COIN-bayah, My Lord, COIN-bayah

Something of a blog spat has broken out between Andrew Exum and Michael Cohen, and before weighing in, I’ll endorse the suggestion made by one of Exum’s commenters that the two ought to hash this all out over some drinks. Both take an intellectually honest approach to questions of national security, and I’m sure that together they’d generate more light than heat. So take a chill, guys, COIN-bayah.

As for the case on the merits, I’d say they’re both right and wrong. Cohen’s right when he says that we’re not really engaged in a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Exum finds this preposterous, but that’s according to Michele Flournoy herself, who called it a population-centric counterterrorism mission. The question isn’t one of tactics, because the COIN tactics will be applied regardless, but of strategic objectives. (I’d argue, further, that what we’re essentially engaged in is more insurgency than counterinsurgency, but that ‘s another post.)

Cohen’s also right when he says that by the COIN crowd’s own doctrine, we don’t have the resources invested to get it right. And we also don’t have the political will to increase those resources beyond what amounts to levels sufficient to staunch the bleeding, something Exum acknowledges as a co-author of a just-floated CNAS report. And that’s only going to get worse as our European allies respond to the Americanization of the war by pulling out their supporting missions, which I suspect is not far off on the horizon. As derided as some of those missions are, they’re critical to shoring up non-military security forces as well as civilian governance.

So Exum’s sarcasm notwithstanding, Cohen would seem to have Clausewitz on his side on this one. As currently formulated, the strategic — that is, political — objective is not in line with COIN tactics, and if it were, the resources would not be sufficient to achieve them.

Nevertheless, there’s something disconcerting about Cohen’s advocacy of a more kinetic (i.e. kill the bad guys) approach to the war at the very moment that the U.S. Army is adopting a more engaged, culturally and politically sensitive approach to warfighting that progressives should find appealing. It’s as if in some bizarre, culture wars role reversal, the army’s putting flowers in its guns and the progressives are plucking them back out.

There’s also something very shortsighted about Cohen questioning lowered Afghan civilian casualties as a tactical goal. The military’s embrace of that as an operational goal is an enormous advance, one that should be applauded.

I’m less convinced than Exum, though, that reduced civilian casualties is a useful metric in Afghanistan. In Iraq, sectarian violence made civilians a direct target of the fighting, meaning that our ability to protect civilians was a measure of our success. (Even if, as Cohen points out, the causality between COIN tactics and reduced sectarian killing is hardly iron-clad.)

But in Afghanistan, civilian casualties seem to be secondary effects of the fighting between U.S. forces and Taliban insurgents, and the most problematic aspect of those casualties is when we cause them through heavy-handed kinetic operations. So reduced civilian casualties will be a metric on meeting our operational objectives. But equating the meeting of operational objectives with strategic success is a recipe for strategic failure. (Jari Lindholm agrees on this.)

Finally, I’ve got a hunch that Gen. Stanley McChrystal represents the common ground between Cohen and Exum. Notwithstanding the feel-good rhetoric, he’s being sent to Afghanistan primarily to kill the bad guys, but in a way that results in less collateral damage than what we’ve seen so far.

So when it comes to the broader political goals and governance metrics that the CNAS report outlines, I tend to think that Exum will probably wind up more dissatisfied than Cohen this time next year.

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