"A Few Random Thoughts on COIN Theory and the Future" (or A Partial Response to the Small Wars Journal Weekend Homework Assignment!!!)
By Colonel David Maxwell
The re-emergence of counterinsurgency (COIN) theory has been important and necessary for the development of US military doctrine in the 21st century and has contributed to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in critically important ways. However, COIN seems to have evolved into a strategic doctrine and perhaps has itself become the basis for US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy. This begs some questions.
Is COIN theory the basis for 21st Century US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy?
Should COIN theory be the basis for 21st Century US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy?
Assuming that COIN theory in and of itself should not be the basis of 21st Century US Grand and National Security Strategy what should form the basis for it?
What if anything could form the basis of Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy?
I think there needs to be an underlying strategic theory to form the basis for strategy development - but is there a replacement for George Kennan's Containment theory? We seem to have replaced containment of the communist threat with the theory that we can change the conditions (on a regional and global scale) that give rise to terror and insurgency. We have developed a mindset (either knowingly or unknowingly, I cannot be sure) that we think we can change nations, tribes, and cultures to cause them to act in our interests.
Assuming that COIN theory alone should not be the basis for US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy in the 21st Century is there an overarching strategic concept for the employment of the US military in the post 9-11 world that will support a US Grand and National Security strategy vice drive the strategy?
It appears the COIN theory of dealing with national security threats is driving the employment of the US military in ways that might not be sustainable -- particularly because COIN theory is forming the basis for the training and employment of the bulk of the US military and the fact that this requires huge manpower levels that must be sustained over long periods of time.
Additionally, the COIN theory of the US military may be fundamentally flawed because it presupposes US forces being in charge whenever COIN is conducted. Though FM 3-24 discusses the importance of host nation legitimacy and even our Security Forces Assistance and Irregular Warfare definitions discuss the importance of legitimacy and the "relevant population" we continue to employ US military forces as battlespace owners which drives the mindset among US military commanders that we are in charge of operations because we "own" the battlespace (despite being in a sovereign country!) De facto we make ourselves the occupying force. Even GEN McChrystal's assessment calls for integrating Afghans into the command and control structure -- those very words imply that we are in charge and not the Afghans.
In the post 9-11 world the US has developed a military employment concept that envisions US military forces, including large numbers of its General Purpose Forces (GPF), deploying around the world conducting a myriad of so-called Security Force Assistance missions to train, advise, and assist (or TEA -- train, equip, and advise to put it in LTG Caldwell's new acronym) and build partner nation capacity and capability and conduct counterinsurgency operations. A host of new doctrinal and not yet doctrinal terms are being introduced to provide guidance for the GPF to conduct missions perceived to be beyond the scope of traditional warfighting activities. (However - it is ironic that both the Army and the Marines have been heavily engaged in irregular warfare and activities throughout their entire existence.)
However, the perception of the US military being in charge has led to sometimes counter-productive activities or actions by military forces and causes further conflict.
When US forces take the lead role using today's COIN theory and doctrine in actuality they are not conducting COIN since the insurgency is "not theirs to counter" because the responsibility to counter it should belong to the sovereign nation that is faced with insurgency. While the US can and must support the activities by correctly applying applicable COIN theory (adapted and adjusted for the unique culture and traditions and the conditions that exist in the conflict area) to support that sovereign nation, when the US takes the lead and pushes the host nation to a secondary role in its own country then the US takes on the role of occupier. They are conducting "pacification operations" causing the perception of being an occupying force more along the lines of the Captain Pershing in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th Century. The calls to read Brian McCallister Linn and his works on the Philippines perhaps have led some astray. The "Pershing model" in the Philippines is somewhat ironic because one of the goals of an insurgency can be to rid a nation of an occupying power and certainly by not granting the Filipinos their independence as had been promised made the US an occupier and the Philippines a US colony. This turn of the 20th Century model must be considered for updating and possibly replaced with a new more modern model for supporting the conduct of COIN by a sovereign nation vice the US conducting COIN in a sovereign nation. And perhaps we should be looking for a balance between Pershing at the turn of the century and Lansdale and Magsaysay in the middle of the 20th Century.
A debate has evolved between those who appear to espouse "COIN as the solution to every military problem the US faces" and those who believe that the military should get back to and protect its ability to conduct "traditional Warfighting" so the US military can fight and win its nation's wars. There are those who believe the focus should be on countering hybrid and irregular threats and those who believe that "full spectrum operations" will provide the military the ability to train for and conduct operations across the spectrum of conflict including the ability to counter irregular or hybrid threats and conduct state on state warfare when necessary.
This has been a fierce debate and has caused much confusion within the military as officers and men of all ranks seek to prepare for the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan while attempting to maintain and hone traditional warfighting skills. Yet the reemergence and general acceptance of COIN theory has benefited the development of military doctrine and the transformation of the Army in many ways to deal with the myriad of irregular and hybrid threats that will likely continue to evolve in the 21st Century. The fundamental issue comes down to how do we "win" the wars we are in without mortgaging the future of the US military capabilities. I put "win" in quotation marks because defining winning in COIN is something that we must consider. Can there be victory in the conventional sense in COIN? Or is it more along these lines: "Someday, if you are successful, the mission will disappear, like a river flowing into a swamp."
Which leads me to my final random thought: If you have to win a fight you send the Army and the Marines. If you have to help someone else win a fight without taking over the fight (and if it is going to take 10 or more years to reach a satisfactory conclusion), then perhaps another type of force is needed.
Colonel David S. Maxwell, U.S. Army, is a Special Forces officer with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University. The opinions he expresses in this paper are his own and represent no U.S. Government or Department of Defense positions.