Paul Pillar

Ends and Means in Counterinsurgency

As the nation licks its wounds from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an old and unfortunate confusion continues between military strategy and doctrine, on one hand, and questions of how applications of military force do or do not advance national interests, on the other hand. The latter questions are often put under the label of “grand strategy.” The current version of the confusion concerns counterinsurgency or COIN. There are a couple of reasons that COIN seems especially susceptible to this sort of thing.

One reason concerns how counterinsurgency doctrine has developed in recent years, who has developed it, and what role the developers have played in the recent wars. David Petraeus, who oversaw the writing of the army's current counterinsurgency manual and later was the top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, has clearly been the central figure in all this. Participants in intraservice debate seem to divide into those who have been associated with Petraeus and those who have not, which in turn tends to be seen as a pro-COIN and anti-COIN division. This is the sort of situation in which intraservice politics, with all the personal resentments and ambitions involved, muddy the substance of any doctrinal debate.

The other reason is that politics plays into COIN at two different levels. One level involves the political objectives on behalf of which COIN might be used. The other level involves the application on the ground of counterinsurgency doctrine, in which the politics (and economics) of the host country's civilian population are as central to counterinsurgency as are lethal military operations. These are two very different respects in which politics are involved, but because it is politics in each case, there is the potential for confusion.

Colonel Gian Gentile of the U.S. Military Academy, with whom I expressed differences the other day about academic freedom and the ground rules under which retired general Stanley McChrystal is teaching at Yale, is reported to be one of the principal participants in a debate within the West Point over counterinsurgency—a debate that, by the way, is a good illustration of academic freedom at work. From an account of that debate by Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times, Colonel Gentile, who is cited as representative of the camp critical of COIN, seems to have a quite clear and reasonable conception of the relationship of policy and military strategy. “War ultimately is a political act,” he says, “and I take comfort and pride that we as a military organization...did our duty,” even if in his view the use of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan was a mistake. Another colonel at the academy, identified as representing a pro-COIN school of thought, is reported to argue that “warfare cannot be divorced from its political, economic and psychological dimensions.” Of course it can't, and at the level of on-the-ground implementation, that's what counterinsurgency is all about. But that is an entirely different question from the politically determined purpose that a nation such as the United States has tried to achieve through counterinsurgency, and whether COIN has indeed achieved that purpose. If the debate is framed in the way the Times article describes, then it is indeed confused.

One effect of such confusion is for military officers to needlessly assume responsibility for mistakes that were not theirs to make. Many politicians are only too happy to shift responsibility in this way. This attitude leads to talk about “listening to the generals.” When we would be listening to the generals on questions that the political authority must make, such talk is a cowardly cop-out.

The most trenchant summation of this set of issues in Bumiller's piece comes from retired army officer and former COIN practitioner John Nagl. He says “Yes” when asked if counterinsurgency works, but continues, “Is it worth what you paid for it? That's an entirely different question.” The key issue in decisions about how much of a COIN capability the United States should maintain is not whether the COIN doctrine is sound but instead how many occasions there will be in which even successful counterinsurgency would advance U.S. interests, bearing in mind the costs and trade-offs involved in each case.