Thursday, December 03, 2009

COIN Kryptonite?

In this month’s issue of PARAMETERS, Gian Gentile once again plays spoiler to the Justice League of COIN advocates. The thing is, he may have a point. Gentile’s argument is that the increasing prominence of COIN strategy in military and academic circles may lead to the widespread use of counterinsurgency tactics in lieu of thoughtful military strategy. There are several reasons for this:

1. Having finally gained attention from policy-makers, COIN advocates are eager to press their positions and encourage restructuring of the U.S. military around population-centric counterinsurgency principles. Gentile fears that in Afghanistan and in future conflicts, the prominence of the COIN argument may come at the expense of better strategies that would require less commitment from American forces.

2. Some aspects of COIN strategy are logically sound and politically palatable. For example, a focus on development and making strong connections with the people resonates better with many Americans than does bombing villages and interrogating terrorists. The focus on winning hearts and minds and transitioning power over time to the locals makes logical sense. However, Gentile points out that historically, insurgencies that have been defeated have either been waited out or put down violently. He cites the recent Sri Lankan counterinsurgency effort as evidence. (He also asserts that John Nagl’s claims that the British shift from counter terror to COIN strategy in the Malaya Emergency are overblown.)

3. In its current incarnation, COIN is best characterized as a “strategy of tactics.” Gentile invoked this term from Andrew Krepinevich's analysis of the Vietnam War in arguing that the COIN strategy that is being advocated by the D.C. think tanks is a method, not a true strategy. The COIN principles laid out in Kilcullen’s 28 articles are tactics for dealing with an insurgency, while nation-building using those tactics should be viewed as an operation. Gentile says that the United States has “principilized” population centric COIN as the only way of fighting insurgency, and this leads to tactics dictating strategy.

Gentile’s arguments are a useful warning to policy makers. I think Andrew Bacevich would agree that if we allow COIN tactics to dictate our national strategies, we are likely to find ourselves intervening in more “imperialist” nation-building conflicts. The development of national strategy should include the consideration of the types of conflicts we’re likely to confront, our goals in addressing those conflicts, and the full gamut of tactics that could be employed.

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