CJCS General Wheeler, COMUSMACV General Abrams, SECDEF Melvin R. Laird

Guest Post: Addendum to “Learning For the Next War”

COIN is not necessarily the font of all strategic evil


This guest post is an addendum to an earlier conversation on learning lessons from war, provided by Jared Bondesson.

Much has been made of the US Army’s Counter-Insurgency (COIN) doctrine from 2006, which, at the time, was perceived to be ground-breaking and “just-in-time doctrine” for immediate use in a war for which we were largely unprepared and in which we were failing to gain the upper hand. When looking back with perfect hindsight, maybe the field manual we put up on our collective pedestal wasn’t as great as we thought at the time. So when the manual, fronted with names like David H. Petraeus and James F. Amos gets called to the carpet, it makes news.

As Nate Finney wrote recently, there was a listserv conversation about this very topic that was particularly educational. Participants on this listserv include several active and retired senior officers who bring their vast experience to bear on issues raised from current events. As Nate mentioned, these participants also include “authors of both the Army’s pre-eminent volume on Desert Storm and the first solid look at Iraqi Freedom.” I have to confess that I do not always read this listserv and sometimes just direct the emails to the virtual “file 13.”

I was captured, however, by this discussion. For me, it was not only by the contributions of these authors, but by the commentary of another heavy hitter, Dr. Dave Johnson. The context of the dialog was a discussion of the previously mentioned article by Richard Sisk; it then turned toward the tension between tactical actions and strategic effects, that ‘…perhaps tactical COIN actions do not readily translate to strategic/enduring results.” Dr. Johnson responded with this:

I published a journal article a couple of years ago about NATO in Afghanistan. Argument was that during the surge in Afghanistan we did not adhere to our own COIN doctrine, so how would we expect it to work? The summary of the article:
This article examines ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operations in Afghanistan as a way to get at the strategic disconnects in ends, ways, and means that the author believes are endemic to large-scale protracted stability and COIN (counterinsurgency) operations against adversaries who do not pose palpable existential threats to the members of an alliance. The article focuses mainly on the period that followed President Barack Obama’s December 2009 announcement of a civilian and military “surge” in Afghanistan through the early stages of the ISAF offensive in Marjah, which began in February 2010. The article concludes that the fundamental strategic issue is that the Allies are not willing (or able) to devote enough resources to achieve their stated objectives. No matter how much the “Ways” might be improved, the “Means” are not sufficient to attain the “Ends.” Thus, what is needed is a more realistic understanding of what ISAF can accomplish in Afghanistan and what NATO might be expected to accomplish in future operations.
In short, the strategy had an end state (articulated in GEN McCrystal’s plan) and ways (population centric COIN), but did not resource it with the means (sufficient security forces) nor were the core conditions for success met (no enemy sanctuary, legitimate government in the eyes of the populous). My point in the article was not that FM 3-24 would work if it was resourced, but that policy makers should have not expected it to work absent those resources and creating the conditions outlined in FM 3-24.

I think what Dr. Johnson says here is indicative not just of the ISAF disconnects, but also the greater problem plaguing US strategic decision space: the lack of a grand strategy. Again, with clear hindsight, I can make these assertions. Grand strategy, with clearly articulated ends for all stakeholders (POTUS, Congress, DoD, DoS, etc.); a commitment of political, diplomatic, and — if need be — military ways to achieve those strategic, grand ends; and a defined commitment of resources enabling the ways, allows subordinate agencies at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war to develop supporting strategies, campaigns, plans, and operations. Only then can we begin to judge our chosen strategy.

As it stands now, the doctrine that became a strategy was not really validated at all. GEN(R) Petraeus claims it worked in Iraq. Some agree. Many others beg to differ. Perhaps the Sons of Iraq? In terms of COIN doctrine in Afghanistan, I think it’s safe to say that it did not really proceed how we envisioned it there either. Why? If the doctrine cum strategy was viewed as “…the authoritative playbook for success,” why didn’t it work? For me, the answer lies in AMB Eikenberry’s comments in Sisk’s article:

It was sheer hubris to think that American military personnel without the appropriate language skills and with only a superficial understanding of Afghan culture could, on six– or 12-month tours, somehow deliver to Afghan villages everything asked of them by the COIN manual. (emphasis mine)

And this from Clausewitz’s On War as quoted by Dr. Johnson in his NATO piece:

Wearing down the enemy in a conflict means using the duration of the war to bring about a gradual exhaustion of his physical and moral resistance.

Part of the issue is the commitment in the greatest of the means available to us: blood, treasure, and time. Time, as the saying goes, is the great equalizer. When used properly, it saves blood and treasure and is a critical aspect of the COIN doctrine-strategy. It takes a lot of it to see the plan through to the end. But we did a poor job conveying this aspect to the American people. With each negative news story, the narrative was building. Ultimately, the public succumbed to the momentum and the clamor for a different direction got louder.

Simultaneously, the same can be said of the Afghan people. As mentioned in FM 3-24, and cited by Dr. Johnson in his NATO article, “a COIN effort cannot achieve lasting success without the HN government achieving legitimacy.” The US has been in Afghanistan for 12 years, and there are still questions of legitimacy of the Afghan government. If there is a successful transfer of power, will this finally make them legitimate? Again, and I hate to say it, but time will tell - here we are into the second decade and we still don’t know.

If nothing else, what our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have taught us is that our politico-military strategies need a corresponding, overarching, dare I say, “grand” strategy. Not just guidance. Perhaps, while we are writing the immediate history of our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, presumably a fresher FM 3-24, we can also include a comprehensive strategy that guides the country’s subordinate departments and agencies.


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