Some Random Thoughts on COIN Today
I have to respectfully disagree with the assertion that "counterinsurgency is the graduate level of war."
Despite being an avid believer in and advocate of COIN (and FID and UW) for most of my nearly 30 year career I still believe that that the graduate level of war has to be full spectrum and those that are practicing the graduate level of war are those that can shift between major combat operations and stability operations and when necessary assist a friend, partner, and ally in the conduct of COIN. Now that everyone is chasing the shiny (but not really) "new" thing (COIN) and calling it the graduate level of war I it think is disparaging to our great general purpose forces out there who are still going to be required to conduct major combat operations in some form or fashion and will have to be able to combine those operations with stability operations once the battle is won.
The graduate level of war is any form of war because war is as complex in major combat operations as it is in stability operations. The real "PhDs of war" are those that are able to recognize that the actions they take in the beginning of conflict (e.g., March-May 2003) are going to have effects on the outcome and the post conflict phases (e.g., May 2003 to the present). All war has to be people oriented -- it is always war among the people (Clausewitz still holds true, war is a duel, it is to impose one's will on another: that is just as true in major combat operations as it is in COIN -- and in the end it is always about influencing human behavior whether it be the behavior of the enemy leadership (political and/or military), soldiers, and the people (whether enemy, friendly, or neutral)). Yes, I have always quoted T.E. Lawrence that "irregular warfare is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge" but I will always believe it is necessary for the US military to operate across the spectrum of conflict. We have always recognized the need to be able to conduct post-conflict operations (stability operations, Phase IV or V or VI operations or whatever we have to decided to call it as we are always sticking new names on old doctrine, e.g. Security Force Assistance for FID, etc) but in the past we have paid lip service to it and have always focused on the "maneuver phases". Instead of letting the pendulum swing too far to one side (as we did post-Vietnam when we discarded everything we learned for the most part) we have to be able to strike the right balance.
One of the problems I continue to observe is I think a carryover from our strong historical emphasis on maneuver warfare, is that we continue to look at COIN from the perspective of the US winning (I know I continue to beat this horse). But this idea of the US winning can have detrimental second and third order effects for the US strategically.
I know the current COIN aficionados will say that when you have to conduct COIN in ungoverned spaces it is not FID because the HN does not govern there so the US has to be the main effort and win the COIN fight there and ultimately pacify the area. But we have to ask ourselves who does that ungoverned space or territory belong too? I can be pretty certain that it does not nor ever did belong to the US. If and when we embark on a COIN fight in an ungoverned space we sure better understand to whom that territory belongs and while we may be the main security force operating there for periods of time, all of our operations need to be focused not on us winning but on getting the rightful "owners" of that ungoverned space to be capable of once again being the legitimate government in that region. The idea of winning the hearts and minds cannot be about winning the hearts and minds for the US, it has to be about helping the legitimate authority win the hearts and minds of its population. That is where I think many of the current "COIN experts" have it wrong and I think this is a carryover of the maneuver mindset that we have to win. It ends up manifesting itself in such things as the SOFA proposals where we want to be able to conduct independent operations without host nation approval (or worse where we say that the Iraqis were wrong to launch the Basra and other operations without our "permission" as some political leaders have said) Our need to always be in charge can be very counter-productive in a COIN operation (think sovereignty!)
Sometimes we have to take the lead in tactical (security) operations we have to remember to practice operational art and understand the end state we are required to achieve (e.g, operational art: "the employment of military forces to attain strategic goals through the design, organization, and execution of campaigns and major operations", thanks to Dr. James Schneider of SAMS.) Operational Art is and will always be the graduate level of war and applies to all forms of conflict from major combat operations to stability operations to COIN. What has become apparent today and what makes all forms of war the graduate level is that so many of our tactical operations and actions have greater potential effect on strategic outcomes and the understanding of strategic effects is required by all our forces down to the very junior levels. I would say that warfare is the graduate level of human interaction because of all its complexities. The real essence of our operational art today is to be able to design the campaign not only to achieve success in battle but to see it through to success in the stability operations, post-conflict phase and ultimately the ability of the legitimate government to govern its people.
On that last point we are also still living in the past in some ways. We have always said that after the battle someone else (e.g. DoS or some ad hoc organization) would have responsibility for the post conflict phase (e.g., an assumption by some in 2003). Today we say that the inter-agency will take care of the post conflict phase -- but we forget that DoD is a full partner in the interagency community as well, i.e., it is part of the "whole of government". It is wrong to say "DoD and the Interagency". We are the interagency. But today we want to establish a stabilization corps or nation building corps as well as an advisory corps and I am afraid that we will paint false expectations and continue to plan in a stovepipe manner because we think someone else will deal with the aftermath. GEN Powell's adage of "you break it you buy it" still holds true and there is always going to always be a large DoD requirement as part of the "interagency or whole of government solution" so we need to plan for it from the beginning. Again the key is to conduct planning (and execute operational art) to ensure that all elements of the campaign are designed/orchestrated to contribute to ultimate success in post-conflict vice just victory in the battles and engagements. Of course ideally we will not need to execute future Afghanistans and Iraqs and we won't have to depose regimes and develop security forces from the ground up. Then we can get back to advising and assisting our friends, partners, and allies, behind the scenes and help them be successful at solving their internal and trans-regional challenges (e.g. Colombia) without large scale US military intervention!!
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. The opinions he expresses in this paper are his own and represent no U.S. Government or Department of Defense positions.
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