When COIN Isn’t COIN

In many ways, Stephen Metz’s recent Small Wars Journal post is an echo of the ongoing debate over whether the ascendancy of counterinsurgency doctrine in the U.S. military will lead to a strategic shift towards more counterinsurgency wars of choice. COIN practitioners have argued that the enormous costs and complexities of counterinsurgency combined with the limited chances of success argue against widespread use. Their mantra is, Don’t confuse tactics with strategy.

Metz, though, gives anecdotal evidence to the effect that the COIN focus on stabilizing states has already crept into the strategic assumptions of military futurists. He questions counterinsurgency not so much as compared to conventional warfare, but as an ineffective response to the threat posed by geographically diffuse non-state actors:

Put simply, our strategy seeks to reverse history — to strengthen nationstates so that they can “control ungoverned spaces” when trends aretoward the devolution of economic, political, and economic power AWAY FROM national governments.

Michel Cohen, writing at Democracy Arsenal, goes further in support of Metz, arguing that even in the most likely scenarios for conventional warfare, controlling territory will not play a decisive role. For Cohen, air support and naval power will. Both argue that, as Metz put it, “20 years hence, the U.S.Army’s role in promoting American security will decline precipitously.”

Metz and Cohen are right when they argue that controlling territory is less decisive than it used to be. But they’re wrong to write off the Army’s role in the future, for one thing because we can’t rule out the possibility of a limited conventional warwhere controlling territory is in fact necessary, even if it is not decisive.

But more importantly, they overlook one of the most significant recent evolutions in modern warfare: the shift of the decisive phase of war from the initial battle/combat phase to the subsequent reconstruction phase. Andrew Exum has discussed this with regard to Hezbollah in South Lebanon in 2006, and Hamas in Gaza three months ago. It’s also playing a critical role in the deteriorating situation in South Ossetia that I flagged earlier.

That’s why one of the COIN-inspired transformations of the army is to expand its skill set to include aid and development functions that were previously squarely in the civilian sector. The logic being the sooner reconstruction can begin, the more quickly hearts and minds, as well as territory, can be secured. In the event of conflict, this capacity, which only the Army can play, will be absolutely necessary.

Meanwhile, the COIN-dinistas are overlooking the fact that COIN tactics can, and ultimately will, be disaggregated from the practice of counterinsurgency. Once the military has integrated armed humanitarian work as a skill set, it will find uses beyond necessarily building the nations that Metz prematurely condemns to the ash heap of history.

It’s almost certain that COIN tactics will not be applied in support of a regime-change strategy anytime soon. But its component tactical parts might very well play a role in support of some other strategic vision. And when it happens, it will probably take all of us, futurists included, by surprise.

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