COIN, Meet Democracy (And Your Doom)

It seems that the blogosphere has gone and blown itself up again.  The catalyst this time around was a stellar (some have called it ‘epochal‘) essay-post by the ever erudite and timely Zenpundit, Mark Sanfranski. Zen has received much praise here in the past, and his latest tour de force does not disappoint. Titled, “The Post-COIN Era is Here”, Zen’s post declares the death of a regime that has of late towered over the affairs United State’s military: the COINdistas.

If you do not know what “COINdista” means, read Safranski’s post. He sketches a short history of the counterinsurgency movement in words that are clear and understandable to those with no background in security issues. If you are looking for a quick summary of the debates that have consumed the defense community for the past decade, you will find nothing better than his article.

Yet the thrust of Zen’s post is not the rise of the COINdistas, but their fall. To quote the crux of his argument:

The Post-COIN Era is Here
Mark Safranski (“Zenpundit”). 25 January 2010.
What matters is that in all the recent elections, Democrats have been clobbered by a “Revolt of the Moderates” – socially liberal, fiscally conservative, independent voters who came out in 2008 for Obama and are now shifting radically away from him. For the next year, politicians of both parties will be competing hard for this bloc which means “deficit hawks” will soar higher than defense hawks.
America’s nine year drunken sailor spending spree is officially over.
Defense experts have long known that the post-9/11, record DoD budget expenditures were not going to be politically sustainable forever and that either a drawdown of combat operations or cancellation of very big, very complicated and supremely expensive weapons platforms or some combination of both would eventually be needed. That eventuality is here and will increase in intensity over the next five years, barring an unexpected economic boom. Spending $60 billion annually on Afghanistan, a nation with a GDP of roughly $ 20 billion, for the next 7 years, is not going to be in the cards. Not at a time of 10 % unemployment, when the Congress will be forced to cut Medicare, education, veteran’s benefits, eliminate COLA’s on Social Security or raise the retirement age and income taxes. Who is going to want to ”own” an ambitious “nation-building” program at election time?
This was an end long in coming. Counterinsurgency campaigns are messy affairs that require much in way of blood, treasure, and time. Modern democracies are peopled by impatient publics who live for easy fixes and remain unwilling to sacrifice for anything ethereal as the national interest. A collision between the two was inevitable.

That COIN and the dynamics of democracy were on a crash course has been visible for some time.  It was made quite clear to myself last February, when I read Lt. General David Barno‘s  then-newly published testimony to the SASC on operations in Afghanistan. Included in Barno’s proposal was a time table for American operations in Afghanistan. It was a time table that extended all the the way until 2025.

While operationally sound, Barno’s proposal (which was developed with the help of COIN whiz David Kilcullen) was a political fantasy. As I stated at the time:

Between the years 2009 and 2025 the United States will have four Presidential elections and eight different Congresses. Each of the major parties will draft four different party platforms. In the Darwinian jungle of American electioneering, hundreds of pundits and politicians (or would-be politicians) will cycle through thousands of opinions and manifestos, intent on creating grievances that they need to solve.

This environment is not conducive — heck, it is downright toxic — to any prolonged counterinsurgency campaign.

But the political situation back home never seemed to be a real concern for the COIN theoreticians. Fascinated by case studies, distracted by factional debates, and anxiously engaged in developing “new paradigms” and operational approaches, politics fell to the wayside. It was quite astounding to see men who were so acutely aware of the political dynamics of foreign locales so completely disregard Washington’s own political constraints. Domestic politics was simply not a part of the discussion.

To take a fairly recent example, Sean McFate’s call to purge the Afghanistan National Army is (to this citizen’s untrained eye) operationally sound. Yet however operationally sound it may or may not be, it could happen only in policy fantasy land. The ANA is the result of eight years of sweat and toil; you cannot simply scrap it and start all over as you would flip a switch. Who shall fork money over to ISAF to perform such a restructure? Which country is going to stay in Afghanistan for another eight years while the new ANA is formed, trained, and battle hardened? Most importantly, are the citizens of those states whose soldiers compose the ISAF ready to recommit themselves and their countrymen to a reboot of the entire project?

These questions were left untouched by McFate. Like most folks discussing COIN, small budgets, restless constituents, and domestic politcking belonged to a realm worlds away. This is no longer true. The time soon approaches when all members of the defense community will be forced to deal with Washington’s political realities – COINdistas included.

This new world, I think, will be the true testing ground of population centric counterinsurgency. Mark claims that COIN has proved itself “an excellent operational tool”. I am not so sure. Counterinsurgency is a tool excellent only to those with steady focus and a strong stomach – two traits modern democracies do not possess. Unless COIN practitioners can work around this and learn to wage war within the constraints imposed by mass democracy, COIN will remain inimical to the workings of modern America.

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There is nothing wrong with the Americans ability put in the time and effort to win a small war. What the Americans don't like putting in time and money in a never ending attempt to fight a small war while never recognizing the primary enemy thereby making it impossible to win no matter what; even more so when we insist, in some kind of twisted 'realpolitik' vision that only international relations graduates of the most elite schools could dream up, on financing the actual enemy to the tune of billions of dollars. Nobody can win doing that. That we do it isn't some kind of inevitable result of nature's law. We consciously do it because a lot of powerful people decide that we should. There is no explanation for that beyond impregnable devotion to Career Centic COIN. Small wars are still wars so by extension that devotion to Career Centric COIN is a devotion to Career Centric War Fighting, a concept that dooms the Americans. Abu Muqawama said something like that years ago, maybe it isn't that we aren't good at small war, maybe it's we aren't good at war.

Coindinsta or no, what works in small wars works. Pershing and Johnson and Galula and Herrington and Sgt. McGowan and a former USMC platoon leader who was in Afghanistan that I met (who figured out what worked on his own being greatly advantaged by being forgotten by everybody higher up) would expect to see each other doing what worked. The Gentiles of the world are apologists for the military's institutional failures. They have to head off the question "Well if those guys could do it what's the matter with you guys?" by saying it simply can't, why my goodness no, it simply can't be done. It can and has, just not by them.

The ANA no matter its state of decrepitude can handle Taliban & Co. by themselves. What they can't handle and never will be able to handle is the Pak Army/ISI waging unconventional warfare upon them, especially when their mighty American allies refuse that sun in the sky.