From an email from a friend, MP, seeking input on understanding Afghanistan:
I’m missing a narrative for the war in Afghanistan. That certainly needs to start at the very top of the civilian leadership, be reinforced by military leadership, and be lived by all involved.
I mean, if you ask most people what it’s about they might be able to say something about denying the enemy (AQ, Taliban) a safe haven from which to operate and hurt us at home.
And I think many people who read milblogs might be able to tell you a story or two about individual courage and sacrifice amongst our warriors.
But what is totally absent is the whole middle part. In Iraq, the Army didn’t do a great job with that either, but they did put out some stuff that the milblogs were able to amplify with their coverage.
For example, where are the Travis Patriquins of the war in Afg? The COL MacFarlands? They brought Petraeus back but where is he? Where are the stories that Roggio used to cover so well, talking about the Anbar Awakening before it was called that? Or giving context to operations like those which severed the “ratlines” from Syria?
The military doesn’t even seem to bother with dopey stories about opening schools or helping farmers anymore. That’s pretty bad! Because if they did even that, perhaps some bloggers would publish them with commentary that could stimulate thinking and conversation.
What MP is actually looking for is that mid- to low-level narrative that describes what our Soldiers and Marines are doing on the ground. Of course, my response is to go on about statements of national strategy. But that’s where the narrative begins. I will tell you that the mid- to low-level narrative is stronger on the ground in Afghanistan… at least in some circles… than it is here. There is such a tremendous disconnect between the national conversation regarding Afghanistan here in the US and what is actually being done on the ground over there. That disconnect has left gaping holes in the narrative here, and those gaping holes leave broad spaces where there is no ability to connect with what our Soldiers and Marines are actually doing there on a day-to-day basis. This is where MP senses the lack of narrative; it is the narrative that MP looks for and wishes to connect with. And, sadly, it’s missing. From my perspective, that comes from the top.
The missing narrative starts with the civilian leadership and extends from there. The civilian leadership doesn’t know how to clearly articulate its goals in a simple and accurate message. Obama states some fairly nebulous goals that appear to be disconnected from our actions on the ground. I mean, for the average citizen, what does rendering al Qaeda harmless have to do with “nation-building” in Afghanistan? Isn’t al Qaeda mostly in Pakistan now? What about Yemen? The narrative is broken from the top down, from that first sentence. It’s a failure in leadership, leaving a vacuum that is filled with a sea of voices all shouting to be heard. People try to interpret the narrative from that sentence on down, and the lack of clarity in instilling a visualization of what it’s supposed to look like juxtaposed with actions that don’t seem to entirely suit the scant high-level narrative leaves a lot of room for that cacophony to grow. The individual voices in that sea are influenced by their own standpoints and goals. Most just repeat buzzwords and really can’t envision the problem they are trying to solve with any clarity themselves. It’s outside of their frame of reference, which often gets more rigid with age and not more flexible.
In warfare in general, but counterinsurgency in particular, there are always at least three narratives, but they respond to each other and bounce off of each other. There is the official narrative, the unofficial narrative (the media), and then there is the enemy narrative, which is compared to and contrasted against the official narrative. The unofficial or popular (media) narrative is critical of the official narrative; it questions it, explores it and hammers it when it is in any way deficient, false or inconsistent. The enemy narrative is often delivered unfiltered and without substantive critique.
No one here in the US has a clear grasp of what is going on there, but oh so many cry out to be heard. With the “official” narrative weaker than water, it’s easy to lose reality in the sea of voices who shout down each other in competition to become the main narrative. Again, it’s a question of leadership, and at the upper levels, our leadership’s message is weak. The mid and lower level messages will stem from the overarching narrative, but that overarching narrative doesn’t seem to describe what we are actually doing on the ground, and so there is a disconnect. It cannot begin with GEN Petraeus’ narrative. His narrative must support and inform the national discourse. Without the underpinnings of a clear statement that his narrative dovetails with, it is cast adrift and easily derided as being somehow unsupported and unsupportable. The last general who tried to command the narrative, unsupported by the civilian leadership, is now in unscheduled retirement.
Disconnects leave a vacuum, and politics (the narratives are all about politics), like nature, abhors a vacuum. Communications abhors a vacuum as well, and competing interests will always vie for influence over the narrative… especially when the narrative has no central theme. Afghanistan is more confusing than Iraq in many ways, and so the narrative is difficult to begin with, but our national narrative is so scattered that it almost seems not to exist. MP is not the only one who misses it and looks for it. Everyone does in one way or another, and so the dominant narrative here is a disjointed argument over bullshit.
For me, what is most troubling about this disconnect are the memes that arise from the cacophony and eventually become accepted as truths. Folks, a lot of our “talking heads” are talking out of the other end, but they sound so sage while doing it that when they further a meme, you wouldn’t know it. And they’re paid to know what they’re talking about, right? Yeah, in a perfect world. There are only a couple of journalists out there who know COIN from a hole in the ground. It’s like chewing broken glass to listen to them flail away at the concept. It’s stunning that some of most educated observers who do understand it cannot enunciate it clearly, and when they do they are shouted down by the mass of voices competing to gain control of the narrative left adrift, often for their own reasons. There is no room for a consistent mid- or low-level narrative to emerge from this. Military commentators like COL Gentile and politically-driven think-tankers like Michael Cohen wouldn’t be able to propagate their memes if the successes that do exist were properly documented and narrated. They would be forced to think harder and be more rigorous in their criticisms. Cohen and Gentile’s personal narratives haven’t progressed in over three years because they haven’t needed to. They, and others, can criticize a weakly stated strategy easily with broad and unsupported strokes and reduce the narrative to a squabble over tactics that could be put to bed readily with an accurate tactical narrative that didn’t look like a kaleidoscope.
What would our narrative look like? I don’t think that “feel good” type stories of the type that we saw in the early days would do it for me. Building schools always looks good, but it may not be the best thing for a given community at a given time. Stories that give the background of why a decision has been made, that show the details of really excellent stabilization activities would really grab me. I would love to see a narrative about the successes that Community Development Councils have achieved while our Soldiers and Marines helped to provide the requisite bubble of security, working hand in hand with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). A narrative that shows our young men and women, both civilian and military, engaging in reestablishing local capacity to manage their own affairs in a mode higher than basic survival mode would be awesome; because this is happening in discrete local areas in Afghanistan. A narrative that shows that the shift is happening from a centralized government focus to building the solid footing of local governance would be great. A strong narrative would show that these traditional local structures have in the past and can now be linked in an Afghan way to a central government, that this cross-pollination of legitimacy at the local and national levels is an Afghan phenomenon and that we are learning to foster this. A great narrative would put to rest the exotification of Afghans, showing them for the human beings that are more similar to our great grandparents than we are. A great narrative would show the progress that our Soldiers and Marines are risking life and limb to enable, and the hard work being done by smart people from USAID and State to assist. A great narrative would show the heroism not only of these best and brightest that America has to offer, but would also highlight the heroism of our Afghan allies (which I know is there, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes). Now that would be a narrative.
It would also be a narrative that would engender truly thoughtful and incisive criticism which would lead to sharpening the edge rather than being mere oppositional horseshit. A true dialog would be a lot more helpful than a bunch of shrieking voices all in opposition to each other, almost none of which really know what they’re talking about.
Information dominance starts with strongly and clearly stating your objectives and then ensuring that all of your actions are in support of that clearly stated goal. When everyone knows what right is supposed to look like, then they can recognize what wrong looks like and offer truly constructive criticism. A real narrative would look more like a steady stream of consciousness instead of a cacophony of geese staking out nesting sites.
Yeah, MP, we are all missing that narrative.
There’s an interesting article posted over at Small Wars Journal that brings up some thoughts I have on the subject.
In my experience in Afghanistan as both an embedded adviser and with the COIN Center, I had many and various experiences from the military side of the house with civilians of many flavors. In 2007, there was a dearth of US civilians on the ground. In 2009-2010, I witnessed the “civilian surge” and its effects.
My overall impression of Afghan government officials is that they are, to a man, in over their heads. From Karzai on down to the district Sub-Governors, not a one has managed so much as a township-sized administration prior to be being thrown into their current position. Afghanistan had/has no “institutional memory.” If I were put in charge of my state’s Highway Department, although I am unskilled, there is enough institutional memory present to keep things from becoming a total disaster for at least a period of time. People raised within that system know how things are done, and things will get done to a greater or lesser extent. Over a longer period, my incompetence at running a highway department would eventually put a lot of drag on the organization. But in the short to medium term, things would run.
Afghanistan, and many other countries which we would seek to provide stability assistance to, has no institutional memory. Their administrators and managers have long since been run off or killed. COIN does not function as a self-standing strategy for resolving instability, it is a methodology for fighting against an active insurgency, but it does not resolve the causes and conditions that gave rise to the insurgency to begin with. Instability is an incubator for insurgency. The military role in the stability operations required to remove these underpinnings is the lesser of the three main lines of effort.
I have seen a lot of dedicated people doing really great things; things that never get trumpeted or even spoken about here stateside. But 350 is not nearly enough good people to really make the stability progress needed to remove the underpinnings of an insurgency. The Afghan National Army is one of the greater successes in Afghanistan to this point, and its successes have been due to mentoring; being present. Money is not the solution, although it costs money. But these Afghan civil servants with no prior experience and no institutional memory to support them truly need mentoring. Without it, they fall back on the types of behaviors that are spawned as survival mechanisms in “conflict ecosystems.” We use their incompetence as further proof that they do not deserve our “blood and treasure.”
I echo those first two commenters at SWJ who have seen greatly capable people disabled by archaic management. The military has struggled with the massive paradigm shift of COIN Operations with wildly varying degrees of success (and failures that are inappropriately rewarded because Afghanistan is not worth a single officer’s career unless it is an infraction of political correctness… and we can’t punish what we ourselves cannot define as failure, anyway). All the while, the military has dealt with infighting and malcontents who simply do not want to fight this kind of war and dicker endlessly about a doctrine that has never truly been applied across the spectrum. Any argument about FM 3-24 that includes reference to its having taken over the military culture is fatally flawed from the start. Noise and smoke do not a takeover make.
In short, no one is truly leading the way. Everyone is making excuses ranging from, “FM 3-24 simply doesn’t work, anyway,” to “It’s not critical to our national interests,” to the equivalent of, “Afghans are alien creatures incapable of governing themselves and undeserving of our best efforts.” The battle for modernity is not being fought in the villages of Afghanistan so much as it is within our own institutions, and those comments above illustrate this. It is our internal struggle to adapt to the changes that globalization have wrought upon our world. Old world views clash with the concepts that are inherent with the realization that the world has irrevocably changed. Apathy driven by the urge to endlessly examine one’s own navel in a poor economy, the lack of direct impact on the greatest mass of Americans and blaming foreign policy for poor responses to a changing world economy exacerbates this and makes for some strange political bedfellows.
The absence of an obviously existential threat means that no patriotism is required, right? We are all in this for the money and our careers and there is no need for discomfort and risk. Our own tactical commanders often illustrate the resulting risk aversion and zero-defect mentalities (see MAJ Jeremy Kotkin’s recent article at SWJ). If this view is prevalent in the military, then why should civil servants not follow suit? Where is the requirement to endanger oneself or even suffer discomfort; isn’t that what a professional military is for?
I’m not sure that a Civil Service draft is the answer, but this article is a strong statement about the fact that, in a three-pronged approach, we are not doing very well. IF we achieve some limited success in Afghanistan, it will be because there are a lot of smart, energetic people out there (including Afghans) who are doing the best they can, largely unsupported by cumbersome and archaic institutions, and getting some good things done. I do know that on the ground, “Afghan good” is good enough… but we struggle to get to even that standard.
When George H. W. Bush declared a “New World Order,” many felt that his pronouncement was arrogant, domineering and a bit frightening in an Orwellian way. His words have been mocked, twisted, and held up as an indicator to support conspiracy theories and in the rhetoric of those who oppose American foreign policy. The President may have been correct in his determination that there had been a change, but there was no change in behavior strategically that went along with such a sea change in global politics. The United States simply behaved as if it were the unchallenged superpower, declaring itself the world leader and chief proponent of “freedom.” America announced to the world that the world had changed, but America did not significantly change the way it dealt with this changed world. As globalization changed the world’s markets and political possibilities, the United States remained rooted in foreign policy practices that in many cases exacerbated the very problems that they were intended to ameliorate. Things got worse.
The more American foreign policy sought to “contain” extremism, the more extreme the threats that presented themselves. Numerous turning points were reached, and no turns were made. American success in supporting Afghanistan’s Mujaheddin against the Soviet invasion was widely heralded as a triumph of foreign policy. In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal the United States took no major steps to build capacity of any sort in Afghanistan. No leadership was exerted, and the little influence exerted was spent on warlords who were perceived to be pliable. Afghanistan slid first into civil war and finally into the grip of a group of backwards religious zealots who had no ability to govern and whose actions conflicted more and more with national mores and objectives. No progress was made, either, in persuading Iraq that compliance with any New World Order was unavoidable. Actions meant to bring Iraq to heel only hardened the resolve of Saddam Hussein and tightened his grip on his populace. The carrot and the stick were not working.
America was not leading in the development of human capacities. America was playing power games; games of manipulation that had unintended consequences in their second and third order effects that actually damaged American national interests and security. International terrorism, an outgrowth of Arab frustrations with their inability to defeat Israel on the conventional battlefield, and blamed also on the United States, came to the fore with the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Hijackings became relatively common. The pace of international terrorism waxed and waned, and the methodology evolved, but a widening gap opened between America and the Arab and Persian worlds.
The response of the United States to terrorism was often forceful retaliation. America sought to strengthen security agreements and arrangements with friendly, and not so friendly, countries. The political side brought pressure based on the threat of force, money and sanctions. These were considered the tools of foreign policy. Decades of foreign policy sought to erode Communism rather than trust that it would die a natural death of its own weight. It was a policy born of a lack of faith in our own system; a fear that the other could actually win somehow. While this is understandable in light of the unthinkable tragedy of WW-II, it helped spawn another, asymmetric threat. International extremism was growing, not in the least bit slowed by our old techniques. We had sponsored it in Asia in order to gall the Soviets. Now it became firmly entrenched in Middle Eastern societies.
After the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, America determined that it had achieved a strategic victory in backing the Mujaheddin. Although there were cries for help in many areas from Afghans, funding for aid to Afghanistan was drastically cut. The Afghans were on their own. Factions fought to a near standstill over control of the country. Former allies fought viciously to control Afghanistan. Local warlords controlled areas of Afghanistan, and depredations were widespread. Kabul lay in ruins as the various factions fought for control of the symbol of power in Afghanistan. The Taliban began as a tiny group rebelling against a local warlord. The ISI began their long association with the Taliban. U.S. foreign policy, confused as ever, backed and then turned against the Taliban. Afghanistan failed as a state. Chaos reigned, concealment and incubation for exportable extremism.
Failed states affect other states. In the era of globalization, they can affect states halfway around the globe. After plenty of actions taken against American citizens and property overseas, we finally got an extreme display on our own soil on 9/11. The disaffected of Afghanistan had a hand in that. The disaffected of the Middle East participated directly. Failed or failing states threaten all.
The root causes of insurgency lie in a combination of factors. We break them into three general areas; a vulnerable population, leadership who are available to direct disaffection and weak government. U.S. foreign policy from WW-II forward often served to exacerbate insurgencies, because very often the actions taken by the American foreign policy organs were to utilize the three main tools of policy (money, sanctions and military power) to either benefit a relatively small slice of society or to punish all. The American carrot and stick were actually making things worse, just as surely as doing nothing but hunt the enemy is not weakening him in modern day Afghanistan. With a very large percentage of people under the age of 25 in Afghanistan, the recruiting pool for disaffected and angry youth is nearly endless. This is the basis for the statement that you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency.
You have to address the root causes. The military can help to secure the physical vulnerability of the population, but the population is not just physically vulnerable. They are also economically, educationally, socially and governmentally vulnerable. The military can help address the leadership issue… but then what? If we kinetically solve the problem of one leader, another will grow in his place. Government may be physically weak, unable to deliver on its mandate… or it can be morally weak in the eyes of the people, rendering it susceptible to attack both physically and rhetorically. The military cannot protect a government from rhetorical attack or the disregard that citizens will show for a morally weak government.
We Americans view ourselves as “good guys.” We are the characters who ride into town wearing white hats, sure of the effectiveness and fairness of the “American way.” We see ourselves as the champion of justice. To significant portions of the populations of poorer nations, that is not the way that we are seen. A conventionally-minded military is not the most effective counterinsurgent force. The military is not the answer to insurgency by itself, only a part of the national ability to project real power. We need to change the way that we conduct policy. This begins here in Afghanistan. If the civilian organs of American foreign policy become strong in the ways that they need to in order to assist the Afghan people forward, we stand a chance of developing significant capabilities to transform our foreign policy behavior in ways that will provide greater security than we have known in over 30 years. This is not to say that we should become wimpy. It is to say that we will become a more secure nation by assisting people who are not Americans to be more secure.
It is hard to argue with some assertions made by those in the United States who claim that we are in this position due to our own faults. These folks tend to be in opposition to American foreign policy in general, and their greatest weakness is that they offer no real alternative, only cries of exasperation or excessively isolationist recommendations that no one views as realistic. They are able to diagnose the disconnect between what we say we want and our effects on the other people on this planet. We have indeed contributed greatly to our own problems by propping up strongmen who opposed regimes that we opposed, manipulating the internal politics of nations via intrigue, arming groups and sponsoring regime change.
We helped create failed and failing states. We did nothing to help developing nations to develop the capacity to govern properly and provide essential services that a government needs to provide in order to be legitimate. We failed to assist with mentoring and guidance and examples for developing nations to develop the capacity to begin to serve their populations.
We failed in the good will and good faith departments.
The backward slide ends somewhere. Either that or the relevance of the United States in the world will continually erode. The change in our behavior needs to start in Afghanistan. If the new initiatives are successful, those who participate here are the “seed corn” for a whole new breed in foreign relations, particularly in second and third-world countries. Several Presidents have talked about American “leadership.” The best leaders are also great mentors. They assist others in their development.
By providing the mentoring and leadership to assist developing countries in their capacity building, not just governmental, but also in basic economic development (encouraging investment and partnering,) the United States can help prevent state failure. The true power of the United States is not self-contained in the military. It is also in the economic power, the technical expertise, the ease with which our services are delivered and the competence of our public employees. In return we will assist in preventing state failure and insurgencies from ever really developing by addressing their root causes before they have a chance to develop. We will create markets and opportunity. Security will be secured and enhanced.
In order to be successful in Afghanistan, we will need to develop these competencies in our foreign policy organs. A new breed can be birthed in Afghanistan that will change the way that we deal with the world around us and by being more beneficial reap rewards for our own people at home.
Michael Cohen is proving that he is still the guy who just can’t connect the dots. His interest regarding COIN doctrine is bordering on a fetish, and his desperation to discredit the doctrine is palpable. As I’ve said, this is self-defeating. Cohen’s primary advocacy dovetails very nicely with the capabilities that need to be developed in order to successfully shepherd Afghanistan and Pakistan through this very troubling and dangerous period of history in Central Asia. It boggles my mind that this man is so frightened that he literally loses his ability to reason, grasping at straws ranging from COL Gian Gentile’s writings to Celeste Ward’s article in the Washington Post cautioning an overcommitment to COIN.
Neither COL Gentile nor, from what I can gather, Ms. Ward really seem to agree with Mr. Cohen… he just gloms on to any argument that he finds remotely supportive. Desperation and fear are the mother of many inventions, most of them decidedly unhelpful, but the cowardly logic of Michael Cohen is reaching the point of ridiculousness. It seems to have become something of a mission for him to discredit the doctrine and its practitioners, which is peculiar given Mr. Cohen’s self-admitted lack of any specific military knowledge. The natural question that one would have is, “What value is Mr. Cohen’s opinion on the subject of military doctrine?”
The answer would be, “Absolutely none. Mr. Cohen has nothing of value to offer on the topic of military doctrine.”
Why, then, would a man with absolutely nothing to offer… and knows it… on a subject such as warfighting doctrine suddenly be chiming in with vigor against the only doctrine that has even been remotely credited with any success in the insurgencies that we find ourselves embroiled in currently?
He’s secretly a North Korean operative that has undergone plastic surgery and was implanted in a think tank in order to derail the United States by offering the worst possible advice imaginable.
I’m just kidding. But, on this issue Mr. Cohen is just about as helpful as a surgically altered North Korean in a Washington think tank. He is motivated not by any desire to see the current foreign policy objectives of the United States achieved, but in fact by a desire to see them fail. To that end, he advocates stridently against the propagation of COIN doctrine, even though he has absolutely no value as a military commenter. Why would he be afraid of success in Afghanistan?
Many seem to view COIN as the future of war and based on the “success” of COIN in Iraq, they seem to believe that the United States is uniquely positioned to do it . The question for many COIN-danistas seems to be not whether and when we should do counter-insurgency, but how the US can do it more effectively…
…The military needs to be making clear to the civilian leadership precisely how difficult counter-insurgency can be and why they should think twice about trying to implement such an approach….
…As I’ve written here many times the clearest and most unambiguous lesson that we should draw from the war in Iraq is that we should never get involved in such a war again – and that any benefit we accrue from invasion, occupation and nation-building will almost never be worth the cost.
*NOTE TO COHEN: It’s COINdinista… just like Sandinista, but with “COIN” instead of “Sand.” Let’s get our terminology right, okay?*
So let me get this right… COIN seems to be successful in Iraq (although Cohen will also, when convenient, side with those who say that it wasn’t in any way responsible for any success in Iraq,) Cohen is and always has been opposed to the war in Iraq or any similar action in the future… and so he feels that he should interfere with the military so that no counterinsurgency will ever be attempted again.
Of course, that was a few days ago. Here’s what he said last night:
While there are signs of political reconciliation occurring on the local level and across the country there is a real question as to whether Iraq will turn into a stable country or will it turn in a violent and more deadly direction. While those of us who vehemently opposed this war would like nothing more to be proven wrong – and see a prosperous and stable Iraq rise from the ashes – that possibility is seeming more and more uncertain these days.
No, Sir; I don’t believe that he would like to be proven wrong. I’ve shown Michael Cohen he was wrong before. He doesn’t like it. I’ll probably get another whiny personal email from him for posting this. No, I don’t think that he does want to be proven wrong… because here’s the very next paragraph he wrote…
So, the next time you hear a commentator talk about the success of the surge or the effectiveness of counter-insurgency tactics or what worked in Iraq can work in Afghanistan or that “the security situation is manageable” in Iraq be very dubious. What we are seeing today in Iraq is pretty compelling evidence that the institutionalized political reconciliation, which was supposed to accompany the US surge in 2007, is not occurring at a pace that inspires confidence.
As another matter of humor, Cohen quoted Juan Cole in that post. Talk about dubious. Oh, Cole is on target sometimes, I’m sure… but how can you tell? When an “academic” is as politically driven as Cole, it’s hit or miss. He wouldn’t admit that he was wrong if God were to explain it to him personally.
Here’s the biggest problem that I’ve got with Cohen, and Cole, for that matter; they claim to analyze, but their analysis is politically motivated. It has nothing to do with getting the analysis right. Sometimes they are close, sometimes on, sometimes waaaaay off. There is no consistency, because the answer drives the question. That is not intellectually honest nor is it in the best interests of the country. Cohen, and his ilk, want what they want… and they are willing to say anything to get it. It’s the old, “The end justifies the means,” argument in action.
Mambo #3: When you’re a lousy analyst, out of your league and talking smack about things that you genuinely are clueless about, and you are called on it, backpedal. Though you have accused others of raising strawmen, admit to raising a strawman on a limited basis, but call it something else, like a “false choice.” Claim you did it not because you are a lost ball in tall grass, but for effect. Subtly imply it’s because your opponents are really the idiots, and so you had to go for theatrics, not having the ability to use sock puppets on teh internets.
He’s getting his intellectual ass handed to him over at Abu Muqawama in the comments, but he’s the smart guy.
Like a child with ADHD who’s eaten sugary food late in the evening, Cohen just can’t shut up. Even though he is ridiculously soft headed on the topic, he still claims to base things on “my analysis.” Cohen’s analysis of AfPak is about as strong as Nixon’s memory, Clinton’s monogamy, or Hitler’s fondness for Gypsies. His reasoning amounts to proclaiming that it’s about to rain because he’s seen a duck, and the duck’s water repellent qualities are there for a reason. That reason must be an imminent rain storm. He also describes Charlie “Let’s forget the lessons of Iraq” Dunlap as “a wise man.”
Basically, he thinks that anyone who opposes the application of COIN principles is a wise man. Again, his fear is that it will work, and will then become a cornerstone of national policy abroad. So, in the meantime, he tries to talk everyone out of using it, forecasting defeat. He claims that it is not in our strategic interests to stabilize the government of Afghanistan and that of Pakistan. He asserts that we should, in the next 12-24 months, kill as many Taliban and al Qaeda as we can and then pull out, sending instead a few civilians… not many, just what we can find and afford… to build schools and teach in them, plant daisies, drink chai and some other stuff like making paper dollies.
He then goes on to say that he’s all on board with Obama’s new plan by way of saying that Obama’s on board with his plan…
And it seems that at least one important man agrees with me – Barack Obama. In March when he laid out the US mission for Afghanistan he articulated three clear objectives – the first two are below:
“I have already ordered the deployment of 17,000 troops that had been requested by General McKiernan for many months. These soldiers and Marines will take the fight to the Taliban in the south and east, and give us a greater capacity to partner with Afghan Security Forces and to go after insurgents along the border. This push will also help provide security in advance of the important presidential election in August.
At the same time, we will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan Security Forces, so that they can eventually take the lead in securing their country. That is how we will prepare Afghans to take responsibility for their security, and how we will ultimately be able to bring our troops home . . We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan Army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011 – and increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward.”
Here the President is laying out a very specific strategy for degrading the Taliban’s capabilities and offers a very specific benchmark for training the Afghan security forces (two points that I have made repeatedly in my posts here).
All except for point number three, about the “civilian surge.”
Now for the third part of the President’s plan, which is a bit fuzzier and open to some interpretation:
“This push must be joined by a dramatic increase in our civilian effort. . . . To advance security, opportunity, and justice – not just in Kabul , but from the bottom up in the provinces – we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. . . That is why I am ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground. . .
We will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province. As their ranks dwindle, an enemy that has nothing to offer the Afghan people but terror and repression must be further isolated. And we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans – including women and girls.”
Now, here’s the thing. I’m skeptical about this third part of the President’s plan. First of all, we lack the civilian capacity to implement it (an assertion borne out by the fact that much of the civilian surge in Afghanistan is being carried out by the military). Second, I for one am unconvinced that it falls within America’s national interests. Third, I think “a reconciliation process in every province” is unrealistic. But it bears noting that the President is a lot less specific about this part of the plan than he is first two parts. And, if the President’s first two goals are met (degrading the Taliban and improving the Afghan security services), I would imagine there would be some incentive to jettison the more amorphous third part and get the hell out of Dodge.
Yep, we do lack the civilian capacity. I know that the administration is attempting to build that capacity. As a matter of fact, they are looking to attract National Guardsmen to tap their civilian skills as part of this “surge.” Don’t know how that’s going to work out. Also don’t know how many daisy eaters are going to volunteer to join up and put their butts where their little daisy munchers are. It’s always a lot harder to do things than to say them, though. I got into a bit of a tiff with a peacenik recently who advocated pulling out all of the troops and replacing them with teachers. I told her that she should go. “Oh, no,” she said quickly, “we just organize and advise government on our issues. We don’t actually go overseas.”
Uh… yeah. Okay. Patriots all. Hey, you don’t have to carry a weapon to be a patriot… got that… but the moniker wears thin pretty quick, doesn’t it? Real patriots do something. There’s an old saying, “Don’t confuse meetings with actually performing work.” I think that it could be extended to, “Don’t confuse ‘organizing’ with actually accomplishing anything.” Come on, lady… put your butt in The Stan and show us how it’s done!
Or, you can just shut up. That part’s safer. It’s tons more comfortable, too. You still get cable TV, soy lattes and organic whatever-you-want down at the hippymart. She will do neither. She will continue to make noise and “organize,” and Cohen will continue to “analyze,” and they are both just gongs in the wilderness, signifying nothing.
As Cohen goes on to explain how the most powerful man in the world has cleverly laid out a strategy that means, “Joe Biden is the smartestest man in the whole wide world,” he admits confusion. Cohen senses the disconnect. He thought that the first two parts meant, “Judge, I wanna kill, kill, kill…”
He thought we were on our way to the Group W bench. He figured that Part Three stuff was just window dressing that we were never going to fulfill, anyway… and that the President could be talked out of when he saw how hard it was.
Suddenly he senses that somethings gone horribly awry… but he can’t admit to himself the awful truth.
Now whether you agree or don’t agree, something here doesn’t smell right. Either President Obama is misleading the American people about his true strategy in Afghanistan or Lt General McCrystal is preparing to carry out an approach there that is decisively more population-focused and less military-centric than what the President described in March.
(This is the moment in the old cartoons when Elmer Fudd realizes that Bugs Bunny actually handed him a bomb. It’s the old “Warner Bros Moment of Clarity.”)
So, Mr. Cohen, you’re confused. Your suddenly worried that the President has no idea what his pick for Commander in Afghanistan is really up to. You raise the insidious thought that perhaps the President himself actually misled the American people. Could it be that you were misled? Could it be that you misled yourself? Perhaps that’s because, oh, I don’t know… perhaps it’s because the President said we’re going to do COIN and you thought you heard what YOU wanted to hear!
Could it be that you can barely even spell COIN, and you don’t know a COIN strategy when it’s laid out in broad terms for you????
In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “What a maroon!”
Michael Cohen is at it again, trying to tear away at the War in Afghanistan, selecting seemingly random information and using it out of context to support his fear-driven position. He is afraid that if we succeed in COIN in Afghanistan, it will become a cornerstone of American foreign policy. We have a word for actions that are driven primarily by fear: cowardice. Michael Cohen’s writings concerning Afghanistan and counterinsurgency are the most cowardly things you are likely to find in print this week.
First of all, we don’t all agree that we’re engaged in a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. Indeed, I’m pretty sure President Obama would not agree that we are engaged in a full-fledged counter-insurgency campaign. (Perhaps COIN-lite or Skim COIN).
Huh? We are fighting against insurgents in Afghanistan. That means that we are countering insurgents. That means counterinsurgency. What the hell does he think that we’re fighting? Whether or not we are doing it well is open to discussion… and I frequently do… but contending that it is not counterinsurgency is absolutely ridiculous. It’s the type of outlandish stuff that a coward would utter to back up his reason for running away from whatever threat he may find.
The fact is that the new strategy for Afghanistan announced less than two months ago lays out more of a counterinsurgency than we’ve actually performed in the past seven years. I didn’t see Cohen arguing that Afghanistan wasn’t a counterinsurgency two years ago. Cohen’s analysis starts out with this ridiculous assertion and goes generally downhill from there. It is the rhetoric of desperation and fear. When called on this fact over at Abu Muqawama, Cohen states his fear of success clearly:
“look COIN works – let’s do it elsewhere”
This is his greatest fear, and what drives his analysis. It’s the most clearly you will ever really get him to state his fear. This is what beats in the heart of the coward. He’s afraid, and it drives his thoughts and his actions.
Cohen later follows up Chris Mewitt’s question of what objection he’s using to reason against COIN with this:
To answer your question Chris, both. It doesn’t work and it’s bad policy. But if you don’t show that it doesn’t work – it will become policy.
Notwithstanding the fact that as a military analyst he is completely unskilled, but he attempts it to avoid his phobia… that COIN will become a cornerstone of American foreign policy, by misusing worn-out talking points about Iraq; discounting the effects of the surge as having any influence on the outcome there. Half-informed twisting of that history may sound like informed analysis to those who wish to believe such fallacies, but each has his or her own reason for wishing to believe. Generally, the motives for wanting to believe such a version is self-serving. Self-serving analysis is just as flawed as fear-based (or cowardly) analysis; just as intellectually dishonest.
Cohen then answers Abu M’s post with an even more ridiculous and poorly constructed argument, claiming that Exum countered his post poorly; which is just silly. Cohen spews a load of hurt feelings all over his site. It’s really not hard to insult the man. Cohen is not only compelled by his phobia into blundering into an area where he is truly ill-equipped, but he is very thin-skinned.
What Cohen fails to realize is that his proponency of failure is in direct opposition to the national security of the United States. Note the International Crisis Groups’s evaluation of the results of failure or premature withdrawal from Afghanistan in their April report. It is simple, it is concise, and it is, to my understanding, accurate.
Withdrawing international troops with the threat that any regrouping of jihadis or al-Qaeda can be countered by air power and special forces would simply return the country to the control of jihadis. Air power has not proven successful against insurgents or terrorist bases. Neglect would allow the region to descend into further chaos, as it did in the 1990s.
Cohen advocates doing what even the Brussels-based peace advocacy says should not be done, and advocates against what even they say should be done. History will prove Mr. Cohen to be a very flawed thinker. Those who are driven by fear usually are. Now, Mr. Cohen will object to this characterization of his position, but I’m standing by it and I believe that it will be borne out by the events of the future.
Mr. Cohen also describes himself as a warrior, and yet nothing in his bios that I can find online mention military service in any way. Just giving yourself the title of warrior just because you feel like it is like proclaiming yourself a Ranger and tossing a tab on your shoulder without ever having gone to Ranger School. Whatever, Michael. I’ll humor you the same way that I humor a child with a nerf gun who pretends he is a warrior. “Sure, Mikey. You’re a warrior, and a tough one, too. Here’s a cookie. Go have fun!”
But we really know that people who are motivated by fear are not warriors. Warriors experience fear, but they think and act in spite of it, not because of it. No, Cohen is not a warrior. Calling himself one is absurd. It would be insulting to real warriors if it wasn’t so ludicrous.
What continuously slays me about Cohen is that he totally misses which side his bread is buttered on. The civilian capacity-building capabilities that are necessary for success in the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan are exactly the types of capabilities that Mr. Cohen advocates as some primary tools of foreign policy. Afghanistan gives us the strong motivation and the proof to develop such capabilities. Mr. Cohen’s disconnect from reality is that developing such capabilities and employing them before insurgencies develop, or early in them, could help prevent such conflicts and/or involvements in the future. Afghanistan gives us the interest and motivation to actually develop such capabilities as part of the counterinsurgency, giving us skilled civilian government employees with experience in such matters. This expertise, developed in war, could help prevent war elsewhere. By arguing against COIN, Cohen weakens his own advocacy. His unreasoning fear, peeking out from behind really poor analysis, is really shooting himself in the foot.
Trying to refute what has obviously become more of a counterinsurgency than it has been in the past seven years as being not a counterinsurgency or “COIN-lite or Skim COIN” blah blah blah is just ridiculous. More really poor analysis. By setting up such obvious straw men, nobody who knows anything follows him any further. Cohen’s advocacy for the civilian capacity-building, which would be really good foreign policy that helps to avoid military involvement in COIN in the future, suffers as a result.
Cohen is his own worst enemy. He’s not doing the rest of us any favors, either.
The post regarding Mr. Cohen’s articles on Democracy Arsenal on COIN and specifically John Nagl and Brian Burton’s article in the April issue of Washington Quarterly was cited on Abu Muqawama and began a lively discussion thread over there. This is good, since the COINtras are raising a point that needs to be discussed, dealt with, and moved past. It is the politics of fear.
More after the jump
Here is the lone comment that was left on this blog (there are nearly 140 over at AM) regarding the post, made by Mr. Anonymous:
You completely miss Michael Cohen’s point. Utterly.
As simply as possible: There is an upper bound on the efficiency of COIN. No matter how good you get at it, as a policy option, it’s always bloody, expensive, and comparatively undesirable.
The problem with the COIN industry is that getting better at COIN is on some level a futile endeavor. You can get better enough to perform better tactically, or operationally, at the current goals of your campaign. But you can never get enough better to make being in COIN strategically positive.
Through the power of agent theory and path dependence, by making us better at COIN, you are making us more likely to use it, thus making us actually worse off, because two competent COIN engagements are still worse for us as a country than one incompetent COIN engagement.
It would be one thing if you actually engaged this argument, but you instead quite failed to comprehend, articulate, or rebut it.
I do get Mr. Cohen’s point, actually. Mr. Cohen is afraid that if we grasp the doctrine of counterinsurgency well enough to be successful in Afghanistan, we will be, as a nation, forever seeking new venues in which to display our counterinsurgent prowess; that the civilian masters of the military will find a new and irresistible toy with which to play endlessly.
The operative word is afraid. It’s the operative word in all of the COINtra dialogues. They are afraid that by retaining the lessons learned in Iraq and the lessons being learned in Afghanistan, they will lose control of something. Some fear that the United States will lose its conventional edge. Some fear that they will lose massive budgets for very expensive new aircraft. Some fear that the stigma of Vietnam will be lost, and that the deterrent to engaging in counterinsurgency or nation-building will melt away, allowing America to be drawn endlessly into long and messy engagements in strategic backwaters.
The commenter writes about a COIN industry. Aside from a few publishers (have you seen the price of Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice lately?) I fail to see an industry. I do see a massive conventional weapons industry. I do see that the funding for the F-22 has been cut. I do see an industry to support the military that guards us from the bogeyman who can nuke us to death or supposedly invade our country and subjugate it. I don’t see a COIN industry. COIN actually pushes back against the greater defense industry in many ways. It does not play to technological strengths, heavy equipment, or present a technical challenge in overcoming enemy systems. It does not respond to advanced radars that can pick out a gnat at a hundred miles at 50,000 feet. It does not spur the development of more capable fighters or of advanced armored vehicles networked seamlessly together. It doesn’t respond to generals who can see each detail through a Predator feed and a networked map.
It responds to a man on the ground, dirty and tired and frustrated, trying to get a bunch of backwards people to feel safe enough to tell him that their neighbor likes to play with explosives at night and threaten to cut their heads off if they tell anyone.
COIN strategically positive. Now there’s an idea. COIN is not strategically positive. It never was. It may support a strategic goal, but it is never strategically positive. COIN is the end result of failed strategy or the failure to strategize. It is the end result, as are all wars, of failure to resolve problems non-violently.
Failure in an endeavor is not strategically positive, either. In fact, it is strategically disastrous. Maj.Gen. Charles Dunlap states that the loss in Vietnam didn’t cost the United States the Cold War, and it didn’t cause the nation to become a failed state, and therefore loss in Afghanistan is acceptable, perhaps desirable. Yes, it would be desirable to him. It would once again cause a version of the Powell/Weinberger Doctrine to be adopted, perhaps by law. The lesson learned from Vietnam; “Never again.”
Never again would an advanced fighter be put on hold while the military pursued an objective in which they held air superiority by default. Never again would all of his training and planning for a conventional knockdown of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Air Force be rendered useless. Never again would he face internal dissent from a guerrilla group of junior officers who point out that a two-engined version of the Spooky gunship could be bought by the squadron full, to include crews, for the price of a single F-22.
I don’t know where Maj.Gen. Dunlap was in the years following the humiliation of Vietnam. Of course, Vietnam had positive effects on the Air Force in many ways. The Red Flag school was begun, the F-15 and F-16 learned from the challenges faced by the F-4, and the United States fielded the best fighter in the world as the world watched America’s panicked flight from Saigon.
The disaster in Vietnam did irreparably harm the United States. We were lucky that the Soviets did not view our weakened Army as the easy prey it would have been in the mid-’70’s. The services struggled with drug addiction and the Vietnam veterans suffered from the double edged sword of fighting the wrong doctrine in an insurgency, which to me complicates PTSD, and the stigma of failure which cannot but increase their suffering. These men and women who fought as well as any in the history of the United States were failed by their leadership and training.
Laos and Cambodia fell. Millions perished. To this day, none of these countries match their liberal neighbors economically. Malaysia, which survived an insurgency only a few years before Vietnam collapsed, produces computers. Vietnam produces cheap clothing and hats.
The loss of American prestige, the aura of invincibility shattered, led to numerous confrontations abroad. The USS Pueblo, the Embassy in Tehran, and a myriad of other incidents demonstrated our loss of standing. It changed the way that America views itself and its government forever. It emboldened asymmetric threats around the world as they saw the limits of American resolve and learned that if they had more patience, we would tire and concede any fight.
It made our media and our Armed Forces mortal enemies, which they remain to this day. The relationship between the American people and their Armed Forces did not heal until the Gulf War. I know. I wore a uniform during the 80’s, often in public on American streets.
One incompetent engagement is better for those who live in fear of the future. It is not better to me, who has lost friends and allies and has sacrificed months and months of my life and family time for it. It is not better for the legions of Vietnam veterans who live daily in the aftermath of futile sacrifice. No. It is not, and it never will be. Question the motives for engagement, do reasonable work to prevent such occurrences in the future; but do not make our sacrifices mean nothing so that your fear can rule you.
The military response, following the insidious behavior of those who had resorted to lying, cheating and cover-ups to justify failures and poor behaviors, learned a lesson; “Never again.” To them, “never again” meant never again engaging in asymmetric warfare. Documents were written, studies done, to demonstrate the failures and point the fingers at everyone and everything except themselves. First the Weinberger Doctrine and later the Powell Doctrine aimed at avoiding all such engagements, keeping our military restricted to “short, sharp” engagements, which to military officers was both exculpatory and very desirable. It simplified their jobs, and, confident that they would never again be called upon to perform in an asymmetric environment, allowed them to focus strictly on AirLand Doctrine and the weapons required to prosecute it.
Meanwhile, the government failed to learn how to engage the true might of our nation, its economic might and the freedom of its people, to engage in the diplomatic and developmental activity that would prevent the failure to thrive that pushes individuals towards extremism. We set up our own enemies of the future.
As the Armed Forces recovered from the TBI of Vietnam and built into a force that the Soviets dare not challenge across the Fulda Gap, American Soldiers and Marines muddled through a series of asymmetric disasters for which they were untrained and unprepared. Having thrown out what we had learned from Vietnam, eager to distance ourselves from the memory of having our collective asses handed to us by a nation of rice farmers, hundreds of Marines were killed by what we later came to call a VBIED in Beirut. The ignominious withdrawal from Somalia and the vision of naked American dead being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by dancing Somalians did not wake up the leadership but instead inspired the Powell Doctrine.
Yet the political masters of our Armed Forces ventured forth again, into fields where our mighty M-1 Abrams meant nothing more than a really nice roadblock.
I see the fear in every argument made by the COINtras. Fear for their particular rice bowls, fear of losing a glorious image, fear of success driving future endeavors. I am a Soldier. This does not mean that I do not feel fear; far from it. It does mean that I am not bound to a course of action or inaction because of it. Cohen’s fear is that by adopting the doctrine that is necessary for success in the current war, and by being realistic enough to look at our past and maintaining the knowledge, skills and abilities to succeed again, we will ensure the advent of future instances of involvement in foreign insurgencies. We, however, realize that civilians will, for whatever reason, throw me and my brothers in arms into a similar situation, regardless of their fluffy expressions of goodwill and world brotherhood.
When they do, after we have taken their well-intentioned advice and planning for a raging conventional holocaust and the righteous, clear-cut conventional victory Americans crave, we will once again make mistakes that cost young men their lives.
The right lesson that we should have derived from earlier failures in such situations was indeed, “Never again.” Never again will we send young men out to “chase ghosts” untrained in the doctrine and tactics that will keep more of them alive, end your adventures more quickly, and avoid failures that invite such events as the Tehran Embassy due to our loss of prestige. Never again will we have officers who attempt to fail at their tasks with cries of, “We don’t do windows.” Never again will we, through willful negligence and wishful thinking, endanger the lives of our Soldiers and the accomplishment of whatever mission our nation calls upon us to perform.
I see the COINtras fear, and I see Cohen’s. It’s okay to be scared. It’s not okay to let it rule your life or your decisions, and it’s not okay to allow it to rule the advice you give to others. It is particularly not okay for it to rule the minds of military officers, and especially not for reasons of individual or service-related selfishness, parochialism, or their boyhood visions of glory.
I get Cohen’s point all too well. His point was arrived at before his readings and his writings and that, to me, is intellectually dishonest. That’s why I wrote about it.
If anyone wants to avoid such future entanglements, then learn your own, “Never again.” Learn that by establishing an excellent Phase 0 capability, you position yourself better to never have to consider Phase IV COIN in a kinetic environment. Influence your government to deal with the development of radicalized elements by addressing them at their birthplace, before they plan attacks on our home soil for whatever crazy reason that their minds grow into. Start addressing the next Taliban or al Qaeda now before they kill Americans.
COIN is awful business. It boggles the best minds. It can never be done perfectly, only adequately, but it can be done. I hope that Afghanistan is the last time this nation ever engages in foreign COIN or FID, but I don’t for one second believe that it will be, especially in a world where the only way to really interfere with American interests or strategies is asymmetric. I am here to tell Michael Cohen, Maj.Gen. Dunlap, or anyone else that never again will I listen to someone who tells me to be willfully negligent in my duties to my Soldiers and my nation, and to help them prove their points by purposely failing in Afghanistan; or that it would be alright to do so. Never again will I heed leadership that tries to guide me away from having the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform in whatever role my nation tells me I need to function in. That is my never again.
No, not John Nagl. Not in this lifetime. No, we’re talking about Democracy Arsenal’s Michael Cohen who, for a fellow at a think tank and a former speechwriter for the United States Representative to the United Nations is pretty thick on a subject into which he has been putting a lot of study. He’s been taking on the COINdinistas and being a bit condescending about it at that, which is ironic. In a May 1st post on Nagl and Burton’s article in the April edition of The Washington Quarterly, Cohen writes some pretty silly stuff.
More after the jump.
The COIN-danistas deterministic notion of future military conflict is particularly hard to reconcile with Nagl’s later point that “U.S. conventional military capabilities still qualitatively outstrip those of potential adversaries to a significant degree. Such capabilities are too costly and infrastructure-intensive for most countries to develop, purchase, or field. Instead of playing the U.S. game, current and potential enemies have turned to asymmetric approaches designed to neutralize our strengths and exploit our relative weaknesses.”
Well wait a minute here – if no country can qualitatively match the United States and if our enemies only approach for confronting the United States is through asymmetric approaches then wouldn’t this suggest that the United States has a rather fulsome capability to decide when, where and how to fight wars?
Ummm… no. It gives us a fulsome capability to decide when, where and how to react to being attacked by non-state actors. It gives our nation a fulsome inability to have someone against whom to declare war because we don’t have an institutional memory of declaring hostilities against a non-state. It gives current and potential enemies a fulsome and demonstrated ability to confuse us, play against our demonstrated weaknesses and strike against not only our homeland but those of other nations with whom we share good relations.
Simply, it puts us in the position not of actor but of reactor. Our conventional primacy in the world precludes any nation-state from having a direct conventional assault on our interests or allies. As Nagl points out, likely scenarios for traditional state-state war are pretty scarce. This forces those who would see the United States taken down a peg to resort to the unconventional, asymmetric insurgent type behaviors that we have a demonstrated difficulty in dealing with.
It does allow us to determine how, when and where to react. Cohen points out that in the days following 9/11 we had choices in how to pursue al Qaeda. This is true. While he points out an obvious truth, even divining the method of our reaction, there is an essential failure in his logic; that our conventional primacy completely failed us; we had been attacked. We had been attacked not on the fields of Europe, not by a nuclear strike by a conventional power, but on our own soil by a non-state actor. We did not choose the fight. We did choose, in the aftermath, to fight. In the end, citing a favorite childhood movie, Cohen advocates choosing not to fight.
Take it on the chin, America, and just say no.
This is simplistic at best. Simplistic answers in a complicated world are absolutely worthless.
In another post, made the same day, Cohen tries to tackle Nagl again, this time on the subject of failed states.
Note to Cohen: Dude, you are so totally out of your league. You thoroughly miss the point, and for someone with your credentials, this is absolutely frightening. Truly sad.
Nagl is not an advocate of COIN for the sake of COIN. Nagl is an advocate of being able to prevail in the conflicts at hand, and for never again being such utter failures at having the ability to achieve what this nation’s civilian leadership decides is in the nation’s interests. We are not out of the woods yet; not by a far sight. The Army has a long way to go, and will likely never really commit culturally to accepting the abilities to overcome an insurgency. There are points of light, though, and they are increasing in both number and influence.
Nagl is an advocate of being capable of facing the threats that face us in the modern world, where the new phenomenon of globalization has given non-state actors the ability to strike within the shores of the United States on a scale that has never been done by any state actor since the War of 1812.
This is highly misleading. The experience of the US military in Somalia was a disaster and conveniently ignored is the fact that this intervention — where we sent ground troops and tried nascent nation-building — was stunningly unsuccessful. As for the Balkans, the United States did not intervene with ground troops (peacekeepers) in Bosnia or Kosovo until only after a peace agreement/cease fire had been reached in both locales – and it was not our military that did nation building in either country, it was the United Nations and other civilian agencies. And while Nagl is right that the demands to intervene militarily in places like Darfur and Rwanda have grown, doesn’t it tell us something that such demands have gone unmet? It is hardly accidental that the United States did not send ground troops into kinetic environments as nation builders in each of these situations.
Failed and weak states represent areas of potential threat to the US, but Nagl’s response – counter-insurgency and nation-building — is not only political realistic it makes little sense from either a strategic or tactical perspective. Above all, it is a disproportionate response to what are, for the most part, not vital threats to the United States.
What horrible analysis. Somalia was nothing like Afghanistan or Iraq, nor were the goals. There was no “nascent nation-building” in Somalia. It was a humanitarian intervention and, while terribly ill-conceived, had nothing to do with any real or perceived threat to our national security. The Balkans was, again, a response to a humanitarian disaster. In both cases, it was a military response to a humanitarian crisis. They are great examples of why Nagl is right, but horrible examples of why he may be wrong.
Nagl does not advocate counterinsurgency as a driver of national policy. What he does is point out that because of our conventional primacy, we are unlikely to face a conventional threat. He also points out that most military activity in the past 60 years, that which our nation has asked us to do, has been unconventional, asymmetric and often insurgency-related. He points out that the real threats to our country are now and are more likely (than conventional) to be asymmetric. He also points out that the civilian capacity to avoid using military force to assist in stabilization is woefully lacking.
Why people like Cohen find John Nagl to be threatening and feel a need to argue with him or discredit his ideas is beyond me. There have been military thinkers over the years who have examined the failures of Vietnam. Most got it wrong. Much of the military analysis has been flawed in the favor of blaming the civilian government for the failures of the Army to figure it out. They have ascribed abilities to supposed counterinsurgency in Vietnam that wasn’t there. Even in the wake of asymmetric failures such as Somalia retrospective analysis failed to do more than reflect a desire to force the Powell Doctrine (a military solution to counterinsurgency that amounted to the Cohen Doctrine of “just say no” on the civilian leadership) to the level of law. Nagl never would have written his book Learning to eat soup with a knife had such efforts been successful.
Oh snap; Cohen calls for the Powell Doctrine, too.
COINdinistas, who Cohen treats with derision, are not advocates of looking for more opportunities to do COIN. John Nagl doesn’t advocate COIN as national strategy. Nagl advocates COIN as the proper doctrine for achieving the goals of our civilian leadership in cases where failed states harbor asymmetric threats to our national security. Use a hammer to drive a nail, use a shovel to dig a hole. As our experience in Iraq has shown, when you put down the shovel and pick up the hammer, suddenly it’s easier to drive the nail.
COL Gian Gentile makes much more cogent arguments, fundamentally flawed but intellectually honest, than Cohen. Cohen’s arguments are driven by a conclusion already arrived at. Cohen has been studying COIN not to see what it offers but to see how to discredit it. He has done a terrible job.