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.
About the Author(s)
I have asked this question at a much earlier thread but it seems worth repeating:
"Minus the financial crisis, would COIN have been so easily and so quickly abandoned?"
Let us also consider that the abandonment of COIN may have (1) much less to do with Afghanistan and (2) much more to do with the overall decline of the West and the corresponding rise of the East.
Given these considerations, we can now frame the central statement and question in a possibly more correct manner, for example:
The financial crisis looks to have signaled the West's Waterloo. In the new world order which will follow, one which is dominated by the East and one in which the West is likely to adopt a foreign policy approach known as "off-shore balancing," what will be the new American Way of War?
(Thus, COIN's demise -- and the new American way of war -- to be considered, not from the perspective of how things went in Afghanistan but, rather, from perspective of  the overall and general decline of the West and  how this decline was accellerated by the recent financial crisis.)
You don't start off with the ways, you start off by defining the ends, then determine the most appropriate means and ways.
I can't imagine anything positive coming from a large stability operation in Mexico; however, there are situations in the world where such a course of action may be desired, and in those cases as I stated above you would need the Army to conduct the occupation.
Changing the focus somewhat:
If an extremely severe crisis were to occur in a country of significant strategic value and importance (Mexico?),
Then could we really afford to (1) limit our footprint (say to such things as SOF and drones) and (2) ultimately leave success or failure to the host-nation/partner-nation?
Or, in such a circumstance, might we need to:
a. Have large footprint forces and
b. Forces having the knowledge, skills, abilities and capabilities needed to ENSURE a proper outcome in this strategically valuable and important state?
(Herein, the flag flying over, for example, Mexico, would stay the Mexican flag throughout our involvement.)
My scenerio above suggesting that the "limited footprint/leave success or failure to the HN/PN" policy might only apply to those cases in which the nation we were assisting (1) was mostly capable of handling its own difficulties, (2) was of little/less strategic value or (3) had only small and/or less-significant problems.
You are presenting foreign policy as it has always been practiced as a conspiracy. Of course we (and others) intervene when we believe it is in our interests to do so, and avoid entanglements when we don't think it is our interests to get involved by supporting the host or partner nation. It is no secret to those we are assisting that we're providing assistance to achieve our ends when we have shared interests.
The "by, with, and through" mantra that some push misrepresents reality, because it incorrectly labels every other nation in the world as "our" proxy instead of partner. It is a cowardly phrase that implies we don't have the will or means to pursue our own security objectives, and more importantly it leaves our partners open to conspiracy theories about being a U.S. proxy. In reality we collaborate and enable partners when we have common interests.
To your points.
a. I can see where people would get that perception, and if we don't shift our language from proxy to partner we are setting ourselves up for strategic narrative defeat.
b. That seems a little over the top to me, but no doubt it will be part of the adversary's narrative to make the HN/PN government appear illegimate. Not sure why we would provide support to one side or the other if we weren't taking sides based on our interests, and I don't think our partners would find that surprising. Off the cuff there appears to be at four options for military involvement: FID (support the HN), UW (support the insurgency), Peace Operations (take no sides), and no involvement. Let's not forget that those we support our playing us too.
c. Only if allow that to happen, but if we limit our footprint and ultimately leave the success or failure of the HN/PN's efforts then we avoid this trap. Yes we make our aid contingent on HN behavior, if they commit major human rights violations we can pull our support and let the government fall. It isn't our loss or win.
SOF and drones are tools, not a strategy, but they are often the best tools to achieve limited ends short of war.
"... if it isn't our country and we're not an occupying power then we are not doing COIN. We are assisting the host nation with its internal defense and development strategy ..."
But what if we were to look at this in a somewhat different way, for example, through the lense of empire.
If the United States sees itself as the leader -- and head governor -- of much if not all of the world,
a. The leader/ruler of the now improperly called "host nation" is to be seen simply as our agent and our vassel; someone who we hope to use to achieve OUR defensive and development strategy.
b. And the rebellion/insurgency, accordingly, is not actually against this subordinate country and its leader but, in all truth, against the United States and its agenda.
c. And, thus, the counterinsurgency effort, likewise, belongs primarily to us -- the United States. (Herein, as we would use and pay the governor of this subordinate nation to achieve our objectives, likewise we would need to provide him/her with the means to overcome those who would actively resist our direct/indirect rule -- and our initiatives.)
Stated another way:
COL Jones, I believe, often starts by saying that if the flag flying over the country one is in is that of the United States, then one is doing counterinsurgency. But if the flag that is flying over the country one is in is that of a foreign nation, then we are doing foreign internal defense.
In the scenerio I have outlined above, the United States believes, by virtue of it winning the Cold War, that the flag flying over much, if not all, of the world is -- in all reality -- that of the United States.
How does this perspective change our considerations re: COIN's Waterloo, the use of drone strikes and SOF commandos, etc.?
Afghanistan won't be COIN's Waterloo anymore than Vietnam was, but some us hope it will remain a strong reminder on the limits of our military power. Seems Kaplan repeatedly confuses FID and COIN when he refers to our growing preference for easy wars where we use SOF and drones to achieve our ends. It is very simple, if it isn't our country and we're not an occupying power we're not doing COIN. We are assisting the host nation with its internal defense and development strategy against whatever internal threats it may be dealing with (criminal, terrorist, insurgency), and in some cases using SOF and drones are appropriate. We don't need a large footprint to do that, and in fact large footprints in such situations have almost always turned out to be counterproductive. Don't confuse appropriate responses with being uncomfortable with war and occupations.
What lessons does Kaplan actually think we're at risk of losing? To claim we forgot how to do FID and counterguerrilla operations denies the fact that U.S. Special Forces never quit doing these operations after Vietnam and have been doing them quite well in most cases with small footprint operations globally. However, Special Forces can't effectively conduct occupation operations, so in those rare cases when we over throw another government or respond militarily to a failed state we'll need the Army to provide large scale stability, so quite simply strategy drives the appropriates response, not Kaplan's prefered doctrine.
We should all question whether we learned the right lessons for these occupation/stability operations at the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) level (but we did improve). On the other hand I think it is hard to assess our the efficacy of our TTP is we have a flawed strategy. Ultimately more important is whether or not we learnt the right lessons at the policy and strategy level. If we did, then Who learned them and can we be confident they'll be incorporated in future efforts? When American soldiers have good leaders that allow tactical innovation I'm confident they'll adapt at the tactical level, but if the strategy is flawed to what end? In my opinion our narrative focuses too much at the tactical level, which shifts focus from where it needs to be, which is on the strategy level. I suspect if even if we started the war with everyone being educated and trained on our so called "new" COIN doctrine we still would have struggled based on our lack of understanding of all the dynamics at play that ultimately would shape the outcome of the conflict.
The article quotes GEN P,
""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”.""
That also means we may be called upon to do other than COIN/Stability operations, perhaps a very new type of conflict altogether that we haven't envisioned yet. Instead of our self-proclaimed generation of innovative officers getting locked in on group-think on COIN/Stability Operations, they should strive to become more innovative and consider brand new ideas not tied to historical models. They're very capable of doing so, but they have to know it safe (career wise) to discuss other approaches to war fighting and stability operations.
The era of large scale maneuver warfare may or may not be over (I suspect not), but regardless we have not reached the end of history and there will be other wars, so the question is how should the Army train and organize to fight future wars? It seems we may be clinging to old doctrines (including stability operations) and failing to really transform to face future threats to our nation. I am sure our adversaries would love to see us respond to every failed state with large scale occupations since we would simply defeat ourselves economically, and right now since we're the only force in the world in the world that can defeat us, we have the option of not defeating ourselves by focusing on what is strategically essential. First things first, which is clearly defining national security priorities, then clarifying what are the threats to those interests, and finally developing doctrine that addresses those threats (prevent, deter, disrupt, defeat).
I do not think we're seeing the dying gasps of COIN in the military, but we are seeing the dying gasps of the beltway bandits who made considerable profit pushing large scale COIN interventions through their books and speaking engagements. No doubt these same talking heads will jump on the next security bandwagon with their alledged expertise and shape our future strategic engagements. It is the new American way of war at the strategic level. Generals are marginalized and talking heads drive strategy.
If war is a continuation of politics by other means and
a. Our goal is to facilitate the westernization of the political, economic and social life -- and the corresponding public and private systems and structures -- of less-western/non-western states and societies.
b. And their goal is to resist -- by all means available -- such westernization.
Then, if not via COIN, then by what "way of war" method (American or other) does the United States:
1. Achieve its objectives (as noted at "a" above) and
2. Overcome/defeat its enemies (as described at "b" above)?
Stated another way:
Will the use of drones and SOF commandos -- as America's new way of war -- best provide that the United States might (1) transform outlier states and societies along modern western lines and (2) defeat those entities who would resist such transformation/westernization?
In the book, Kaplan opines that COIN is pretty much dead, due to lack of US public support for such operations in the future. While this may indeed be presumptuous, my problem with his conclusion is that he offers nothing in the way of an alternative future for the US Army...he excludes both combined arms maneuver AND wide area security as useful options. What is there left for the US Army to do ? Nothing, it would appear. This puts us back to the days of the New Look and the Uncertain Trumpet, with nothing at all between unchallenged aggression and Armageddeon. If indeed, America's strategy breaks down to an attempt to induce other nations to fight its battles, in 2017 and beyond, we could well ask, "How's that working out for us ?" Kaplan may be a well-educated and intelligent man, but he is clearly uninterested in probing such questions. And selective engagement should not be, cannot be, an on-off switch.
The phrase "COIN's Waterloo" is vastly overstated. I'm not sure if it appears in Kaplan's book; I did not see it in his book-adapted article in the Jan-Feb 2013 <i>Foreign Affairs</i>. At most, as he suggests at the end of the article, the approach needs to be re-envisioned per lessons learned.
The majority of current conflicts around the globe involve irregular or asymmetric warfare, and there is little evidence to suggest this will abate. Many of the COIN tools employed and/or experimented with in Iraq and Afghanistan stress cultural affinity. As Robert R. Greene Sands mentions in another article on this site, Language and Culture in the Department of Defense, "DoD faces a strategic and operational future where promoting our national security will most certainly involve partnering with allies, partner nations and less unstable nation-states, non-state actors and cultural groups (ethnic and tribal associations) to help construct stable governments responsive to their population’s human security needs," quoting the DoD Strategic Guidance. COIN has additionally been enshrined under the more general umbrella of stability operations, now part of US military doctrine, albeit with its latitude of interpretations.
Long-term planners and practitioners should mind recent lessons of COIN but also recall its history, which stretches back centuries. If nation-states are on a long-term trajectory of disintegrating along ethnic and/or religious lines, approaches to 'countering insurgents' will be around for a long time.
Many factors contribute to the failures of modern Western "COIN" - ironically, few of those factors are about the environment or the enemy, they are about ourselves.
- The bias of perspective of the histories our COIN doctrines are derived from.
- The institutional bias of those who prepared such doctrine from those histories.
- The (disturbingly) ideological cant of US national security strategy and foreign policy in the post-Cold War era (though we began down this slippery slope of trading in pragmatic interests and geostrategy for enduring partners/threats and ideology under Ike).
- The obsessive need/desire to "control" the outcome into terms we think will be most favorable to us.
- The degree of violence is a tactical choice, not a strategic framework. Insurgency does not begin and end with violence.
Those are five of the big ones.
When one can step back and not simply parrot back what the manual says, and when one can read those histories from a more neutral position that looks past the war story or the agenda of the side one afiliates with the most closely, one can begin to get closer to "truths" that help to better understand and address such conflicts.
COIN is best thought of as a domestic operation, and only in a post-external conflict resistance movement does it really fit in the framework of "war" or "warfare." If internal in nature it is more civil emergency, and it is the government that is out of step with some segment of the people that needs to be the focus of "fixing."
For external parties coming to help, your actions are addressed by our "FID" doctrine. If you are confused, go to the capital and look to see who's flag flies from the tallest pole. If it is yours, you are doing COIN (enter that captital building and begin fixing the government). If you see the flag of some foreign nation, you are conducting FID. Subjugate your actions to their sovereignty regardless of how ineffective they might be.
COIN mindset seeks to make some other a lesser version of the intervening party. FID mindset seeks to help some partner to become a better version of themself.
We applied the COIN mindset in Iraq and Afghanistan. We applied the FID mindset in the Philippines. Both can be problematic, and one is always a guest, even if uninvited.
Until we can check our ego at the door and learn to accept the risks of uncontrolled outcomes and the sovereignty of smaller hosts, we will continue to suck at these operations.
After I finished Kaplan's book a few weeks ago, I wrote him a lengthy email trying to explain to him the broader historical context of what he had written. I never received a reply, even a simple courtesy response. Frankly, I don't think the guy has a clue about the nature of modern warfare, or grand strategy, or anything else. He's just a newshound following a story, albeit an interesting story. This would be a good time to go back and reread Maxwell Taylor's "The Uncertain Trumpet", the better to get a handle on the Army's "existential crisis". While Kaplan does reaffirm the Forrestian truth that war means fightin' and fightin' means killin' - he does not really have the moral courage to explain just what that means for the Army's future - or that of the United States of America. If Afghanistan joins Vietnam as a place of lost causes and historical recriminations, that will never address the question of what it takes to win in such situations. People like Kaplan would, it appears, rather lose on the cheap than win dear. Such opinions and attitudes do not help fight and win the next battle, much less the next war. Some day, winning through the application of superior force, however well or poorly used, will matter again.
America may not be interested in COIN, but COIN will be interested in America, so to speak. I think you touched on it- what are the alternatives? We KNOW the pentagon isn't going to look to scale back further financially, so the alternatives are limited (money has to be spent somehow). We could go back to a Cold War era conventional stance, but not only is that too expensive but its demonstrably stupid. We cold go to an even lighter footprint, light on personnel and heavy equipment, heavy on robots, but that actually isn't expensive enough. Like it or not, a COINcentric military is the correct temperature porridge.
This is probably healthy because even if that is the focus of the pentagon, there isn't the political will to deploy it in anything short of another 911 (perhaps not even then). At least we'll be prepared for the wars of the 21st century, even if we're not eager to jump into them (sounds like a sound philosophy to me).
That being said, none of it really speaks to America's place in the world going forward. If we don't have the political will to project power then method available isn't extremely relevant. This is a dangerous time for world stability and we better start considering our priorities and what we're willing to do to protect them. There's blood in the water.
Bill - You succinctly lay out the problem.
I would like to add two comments. First, going to the idea that Afghanistan was COIN's Waterloo - I think we must identify when and where COIN, in its current manifestation, can work. I agree that pop-centric counterinsurgency as laid out in the 5-34 can work in some situations - Afghanistan just isn't one of them. The will of the people to support the insurgents is still one of the key components that has to be reduced or eliminated to defeat the insurgents, I just don't agree that the methods described in the document will work. The value systems are too divergent.
Second, playing off of your comment, if the Army is not going accomplish these objective on the ground who will? According to Kapan "[t]he US tends to get into these kinds of wars, deliberately or otherwise, once every generation." That is more often than we have been involved in near peer competitor major maneuver warfare. I think maybe the Army needs to work on figuring our what it is not doing right and fixing it. The American public likes the idea of universal human rights, humanitarian intervention, and spreading democracy. I don't think that is going to change any time soon.
The near future will be populated with conflicts that have a light societal footprint - no big (public) budget, no boots-on-the-ground, no guilt on the part of the average American citizen. Drones will be the new weapon of choice. People don't seem to get as upset if we have collateral damage caused by a successful drone attack as they do when their own soldiers are doing the killing. The machine adds another layer of distance from the result.
The CIA, the Air Force, the Navy, and to an extent the Marines, have missions that don't necessarily include occupying a foreign country. Unfortunately for the Army, occupying terrain, and all that goes with it, falls to them.
In these things, I believe, it is always important to look back to our overall goals and objectives, which are:
a. To cause/convince/compel the less-powerful and remaining "outlier" states and societies to (1) abandon their alternative ways of life and alternative ways of governance and (2) adopt ways of life and ways of governance similar to our own.
b. This, so that these lesser and remaining states and socieites might come to (1) better provide for and better benefit from the expanding global economy, (2) better provide for both their own citizenry and that of the rest of the globalizing world and, thereby, come to be (3) less of a problem for/burden on -- and more of an asset to -- the now more-market-based and now more-market-dependent international community.
c. Given these enduring goals, objectives and rational, then it would seem that our enemies today and in the future -- as in the past -- will continue to be those individuals and groups, and those states and societies, who are unwilling and/or unable to make these way of life and way of governance changes.
Understanding this, then the question becomes: In those cases in which war or armed combat is required, then if not via nation-building COIN (possibly enhanced to address corrupt governments, sanctuary problems, etc.), then by what alternative "way of war" method does the United States:
a. Pursue and achieve its goals and objectives (as outlined in paragraph "a" and "b" above)? And
b. Defeat its enemies (as outlined in paragraph "c" above)?
Herein, will "drones and SOF commandos" serve to meet these "American way of war" requirements? If so, how?