The Post-COIN Era

Photo courtesy US Army on Flickr

If you haven’t already done so, please check out World Politics Review’s “Counterinsurgency in the Post-COIN Era“, featuring essays from Bing West, Andrew Exum, Steven Metz, Michael Mazarr, and myself.  (It’s worth the $2.99 for the full Kindle version)

This was, without a doubt, one of the most difficult pieces I’ve written.  Saddled with a 1500-word limit, I spent an agonizing weekend buried in printouts, methodically scratching out nearly half of my original essay.  That’s no small feat when dealing with a topic I’ve immersed myself in over the last four years, dating back to my days in the Aviation Captains’ Career Course.  (There, in 2007, counterinsurgency was most definitely not on the syllabus)  It was painful, but in the end, I think I captured all that needed to be said.

I had no idea I’d be invited to write alongside an august cast of characters, and I certainly had no access to any of their thoughts ahead of time–and I doubt the others did, either.  Yet, it amazed me that a few sentiments ran through most essays.

  •  Yes, we get it, Captain Hindsight:  Counterinsurgency is expensive, slow, messy, and we should try to stay out of it.  But no matter how often we eschew nation-building, we stumble into it and stay there through a combination of mission creep and competing domestic political interests.  Strategy isn’t made in a vacuum (though I suspect many armchair strategists live in one).     
  • Counterinsurgency was a doctrine borne of desperation.  Doctrine is a product of distinct political and military context, and FM 3-24 is certainly a product of its time.  COIN should be seen for what it really is:  a collection of tactics created to rescue a deeply flawed policy, one made more infuriating by the Bush administration’s abject refusal to admit that perhaps, just perhaps, things weren’t going according to plan.  (These were the days of “stay the course“, “you go with the Army you have“, and a ban on the word “insurgent“)  Given the state of affairs in 2006, is it any wonder a flawed doctrine arose?  
  • COIN’s historical roots are not without flaw, sure.  FM 3-24 drew flak for drawing heavily upon Cold War-era insurgencies, which tended to be nationalistic and anti-colonial in nature.  But for a generation of military leaders who grew up with tank clashes at the National Training Center, it wasn’t a bad place to start.  History will never repeat itself verbatim, but occasionally, it does rhyme.
  • Civilian surge“?  Not even close.  Despite ten years of counterinsurgency and nation-building, we simply do not have a readily-deployable corps of civilian experts to spearhead foreign development.  As a result, we’ve placed this burden upon the military.
  • Stability and democracy don’t always go hand-in-hand.  If success in COIN is defined as a stable nation, we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that a stable nation may not uphold democratic ideals or human rights.  

If there’s one eternal lesson to be gleaned from the past decade, it’s that service members must be prepared to be soldiers and statesmen, nation-builders, and destroyers. This has proven to be the case in every single American conflict. As President John F. Kennedy said to the US Naval Academy’s graduating class in 1961:

You must understand not only this country but other countries. You must know something about strategy and tactics and logic-logistics, but also economics and politics and diplomacy and history. You must know everything you can know about military power, and you must also understand the limits of military power. You must understand that few of the important problems of our time have, in the final analysis, been finally solved by military power alone. When I say that officers today must go far beyond the official curriculum, I say it not because I do not believe in the traditional relationship between the civilian and the military, but you must be more than the servants of national policy. You must be prepared to play a constructive role in the development of national policy, a policy which protects our interests and our security and the peace of the world.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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