When Faith in COIN Becomes Certainty

For some reason, this sentence from the CNAS report (.pdf) on Afghanistan and Pakistan that I wrote up yesterday kept rattling around the cranium:

But because populations in civil wars tend to side with whichever group exercises control, protecting the population must take precedence over all other considerations.

That sums up in a nutshell the central premise of COIN doctrine, from which all of its operational priorities are derived.

Now, to be very clear, unlike Michael Cohen, I think that the COIN doctrine represents an enormous advance in the U.S. approach to warfare, both strategically and politically.

Strategically, it represents the realization that the thinking that dominated during the Cold War era is no longer applicable or relevant to the vast majority of operational environments that the U.S. military will be called on to face today. And although there might be “big war” scenarios where it will once again prove necessary, it certainly isn’t applicable or relevant to the two wars we’re engaged in now. So far, that strategic advance has gotten the lion’s share of the attention in this debate.

Politically, though, COIN marks an end — not necessarily a definitive end, but an end nonetheless — to the era of total war, at least as the dominant prism in U.S. military thinking. And that, to me, is by far the more significant of the two advances. This is a warfighting doctrine that by its very DNA rules out the idea of dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or fire-bombing Dresden.

Now obviously, COIN is not a doctrine that will be applied in the case of a war with another industrial great power. So those total-war tactics have yet to become obsolete. But the ascendance of population-centric warfare that we’re seeing today in the U.S. military is very likely to have an impact on the approach to conventional war planning as well. If the emphasis is on rebuilding after the initial phase of combat, after all, it makes sense to limit the destruction of infrastructure to a strict minimum. And if the emphasis is on the civilian population’s loyalty, it makes sense to avoid targeting population centers that will ultimately have to be pacified.

That’s an enormous advance towards a progressive, almost humanist approach to warfare (although it feels perverse to frame it that way), and under no circumstances should it be underestimated.

Now having said all that, I still feel it’s important to point out that the premise upon which COIN is based remains a premise. That is, COIN is not a scientific equation into which we just need to plug in the right variables for everything to work out according to a neat, pre-fabricated plan.

What’s more, even if you accept the premise, there’s an inherent and fundamental strategic disadvantage to waging a counterinsurgency on behalf of a third-party government. I’d like COIN’s chances of success a lot more if it involved U.S. forces stepping in to secure a breakaway corner of the U.S. And even there, depending on the geographical make-up of the units deployed, there could be some local perception of a “foreign” occupation force.

But the idea that U.S. and European forces can be considered a party to the Afghan civil war, and that by securing the Afghan population, we will win its allegiance for the host government, is suspect, and reflects almost a reverse Stockholm Syndrome. Because nomatter how well we convince ourselves that we’re taking part, we willbe perceived as intervening. If nothing else, every wrongful civilian death at the hands of U.S. forces will weigh proportionally more heavily on local hearts and minds than those at the hands of our adversaries. And while those wrongful deaths can be reduced or minimized, they can not be eliminated, as even domestic law enforcement demonstrates.

War, in other words, whether total or population-centric, can not be strictly controlled. I know that the COIN advocates recognize this in the abstract. But when I mentioned a “vaguely un-nerving” quality to the CNAS report, this is what I was referring to. COIN advocates have been fighting an internal institutional battle within the U.S. military to get their ideas heard and implemented. To do that takes commitment, determination and faith in the cause.

But faith can often become certainty. And if there’s one thing that warfare does not forgive, it’s certainty. COIN was to a large extent a result of the U.S. military coming to terms with the central paradox of contemporary warfare: In winning the battle, conventional militaries found themselves losing the war. COIN advocates would do well to keep that in mind. They have, in a sense, won the institutional battle. But if they don’t continue challenging their basic assumptions, they might very well end up losing the war.