Small Wars

This Week at War: End of the COIN Era?

Obama's Afghan withdrawal speech may mark the end of the U.S. counterinsurgency experiment.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images
Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images

By tossing the COIN to Afghanistan, Obama can now aim at Pakistan

President Barack Obama’s prime-time speech on his plan for withdrawing from Afghanistan left no doubt that he intends to run for reelection as the leader who ended two painful wars. Most notable was his intention to extract 10,000 soldiers this year and 23,000 more by next summer, before the height of Afghanistan’s traditional summer fighting season. For some analysts, this would seem to be a large military risk, taken for purely domestic political benefit.

Obama may have concluded that conventional U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan no longer provide much leverage over the military or political situation there. Obama realizes that the Taliban have established safe havens in both Afghanistan and Pakistan where they can wait as long as they need to. With those safe havens, he likely realizes that the coalition cannot obtain sufficient advantage over the Taliban to achieve a favorable negotiated settlement. Nor can anyone be sure how permanent the apparent progress in stabilizing southern Afghanistan really is.

The real permanent leverage over the Taliban comes in two forms. The first is Afghanistan’s security forces, both the government’s and local militias, which will presumably operate long after coalition soldiers have left the field. A favorable outcome ultimately rests not with U.S. combat patrols but with the long-term effectiveness of Afghan security forces, something which remains very much in doubt. For those officers responsible for U.S. military doctrine, Obama’s speech would seem to bring to a close another unhappy encounter with counterinsurgency (COIN) theory. But true COIN — winning over the population through security and better governance — is not done by an outside intervening power like the United States, but by the host country itself. Although Afghanistan provides particularly poor raw material for U.S. COIN doctrine, U.S. military planners still need to solve the COIN puzzle for future contingencies, at a much lower cost than the United States paid in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Second, if Obama’s drawdown decision implies giving up on leverage inside Afghanistan, it also provides him an opportunity to increase his leverage over Pakistan and by extension the Taliban and al Qaeda elements residing there. Obama specifically mentioned safe havens in Pakistan declaring, "that so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us." This was a warning to Pakistan that if its leaders won’t do something about the safe havens, he will. But Obama’s leverage is minimal as long as he must supply a large coalition army in Afghanistan through Pakistan. Reducing the military presence in Afghanistan reduces dependence on Pakistan and increases Obama’s leverage over Islamabad. Obama could then translate that leverage into more military strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens, actions which may do more for Afghan security than the coalition forces presently there.

The killing of Osama bin Laden provided Obama an opportunity to justify a quicker disengagement from Afghanistan. On this, it seems, he will get few arguments from either his prospective Republican challengers or the U.S. electorate. Pakistan by contrast will not welcome these changes as it loses its leverage over the United States and risks becoming even more of a target for U.S. raids. Finally, U.S. military planners will have to retreat to their offices to rethink their doctrines for stability operations. The American public and its political leaders did not have the patience for stabilization plans that required open-ended deployments of large armies. These planners will need to come up with a new approach.

Are the Pentagon’s plans about to become obsolete?

In a recent column I discussed how the U.S. military — masters of high-tech precision-strike warfare — should prepare to taste that bitter medicine, which could be delivered by all manner of adversaries, who could soon possess their own precision weapons. U.S. military planners could soon come up against the same "revolution in military affairs" they created and that, during the struggles against low-tech insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, has gone out of fashion among U.S. defense thinkers.

In March, the Rand Corp. released an even darker analysis of the future for U.S. military plans. "Looming Discontinuities in U.S. Military Strategy and Defense Planning" describes a disturbing convergence of several adverse trends that the authors believe could result in the sudden obsolescence of long-accepted U.S. military strategies, operating concepts, and forces.

The first of these trends is the imminent arrival of inexpensive yet sophisticated precision weapons in the hands of states and nonstate actors. Similar to the argument in my previous column, the proliferation of these weapons — such as precision ground attack missiles, portable anti-aircraft missiles, cyber weapons, and anti-ship missiles and torpedoes — will threaten the ability of the United States to do basic tasks it has long taken for granted such as flying troops from one forward base to another or shipping supplies into a war zone.

Next, Rand describes how access to cheap but effective missiles and other military technology is particularly threatening to long-established U.S. military doctrines and force structure. U.S. operating concepts emphasize both the deployment of forces at forward bases and the projection of military power into conflict areas. Over the decades, the Pentagon has spent trillions of dollars on warships, aircraft, soldiers, and other equipment to implement its power-projection war plans, many of which are designed to support diplomatic strategies and reassure allies. Yet the emerging weapons technologies described above will favor those defending against power projection and thus threaten the huge military investments made by the United States.

Meanwhile, as planners try to grapple with the implications of these challenges, ongoing counterinsurgency, stabilization, and counterterrorism missions will continue to occupy both the attention and resources of the government and will likely add to the confusion over how the Pentagon should plan for the future.

The Rand report lists some specific tasks U.S. military forces should be able to accomplish in order to prepare for this more challenging future, many of which are beyond current capabilities. Forward-deployed forces should be able to shoot down incoming guided missiles and mortar shells. By contrast, U.S. forces should be able to overcome enemy air and missile defenses. The United States should have long-range aircraft able to search for long periods over defended airspace and then strike targets of opportunity, such as mobile missile launchers or deeply buried bunkers. U.S. naval forces should be able to establish survivable operating bases at sea. And smaller, more efficient teams of U.S. ground forces should be able to dominate adversaries who are embedded within noncombatant populations.

Finally, the report discusses what may be the biggest threat to the Pentagon — its institutional barriers to reform. Rand discusses "the innovator’s dilemma," a common problem across private and public enterprises. It is institutionally difficult for long-established enterprises to heavily invest in technologies and doctrines that could threaten the existing order. There will always be a reluctance by established actors to transform until the need is plainly obvious. But with long lead times for new systems and doctrines, waiting so late could be disastrous. Meanwhile, upcoming rivals, perhaps lacking well-established players, are frequently more nimble and open to innovation.

Rand concluded with a plea for the Pentagon to develop a vigorous experimentation program. The U.S. Joint Forces Command, a center for experimentation, was recently closed in a cost-cutting move. Who in the Pentagon will now advocate for experimentation and innovation remains to be seen.

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