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 03 May 2009 @ 5:22 PM 

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.

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Categories: Afghanistan, COIN
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 21 Jun 2009 @ 04 03 AM

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