COIN operated politics

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Suppose a child is misbehaving. He or she repeatedly throws a fit when told it’s time for bed. A single mom, tired and reminded daily by Oprah-esque talk shows that children should never feel pain, decides that the best course of action is to offer a cookie to the child just before bed.

She has just made her life more difficult and taught the child that misbehavior brings concession and reward. Now the child will throw fits and get cookies.

This is exactly what some (mis) interpretations of FM 3-24 (The Army field manual outlining counter-insurgency operations) brought us. I knew our efforts in Afghanistan were all but lost when, a few months back at the beginning of the McChrystal surge, I heard a Marine officer tell a reporter: “If I kill one civilian in the course of killing 10,000 insurgents, I’ve just made my job here tougher.” My jaw dropped. You’d think America never won a war by killing its enemies. The sheiks take our money and cooperate with the Taliban. They know that no matter what they do, we’ll be nice. So now America is the exasperated single mom.

It is our politicians who’ve politicized our military, not our generals. We laud civilian control, but ignore that it is in fact the generals who are the experts. While they do not make policy–nor should they–they should be listened to. But they hardly ever are until it’s too late. The case of General Eric Shinseki is the obvious lesson. He told Congress we needed “several hundred-thousand troops”. Then he got sent to the locker room.

So we moved from Rumsfeld’s “Shock and Awe” (EBO, or Effects Based Operations), which hoped laser-guided munitions would make people drop dirty Kalashnikovs, to COIN. Both offer dreamy visions of near-bloodless war. In the first case, we can destroy our enemies’ “critical nodes” and make him combat ineffective. In the second case, we can give billions of dollars to locals sheiks and never have to pull a trigger. In both cases people forgot to refer to the history books. German bombing didn’t kill English determination, and American and English bombing of German railroads and ball bearing factories, while helpful, did not stop the Wehrmacht–only a titanic wave of soldiers from both sides of the Rhineland did that.

The politicization of military operations has many deleterious effects, but the most prominent is “either/or” thinking and rhetoric. We must either protect civilian populations at all costs (even at the cost of losing) or we must carpet bomb villages with no military value. Those are the only two options to COIN operated politics. The Marine officer’s statement about 10,000 insurgents vs. 1 civilian is classic either/or thinking (ideology really).

It seems that our mid-level officers misinterpreted the COIN manual. During the Iraqi surge under General Patraeus, airstrike frequency massively increased. He understood that while killing innocents is undesirable and hurts our effort, he also understood that being overrun by al-Qaeda was a much more direct route to getting our rears–Read: heads– handed to us. And he understood that ultimately his responsibility is to the American Soldier. Politicians value votes much more than Soldier’s lives. If they only understood that even under the best conditions, COIN offers only long wars, which are politically unsustainable. One statement that Patraeus made in recent testimony before Congress is that counter insurgency does not prevent us from actively targeting terrorists for destruction. One politician, encapsulated by either/or, asked why we don’t go to a pure counter-terror strategy. 

A thousand history lessons cannot blunt the razor-sharp arrogance of theoreticians. While they give us romantic platitudes about the genius of  Hannibal, Scipio and Napoleon, they’d have us believe that–just like the failed McClellan–we can go about victory by circumventing attriting the enemy. They hate William Sherman because his methods were not nice. And yet they cannot give me an example of any wars won with bribes.

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