March 05, 2009

My Correct Views on Everything (with apologies to Leszek Kolakowski)

A few days ago, I blogged on Andrew Bacevich's review of David Kilcullen's new book, writing, "No one who really understands COIN wants to do it." What I meant by that was that people who really understand how difficult COIN operations can be are less likely to have an appetite for actually conducting them than many policy-makers in Washington or Brussels.

I think most people understood that. Matt Yglesias and Justin Logan, though, fret that developing this great new COIN doctrine might lead us to get involved with more COIN operations and not fewer of them. There is a very important and legitimate concern in what both are saying, which I will touch upon while also explaining the mistake both have made in their analysis.

First off, this blog has long warned against the dangers of allowing operations to drive strategy. In war, which takes place on four levels, policies should drive strategy which should drive operations which should drive tactics. One tailors one's tactics and operations to meet the strategy. Often, militaries and their civilian leadership get things mixed up, and operations begin to drive strategy. (Think the German Army in World Wars I and II and the Israel Defense Force in ... well, every war since 1967.)

There is a real danger, then, that because we have this great new COIN doctrine, we will want to apply that doctrine in Afghanistan without first sitting down to determine our interests in Afghanistan and to formulate policies and strategies in defense of those interests. At a party last night for Laura Rozen, hosted by, I heard one respected foreign policy expert worry that we were committing more troops into Afghanistan without first completing the strategic review. I understood his worry, even if I do not share it. In the absence of new guidance from the Obama Administration, the folks at CENTCOM and in Bagram are simply continuing to carry out a COIN campaign designed to provide security to the people of Afghanistan. If the Obama Administration decides to change course once the strategic review is complete, they can do so. (And I do not think this administration will be shy about reversing course if they feel such a decision is necessary.) It may be, though, that COIN operations are the most effective operations for securing U.S. interests in Afghanistan. As I argued in the New York Times a few weeks back, though, most COIN theorists I know have decided upon a rather depressing calculus for COIN in Afghanistan:

(10 years) + (10,000 NATO dead) + ($500 billion) = Chad

So don't accuse the COIN crowd of going into this adventure in Afghanistan with anything but eyes wide open. LTG (Ret.) David "Smart Ranger" Barno, after all, told the Senate last week that if everything goes right, we'll be in Afghanistan for 25 years.

That said, though, Yglesias and Logan make a mistake that never fails to irk this blog and the rest of those who have worked to promulgate COIN doctrine: they confuse operational doctrine with strategy.

COIN is a means to an end. It is not a foreign policy strategy and is not associated with any particular school of international relations. Proponents of COIN doctrine are realists, neo-conservatives, and liberal interventionists. The reason we promote COIN doctrine in the U.S. military is because, following Vietnam, the military made the mistake of assuming we would never have to fight large-scale COIN operations ever again. As Andrew Bacevich pointed out, U.S. military leaders in the post-Vietnam era made it very difficult for policy-makers to ever use the military for war without also mobilizing the reserve. (A sneaky -- and unconstitutional -- move on their part.) And a certain "doctrine" further deluded the U.S. military into thinking it would never have to fight messy protracted struggles ever again.

There were two problems with this. One, the enemy gets a vote in the kinds of wars we fight. I returned from Afghanistan in 2002 and, five months later, found myself fighting against "Soviet" tank columns in Louisiana. While that might have been good practice for the two-month invasion of Iraq, no enemy I have ever encountered on the battlefield in three tours to Iraq and Afghanistan fought like the OPFOR at Forts Polk and Irwin fought prior to 2003. (The corollary to this is that not all enemies will elect to fight like the Taliban either.)

The second problem is, the politicians get a vote too. They decide when and where the U.S. military will fight. And while you may trick yourself into thinking the Powell Doctrine means you'll never get stuck in an open-ended war that necessitates COIN operations, Colin Powell himself might decide to sit before the United Nations with vial of Anthrax and make sure that you do end up fighting in a messy and protracted popular war.

So because the enemy and the politicians (one and the same? just kidding) get votes in what kinds of wars the U.S. military fights, the U.S. military has to be prepared to not just fight in "major combat operations" but also to execute COIN operations when those operations offer the best chance for the realization of strategic objectives. Which is why we need good operational doctrine and training. And that is NOT the same thing as strategy.

In conclusion, though, many thanks to Yglesias and Logan both for causing me to think yesterday evening, and especial thanks go to Logan for our e-mail conversation yesterday.

Update: Intrepid Spencer has more to say about all this.

Update II: The CATO crowd is still angry at me, though.