Shadow Government

The unintended consequences of COIN

By Christian Brose

I started actively following the debate over counterinsurgency and the future of the U.S. military after reading this piece by Andrew Bacevich. His whole "Crusaders versus Conservatives" dichotomy is a bit simplistic, and sheds more light on Bacevich's own preferences in the debate than on the debate itself. Still, it's a good introduction to a fascinating argument that rages on.

FP's new partner, the Small Wars Journal, does a fantastic job tracking the debate, albeit wearing its preferences in its title. Elsewhere, Charles Dunlap weighs in for the COIN skeptics, and here at Foreign Policy, so does the unflappable Gian Gentile, who perhaps more than any other member of the military intelligentsia is waging his own counterinsurgency against the counterinsurgency advocates, if that doesn't screw up the metaphors too much. This prompts a characteristically smart rebuttal from Abu Muqawama, along with the following question: "Isn't there anyone other than Gian Gentile willing to take up the anti-COIN crusade? Where is everyone else?"

Well, OK. I'm your Huckleberry -- kind of. To be sure, I'm all for better-institutionalizing COIN in the U.S. military. I've argued before that nation-building is a national interest, and we'd better get used to it and good at it. I understand that this debate over doctrine is really a competition over scarce resources, and thus a zero-sum game in which hard trade-offs are required.

I also presume that what we're arguing over is how to balance two things that both the COIN boosters and their anatagonists agree we need to have: a military that can both fight small wars and insurgencies when it needs to, while also maintaining the capability to manage the harder side of good old-fashioned geopolitics, including interstate conflict, in which those big, pricey weapons systems really do come in handy. If not, this is like arguing over whether the key to weight loss is diet or exercise.

That said, shifting more resources toward COIN and away from the traditional capabilities to deter and, if necessary, defeat other states is not just a question about some war the United States may or may not have to fight somewhere down the road. It is a decision that will affect the behavior of other, potentially rival states right now -- the choices they make about whether and in what ways to challenge us.

My concern about the current COIN fixation is that by redesigning our military to better fight the last wars (insurgencies), at the expense of different future ones (interstate conflicts), we may invite the very thing the COIN strategists seem to be betting won't emerge: namely, the rise of a peer competitor that is not content just to play the peaceful role of a responsible stakeholder. In fact, such a traditional threat might not emerge if we remain on our current trajectory of military spending and force structure (or a slightly modified version of it), but only because we would be successfully dissuading it.

So in our rush to shift the balance of power within our military toward COIN, we shouldn't assume that rival states won't change their behavior in response to ours, and that this may leave us with a nasty self-fulfilling prophecy.


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