COIN is Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics

COIN is Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics

There is perhaps no better measure of the failure of American strategy over the past decade than the fact that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, tactical objectives have been used to define victory. In particular, both wars have been characterized by an all-encompassing obsession with the methods and tactics of counterinsurgency. To be sure, the tactics of counterinsurgency require political and cultural acumen to build host-nation governments and economies. But understanding the political aspects of counterinsurgency tactics is fundamentally different from understanding core American political objectives and then defining a cost-effective strategy to achieve them. If it is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past decade, American strategic thinking must regain the ability to link cost-effective operational campaigns to core policy objectives, while taking into consideration American political and popular will.

In war, results count. And in Iraq and Afghanistan, the gap between promised outcomes and actual, meaningful results is enormous. In Iraq, al-Qaida continues to carry out numerous, deadly attacks every month against Iraqi security forces. The fundamental political issues that divide the country’s ethno-sectarian populations have yet to be resolved, and America will leave the country with its regional adversary, Iran, in the driver’s seat. Afghanistan seems to be headed down the same road. Unfortunately these actual results have been obscured by the false promise of the tactical methods of counterinsurgency.

Rather than seeing the past 10 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as a potent reminder of war’s complexity and, more importantly, of the limits to what it can accomplish, the American military has embraced the idea that better tactics can overcome serious shortcomings in strategy and policy. The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said thousands of years ago that “strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory,” but “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Though still relevant, Sun Tzu’s brilliant formulation of the relationship between tactics and strategy is nowhere to be found in current American strategic thinking.

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