COIN campaign was worth attempting in 2006 in Iraq, it may not be appropriate for Afghanistan in 2009.

I think what Martin is most upset about is any circumstance in which U.S. and allied forces occupy a foreign country. Understood. Although I certainly don't care for such circumstances either, my priority is on protecting interests and advancing policy aims. And I am glad we now have COIN as an option for doing so -- even if we choose not to use it.