Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War., published by Simon & Schuster in January 2013.
Octavian Manea: What is the meaning of “The End of the Age of Petraeus”? Is COIN in danger to be forgotten again as a methodology and technique, know how, skills set and “purged it from our lexicon and put the doctrine we had developed on the shelf“ (in the words of General Jack Keane)? Are we, at this stage, in a some sort of a pivoting away process from the large scale, protracted, expeditionary stability operations?
Fred Kaplan: Afghanistan was COIN's Waterloo. The internal debate over Obama's policy in 2009-10 was so interwoven with a debate over COIN that when Afghanistan failed--at least by the standards that justified the president's surge of 33,000 extra troops--then COIN was seen as having failed too, or at least as having proved itself too limited, too risky, too time-consuming to justify its extraordinary investment in lives and treasure. There are certain generals--Odierno, Dempsey, McMaster, others--who are trying to preserve "the lessons of 11 years of war" (aka the lessons and principles of COIN), but this will be hard to do, given that COIN is no longer a "core mission," ie, given that the president, in his February 2012 strategy review, declared that the Army and Marines will no longer size forces for large-scale, prolonged stability operations.
OM: Does expeditionary COIN (in its version of large scale/protracted stability operations) have any future? Or are we returning to a much more lighter special ops/advising/training COIN brand as the one that Petraeus had in mind when he (shadow) wrote the General Galvin’s piece on “Uncomfortable Wars: Toward a New Paradigm”? It seems that many of the current trends suggest that the COIN brand (in both of its above flavors) has a future, at least in theory: the phenomenon of failed and weak states is here to stay with us; more over, as the latest NIC report (Global trends 2030: Alternative worlds) points out, the hybrid warfare will be a major shaper of the international security environment. And because of these trends, it is not inconceivable to see the US military fighting again wars among people in urban settings.
FK: The US tends to get into these kinds of wars, deliberately or otherwise, once every generation, but the previous instance had proved so dreadful that, immediately afterward, the generals ignore, or toss away, every lesson learned from it - so we spend the first few years of the next war screwing it up. But the "light-footprint" operations (drones, SOF commandos) are very tempting, and, yes, I think does constitute a new spin on "comfortable wars." The comfortable war that Galvin / Petraeus talked about was the firepower-intensive big war that was seen on the horizon between the US and USSR. The light-footprint campaigns we're fighting now are more comfortable still, in that very few Americans get killed in them, and they tend to be conducted under heavy wraps of classification. We can fight wars without very many people even knowing that we are. The danger is that the political leaders and commanders can easily trick themselves into believing that what they're doing isn't fighting wars - isn't without risk or destructiveness.
OM: Can we talk and point to a “Petraeus Generation”? An Accidental Generation? Or by design? I mean most of “the insurgents” (the COINdinistas) shared a common cognitive map or were influenced to some extent by the same “big ideas”: the classic COIN masters (Galula, Thompson, Kitson, Larteguy), classic COIN campaigns (Malaya, Vietnam) or by the “moot-wah” wars of the 1990s.
FK: The key thing is that an entire generation of officers has fought, and trained for, COIN-style wars - and no other kind. This is bound to have some kind of enduring impact. Also the fact that the Soviet Union has since imploded means that, much as some might like to do so, the military can't go back to the firepower-intensive wars ("the American way of war"; there's no logical enemy for them. Hard to say.) Some of these officers were influenced by the "big ideas," but the bigger influence was their experience. As far back as the mid-'80s, when the generals of the day were referring to any conflict smaller than major combat operations as "Military Operations Other Than War" (moot-wah), the junior officers were engaged in precisely those kinds of conflicts (Salvador, Somalia, Bosnia, etc.) - and they sure felt like war to the officers. Iraq and Afghanistan, especially from 2007 on, solidified this sense.
OM: In his 2011 farewell address, General Petraeus sent this message: “we have relearned since 9/11 the timeless lesson that we don't always get to fight the wars for which we are most prepared or most inclined. Given that reality, we will need to maintain the full-spectrum capability that we have developed over this last decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere”. How would you describe the American Way of War before and after the so-called COINdinistas revolution? Was its purpose that of rebalancing (to use a trendy word) the American Way of War in order to create full-spectrum organization, with both conventional and unconventional institutional instincts?
FK: You've hit on the existential crisis that the Army is very much undergoing now: what IS "the new American way of war," and what is the Army's place in it? "Full-spectrum operations" is a nice phrase, but I'm not sure what it means, and I'm not sure the Army's leaders do either. It says, "We don't know what threats we'll be facing, so we have to train a little bit for everything." But you still need to make priorities, which influence training, procurement, recruitment, the criteria for promotion. What are those priorities?
OM: Should we see the COINdinistas revolution as the RMA equivalent of the post 9/11 decade? Will its legacy endure?
FK: When Robert Gates said in 2006 that Iraq and Afghanistan are the models for future war, and when the 2007 promotion board gave stars to the most COIN-creative colonels, it looked like COIN would be the new thing. When Gates said in 2011, shortly before resigning, that only someone who's out of his mind would recommend sending large-scale forces to the Middle East for another war, and when the Iraq formula failed in Afghanistan, it looked like the COIN revolution was done.
OM: How would you assess the role of West Point’s “Sosh Mafia” in the COINdinistas revolution?
FK: The Sosh Mafia (as its members called themselves) was very important. The Social Science Department of West Point was created right after WWII by Brig Gen George "Abe" Lincoln, a former Rhodes Scholar, who'd served as General Marshall's aide during the War and who saw that, with the US facing global responsibilities, the Army would need to educate a new kind of officer, schooled in politics, economics, and military matters - hence the Sosh department. He also created a network, in which alumnae of the "Lincoln Brigade" (as they also called themselves) would give each other jobs, exchange ideas. When COIN gained currency, this group's knowledge of politics, economics, society and war - and the connections among them - made the idea resonate. The networking they'd picked up on also made it second-nature to form a new kind of network. As I relate in my book, in great detail, every aspect of the revolution that Petraeus led involved - and, in most cases, had its roots in - the Sosh mafia.
OM: You started the interview with a key conclusion. “Afghanistan was COIN's Waterloo.” What was wrong with COIN in Afghanistan? Was that, as an expeditionary counterinsurgent, “you are as performant as the host nation government you support”?
FK: Yes, that's basically it. I'm not the one who makes that argument. As a general principle, it's a core principle of COIN doctrine. A French colonial officer, Col. David Galula, wrote a book in 1962 called Counterinsurgency Warfare. Petraeus, Nagl, Kilcullen - all the leading COIN thinkers read and re-read Galula's book. In it there's a chapter titled "Prerequisites for a Successful Insurgency." He lists the characteristics of a country that make it prime bait for insurgents, that increase the odds an insurgency will win. They included: a corrupt central state, a largely rural and illiterate population, a bordering state that's used as a sanctuary... Add them up, it's a portrait of Afghanistan. David Kilcullen made a point in a 2008-09 COIN manual that he wrote for civilian policymakers: "it is folly," he wrote, to undertake a COIN operation abroad if it's petty clear the regime isn't interested in reforming. He also wrote that, before going with a COIN operation, US policymakers "must" make a calculation of how interested the regime is in reform. This is a calculation the Obama administration didn't know to make during its first year in office - and that the military commanders who advised the president purposefully avoided, or evaded.