by Adam Elkus
In July, William F. Owen published one of the few essays that provided a workable solution for how the United States could optimize its forces for counterinsurgency warfare. It’s actually a lot more simple than it appears. Some central ideas:
- Victory is produced by combat, and the goal of operating forces should be to break the enemy’s will.
- The rule of law, governance, and other things seen as the goal of COIN are products of control, which requires destroying, deterring, and intimidating the enemy.
- The prize is not the population, but the control the government can gain when the enemy is destroyed.
- An inability to do these things is indicative of a policy or strategy failure.
Arguably, the American Surge in Iraq fit this function. With the Sunnis accepting defeat in the Sunni-Shiite civil war, the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force killed the “dead-enders” standing in the way of the coming peace (or cease-fire, depending on your viewpoint). None of this is revolutionary. Force is being used to create a political outcome. COIN is not different from conventional war in this aspect. In essence, Owen was simply stating the basics of military history.
But a look at the comments section of Owen’s article, and the discussion it provoked in the blogosphere and Twitter, suggests that no one appreciated this basic insight. It was not, as commonly thought, a call to exercise Soviet or Chinese-like tactics of “creating a desert and calling it peace” but a basic call for strategic sanity. Contrary to what is sometimes said, war is about “killing your way to victory.” The whole point of maintaining armies, air forces, and navies is to use force to either compel or deter. If you cannot do so, then your policy or the strategy you have employed may be suspect.The fact that such a notion is controversial is in itself an explanation for some of the events of the last ten years and our current confusion about the future of counterinsurgency