Why we have to be ready to do COIN: We need it if only as a form of deterrence

Why we have to be ready to do COIN: We need it if only as a form of deterrence

By Kathleen McInnis

Best Defense guest respondent

If the grand strategic project of the 21st century is to either (a) shore up the Westphalian system or (b) develop an acceptable post-Westphalian system, then the ability to effectively wage asymmetric and counterinsurgency warfare will be, by necessity, part of the toolkit to do so. I really thought Bob Killebrew captured that part well; because the actors in the system are blurring the definitions of what it means to be a legitimate, violence-wielding actor in the global system, we will continue to need capabilities to work in that blurry, murky space.

Washington seems to conflate preparedness with intention and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Indeed, I think it’s really worrying that we do so. We’re limiting our ability to signal military intent short of going to war, as well as limiting our ability to use military tools to help advance political discussions, negotiations, etc. Exercises, planning, capability development are all ways to signal to potential adversaries (state and non-state alike) the seriousness of U.S. intent. Utilized appropriately, these tools can even get actors back to the negotiating table. Preparedness is key, which is why Celeste Ward’s work to put a finer point on the term COIN should be applauded — preparedness requires a higher degree of intellectual precision than we currently have with respect to "COIN." That’s what deterrence is largely about. But we seem to think that if we develop a capability, we will — or should — use it.

The notion that if we have a force capable of conducting COIN, we will get ourselves embroiled in even more conflicts around the globe is absurd. The point, in my mind, is to ensure that the U.S. has the toolkit to respond to whatever contingency is in the no-kidding national interest. If we don’t use those capabilities, bonus. But I suspect you’re right — we will have to.

Kathleen McInnis is an MPhil/PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She previously served on the NATO Policy-Afghanistan desk in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy).