The Gathering COIN Storm

Via the Small Wars Journal blog comes a Spencer Ackerman piece on the battle raging within the Army officer corps over just what balance to strike between traditional high-intensity warfare capabilities and counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. We’ve had our finger on the pulse of this debate in one form or another for the past week or so, based in part on a WPR opinion piece contributed by one of the protagonists of Ackerman’s article, Gian Gentile. Gentile warns that we’re in the process of over-compensating for past COIN failures, and uses the 2006 Israeli-Hizbollah war as an example of the dangers of an army embracing COIN tactics to the exclusion of conventional capabilities.

A good part of Ackerman’s article is devoted to the question of which camp is actually ascendant in terms of determining the Army’s priorities. The COIN community maintains a persecution complex remaining from its years in the wilderness, while Gentile claims they are now driving Army doctrine, as evidenced by the addition of stability operations to the new Army field manual.

But as Ackerman also points out, the major issue to be determined is what lessons the American military establishment, as well as the civilian leadership, will draw from its experience in Afghanistan, but especially in Iraq. An overly triumphalist Surge narrative could leave us with an exagerrated view of the nation-building capacities of military force, which would in turn set a dangerously tempting precedent given the current proliferation of failing and failed states.

Iraq has often been used to illustrate the old adage that when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. It might eventually illustrate the converse phenomenon, whereby when you’ve got a pile of bolts to tighten, you start believing that the hammer you’re holding is a wrench.