Small Wars Journal

The Incoherence of COIN Advocates: Stephen Biddle Edition

The Incoherence of COIN Advocates: Stephen Biddle Edition - Bernard Finel, ASP Flashpoint.

Stephen Biddle is the single best defense analyst working today. His arguments are usually carefully considered and well supported empirically. For a generation of younger defense intellectuals, he is very much the gold standard, the model to emulate.

His recent essay in the American Interest (Is It Worth It? The Difficult Case for War in Afghanistan) has been widely cited as the best defense for expanding the American commitment there. The problem is that while Biddle claims that the decision is a close call, it is only close by virtue of what can only be described as sloppy reasoning.

There are three key problems with Biddle's essay. First, his definition of American interests in Afghanistan is incoherent. Second, he bolsters his case by arguing against a strawman. Third, he makes the bizarre assumption that being better at counter-insurgency (COIN) is the same as being good enough at it to win. I will deal with all three in turn...

Much more at ASP Flashpoint.

Categories: Stephen Biddle


Greyhawk (not verified)

Sat, 08/22/2009 - 1:51am

Pack 'em up, bring 'em home. Tell them "we need to retain the ability to use force in service of our national interests".

And you'd better have a damn fine motivational speech ready should that day come.

Boatspace (not verified)

Thu, 08/20/2009 - 7:11pm

Well Ken, since Richard Holbrooke has said we'll know progress when we see it. That begs the question, will the uniformed side of the house understand when that is also?

Recall, when MajGen Krulak and his State counterpart were briefing JFK with differing opinions on their recent fact finding trip to Vietnam: JFK was said to ask, "you two did visit the same country?"

Bon courage Ken, take care - : - )

Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 08/20/2009 - 6:02pm

<b>Boatspace:</b><blockquote>"You know my mantra on time. How much time do we have until congress gets in the act as they did in Vietnam and cuts funding?"</blockquote>Who knows. We can hope that the 111th through, say, 114th Congresses will learn from and avoid the really dumb mistakes of the 93rd and 94th. The political calculus today is quite different so they are less likely to err.

Bernard Finel has it right, we need to stay long enough to say, honestly and objectively, that we gave it our best shot -- and for the World to know that (regardless of what they say). Not so long as to incur the problem of self-deterrence he cites...

Boatspace (not verified)

Thu, 08/20/2009 - 5:44pm

Fair enough response Bernard, but should we fail to follow through in Afghanistan, we will be adding to a growing list of countries we have been run out of, which wouldn't in my opinion, be looked upon well by our allies, and could detract from future coalition endeavors. And with the expense, we must have coaltion.

If I didn't think there was a case, however marginal, that Afghanistan has become strategic in the sense that it may be the tail wagging the dog Pakistan - I'd say strike the tents.

America's problem isn't it's ability to project force over the horizon, it's our understanding when is the time to do so. If this isn't the time, or time has run-out, then let CENTCOM step-up and say so now before we become further involved.

On a personal note: I'm not enamored with our large conventional presence in Afghanistan. However, having entered Vietnam a sergeant and later witnessing the fall of Saigon from off-shore as a First Lieutenant, I may be too emotional on not seeing America fail this time around - I'll have to give that some thought.


Bernard Finel

Thu, 08/20/2009 - 5:06pm

<blockquote>Not bad Ken - not bad at all. You are also quite correct with your end analysis: "we need to do what we said we would do" - if we fail to do so in Afghanistan - a propaganda victory of epic proportion for Islamic Jihadists everywhere - it very well may have strategic consequences.</blockquote>

I disagree. I think we gain a reputation for strength when we convince the world that we will pursue our national interest in clear eyed conviction, not when we run scared because of what our enemies will think of us.

Remember, the real bad guys are fanatics who see everything in terms of God's plan. You can't reliably influence their perceptions of us. On the other hand, we don't do ourselves any favors if we stay in Afghanistan so long that war weariness really sets in and then we spend a generation having to rebuild a willingness to use force.

If "winning" in Afghanistan could reliably deter any future threats, I'd be all for it. But it wouldn't, and we need to retain the ability to use force in service of our national interests without it implying (or seeming to imply) a generation-long commitment to nation-building. Staying too long in Afghanistan is a recipe for self-deterrence the next time a threat emerges on the horizon.

Boatspace (not verified)

Thu, 08/20/2009 - 4:11pm

Not bad Ken - not bad at all. You are also quite correct with your end analysis: "we need to do what we said we would do" - if we fail to do so in Afghanistan - a propaganda victory of epic proportion for Islamic Jihadists everywhere - it very well may have strategic consequences.

You know my mantra on time. How much time do we have until congress gets in the act as they did in Vietnam and cuts funding?

Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 08/20/2009 - 3:43pm

Anyone who believes that:<blockquote>"The United States has two primary national interests in this conflict: that Afghanistan never again become a haven for terrorism against the United States, and that chaos in Afghanistan not destabilize its neighbors, especially Pakistan."</blockquote>Is deluded IMO. We can achieve such a solution on a temporary basis but there is no way short of a Century's effort we can do those things with any degree of permanency. So I agree with Finel on that being specious as a goal.

I also ree with Schmedlap and Finel that there are many more than two options.

I do agree with Finel that COIN theory is just that -- theory. It does not work simply because reality doesn't treat the effort as well as a good writer can and one cannot 'control' a population in a large area or for very long in this era. The force structure size to 'clear and hold' is unlikely to ever be present. Development -- or even restoration of services-- cannot take place until a degree of security is established and that become a self flagellating wheel...

I disagree with Finel that COIN theory was "tested" in in Iraq. Some aspects were but many other things were also employed to reach a rather tenuous accommodation and an only moderately successful outcome. I have long held that US Army errors in early days as well as some very stupid actions by the US government effectively created an insurgency (among other things). Yes, Saddam Hussein had planned it that way, released all the jailed felons, stockpiled weapons and ammo and did other things -- but much of that could have been defused had we not omitted post combat and stability operations doctrine and training from 1975 until 2003.

If there is one lesson from Afghanistan and Iraq and yes, Viet Nam, it is as Biddle says, we do NOT do COIN well. No one does, especially not as a third party intervenor and more especially not with third party GPF as a hammer and without the requisite civilian agency participation in adequate numbers. It is an effort that we should certainly be prepared to execute if we absolutely have to do so. We must not repeat the error of failing to prepare for the worst case.

However, maintaining such an effort in times of non-commitment to an effort is expensive and probably not sustainable, thus COIN is more importantly an effort we should diligently try to avoid in the future by far better use of the The Department of State and diplomacy, USAid -- and low key small foot print SF assistance <U>before</u> the need to commit the GPF arises. Once that point is reached, it will go downhill. Guaranteed.

The Politicians need to be prepared for and understand that. With just a little forward thinking they can save themselves major political and other costs and trauma later.

That said, we are in Afghanistan. While I don't think we should have told the Afghans and the World that we, the US, would stay and 'fix it,' we did say that. Thus, we now have an obligation to try our best to do so. We cannot stay forever but we should not leave now as we have not yet really put much effort into the 'fixing' we promised. We can and should do more and efforts to do that are underway.

We need to do what we said we would do.

That is a strategic imperative.


Thu, 08/20/2009 - 12:42pm

Finel challenges the strategic objective and the means of achieving it. I'll leave the strategic objective alone. But as for the means of achieving it, I'm glad that he chimed in.

With all of this strategic review whatnot, the only courses of action for how we advance our objective have been (a) counter-terror operation or (b) population-centric COIN. I don't have a lot of OES schools under my belt, but I suspect there are more then two alternatives.