Your COIN Is No Good Here

How "Counterinsurgency" Became a Dirty Word

The central theme of Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward's account of the Obama administration's Afghan policy debates, is the ongoing battle between Obama's military and civilian advisers. The military advisers -- Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, along with Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- believe that a counterinsurgency strategy, which helped reverse the deteriorating military situation in Iraq in 2007, could do the same in Afghanistan. The civilian advisers -- Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials -- suggest that Vietnam is a more apt analogy for Afghanistan and a quagmire a likelier outcome if counterinsurgency strategy is applied there.

By definition, any military activity that seeks to counter an insurgency is counterinsurgency, or COIN as it is often labeled for short. All of Obama's advisers agree that the Taliban is an insurgency and that the United States has a real interest in stopping its return to power. Why, then, would Obama's civilian advisers argue against organized military activity designed to counter a Taliban takeover?

This is not a new argument. For more than a century, the U.S. military has been organized, trained, and equipped for conventional combat against similarly organized foes. The United States has gotten so good at this kind of warfare that in recent decades no conventional conflict has lasted more than a few weeks, and all have ended in overwhelming American victory. By contrast, over this same period, the U.S. military has had repeated difficulty securing its conquests, stabilizing societies emerging from conflict, and helping to defend allies from internal threats.

The skills needed to master these types of unconventional challenges were slowly honed during the United States' decade-long involvement in Vietnam. Two years after the last American troops withdrew, South Vietnam fell victim not to renewed insurgency but to a conventional invasion mounted by the North Vietnamese Army. The dominant lesson drawn from this costly and ultimately futile war was to avoid similar missions in the future. As a result, counterinsurgency was eliminated from the curriculum of American staff and war colleges. When faced with a violent insurgency in Iraq three decades later, U.S. soldiers had to reacquire the basic skills to fight it. During the several years it took them to do so, the country descended into ever deeper civil war.

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