US Foreign Policy

Rethinking COIN: Petraeus Retires

in Program

By Gordon Adams – Gen. David Petraeus retired on August 31, 2011, after 37
years of service and with a well-deserved reputation as one of the principal
architects of counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy in today’s Army.   The Petraeus COIN doctrine was an integral
part of the US “surge” in Iraq, which played a role in the reversal of
declining US military fortunes in that country. 
As Afghanistan
commander, he shaped the current strategy; the jury is still out on his actions

He became on of the country’s most well-known and celebrated
military officers, second, only, perhaps, to Gen. Colin Powell.  As one of the principal drafters of the
Army’s COIN doctrine, Petraeus has been committed to a dramatic expansion of
missions and capabilities for soldiers. 
These missions and capabilities go well beyond traditional combat into
nation-building, development, governance, rule-of-law, and strategic
communications, all with the goal of fighting insurgents and winning the
“hearts and minds” of populations where US military forces are operating.

COIN and its partner concept – “stability operations” – run
serious risk of distorting and over-militarizing US
global engagement, weakening our civilian toolkit of diplomacy and development,
and harming the reputation and leadership of the US in many parts of the globe.  Gen. Petraeus and his Army successors have
drawn the wrong lesson from Iraq
and Afghanistan,
and have given that lesson global application, at the risk of American

COIN is based on a false premise: that US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are a harbinger of
military operations to come in the future, and have much to teach us about such
operations.  We live in a dangerous
world, the argument goes, one in which we face constant insurgencies, a
“permanent, long war,” and the requirement to train, equip, and deploy the US military to
counter these trends. 

But neither Iraq
nor Afghanistan
was a weak state, beset by insurgents. 
In both cases, US military operations sought regime change from stable
(if unattractive) governments.  In Iraq, the goal
was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. 
Success in that mission, combined with dismissing the Iraqi military and
Baathist bureaucrats, unleashed instability. 

In the Afghan case, similar to Libya, US air operations and
limited one-the-ground presence overthrew the Taliban regime.  Inattention to the aftermath, caused by the US diversion into Iraq, weakened the successor regime,
leaving it vulnerable to Taliban and other insurgent operations.  In both cases, US operations and decisions
played a role in stimulating the very insurgency the military then faced.

Neither case, despite lots of learning, contracting, Washington consulting,
and research, can be considered an unqualified success.  The reality may well be that we don’t conduct
COIN operations very well (perhaps nobody does) and lack the ability to do so,
and that, in conducting them, we have created widespread resistance to efforts
to conduct such operations anywhere else. 
Foreign occupying powers have had a hard time historically in beating

Moreover, in reality, there do not seem to be a lot of
insurgencies around the world begging for a US military response, especially
one that seeks to remake a country’s political, social, and economic order.
Where the US is involved in such activities – air operations in Pakistan,
Somalia and the Horn of Africa, the Trans-Sahel, Philippines – they are
intermittent, uneven in outcome, and do not engage substantial US military

Much of the rest of the world is not in the kind of turmoil
that demands or even calls for US military engagement and, where turmoil exists
(Arab Spring), there is little appetite (and precious little US interest) in
committing US ground forces to remake nations that are busy remaking
themselves, without our “help and advice.”

We are now facing a budget and economic crisis at home, one
that preoccupies the political machinery and the policy-makers, as well it
should.  That crisis affects the entirety
of our federal activities, including the operations of the Defense
Department.  Gen. Petraeus argued in his
retirement speech that, despite this fiscal and economic crisis, “we will need
to maintain the full-spectrum capability that we have developed over this last
decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan,
and elsewhere.”

Perhaps the time has come to rethink the COIN enterprise as
a central mission for the US Army, as part of re-tailoring its missions and
operations more broadly in the wake of Iraq
and Afghanistan.  Large insurgencies do not seem to be on the
horizon, and it will make sense for the US,
like any nation, to decide on where its interests lie; it will not intervene in
all of them (just ask the Democratic
Republic of the Congo).

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates frequently argued
that defense budget reductions should be driven by strategy, not math.  Secretary Panetta and the military service
chiefs have urged the same, warning that if budget reductions go past the $350
billion in the current deficit reduction agreement, we will “have to revisit

They are absolutely right; we should revisit the
unprioritized set of strategies and missions we have given to the US forces, and
COIN is the place to start.  Such future
military interventions as may be foreseen may, in fact, involve very few US
forces, but more in the Special Forces category, than the US Army as a
whole.   That force is pretty well
re-tooled today and, as a force larger than the militaries of more than 100
countries, clearly adequate in numbers. 
With Gen. Petraeus’ retirement, perhaps it is time to put COIN back in
the strategic box.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, Department of Defense.

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