COIN-Love Redux

Alternate title: “why smart people diversify, and why those who don’t go splat face-first into the pavement”. An interesting piece in The New Republic from Senior Editor Michael Crowley, on COIN-love. Crowley writes about how CNAS has staked its claim as guru-central for counterinsurgency, and throws a few subtle barbs about the quality of its salesmanship vice the gloss of its ideas.


Washington’s current enthusiasm for counterinsurgency is based largely on its apparent success in stabilizing Iraq–even though it’s not clear that the doctrine’s sophisticated tenets deserve all or even most of the credit. Indeed, an argument is brewing in military circles about whether the doctrine’s potential has been oversold. What happens next in Afghanistan could settle it.


Though CNAS is loath to be known as a one-trick pony–it recently completed a report encouraging U.S. cooperation with China and runs an energy and climate-based “natural security” program–it is effectively cornering the market on counterinsurgency thought.


The stakes for the United States in Afghanistan are enormous. But, in a more parochial sense, so are the stakes for CNAS and what you might call the cult of counterinsurgency.


… if Afghanistan doesn’t turn around soon, the Democrats who founded and support CNAS, and who have come to embrace the Petraeus-Nagl view of modern warfare, may find themselves wondering whether it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Or they could just read some history. Yes, yes, of course I mean Algeria, Malaysia, and Vietnam. But really I mean that decade between the end of the Cold War and 2001 that everyone ignores. You know, the 1990s, the decade that offered reams of lessons learned about civil-military cooperation, good governance, official corruption, armed non-state actors and the like, before we decided to reinvent the wheel – again (Ed’s Note: Gasp… blasphemer!) for Afghanistan and Iraq.

I mean no ill will to the CNAS crowd. A smart and accomplished group of people, just a little too smug, smarmy, and overinflated about their special understanding of the nature of conflict and the poor schmucks who just don’t get it (not to mention their own qualifications for proclaiming how others don’t get it). In my unkinder moments, I think of COIN obsession as the fetish of those waaayyyyy too young for Vietnam and pissed off that they missed such a groovy fight (and the ability to claim a really great soundtrack as their own, in the bargain). Or those dissatisfied with the prohibition on proactively killing things absence of bona fide warfighting that was part and parcel of…. wait for it… peacekeeping. Remember that?

Next time you read a current or ex- military bio that includes the words “fought” or “combat” in relation to service in Bosnia, give it some thought. Only a handful of individuals can actually claim it with integrity, and only if they were in this placedid this, or participated in the rare mission of this kind that actually resulted in a shot fired (there weren’t many). Kosovo was much the same, except for a short bit in 1999, and that was mostly air power at work. Short version: it just wasn’t that kind of intervention. But I’ve been seeing some revisionist verbiage creep into some biographical characterizations of Balkan deployments as late as 2004 and 2005. That, and COIN-fetishization, reinforce a sneaking suspicion that we’re stuck in the midst of a convoluted memory hole and positively deluded about at least two things: the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of what we think we’ve learned about them and the lessons of “the past”.

Rant over. Go read the rest of Crowley’s article here.

Originally published at CTlab.

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