September 1, 2010  

A false dichotomy

Critics of the Army’s COIN focus ignore world and war realities

As the violence in Afghanistan has intensified, a growing chorus of critics has argued against the strategy of counterinsurgency writ large. The focus on counterinsurgency (COIN) emerged in 2005 as a corrective to a failing approach in Iraq. The COIN alternative argued that more attention must be paid to the political character of the war in Iraq, advocated the crafting and implementation of a serious political strategy there and urged the necessity of securing and protecting the people as a part of this strategy. To do all of this, more troops — and a different mindset among them — were needed to break an accelerating cycle of sectarian violence and establish security so that political progress might be made. The ideas behind this strategy were consolidated in the 2006 Army and Marine Corps doctrine that described the tactics and operations necessary for countering insurgents. And as we know, key elements of this approach were then applied to the problem of insurgency in Afghanistan.

Critics of COIN argue that the counterinsurgency approach has become ascendant in the Army. They argue that it is stifling debate and that it has an almost “cultish” status among a relatively small group of people, implying that it is a “strategy of the moment.” Some critics argue that COIN has “eclipsed” fighting as a core competency, that it undervalues firepower and that it has jeopardized the Army’s ability to conduct high-intensity fighting operations. Others argue that it is far too utopian and that COIN is a panacea.

While it is important that the implementation of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan be subject to critical evaluation, this generalized backlash against counterinsurgency is flawed and warrants a closer look. COIN does not compete with so-called conventional war, but complements it. The often reflexive anti-COIN positions confuse political decisions about the use of force with the need to develop a military that is prepared for a range of contingencies. They are frequently based on the assumption that Americans are the only drivers in a war and that the enemy will have no say in the kind of war it wants us to fight. They overstate the actual shift in American military thinking and training (and seem to want to frighten us into believing that our soldiers can’t talk well and shoot well). They choose to emphasize one or two aspects of COIN, thereby ignoring the fact that counterinsurgency involves a broad range of tools and approaches — not just protection of the population. Finally, some COIN detractors selectively ignore much of the Army’s history, failing to see that the Army has always had to respond to and adapt to the problem posed by politics in a theater of war — in virtually any type of war.


COIN is holistic in that it considers the human dimension of war. Yet critics of COIN tend to assume that ability to restore order and security in a state will lead to constant military interventions to undertake such missions. This argument suggests that a military capable of conducting tasks related to political and economic reconstruction will be more inclined to advocate for such missions. Critics argue that it is a mistake to believe that counterinsurgencies can be waged humanely because doing so risks, as Michael Cohen put it, “embroiling the U.S. in more conflicts and weakening national security.”

This view is misguided. As George Washington observed, to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace. The U.S. prepared for tank battles with the Soviets for years and years, yet rarely deployed to fight. Even if war cannot be avoided, we cannot prepare only for the war that we hope to or would like to fight. Once begun, a war’s character evolves and changes. Even a reasonable expectation that no insurgency will arise, may in fact, be flawed. The point of counterinsurgency is to counter insurgents — that is, to fight against those who use terror, violence and fear to undermine a legitimate government and control people and territory. This is a type of war that is recurring, whether or not we are comfortable with its character.

The enduring nature of war involves a constant effort among adversaries to seek advantages among an enemy’s weak spots. Advantage accrues to those who can shift the ways and means through which wars are fought to play to one’s strengths. Enemies have choices in war and enemy organizations have demonstrated an ability to shift the character of armed conflicts in ways that avoid our strengths and take advantage of perceived weaknesses.

Anti-COIN arguments confuse political decisions about if and when to enter a war with having an Army prepared to fight in all types of contingencies. In the U.S., it is elected civilian leaders who take the decision to intervene in a country. It is their responsibility to understand the factors — political, military, social and economic — that are likely to impinge on the success of an intervention, as well as those factors that might argue against going to war. Presumably a better understanding among civilian leaders in Washington of the human and deeply political dimensions of war might give them pause before deciding to enter one. But once a decision is taken, they should have confidence that the force being deployed is prepared fully, for all kinds of contingencies and the inevitable evolution of the conflict based on the continuous interaction with the enemy and other unpredictable factors.


Several COIN critics are also concerned about the purported lack of debate in the Army and believe that COIN is becoming a dominant way of thought. The need to counter insurgent organizations and their sponsors in Afghanistan is obviously taking precedence today because it is the war we are fighting now. But the Army’s overall approach over the past several years has been to build and train a force capable of fighting across the full spectrum of operations. “Joint” thinking too has reaffirmed this view, with its emphasis on U.S. forces that will be challenged by what the Joint Forces Command’s Joint Operating Environment Report calls “threats and opportunities ranging from regular and irregular wars in remote lands, to relief and reconstruction in crisis zones, to sustained engagement in the global commons.” COIN, and its attention to the details of politics and reconstruction, is a corrective to the overwhelming focus on so-called conventional war — which, in the past, tended to ignore the political dimensions of war and define war as we might like it to be.

Rather than making COIN ascendant, the Army has adopted two important operational concepts that give meaning to the concept of full-spectrum operations and of the need to be flexible — that is, to be both soldiers and diplomats as circumstances require. Wide-area security involves both fighting and stabilizing — a consistent feature of the operational level of war. It is about consolidating tactical and operational successes so that they can be built upon and translated into strategic successes. Successful wide-area security makes it harder for insurgents to emerge and to operate. It establishes what Training and Doctrine Command commander Gen. Martin Dempsey described as the “conditions necessary for humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, mass atrocity response and homeland security operations.” Combined-arms maneuver establishes the conditions necessary for attack and defense over extended distances. Both of these concepts involve skills necessary to fight and to stabilize. They provide the kind of flexibility, at the operational level, that will allow forces to respond to COIN-like situations — ideally to stem the rise of insurgent groups — as well as more “traditional” combat scenarios. These concepts reveal that the Army is not shifting too much in one direction for another, but is acknowledging that there are political and military skills required along the entire spectrum of war, and it is preparing for them.


Another key feature of the generalized arguments against COIN involves the question of firepower. A critique of the anti-COIN camp has been that a focus on concern for the people (and the desire to avoid civilian casualties) has left American troops vulnerable and unable to defend themselves.

In what some have described as the “American way of war,” there has always been a tension between the use of firepower to destroy the enemy and the compelling moral and utilitarian reasons to avoid killing innocents. The COIN approach made this trade-off explicit by linking decisions about how and when to use force with the political impact and operational consequences that civilian deaths have on the course of the war. In an environment where the enemy hides among civilians, and uses them as weapons (suicide bombers) and shields, confronting these considerations directly makes tactical, as well as strategic, sense.

The rationale behind the rules of engagement ordered by former Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal was to avoid driving more civilians into the hands of the Taliban — civilians who would provide safe haven and information to the Taliban, which could in turn be used to kill American soldiers. These rules are not inherent to COIN writ large but were and are adaptable to the situation at hand. They were specific to the commander’s judgment about the war in which he was fighting, and the constraints he perceived to be relevant to conducting operations in a way that contribute to the achievement of war aims.

The COIN manual says little about firepower — basically, it devotes one short paragraph to the subject, noting that firepower has often been a substitute for manpower and that massive firepower could often cause collateral damage, thus driving locals into the arms of the insurgents. But it also notes that offensive operations are a necessary component of counterinsurgency and ought to be prosecuted vigorously, albeit with discrimination. Additionally, COIN doctrine emphasizes the need for ground forces to gain and maintain contact with the enemy, to deny the enemy freedom of movement and action.

Moreover, the Army’s combined-arms approach affirms that the ability to fight will always require the integration of fire and maneuver and “appropriate combinations of infantry, mobile protected firepower, offensive and defensive fires.” In close combat, Army units are still expected to “throw enemy forces off balance with powerful blows from unexpected directions, follow up rapidly to prevent recovery, and continue operations to destroy the enemy’s will to fight.” It is clear from combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that counterinsurgency operations do not diminish the need to fight or employ all arms against the enemy. Indeed, close combat in counterinsurgency campaigns is often very similar to experiences in conventional battles.

While some assume that COIN operations diminish the need for combined-arms competency and that lightly armed forces are more appropriate to the demands of those operations, it is often necessary to provide COIN forces with additional firepower and protection to help soldiers shoulder the additional risk necessary to protect the innocents among whom the enemy operates. A Canadian study of battles in southern Afghanistan, for example, affirmed that a consistent feature of the war was how tanks and armored engineers worked with infantry to “close with and destroy a fanatical and determined enemy in extremely complex terrain.” Moreover, equipped with a fire control system that allowed soldiers to acquire and engage targets with precision, tanks often reduced the requirement for aerial bombardment and indirect fire.

McChrystal’s rules of engagement, as implemented in the field, may have been too restrictive. His successor, Gen. David Petraeus, is now reportedly engaged in clarifying his intent so that soldiers understand that they are to gain and maintain contact with the enemy and overwhelm the enemy in tactical engagements while applying firepower with discipline and discrimination. Most likely, he will reaffirm the Army’s long-standing concept of mission command — which recognizes that, in the end, it is small-unit leaders on the ground who will have to make the judgments about use of force based on the need to destroy the enemy while also protecting innocents, and that their commanders will back them up.

There is a tendency to view certain features of counterinsurgency as unique to COIN, as opposed to so-called “traditional” war. This reveals the tendency to confuse the nature of war with the character of war. The nature of war is inherently political: Wars of all sorts inevitably involve fighting in deeply political terrain because wars are fundamentally human endeavors. Critics of COIN argue that the character of war could shift again dramatically, leaving the Army unprepared to fight in non-COIN situations. Certainly the character of war has shifted and will shift and evolve again. But politics and its manifestation of competing groups seeking to gain ground will remain central to all forms of war, and opting out of this is not an option for the U.S.

COIN is not strategy writ large. It is a framework for thinking about the development of campaign strategy designed to be adapted based on the specific contingencies at hand. It is an approach that considers Carl von Clausewitz’s observation that war is an extension of politics by other means, and considers how military forces should be employed to operationalize that truth — as they have consistently been called upon to do. How do we deal with the messy reality of politics and violence that is war? What tools do we bring to bear?

The current COIN doctrine emerged as a corrective to the American tendency to take an engineering or technological approach to war, one that divorces war from its enduring human, psychological and political nature. COIN doctrine, therefore, fills an important gap by identifying operational and tactical requirements that are a part of war — particularly those wars that involve insurgents who are fighting to undermine legitimate governments and establish control over populations or territory.

Yet COIN critics seem to be willing the world to be a certain way — a world in which we might avoid the political complications of war. We certainly have made mistakes in Iraq and in Afghanistan. But to ignore a whole dimension of war because we wish to, and because some believe that certain forms of war and warfare do not play to our strengths, threatens to replace preparing for future wars with wishful thinking. AFJ

NADIA SCHADLOW is senior program officer for the Smith Richardson Foundation, where she identifies strategic issues that warrant further attention from the U.S. policy community and manages and develops programs and projects related to these issues. She was a member of the Defense Policy Board (September 2006–June 2009) and writes frequently on issues related to the U.S. Army. She is writing a book on the Army’s approach to war and political stabilization.