The real debate about COIN

The real debate about COIN

By Peter Feaver

The problem with Chris’s post on COIN is that it takes the existing debate at
face value, as if it really were a debate about the best way to do COIN or
its place in American national security. I don’t think it is.

Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that all of the COIN critics Chris cites are sincere patriots who honestly believe what they have written and have no deeper agenda. Setting them aside, the larger debate seems driven by one of three deeper considerations. First, anti-COIN is a convenient way to argue against American military involvement in any fashion because the most urgentnear-term threats requiring military operations involve COIN. So if your ideology tells you that the dominant problem in the world is American militarism; if you look at recent history and can only find cases where we did use military force and shouldn’t have and can find no cases where we did not use military force and should have; if you think that getting defeated in Iraq (or Afghanistan) would have a salutary chastening effect on American adventurism; if any or all of that applies, then it makes sense to argue against Gates’ emphasis on COIN now. If the U.S. military cannot or will not do COIN, then the U.S. military cannot and will not be operational.

It is no coincidence that the last time this debate arose, in the waning
days of the Vietnam war, the anti-COIN side won largely on the basis of a
"no more Vietnam" trump card. Stripping the U.S. military of the know-how
to do COIN was seen as a way to prevent civilians from ever using the
military again in another Vietnam.

Second, anti-COIN is a convenient way to argue for parochial inter-service
interests. If there were no pesky COIN requirements, then the Air Force and
Navy would be the dominant actors in inter-service rivalry and demand the
lion’s share of resources.

Third, anti-COIN is a convenient way to argue for parochial intra-service
interests, for the specialties that used to dominate the ground forces but
have ceded pride of place to the light infantry and special forces that
dominate COIN. A good marker of this deeper argument is if someone is
hard-pressed to celebrate the increased proficiency that soldiers have shown in fighting the no-kidding war we are already in, and instead worry that these same soldiers would, without further training, perform less well in
training exercises involving tank vs. tank battles against, well, they never
really say who we would be waging a tank war against but it sure sounds a
lot like the old Red Army.

That does not mean that the current balance of effort in DoD should be accepted without question or criticism. Even if one stipulates that COIN is
an essential capability, there are at least two other legitimate debates
that the Obama Administration will have to address. The first concerns the
proper mix between COIN-by-us and COIN-by-them. COIN-by-us keeps the
know-how, skill-mix, and force mix within the U.S. ground forces to do a
major COIN operations with U.S. forces in the lead (think Iraq 2007-2008).
COIN-by-them narrows the U.S. role down to training and advising and
specialty functions like logistics, command and control, close air support,
and so on (think Iraq 2009-20??). If Obama is serious about ramping up in
Afghanistan, he may have to keep a major COIN-by-us capability, but there is a reasonable debate to be had over whether it would not be better to do
Afghanistan in a COIN-by-them mode.

The second concerns how, in a challenging fiscal environment, to keep investing in the other kinds of non-COIN capabilities we need to deal with threats and challenges on the horizon — to hedge against the emergence of a peer-rival/competitor with sufficient military capacity to pose a direct
threat to our global force projection capability. When the anti-COIN debate
first began, this was the concern that was flagged. The concern struck me
as legitimate but premature. Before we worried about a future war we hope
we never have to fight, we first had to win the war we were in and that
required improving COIN capacity. In 2006 and early 2007, it was no sure
thing that we would prevail in Iraq. Now, Iraq seems to be on a surer
footing and so the medium-term and long-term trade-offs bite more painfully.

These two legitimate concerns blend together: to save money for longer-term hedging, we may need to shift to more of a COIN-by-them posture. I expect the Obama team to wrestle with this problem in the next Quadrennial Defense Review. I just hope they are not side-tracked by ideological agendas regarding "militarism" or parochial service rivalries.