Matthew Yglesias and Justin Logan recently read Andrew Exum remarking that "No one who really understands [counterinsurgency] wants to do it." Yglesias remarked that he hopes that’s true, but wonders if "actual [counterinsurgency] practitioners may be disinclined to draw the implication in practice," partly for self-interested reasons. Logan went further, saying that if Exum is serious about his actual antipathy to COIN, then he "should be on an anti-COIN crusade," rather than trying to bolster COIN’s place in the military establishment. Exum, the newest fellow at the Center for a New American Security (!) replies that Yglesias and Logan misunderstand some aspects of the difference between doctrine and strategy.
No one asked me, and the debate is rather civil, but all three dudes are my friends, so I’m here to say, like the old folks in a Raekwon/Ghostface song: stop the violence! To some degree, the dispute is a function of these dudes talking past each other.
Exum makes the good first-order point that COIN doctrine needs a place in the military because you never know when policymakers are going to order the military into an insurgency, which is more responsive to Logan’s point than Yglesias’. He elaborates:
COIN is a means to an end. It is not a foreign policy strategy and is not associated with any particular school of international relations. Proponents of COIN doctrine are realists, neo-conservatives, and liberal interventionists. The reason we promote COIN doctrine in the U.S. military is because, following Vietnam, the military made the mistake of assuming we would never have to fight large-scale COIN operations ever again…
[B]ecause the enemy and the politicians (one and the same? just kidding) get votes in what kinds of wars the U.S. military fights, the U.S. military has to be prepared to not just fight in "major combat operations" but also to execute COIN operations when those operations offer the best chance for the realization of strategic objectives. Which is why we need good operational doctrine and training. And that is NOT the same thing as strategy.
There, at least, Exum makes half of Yglesias’ point for him, and a quarter of Logan’s, too. The trouble isn’t that Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster is going to start telling President Obama that the lessons of his COIN successes in Tall Afar are to plunge the U.S. military into putting down, say, a Philippine insurgency. It’s that policymakers with limited understanding of particular foreign emergencies but excellent feels for the political zeitgeist, in which the counterinsurgents are on the rise in defense circles, start viewing the existence of an increased COIN capability in the military as an invitation to start using it all over the place.
Case in point. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), for the last several months, has been saying that the "war on terror" is really a "global counterinsurgency." Well, cool. Dave Kilcullen says that too. The question is whether Kerry means that as a statement about doctrine for how to prosecute particular campaigns in such a war or a statement of policy that the U.S. ought, by virtue of the necessity of fighting al-Qaeda all over the world, be prosecuting such campaigns across the world. That’s the strategic confusion that worries Exum. It’s also what Yglesias and Logan evidently fear. What Dave’s book is about — I have some chapters of it — is clarifying that he doesn’t mean the latter proposition.
Take it a step further. A hard question that Yglesias posed is whether the counterinsurgents, when asked to contribute to policy debates, will say "Well, if you understand COIN on a strategic level, you’ll see that in 90 percent of cases we shouldn’t do it, so I’d have to advise that we only get involved if you think it’s absolutely crucial to the national interest." His implication is that the very rise of the counterinsurgents would create a career-based pressure to advise otherwise, regardless of the lessons of counterinsurgency. And there I think it’s fair to say that the concern is a real one — careerism is a human frailty — but the proposition is untested. My conversations with members of the counterinsurgency community have always featured a lack of enthusiasm for the prospect of counterinsurgency, beyond an academic pursuit, and an attendant appreciation for the moral and strategic complexities the undertaking involves. But we’re just now getting the first batch of counterinsurgent theorist-practitioners into significant policy positions in the Obama administration, and we’ll have to see how they balance the pressures.