COIN Symposium recap part 3

If you’re going to send an anti-COIN advocate into the COINdinista lion den you probably couldn’t get a better person to do it than Col. Gentile.  He’s been on the record for awhile with his clear opposition to the Army emphasis on COIN and I was very happy to see him on the speaker list for the conference.  Since what he said was at odds with the positions of many other speakers I’m going to inject my comments (in italics) along with points made by other speakers during their presentations (identified by name).   None of these speakers referred to or spoke directly about Col. Gentile’s comments, rather I’m picking what I found as relevant in their presentations and inserting them here.

Ok, colonel…help me see the error of my ways.  His argument:

His presentation focused on 4 fundamental premises:

  1. Army COIN doctrine is in need of serious and fundamental revision
  2. For many reasons the Army has found itself straightjacketed by COIN from the tactical to strategic levels
  3. The defense establishment generally and the Army specifically have been seduced into thinking COIN and nation building can actually work
  4. The above prevent us from seeing alternatives to COIN

COIN doctrine is based upon methods of fighting insurgencies in the 1950s and 1960s that is:

  • nothing new
  • historically inaccurate (the narratives put forward by Killcullen, Patreaus, et. al. does not reflect reality)
  • underpinned by dubious cause-effect theory

There was no debate during the creation of FM 3-24 (the COIN field manual) despite what the party line is.  We need one for its revision.

He then argued that the Army is actually pretty good at population-centric COIN and that are lack of success is more a demonstration of it’s ineffectualness rather than any failure to adopt or implement COIN principles.

I find this to be complete nonsense.  There’s a big difference between understanding the principles of COIN (or even just being able to parrot them without understanding) and actually implementing them.  COIN training remains unfocused and treated as something separate than ‘regular’ army training.  I spoke to one person who conducts COIN training for deploying soldiers.  Out of a 60 day mobilization training schedule, 2 weeks are devoted to a COIN course and, according to this person, only the second week actually focuses on COIN principles (plus the COIN course is generally only for leaders so you have to hope the COIN message is translated correctly).  So you have about 10% of your training time devoted to COIN.  Less when you consider the amount and type of training soldiers go through before their mobilization training.

Rupert Jones (UK) – Traditional war-fighting techniques are deeply ingrained in our soldiers.  When faced with a high stress situation (insurgent attack, etc.) what are soldiers going to do:  rely on muscle memory of innumerable trainings on how to respond to a conventional attack or hope they remember the brief training they received once or twice and may have infrequently trained with?

Our skills at combined operations warfare have atrophied over the past 3-5 years.  If we don’t address this we can expect to get spanked in the future.  He argued that we can’t possibly predict what kind of conflict we might face in the future so we should train for the most dangerous which would be a conventional war.

We can’t?  Isn’t the whole defense acquisition process is based upon predicting future conflicts and arming ourselves for them.  So we undertook the F22 and F35 projects on a wild guess?  Hmmm….color me dubious of this line of reasoning.  I think what he’s saying is that there’s no indication we’ll need a conventional force for the foreseeable future but he really WANTS a conventionally focused force and so we should train for one just in case.  That being said, I think there’s probably some truth to the assertion that we’ve sacrificed conventional capabilities recently.  I’m guessing that a big part of that is the huge requirement of troops in both the Iraq and Afghan theaters.  Once we get the Iraq albatross off our neck I imagine we should be able to maintain both a COIN and conventional capability.  The lesson here is that we shouldn’t go diving into unnecessary wars AND expect to maintain our full peacetime capability not that we shouldn’t train for irregular warfare.

A knowledge of combined arms warfare is needed to learn COIN.  Combined arms warfare teaches initiative which creates an environment for the force to learn and adapt.

Hmmm…file this under ‘combined arms will cure cancer’.  If your argument is that people have become seduced by the siren song of one line of thought (COIN), I’m not sure the answer is to get a competing singer with promises that the answers to all your problems are really with combined arms.  If combined arms is so good at preparing armies to fight insurgencies please explain Iraq 2003-2007 and Afghanistan 2001-now.

Col. Gentile also strongly objected to the cliche that ‘COIN is the graduate school of war’.  He argued that ALL war is very complex.  I’d agree but say that while all war is complex the complexity moves further down the chain of command in COIN.  A private in a fighting position on the Fulda gap has a limited number of responses to a Mechanized Rifle Regiment bearing down on his position and whatever his individual response is, it’s unlikely to have long lasting strategic impact.  That is not true in COIN.  A junior enlisted soldier could make a decision which could have serious strategic implications (just ask the soldiers at abu Gharib).

While he didn’t reference it specifically, Gentile seemed to be advocating what was known as a ‘counter-terrorism’ focused strategy.  Focus on applying ‘precise military force’ against insurgents without nation building.

His argument suffered from (at least) two significant flaws:

  1. He never really defined ‘precise military force’ and how many wedding parties can get nuked while still using the term unironically.  And if you’re going to abandon the whole ‘nation-building’ (or population centric…they AREN’T synonymous terms as one questioner pointed out) approach how exactly is one to develop the intelligence gathering capability that will allow one to do that precision targeting?
  2. Imagine if this president (or, for that matter any president) announced to the nation:  “I’ve decided our strategy can’t succeed.  Therefore I’m abandoning our efforts to support the Afghan government, withdrawing virtually all our forces and we’re going to work on plinking terrorists off from a distance.  You remember how we did things before 2001?  Yeah, we’re going back to that.”  Now, that might be a good strategy BUT does anyone think there wouldn’t be a virtual revolt in Congress, the media and the public at this?  Remember all the hoopla over bringing a couple of terror suspects to trial on U.S. soil?  In what bizarro world would this decision NOT have immense and terrible domestic repercussions?  Like it or not, our partisanship has boxed us in and there are some courses of action that are just plain closed off to us.

Now, Gentile might respond by saying something like ‘Hey, that’s a political decision and I’m a military man.’ or ‘Leadership is about making tough decisions.’ but to not even acknowledge that his recommended course of action would cause huge fissures in our domestic political environment is being naive at best and disingenuous at worst.  For such a program to even be conceivable the military would need to get into the political field as it’s never done before in order to provide the president with cover to avoid the inevitable charges of treason, cowardice and selling our our ‘brave young men and women’.  It’s unclear just how far Col. Gentile would be willing to stick his own neck out to bring about the changes he recommends.

Col. Gentile also made the claim that there appeared to be a disturbing trend that there was some sort of a COIN purity test and officers that didn’t drink the Kool-Aid might suffer accusations and professional harm.  His one bit of ‘evidence’ for this claim was a story in the Army Times a few months ago that identified a battalion commander who was much more kinetic focused than his peers and some of his subordinates made the claim that the commander didn’t ‘get it’.  Maybe, Gentile argued, a more kinetic environment was appropriate for the conditions in the commander’s area of operations.  I have no idea about that but the idea that ONE unfavorable article in the Army Times translates into some sort pattern of official sanctions and retribution against officers that don’t fall down and sing the praises of COIN is ridiculous.

8 responses to “COIN Symposium recap part 3

  1. While I agree that Col Gentile can be rather stuck on his one view on COIN, I am also a COINtra and support his basic argument. I think what he means re: combined arms is that our basic mission to find, fix, and finish enemy forces isn’t really affected at the operational level by whether the target is an insurgent group or a military formation. But how we actually use military force in Afghanistan isn’t COIN if we’re leading the fight and the Afghani Army is bringing up the rear and can’t secure the area when we leave (see Helmund, failures in). What we’re doing in Afghanistan isn’t COIN if the Karzai government isn’t seen as legitimate by the provinces and if there is no significant development of civil infrastucture by USAID or State Dept. So all we’re doing is using military personnel to do nation-building and pretending that it’s all good COIN, meanwhile outposts are shot up, the population gets meaner, and the Karzai goons get richer.

    Re: “Isn’t the whole defense acquisition process is based upon predicting future conflicts and arming ourselves for them.” Wow. You don’t even want to go there, do you? No, the whole defense acquisition process is based upon building force structure and influence by individual services, who then craft the discussion about future conflict to fit the continued development of their Cold War pet projects. AF promotes “COIN air power” and says that the F-35 has COIN applications. Bullshit. Navy will never give up 11 carrier groups and dreams of a 300+ ship fleet, no matter how unaffordable that is becoming and no matter how much it doesn’t support operations in a land-locked insurgency conflict. Ask the Marines how they’re going to use their EFV in Afghanistan.

    “Now, that might be a good strategy BUT does anyone think there wouldn’t be a virtual revolt in Congress, the media and the public at this?” So the solution is to continue the failed Bush administration’s attrition-based combat strategy instead? Just keep feeding soldiers and Marines into the sausage grinder until we kill every last Taliban? I realize that it’s not an “either or” case here, but let’s be real. More than half of the public would applaude getting the hell out if they were told “oh BTW that frees up billions in defense spending, reduces the growth of terrorism, and you won’t have to be bothered by all those dead faces in the newspapers every month.” But sure, the media would stir it up as a “controversy,” because they don’t think past the point of how the sensationalistic news would increase their revenue. And since Congress hasn’t done ANYTHING connected to improving the situation in Af-Pak other than feed the defense firms, sure, they’ll bark. But at the end of the day, it’s better to do the right thing than the politically expedient thing.

    • First of all, thank you. THAT was the sort of defense I was hoping for. I still don’t agree with the underlying premise that COIN won’t work but you expanded on a number of points I don’t think the Colonel did more than gloss over.

      I’m personally not a huge booster of the Karzai government (or the idea of an Afghan central government generally) but if you are starting from the position that a strongish central government is the way to go (which is U.S. policy) you do need to build capabilities and legitimacy. We’re clearly a long way from both of those (although several speakers made the point that the bar in both of those areas need not be set as high as in Western nations and so a ‘good enough’ level of each may be closer to realization) hence the need for large coalition forces to prop up the structure. I don’t argue with any of your points except to say that despite the rhetoric we haven’t really tried COIN until recently and even then, I suspect, in a rather spotty fashion.

      About defense acquisition. No, I don’t want to go there. I don’t know a thing about the process and shouldn’t have gone far down that path other than to make the point that I don’t agree that we can’t possibly predict what the future of war will be and shouldn’t try to plan for it apart from combined arms. I appreciate combined arms is a nice, flexible approach but it seems this institutionalizes the idea that we’ll be behind the 8-ball in all future conflicts (unless adversaries are nice enough to build their plans around our capabilities).

      I’m just not sure there would be that many people enthusiastic about a switch in Afghan policy. I think that’s different from looking at whether people are happy (or even supportive) of what’s going on now. Perhaps I’m just in a cynical mood but the practical arguments haven’t found much purchase in Iraq (where you had the added point of the war being promoted under dubious circumstances) even if they are appropriate. Or maybe the people who would want our of Afghanistan are less committed than those who want to stay in?

  2. Re: the defense acquistion side, not to beat a dead horse, but go see Wiggin’s post.

  3. Look at the contemporary environment through the lens of the UK ‘Countering Irregular Activity’ (with its unfortunate acronym of CIA). Its key theme is a focussing on all instruments of national power as the tool box from which any response is drawn. This toolbox model applies within each of those instruments of national power which should apply the appropriate tool to do the job in a specific scenario.

    For the military, a very broader form of COIN is the current tool – much broader than the narrow myths of Malaya and Kenya – but COL Gentile is 100% correct that COIN is not the new ‘a’ war, it is simply the current ‘the’ war and certainly not so much that we should be discarding all the (current) tools for high intensity conventional conflict i.e. on the further right of the FSO nor not investing in the R&D for the next generation of tools for that kind of conflict. The COINdinistas may not fit any more into the Fulda Gap that the Gapists fit into Iraq in 2005…

    Maybe we should drop reference to hybrid war and start thinking about blended warfare – or, even better, a blended approach….yep, that’s right, one harnessing all those instruments of national power…

  4. PS. this is a top post and I need to think about ti some more…be back in a day or so…

  5. Pingback: Things I’m reading ed. 100531 « The Hermitage 3.0 (Beta)

  6. Pingback: Afghan Quest » Blog Archive » Critical Thinking?

  7. Pingback: Do soldiers ‘get’ COIN? | Travels with Shiloh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s