COIN: The Not-So-Good, the Bad and the Beautiful

Last week I mentioned that COIN offers a vision of war that is more intellectually satisfying and morally palatable. Today over at Small Wars Journal (.pdf), Jason Fritz takes that a step further and calls it more aethsetically pleasing — to its proponents. It’s an interesting framing of the COIN vs. Conventional debate, where the zealots on either extreme of the spectrum are actually blinded by the beauty of their ideal method of warfare. Here’s Fritz:

. . . Multi-agency counterinsurgency doctrine provides a holistic governmentsolution for socio-political-economic problems. It is government at itsbest — various agencies working together to solve hard problemspreviously considered unsolvable, with each agency and actor makingnecessary demands and concessions in the interest of the greater good.

Ofcourse, who wouldn’t want government to act as well as it has in Iraqrecently? True COIN-aesthetics does not stop at the appreciation of themethodology, it allows that methodology to determine how government isorganized and what types of missions it will undertake in the futurebecause of the overwhelming perceived sublimity of ways.

Meanwhile, lost in the debate over whether COIN and stability ops will generate more nation-building interventions is the impact that the full-spectrum approach to warfare will likely have on humanitarian relief work, especially in an age when many of the most needy populations are found in conflict zones that limit NGOs’ access. Here’s Faith Smith writing at the Washington Note:

Most likely this void would be filled by the UN, which has many moreconstraints on its operations than the private aid organizations, orworse, the military becomes the new face of relief work. AFRICOM,commonly referred to as the Peace Corp with guns, is a prime example ofthis. While AFRICOM may have its merits and supporters, there are strong objections(LAT) to this becoming the model moving forward. If teachers, doctors,and agriculture specialists are armed, the peacefulcivilians-helping-civilians message of relief work will be compromisedor lost altogether. According to the development network InterAction,”the military’s involvement in emergency relief, stabilization andreconstruction can be deeply problematic because of its security focusand lack of specialized expertise.”

Finally, another overlooked risk of the military’s fascination with COIN occurred to me over the weekend, in part triggered by the title of David Kilcullen’s new book, The Accidental Guerilla. While the COIN doctrine is at first glance a method of warfare, on closer examination it is clearly a treatise on the use of power and force to establish political legitimacy and control. In that sense, it’s like a chemist’s approach to alchemy.

But eventually, the urge to master counterinsurgency will very likely lead to a temptation to master insurgency. The tendency to identify with one’s adversary is illustrated in Kilcullen’s chosen title, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars will provide no shortage of military advisors with very clear ideas of how an effective insurgency ought to operate. That to me raises the very real possibility that aiding and abetting insurgencies in unfriendly states will become a more central tool in the strategic policy toolkit of the military brain trust. I’m not thinking of destabilizing real geopolitical rivals like Russia or China here, but more along the lines of pesky spoilers like Venezuela, Iran and Syria. Outsourced regime change, if you will.

It’s not as if the U.S. is a stranger to the practice. But to my mind, if there’s a risk of COIN leading to more ill-advised foreign adventures, it comes more from the IN than from the CO.