Shadow Government

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.

Shadow Government

The return of unilateralism -- Obama edition

By Christian Brose

Yesterday, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had a thoughtful op-ed about Afghanistan. Here's how he frames the problem:

[A]n honest assessment of Afghanistan must conclude that we are not where we might have hoped to be by now. While the country's north and west are largely at peace and improving, the south and east are riven by insurgency, drugs and ineffective government. Afghans are increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in building up their country. And the populations in countries that have contributed troops to the NATO-led mission are wondering how long this operation must last -- and how many young men and women we will lose carrying it out.

He goes on to list five lessons the alliance should learn if it is to succeed -- things like encouraging a more responsible Afghan leadership, more cohesive NATO operations, better regional diplomacy, civil-military cooperation, and strategic communications. All of this is right and unarguable. But isn't the United States learning another, far more sweeping lesson? Here's a hint: President-elect Obama will add up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year, nearly doubling the force we currently have. So isn't the real lesson that, after several years of pushing our allies to add more resources, more troops, and to lift the restrictions on their ability to operate, the United States is now re-Americanizing the war effort? In short, haven't we all but admitted that we are losing with NATO, and now we are going to do what's necessary to win -- with or without NATO's full support? One could be forgiven for calling this unilateralism that dare not speak its name.

Now, don't get me wrong: I don't mean to minimize the sacrifice of allies like Canada and the Netherlands that are in the thick of the fight and taking casualties, or that their contribution isn't needed and valuable. Nor do I mean to suggest that more troops alone will solve all our problems in Afghanistan. John Nagl and Nate Fick explain why in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. That said, what's interesting about the debate over Afghanistan is how, in the excitement that more attention will be paid and resources devoted to that war, we seem to be glancing over the fact that one of the major decisions of Obama's first year is the return of a more unilateral approach in Afghanistan.

Though I wasn't in government at the time, my sense is that the unilateral impulse in Bush's first term was adopted less out of a concern for ideology than effectiveness. The administration had seen what a mess coalition fighting was in Kosovo, how we'd only barely won, and fairly or not, it resolved that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan would not be hamstrung by coalition cat-herding. The push to multilateralize the war came later. NATO was invited in, and a patient, persistent, good faith effort was made in Bush's second term to win as an alliance -- to get more troops, new rules of engagement, better coordination, and greater committments of resources from our allies. This was a valiant attempt to make multilateralism effective, but the new U.S. committment to Afghanistan seems to imply that it didn't fully work, and that we'll take it mostly from here, thank you. Considering what Secretary Gates has already said publicly about the problems of NATO's war effort, I have a feeling he'd agree if he were being less diplomatic.

Maybe Obama's hope is that, by nearly doubling the U.S. force in Afghanistan, we will effectively shame Europe into stepping up with us. Maybe Obama will be able to turn Europe's goodwill toward his presidency into real will power to fight and win a tough, costly war. Maybe. But something tells me that NATO's performace in Afghanistan these past several years better reflects the perceived national interests, domestic public opinion, and limited capabilities of our allies, more than it does their unwillingness to work with an unpopular American president.

This could have big implications for NATO. A major hope of the Bush presidency -- not all of it, to be sure, but much of it -- was that NATO could be transformed into an expeditionary alliance, that it could move beyond Europe to tackle global challenges. The acid test is Afghanistan. If NATO can't be relevant there, where it matters most, then what? And if NATO's contribution in Afghanistan is now deemed inadequate, as the new policy would imply, this would seem to suggest that our hopes of NATO, and thus Europe, becoming a real global power -- hard, soft, smart, etc. -- won't fully be borne out. This doesn't mean the United States should spurn NATO's help. It might just mean that the primary mission now for NATO as an institution is simply to add greater international legitimacy to what is becoming a more unilateral exercise of American power.

This could become the future role for NATO writ large, and it's not an insignificant one. No one should cheer or revel in Europe's limitations. The United States needs partners, and we can't do everything alone. Still, if NATO's imprimatur helps to maintain domestic and international support for the United States, more or less on its own, addressing global security problems that desperately need to be solved, then so be it. This is a valuable role for NATO and thus Europe to play, but it's not the one many of us hoped it would.