State of the Union

COIN Is a Proven Failure

Jon-Phillip Sheridan

In late October MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow asked retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl to give viewers a deeper understanding of the fight between the Islamic State (ISIS) and Kurdish fighters around Kobane. Widely credited with “writing the book” on successful counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, Mr. Nagl said, “we’ve got 1,500 guys on the ground, but they’re not as far forward as they need to be to make a real, immediate impact on the battlefield.” He and a number of COIN experts argue that along with 15,000 U.S. ground troops, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian rebel soldiers can defeat ISIS. Before making any decisions, American leaders should first consider this: despite what is often claimed by a host of advocates, the COIN theories upon which these recommendations are based were in fact demonstrable failures in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We must not sacrifice any more American lives and harm American interests any further by acting on theories that are likely to fail again.

It has been taken as an “obvious truth” by many Americans and major media outlets that the counterinsurgency strategy brought to Iraq by former general David Petraeus in 2007 turned a near-certain defeat into an historic victory. There were two key fundamentals from which many believe victory sprang. The first was that American troops needed to leave U.S. bases and “live in the neighborhoods” with Iraqi citizens, the second that a surge of troops would give Baghdad “breathing space” to form an inclusive government. Instead of leading to success, however, these twin pillars may have contributed to the failure.

In a study published earlier this year by the National Defense University, authors Sterling Jensen and former Iraqi general Najim al-Jabouri wrote this of the Americans’ effectiveness in Anbar province cities: “[t]he surge did not have a role in the Anbar Awakening. Surge troops that came to Anbar in 2007 were not seen as useful… In fact, U.S. troops in general were not seen as useful even before the surge…”

But the authors’ possibly most pointed finding was that the causal factor behind the eventual drop in violence had little to do with either the increase in U.S. troops or the new strategy: “If not for al Qaeda’s murder and intimidation campaign on Sunnis, and its tactic of creating a sectarian war, the Anbar Awakening—a fundamental factor in the success of the 2007 surge—most probably would not have occurred, and it would have been difficult for the United States in 2006 to convince Sunnis to partner with them in a fight against al Qaeda…”

The Sunni-initiated Anbar Awakening, followed by the Petraeus-led “Sons of Iraq” program, resulted in a dramatic drop in violence. The breathing space purchased with considerable American blood was intended to facilitate the development of Iraqi democracy. Kelley Vlahos, contributing editor for The American Conservative, recently wrote, “in hindsight, the only meaningful space created was for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki” to use America to rid him of political enemies, not the least of which were many Iraqi Sunni leaders and groups.

Maliki’s oppressive rule, which alienated much of the Sunni population in the Western part of the country, was a key factor in the rise of ISIS; his penchant to dismiss Sunni officers and pack the senior ranks of the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) with inexperienced political patrons played a major role in the disintegration of the ISF when the Islamic State began its offensive.

I served in Iraq as a military trainer in 2009, and have twice deployed to Afghanistan (2005, 2010-11). Between my 2009 Iraq deployment and the last Afghanistan deployment—at the height of that surge—I traveled over 14,000 miles throughout both countries, going on mounted and dismounted patrols, with U.S., allied, Iraqi, and Afghan troops, and led a team to train an Iraqi border battalion. I can conclusively state that outside the wire, the counterinsurgency theories were an unqualified failure at the strategic level. The populations were never protected in either country. The insurgent forces were never fully defeated in either country—and are stronger now than they have been at any time since 9/11. The Afghan and Iraqi governments remain the third and seventh most corrupt governments in the world, and do not have the support of their people. The armed forces for both countries, despite the decade-long effort and tens of billions of dollars that the U.S. spent training them, are virtually incapable of conducting even basic security.

It is incomprehensible that with such an extensive, publicly available record of failure—which cost the United States $2 trillion in direct outlays, 6,842 U.S. troops killed and 52,281 wounded in action—that the designers of this failed concept are given any credibility. The conclusive evidence of the failure is on graphic display right now, in both countries: after six full years and tens of billions spent, the U.S.-trained Iraqi army melted away before a few thousand irregular fighters; after the U.S. pulled out of Helmand province in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Forces were incapable of preventing an immediate return of the Taliban.

As the president’s national security team continues to develop a new strategy to deal with ISIS—and now also searches for a new secretary of defense—it is more important than ever to make a no-holds-barred analysis of the past decade of combat experience before settling on a new strategy. No matter how many U.S. boots might be placed on the ground in Iraq or Syria in this current environment, they would not be able to accomplish the president’s previously stated objectives. All the additional causalities we would suffer would be in vain.

We must not send any more Americans into the morass of Iraq and Syria with as little concern as one might show shoveling coal into a furnace. They deserve better than to be asked to risk their lives to conduct a no-win tactical mission.

The opinion expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or U.S. Army.

Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. He has been deployed into combat zones four times, winning the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm.

Questions to Ask Before Bombing Iraq

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller

The United States has become addicted to the application of lethal military power. A great many in our country have become convinced that dispatching the U.S. Armed Forces—or the threat thereof—to solve almost every international problem has kept us safe over the decades, and is the only thing that will ensure our security into the future. Yet evidence is piling up that the continuous and expanding use of American killing power is having a deteriorating effect on our national security and a destabilizing effect globally. Far from making us more secure and the world safer, our perpetual use of the military frequently fosters instability. The current situation in Iraq demonstrates this dangerous proclivity.

In recent weeks the government of Iraq has been losing first battles, then entire cities to a rising militant Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Many in the United States are calling on President Barack Obama to immediately order airstrikes. A certain segment of those demanding immediate action pin the blame for the deteriorating situation on the White House for withdrawing American forces from Iraq in 2011, and they want to rectify the situation by reapplying military force now. Yet there appears to be no consideration among the various advocates of lethal strikes for what comes next. The failure to examine the “what next?” question has become an increasingly common feature of U.S. strategic thought.

The George W. Bush administration was roundly criticized for invading Iraq in March 2003 without an adequate plan for managing the country after the regime fell. The Obama administration has likewise been accused by many of having no plan for what came next following the 2011 airstrikes in Libya. The current hysteria in Washington over ISIS gains seem to have ignored these acknowledged errors of the past. While there is an eagerness to once again unsheathe the American sword, there has been virtually no discussion of the tactical and strategic utility of such actions, nor consideration of the potential consequences.

For eight years, the U.S. and NATO fought an insurgent war in which almost 4,500 Americans lost their lives, and over 32,000 were wounded. Conservative estimates suggest that approximately 133,000 Iraqi citizens were killed from 2003-2011, and at least 3.5 million human beings were displaced from their homes. As unpleasant as life was for the average Iraqi citizen before our invasion, it cannot compare to the misery under which they’ve suffered since. A similar dynamic continues to play out in Afghanistan. Libya has suffered in a state of near anarchy since our 2011 air campaign. Pakistan, Yemen, and now a growing part of Africa have all seen a continual deterioration in their security corresponding to a rise in the application of U.S. military force and firepower.

Before adding yet another combat mission to the American logs in Iraq, we must ask a number of critical questions. Tactically, will airstrikes against the ISIS prove decisive militarily, or will they exacerbate the violence? Since ISIS personnel have the ability to blend in and out of the civil population, how will our jets or drones identify the “bad” civilians from the “good” civilians? Who will act as ground controllers to ensure bombers strike only valid military targets? What will be the American culpability if U.S. bombs kill civilians, or if air planners are given false intelligence that results in political opponents of the regime being killed? Will the attacks cause the population to reject the rebels—or to support them even more strongly?

Politically, will a new round of promises of political inclusion from the Iraqi Prime Minister hold if American planes and drones succeed in killing enough of his opponents? What if it is discovered that the current government of Iraq was culpable in bringing about the conditions that spawned this uprising? Might then American military power have been used, free of charge, by a corrupt government to eradicate its enemies, allowing it to continue in abusive power? These are critical questions that have to be answered before launching any military operation. Yet almost none of these questions appear to have been considered—much less answered—by those people most enthusiastically advocating strikes.

At some point we must be willing to recognize the stark truth that this excessive use of lethal military power has worsened our national security.

I am a strong advocate of having a powerful military that can crush opponents when our life, liberty, or vital interests are at risk. But we must abandon the “bomb first, think later” mindset and instead invest in solutions that seek to first understand, then address the underlying causes of violence and instability. This type of international engagement is harder and takes longer than ordering up airstrikes. Yet it offers the potential to reduce the danger to America, diminish the conditions in which rebellions and violence often breed, and help citizens of other countries achieve stability. It is in this way that our vital interests can best be safeguarded. Fail to learn these lessons, however, and our own national security will continue to deteriorate.

The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.

Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. He has been deployed into combat zones four times, winning the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm.

Military Power Is Not a Foreign Policy Panacea

Photo: U.S. Army

A recent article by Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations serves to illustrate how some elite thinkers in the United States have come to view the application of deadly force as a cure-all for a wide range of foreign policy challenges. In the February 10 edition of the Financial Times, he wrote that it was the U.S. failure to “arm and train the Free Syrian Army” that allowed the Syrian regime to stay in power. To counter perceived American inaction, he recommended solutions ranging from “doing more to arm the moderate opposition, to declaring a no-fly zone. Drones could strike al-Qaeda operatives in Syria; air power could create humanitarian zones near the Turkish and Jordanian borders.” While Mr. Boot castigates the White House for “inaction,” he does not bother to address the most critical question: what happens after these steps are taken?

For example, he argued we should train and arm “the Free Syrian Army.” Yet as has been widely reported, this so-called ‘army’ is a fractious, incongruous alignment of disparate groups, many of whose goals are antithetical to American interests and who often fight among themselves as often as against regime forces. Moreover, he does not address how these individual actions fit into a comprehensive strategy. How does he imagine the U.S. will identify al-Qaeda operatives within Syria for drone strikes? What end would these drone strikes seek to achieve? Kill “some” of the leaders? 10 percent? 50 percent? What would be the strategic utility of such a course of action? Given that nearly unfettered drone strikes have proven inconsequential in Pakistan and Yemen, how will sporadic strikes in Syria change the tactical balance?

Perhaps most importantly, advocates of military action frequently fail to consider this possibility: what sort of Syria would exist if their suggested military actions succeeded and the current Syrian regime did fall? What would be the likelihood that the grudging cooperation currently at play between radical and moderate Islamic groups on the rebel side would erupt into open warfare in the struggle for control of a post-Assad Syria? What would the United States do if an al-Qaeda affiliated coalition gained control of the Syrian state? These are hardly hypothetical possibilities.

Yet the default position by opinion leaders like Mr. Boot is to use military power first, and worry about the consequences later; the effects suffered by the men and women who live in the target country seem to get little consideration. Read More…

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