Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The COIN Shouting Match

Sgt Jason T. Mathews, a member of Embedded Partnering Team
1-1-215, cleans the bore of an Afghanistan National Army soldier’s
rifle at Range Juarez near Forward Operating Base Geronimo May 25.
Mathews, from Roberta, Ga., has been working with the 1st Kandak for
two months and said he enjoys it. “The work is challenging but rewarding,”
he said. “Hopefully the ANA will be able to take over their own battle
space when we leave and they’ll make Helmand a better place.”
(Photo by Sgt Mark Fayloga)
I originally posted this at my blog, but it has spurred some debate and should be of interest to the Marine audience.

A debate rages at the Small Wars Journal, Foreign Policy's Af-Pak Channel, Tom Ricks' blog, and Carl Prine's Line of Departure over the postmortem our recent counterinsurgency (COIN) adventures and the prospect for future applications.  My contribution to this debate, a refined version of this post at LoD, will be posted at the Af-Pak Channel after the holidays.  In short, I think they are missing the broader point, which is that we are predisposed to screw these small wars up.  No matter how many lessons we learn, our national security decision-making apparatus will churn out suboptimal policies.

Another aspect of the debate centers on economics, our attempt to buy loyalty, and the creation of dependent populations, or a culture of entitlement, as debated at this SWJ post.  I really do not think that COIN can be anything but armed state-building.  I also believe that we should avoid involving ourselves in such a project of folly, especially given our propensity to underinvest, flail about, then leave.  State-building takes time.  Our impatience and our profligacy only further distorts fatally flawed socio-economic orders.  Whether you are trying to leave a country capable of defeating the remnants of a civil war/insurgency, or a country capable of fending off its northern neighbor's powerful conventional army, you must create an economy that creates revenues, a populace that consents to state taxation, and a state that is capable of extracting resources from the economy without imploding it and turn those resources to beneficial ends.  Principally, this includes securing its borders and holding a monopoly on violence within them.  This is a massive undertaking in both resources and time.  By pouring money out onto the ground in a firehose that cannot be absorbed, you are only washing more of the soil away and beating down the sprouts you want to nurture.  You can't do COIN on the quick or cheap.  We aren't interested in long term investments.  We need to not do armed state-building unless we are going to be honest about the costs and requirements.  We won't be honest about the costs and requirements unless they are clear and compelling matters of core national interest.

The slogans about dollars and ballots as more important than bullets are all so much nonsense.  You cannot weaponize economic and political development.  This is a long, complex process.  Weapons create simple, first order effects.  They rend flesh and splatter blood and tissue everywhere, if they don't vaporize it.  This is easy to understand and to control.  Dollars and ballots have effects we cannot understand, even with great study.  Dollars float around, changing hands over and over again, often only strengthening skewed socio-economic power structures.  This feeds into the political realm, where ballots do not always create great democratic virtue.  Often, money, power, and organization favors those very forces that have appropriated the resources of economy and society.  As a result, the state can be even weaker after the election than before it.  The danger in elections is not the illiberal Islamist bogeymen we love to demonize.  The danger is the legitimization of kleptocracy, sectarianism, and the like.  None of this, can we control as we so arrogantly lead ourselves to believe.

By shouting about the fine points of COIN, people are missing the broader lessons.  We cannot do these wars well at the grand scale.  We can adapt to the tactical realities, we can create a lot of local successes, but in real state-building, we have nothing but a record of failure.  This is the lesson.

Additional comments after input from readers at my blog:
-I was rightly called out on my line "in real state-building, we have nothing but a record of failure."  This runs against the history of the postwar reconstruction under the Marshall and Dodge Plans in Europe and Japan.  These support my language above that in cases of compelling core interest as perceived by the public, the friction of the bureaucracy can be overcome.  Additionally, these were cases of state rebuilding, not state-building.  We had credible partners to work with, who in fact did most of the real work of rebuilding, supported by U.S. funds to address the capital crisis in these countries postwar.  While there are lessons to be gleaned from these cases, my assertion holds that we will not be able to put these lessons into practice in the case of small wars of peripheral interest as the phenomena described above will dominate.  See the comments for a bit more discussion.

-Regarding a charge that I falsely equivelate COIN with state-building.  The tactics of COIN (TM) are not state-building.  However, in order to wage a successful counter-insurgency and to leave a state behind that no longer needs to be propped up, you have to successfully conduct state-building.  A bunch of CERP projects, a flawed vote, and tons of aid dollars only distort the socio-economic and political entities you leave behind.  COIN may not be state-building, but you have to state-build to truly and finally defeat an insurgency.  If we are honest with ourselves about this, our appetite for COIN and scenarios where insurgency is likely to pop up will be far more circumscribed.


  1. Maj Munson,

    I agree on the overall points of your argument and I certainly think that it is valid. With that in mind, we as Marines don't really hold much sway in the overall issue unless we decide to become elected officials. So allow me to argue from a different angle:

    What is more disturbing is that there is a generation of officers who actually believe the stuff because that's what they have been told. I don't mean to indict all Marine officers of drinking the pop-centric COIN kool-aid, but there are many who think that way. What is missing is a discussion about what happens after the Marines leave - do our efforts go to waste? Do we fully understand that COIN is a set of tactics that are ill-fitted if they aren't tied into our overall strategic goals?

    In no way am I trying to step on the work of Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, certainly we have done some extraordinary things. What I question is whether we understand what it means in the big picture and whether we'll be alert the next time we are asked to do these types of operations.

  2. RCS,
    I think we as Marines hold sway in the issue to the extent that our leaders are expected to give proper counsel to their civilian superiors on these maters. In a professional forum, we should be discussing these matters in order to develop and debate our understanding, as well as to educate those who will be the future leaders of the Corps on multiple viewpoints. The more dots we have to connect in a way that makes sense in the world, the better.

  3. Agreed, it's hard to find fault with wanting educated leaders. I understand you have something forthcoming regarding the politicalization of the military via the Goldwater Nichols Act - I'm looking forward to that. Does this play into our actions and responses in OIF/OEF?

    I guess the other concern I have - in keeping the conversation about the Marine Corps and COIN is whether we have over done it. That is, is COIN something we are too focused on in EWS, C&SC, and other training? Are we learning the right lessons or do we simply believe that what gave us tactical success will give us strategic success as well?

  4. RCS,
    Honestly I did EWS with the box of books and CSC via seminar, but most of CSC was after I went to NPS so my outlook was pretty well formed. I recall there only being one section on small wars in CSC, which was mostly appropriate, but in the seminar forum it was a very thin covering of the material. I don't know what the focus is in-house.

    As for tactical versus strategic success, etc, I think that we are not learning the right lessons institutionally. Some people are. Some people believe political slogans. Who wants to believe that some of our tactical successes in Iraq will shape the (probably) coming explosion in Iraq? Who wants to believe that all the good works in Helmand will almost certainly fall apart once we leave? Blame it on the politicians, right? There's a lot of blame to go around. This is not to take away from the tactical successes and extraordinary efforts, but it is to say that when general officers state that they're not sure how we are going to aggregate tactical successes into strategic victory, we are in troubled territory.

  5. I agree, we don't do COIN well, "especially given our propensity to underinvest, flail about, then leave."

    Personally, I think the seeds of failure were laid down with the advent of Wilsonian foreign policy not quite a century ago. Since the interwar period, war for the United States has gradually become a mere tool by which we spread democracy. (Forgive the gross over-simplification of our foreign policy).

    What should have been merely a war of retributive justice became another "opportunity" to spread democracy. We should have gone into Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban, and been out in a couple years rather than 10 and counting. We should have done zero to rebuild their state.

    Though any ultimate failure really arises from the nature of man, and not just a combination of politicians and generals operating within the framework of a foreign policy laid out by a progressive almost a century ago. The only thing the politicians and generals did for the region was get their country honorable mention in the history of Iraq and folklore of Afghanistan.

    Sectarianism and kleptocracy, etc. is just the nature of the beast. Even if the world was a democracy you couldn't get rid of them.

  6. Maj Munson, et al,

    In this raging debate about the future of COIN, I have not heard anyone mention what I consider a fundamental issue. From an insurgent's perspective, COIN is a reasonable tactic.

    In future engagements, unless we stumble into another conventional fight against a regional power who was arming to fight his neighbors, why would we NOT see insurgent tactics again? So far, we've seen these tactics work brutally well in desert, urban, mountainous, and, in Helmand, flat agricultural land. We haven't even had a good taste of a modern insurgency in triple-canopy jungle.

    Acknowledging the myriad of other issues with COIN (buying loyalty, the end of colonialism, modern media, etc), can anyone other an explanation why as a force we won't see insurgent tactics again? As long as we have such an overwhelming imbalance of force, it seems that it will remain the enemy's preferred tactic. And if the enemy will continue insurgent tactics, aren't we obligated to continue to train for COIN?

  7. Joseph,
    In the debate, this is a common trope. Yes, there will be insurgencies and yes they will have to be countered. COIN now implies a specific set of tactics, usually pop-centric COIN, and basically means that we assume that we can go and defeat someone else's insurgency with little reference to the overall strategic situation in the country there. When you combine my argument above with what some of the other COIN naysayers are saying, you get something like this: If this is not an issue of central national interest, we are best served with treating it as a foreign internal defense problem, letting the foreign government deal with it over an extended time period with our assistance. If it is something that we absolutely must stick our noses in, then (a) we must commit massively to it (I'd argue that we have to commit to a complete take-over of the country in a colonial mandate sort of arrangement for a time) and (b) we must give significant attention to rebuilding the entire society and state. I find the idea of armed nation-building repugnant in the vast majority of cases, but I think if we want success, we must be honest in the level of investment required and shouldn't expect for a state to build itself while fighting an insurgency. For instance, a lot of Iraqis state that they had high expectations of what the U.S. would do for the country, since we'd put a man on the moon, but we couldn't get the lights on. We could not achieve what we wanted working through the partner government. We have have had more success if we had acted as a mandatory government for a period first, delivering real results, then conducting a slow, phased handover. No one wanted that level of investment, so we shouldn't have done it in the first place. In most other cases, we need to be patient and assist in a very secondary role our allies who will combat their insurgency in their own way. Halfway just doesn't seem to work.