COIN is dead. Long live COIN!
The main piece worth reading about Robert Gates’s speech at West Point, besides the speech itself, as Gulliver at Ink Spots points out, is David Ucko’s (of Kings at War) critique of commentary about it:
… [W]hile a draw-down from Afghanistan offers the Army welcome opportunities to revisit its conventional capabilities, its future role and configuration for large mechanised warfare will become more difficult to defend as budgets decline. If anything, Gates seems to be suggesting that the Army’s future is more likely to involve various types of ‘irregular’ or ‘advisory’ roles, like those it has been used for in recent campaigns.
As Ucko points out, Gates is advocating a retention of capabilities alongside a change in strategy. This seems altogether wise and prudent, and perhaps contrary to what COIN’s most strident detractors would suggest.
Occasionally detractors of COIN and nation-building operations speak as if removing the capability from our military would prevent us from getting into these situations. However, the ground forces which rolled into Afghanistan and Iraq came from an administration not expecting to do nation-building with supreme confidence in the power of the RMA and the decisive potency of more-or-less conventional arms.
The Defense Department cannot “starve the beast” when it comes to counterinsurgency warfare. Letting our ability to undertake such operations atrophy or willfully eliminating it will not necessarily remove the impetus to undertake counterinsurgency in the first place – the strategies (or lack thereof) of policymakers who send the Army into war zones in the first place.
Now, it would be folly to argue the Army should keep around every doctrine and capability because there’s no one hundred percent certain way we can guarantee politicians will not get it into a war where nuclear artillery would not be useful. However, unlike the retention of expensive weapons systems, the changes Gates suggests, and the broader changes that would be necessary to retain a COIN capability would likely serve the interests of the Army as a whole. Improving personnel initiative and retention, and bringing more flexibility into ossified defense bureaucracy are good things regardless of what sort of operations the Army hopes to pursue. Retaining the ability to train and lead US forces in COIN operations should be far less costly than maintaining other, hardware-centric doctrines.
All that said, just because COIN was part of the remedy for the errors of two poorly managed wars of regime change does not mean that all use of COIN necessarily entails poorly managed wars of regime change. The only thing that can consistently avoid that is the administration’s choices. Force structure should influence our policy, but it cannot guide it. Gates was not advocating for an end to COIN and the Army, and the country, would be better off if commentators do not treat it as such.