COIN and the Limits of Nation-Building

Janine Davidson at Intel Dump cites a Tom Johnson and M. Chris Mason piece in the Atlantic, All Counterinsurgency is Local, before discussing the tension between the tactics of counterinsurgency, which emphasize engaging with governance and authority at the most immediate (ie. local) level, and the strategy of counterinsurgency, which emphasizes shoring up governance and authority at the national level:

[T]he question we need to examine is about tradeoffs. What are we sacrificing from a national or international security perspective when we focus on human security at the local level, as Johnson and Mason suggest? What might an international system with weaker nation-states look like?

Do we have to choose between strengthening the local over the national level systems? Is it possible to have both? And can we help build both simultaneously, or should we focus on the local level and then eventually aggregate efforts up to a national level?

It’s a point I alluded to here, in discussing the ways in which targeting the faultlines of the Westphalian order is increasingly becoming a feature not only of asymmetric non-state actors, but of great power geopolitics as well. It’s also a point that I was planning to develop today, even before reading Davidson’s post. Preventing failed and failing states from becoming vectors of regional and global security threats — whether through terrorism, organized crime (human slavery, money laundering), or drug trafficking — has become the foundational logic of America’s national security posture, as reflected in the U.S. military’s doctrinal shift towards a counterinsurgency emphasis.

But the tactical-strategic paradox that Davidson flags, between COIN on the one hand and nation-building on the other, reflects a broader historical context that risks getting clouded by the need for practical solutions to the operational challenges of two wars. Because in ways that vary from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Pakistani tribal areas, America is running up against the fundamental and historically unresolved tensions between the modern Westphalian system and the traditional ethno-sectarian/tribal system. Our strategic posture amounts to a colonial crusade in defense of the Westphalian order, even as the tactical necessities demanded by that crusade identify the historical limits of that order’s applicability.

We’re essentially fighting a rearguard battle of the 19th century colonial wars, minus the colonies. The fact that we’re engaged in this exercise at the very moment that our global dominance seems to have peaked and our financial foundation is more uncertain than at any time in several generations suggests that in ignoring history, we’re condemning ourselves to repeat it.