Don’t Get Hypnotized By The Shiny New COIN

The Washington Post reported on September 20 that today’s Taliban in Afghanistan is “a larger, better armed and more confident militia” than it was even a year ago, “capable of mounting sustained military assaults. Its forces operate in virtually every province and control many districts in areas ringing the capital.”

That’s also the thrust of this story on General David Petraus in this morning’s NY Times. Seven years after the U.S. routed the Taliban — and five years after John McCain suggested that the U.S. could just “muddle through” there — Afghanistan is suffering under a growing and increasingly effective Taliban insurgency.

The main takeaway, however, is Petraeus’ downplaying the extent to which a counterinsurgency approach developed in Iraq may be transferable to Afghanistan:

“The first lesson, the first caution really, is that every situation like this is truly and absolutely unique, and has its own context and specifics and its own texture,” [Petraeus] said.

“Counterinsurgents have to understand that in as nuanced a manner as possible, and then with that kind of understanding try to craft a comprehensive approach to the problems.”

That’s a rule that also should be applied to the choice of whether and when to mount a counterinsurgency campaign, or whether to undertake adventures that may eventually require it.

This is also one way to read Defense Secretary Gates’ speech to the National Defense University on Monday. Gates scolded the defense establishment’s addiction to shiny new toys, which came at the expense of a proper understanding the war we were actually in, saying that “for every heroic and resourceful innovation by troops and commanders on the battlefield, there was some institutional shortcoming at the Pentagon that they had to overcome.”

Brandon Friedman, who participated in counterinsurgency operations in both theaters, praises “Gates’ view on how the U.S. military should be oriented”:

Remember, this guy faces a withering barrage of high-tech, high-dollar defense contractors on a daily basis. So credit where credit is due.

My only concern is that he addresses the failures in process, but never touches on the prudence of starting the war in Iraq in the first place — or any future wars for that matter. However, my hope is that this is because it’s simply not his job to formulate policy. As Defense Secretary, his job is to manage the military and implement those policies emanating from the White House and Capitol Hill.

I think the Secretary of Defense may have more input on policy than Friedman allows — certainly we saw this when the SecDef was allied with a powerful Vice-President under a boy king — but his point about the prudence of the Iraq war, and of future wars, is very sound. Having an effective military is important, of course, but it’s even more important that we have an executive branch that doesn’t go about using that military irresponsibly.

It’s good and necessary to criticize the shock and awe triumphalists who assured us that the beauty of our weapons would make Iraq a cakewalk. But as we appreciate our new counterinsurgency advances — and praise the commanders who developed and applied them — let’s make sure that ten years from now, some other SecDef doesn’t have to give a speech scolding the COIN triumphalists.