A lot has been made of the remarks of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates the other day, when he appeared to signal the end of the US’s focus on counter-insurgency and a drawdown on its armed forces. In particular, Gates seemed to draw a line against further US involvement in the Asian third world, nation building and the like.
A lot of people seem to think that this is it for COIN, a doctrine and theory that has come under increasing criticism over the past 18 months. But I think that is very premature.
It is not surprising in the least for a man like Gates, 10 years into America’s commitment in Afghanistan and nearing that in Iraq, to advise against such future operations. But, that does not mean it won’t happen.
Because the US Armed Forces can talk about it not happening again, about COIN theory not being needed, but that’s nonsense. Because the second another bolt from the blue like 9/11 happens, whether its next year, next decade or whenever, the United States is going to find itself invading somewhere it really shouldn’t be invading (Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Somalia? Ring a bell? They all followed on from each other). Whether it is for military or political reasons, the US is going to be occupying another country and engaging in a COIN campaign within our lifetimes. To think otherwise is to invite a dangerous apathy, an apathy that has cost American and coalition lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, the same kind of apathy that so afflicted the American military in the 1980s. Whether it is North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, Mexico, Cuba or any number of other nations that could perceivably become the subject of military intervention, the US will be in a position where COIN and knowledge of it will be very handy.
Because they’ll have a chance to do what every military should be able to do and that is learn from their mistakes. Afghanistan and Iraq were messes of a gigantic nature, messes that could have been largely prevented if population centric counter-insurgency had been used from the beginning. Instead, the US waged an uninspired counter-insurgent campaign characterised by brutal, pointless actions like the Battles of Fallujah and let Iraq and Afghanistan fall to pieces by 2007.
Critics of counterinsurgency like to point to its failure to really make Iraq stable and it’s more notable lack of impact in Afghanistan. I can only counter that COIN is always going to be more difficult, perhaps impossible, where insurgencies and anti-government groups have been allowed to fester for as long as they did without a proper COIN doctrine being implemented. Anyone who thinks COIN as practiced by the US today could not have changed things if instituted in 2003 is kidding themselves, making excuses for a post-invasion plan that was among the worst possible.
If America is to learn, and not repeat those mistakes in wherever its next military engagement will be, then it needs to keep working on COIN, tweaking the doctrine, educating its officers and being prepared as it so obviously was not prepared in Spring 2003.
Gates is right to warn against another major commitment in Asia and is right to recognise the increasing focus on Air Power in COIN operations. But that does not mean that another commitment in Asia will not happen at some point and it does not mean that the US will never have/need “boots on the ground” again.
Those boots have to be prepared. Get them thinking COIN right off the bat of an occupation next time, especially junior officers, and you will have a better chance of seeing the success the US has never had or ever will have, in Iraq or Afghanistan.
COIN isn’t done, anymore then it was done after Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan in the 80s, the Iraq surge or anywhere else in history. Bet on it.