The Closet Moderate: COIN-Operated War(s)

Friday, November 06, 2009

COIN-Operated War(s)

Post-WWII, the US military has been, by and large, an organization built to deter and defeat potential "peer competitors." That's a fancy term IR/FoPo folks throw around that means, basically, "nations that think they might be able to take us." Specifically, it refers to nations that are both wealthy and populous enough to sustain a war effort against a great power.

And from 1941 to 1991, that--the peer competitors thing--was the fundamental premise underlying US grand strategy. Most other needs were subordinated to the overriding strategic imperatives of defeating the Third Reich, and, post-1945, containing the USSR. While the collapse of the USSR fundamentally altered the structure of international relations and the strategic environment, a certain amount of institutional inertia ensured that the Cold War order persisted.

Below the jump I'll talk about ways in which that changed as a result of the Iraq War and the implications it has for American national security debate moving forward.

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So, with all the standard caveats about the Iraq War, it did place our armed forces, specifically the US Army, in a situation where fundamental assumptions about the utility and application of military force had to be re-examined. In 2005-06, the war was taking a sharp turn for the worse, and it became clear that we needed a new approach. Spencer Ackerman's series, Rise of the Counterinsurgents is required reading here. Long story short, the tremendous boondoggle of Iraq elevated a group of military thinkers to prominence. They implemented a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that helped contain* the tide of violence, and their success legitimized the theory.

Now the debate centers around whether or not that sort of strategy can be modified to suit our strategic goals in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal wants 40,000 more troops to wage a counterinsurgency, while Vice-President Biden favors a counterterrorism approach involving fewer troops. Both of these arguments take for granted the idea, pronounced by Obama on the campaign trail, that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity." The idea runs like this: we have to win in Afghanistan or the Taliban comes back. If the Taliban comes back, Al-Qaeda comes back. If Al-Qaeda comes back, sooner or later we get another 9/11. The McChrystal/Biden disagreement is about whether it's better to address the underlying conditions that create terrorism or just murder terrorists.

The problem that I have with both sides of the debate is that, at the moment, they seem agnostic to costs and probabilities.

Let's take the area of universal agreement: we don't want another 9/11. At the time, 9/11 seemed like something completely impossible. I was listening to reports on the radio and just couldn't believe it was happening. The assumption shared by me, the Bush administration, and American security community at large--that this couldn't fucking happen--is no longer operative. As hard as it is to believe in 2009, "grand terrorism" was a major blind spot in '00-'01. I have to believe that our inability to take the threat seriously was a major enabler of 9/11.


But neither side of the current debate admits much of a possibility that "taking the threat seriously" involves anything other than a protracted commitment in Afghanistan. I've already talked about this issue, but I'll get into in more depth in the next couple posts.

*Obviously, there were other factors involved. The de facto segregation of religious groups that had occurred as a result of the flareups of '05-'06 reduced the opportunities for and gains from intergroup violence.

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