COIN/Conventional Divide is Real

Greg Jaffe, speaking to Andrew Exum, says “This whole conventional vs. irregular debate is stupid.”

War is war. And we waste far too much energy trying to categorize it. I think most lieutenants, captains and majors are beyond this false conventional vs. irregular frame that we try to impose on war. I wish I could say the same for the more senior people in the Pentagon.

I think there’s a lot of truth to that. At the same time, just because things look one way to “lieutenants, captains and majors” and another way to “senior people in the Pentagon” doesn’t mean we should take a dismissive view of the senior people’s outlook in a rush to celebrate the insights of the practical warfighter. United States military policy is, on one level, about brave men and women serving in uniform in difficult environments out of a sense of duty, honor, and patriotism. On another level, however, United States military policy is about control over by far the largest stream of public sector financing that exists in the world. Annual spending by the national security state (when you add in the spending that’s outside the “regular” Pentagon budget) is almost as high as the $900 billion ten year price tag for a universal health care bill.

And when you get down to the guts of defense budget politics, these high-level strategic concepts matter a great deal. Nobody, of course, is going to say that the U.S. should somehow completely abandon its ability to fight conventional wars. But the choice between a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to scare China & Russia” or a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to intervene effectively in third world backwaters” has very real implications for what kind of hardware purchases look cost effective. The 2017 budget deficit or the potential economic impact of a manufacturing plant closure in Georgia is not the kind of thing a lieutenant, captain, or major serving in the field is going to think about. But it’s still, in an objective sense, quite important and senior Pentagon figures are not mistaken to treat it as such.

And part of the subtext of the Afghanistan debate is that as a matter of bureaucratic warfare, it makes enormous sense for the currently ascendant COIN faction to try to press its advantages—to exaggerate the extent of what was achieved in Iraq in 2007, and to overstate the strategic significance of achieving some kind of comprehensive success in Afghanistan.