In this week’s readings for Defense Statecraft, Gian P. Gentile laments the US military’s emphasis on population-centric COIN for placing tactics ahead of strategy, and fears it will lead to even more “never-ending campaigns of nation-building and attempts to change entire societies in places like Afghanistan.” If one listens to Tom Ricks, as my fellow Patterson students should have last night, it becomes apparent that this is not the real problem, especially in Iraq. I would suggest that Gentile confuses strategic failures with the absence of strategy entirely.
Afghanistan represents the war the US should have fought following 9/11. That we did not follow up our initial routing of the Taliban with earnest nation building was a tremendous failure that allowed the Taliban to regain footholds throughout the country. This failure, coupled with the loss of resources to the Iraq quagmire made Afghanistan a conflict whose future is very much in doubt.
This week’s offensive on Marjah represents the way the US should have fought the war in Afghanistan following our early successes and the creation of the provisional government. A unified assault by Coalition and Afghan security forces on a Taliban stronghold designed to minimize civilian casualties and secure and hold the population center represents the apotheosis of the Army’s field manual on COIN (FM 3-24). Such efforts at the outset might have forged a stronger government, preventing the suffering endured by Afghanis at the hands of the Taliban and their own corrupt state. But for Gentile, Marjah represents only the latest localized application of an overall COIN grand strategy.
If Gentile is to be believed, this one-size-fits-all strategy has been laid over both Iraq and Afghanistan, despite their significant differences, and will be used again in future. It seems to have already failed in Iraq. Ricks believes that a force of about 35,000 American troops will have to remain in Iraq indefinitely to prevent the country from devolving into civil war. Officials within the State Department and various intelligence agencies have even less optimism, and feel that an Iraqi civil war is inevitable. Either way, it seems that COIN in Iraq is broken, whether our troops remain or not. If the Surge can be seen as the last wave of COIN, it has been broken upon the Iraqi rocks. COIN has failed in that conflict, and its future success in Afghanistan is uncertain at best.
Gentile’s worst fears seem to be confirmed. But is it really true that the US has subordinated its other military concerns in favor of a global COIN strategy? Gentile’s concerns seem to be overblown. He is worried that conventional capabilities are being subordinated or treated as less complex than COIN. This does not seem to be the case. The US military needs to be more versatile than ever before, and for the present conflicts population-centric COIN (for better or worse) has been seen as the ideal operation for the task at hand. If the QDR is actually indicative of military strategy, the move from a “two-war doctrine” to a more flexible system of response for a wide variety of contingencies demonstrates this point. Prior to 2001 the US military was prepared for large conventional conflicts that were unlikely to come. Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan led to the swing in favor of COIN as we awoke to the fact that our conventional war machine was ill suited to the present conditions and opponents. But this does not suggest that a present emphasis on COIN comes at the expense of other levels of military effectiveness.
For one, COIN has not even been the sole strategy employed in the amorphous “War on Terror.” For example our recent love affair with drone attacks has little to do with population centers and it certainly does nothing to “win hearts and minds.” As Gentile suggests the British did in the nineteenth century, American commanders indeed see our current war making as a “means to an end,” and not a tactic run amok over policy. American strategy is one of nation building and providing security for Iraqis and Afghanis while seeking to destroy the fundamentalist terrorists and insurgents who would target Americans and our allies in the Middle East. One can certainly take issues with the means we have selected, but there are certainly desirable ends.
The real problem is, at least with Iraq, that it was the wrong war. Based upon false pretenses, with minimal analysis of what would happen after the initial fighting, Iraq II has been marked by its lack of clear objectives and strategy. This has left us to pick up the pieces and figure it out as we went along. Clearly this has not gone well. Gentile confuses the military’s embrace of COIN with the larger failures of strategy during our conflicts in the Middle East.
It is difficult to make a coherent strategy when our initial objectives in Iraq were ambiguous. Seeking to shutdown (ultimately nonexistent) WMD programs through pre-emptive war was a strategy without precedent. Without even the WMD to justify the conflict in hindsight, the Bush Administration made the issue “Iraqi Freedom.” The viable, democratic Iraq so beloved by Cheney and company has yet to arise from the blood and rubble, and it is unlikely it ever will. Most Americans would agree that a war to provide democracy to Iraqis would not have been worth the significant expense and bloodletting of both sides.
Gentile’s inability to find a coherent strategy or set of objectives for the American misadventure in Iraq is not due to our being COIN-happy, but the fact there was nothing of interest to the US there other than the contained despot Saddam Hussein and his phantom weapons programs. When Iraqi democracy became our incomprehensible objective, things unraveled because Iraq is an arbitrarily delineated, artificial state encompassing three ethnic groups that hate each other. The US should not be in the habit of remaking authoritarian states as some sort of humanitarian gesture. Sadly, an authoritarian dictator or significant military force is necessary to hold such a state together, and the US refuses to allow the former and lacks the will to provide the latter.
In the meantime, recent developments suggest the US hasn’t completely lost sight of larger, if not “conventional” conflicts. Recent investments in cyber security and ABM systems—one failed, one successful, with lasers no less!—demonstrate concern about threats beyond terrorism, particularly a possible showdown with China. Gentile is right that COIN should be seen as a tool in our military toolbox, but is wrong to believe that it has ascended anywhere beyond that. He seizes upon COIN being the official strategy, because our initial objectives and strategies were incomprehensible in Iraq and initially ineffective in Afghanistan.