COIN of the Realm

The short version of an old joke about U.S. defense spending goes like this:

An overweight nuclear submarine skipper baffles the congressional defense appropriations subcommittees with a line of technical gobbledygook Einstein wouldn’t understand, and the subcommittees give the Navy whatever it wants. A short, bald fighter pilot feeds the subcommittees a ration of dwarfed egotism and threatens to defile their daughters, and the subcommittees give the Air Force whatever it wants. Then a fit, ruggedly handsome infantry officer tells the subcommittees in modest, straightforward language what he needs to win the wars they send him off to fight, and the subcommittees give the Army nothing.

That was back before counterinsurgency became the (ahem) COIN of the realm.

In the good old days, the Cold War days, the Army’s main function was to get slaughtered in the Fulda Gap while the Navy and Air Force deep struck the Soviets into surrendering. The "blue" services dominated the defense budget with high tech, big-ticket weapons designed to defeat the Soviets’ maritime forces and air defenses. That the Soviets’ maritime forces and air defenses didn’t work worth a pig’s wings didn’t matter; their mere existence served as a sufficient stratagem to keep us in a wartime economy for over a half century.

When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, Pentagon brass began scrambling for a way to protect their phony-baloney jobs. The next year, Air Force stealth bombers and Navy land-attack cruise missiles stole the show in Operation Desert Storm. By the time the "red" services (Army and Marine Corps) began the ground operation, the war was virtually over. Big Daddy Bush declared the peace dividend and the inter-service budget rivalry kicked into high gear – between the Navy and the Air Force, that is. Land power became such a rusty barrel in the nation’s arsenal that by the time of the Kosovo War (1998-1999) it was wholly irrelevant. The Kosovo War was the first American armed conflict commanded by an Army general (Wesley Clark) that was won with naval and air power alone – sort of.

Including naval power in the equation may be a tad kind. The Bad Guy’s navy stayed tied to the pier, and for good reason; it was a collection of rust buckets that would have sunk from natural causes before they made it out of port. Our Navy’s contribution in Kosovo was to augment the coalition’s air power effort with carrier-based sorties and cruise missile strikes launched from cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.

To call the termination of the Kosovo War a "victory" for us is to waterboard the English language. Bad Guy didn’t give up until he had slaughtered as much of his ethnic population as he felt like, and keeping him from doing that was our flimsy excuse for going to war against him, so what did we actually win?

The strategic objective became moot, however, once the campaign got underway and the real goal became to see which service could "service" (i.e., blow the bejeezus out of) the most targets in the most economical, friendly-casualty minimized manner, and who could get the most favorable coverage from the foreign and domestic news media.

The budget wars between the blue services raged on while the red (land power) branches skulked into the sunset. The Air Force and Navy came up with Madison Avenue-sounding doctrines to make themselves seem even sexier than they already were. Network-Centric Warfare and Shock and Awe became the cornerstones of the Defense Department’s Revolution in Military Affairs, a murky dogma that insisted the future of American security relied upon an array of big-ticket gizmology.

Everything was smooth sailing for the military-industrial juggernaut, and then… We invaded Iraq and young Mr. Bush declared "mission accomplished" and everything turned into net-eccentric shuck and jive. First the Pentagon and its neoconservative masters claimed there was no insurgency in Iraq, then they allowed as how there might be an insurgency but it certainly wasn’t a civil war, a damn fool thing to say considering that it takes a platoon of mercenary philologists to distinguish a civil war from an insurgency.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continued to insist his high-tech, low-footprint approach to the Iraq war had been correct (you go to war with a fraction of the Army you have, heh heh). But behind Rummy’s back, the REMFs (rear-echelon master finaglers) at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., began work on a new doctrine that would that would snatch the strategic rug out from under the space-age services and from Rummy himself.

In 2004, Dr. Conrad Crane led a collaboration that updated the Army’s 20-year-old field manual on counterinsurgency, even as Gen. David Petraeus, then in charge of training Iraqi security forces, was allowing upward of 200,000 AK-47 rifles and pistols to fall into the hands of militants, thus fueling the very insurgency he would later be falsely credited with defeating. When the final version of the "new" field manual hit the streets in December 2006, Petraeus’ publicity staff ensured he received credit for being the man who "wrote the book" on counterinsurgency, even though the only part of the manual he actually wrote was his signature at the bottom of the endorsing letter (and it wouldn’t surprise me if a forgery expert said the signature was as phony as everything else about Petraeus).

In January 2007, Petraeus took command in Iraq and of the "surge" strategy that would implement the born-again counterinsurgency doctrine. Marshaling his media minions in and out of uniform, "King David" managed to persuade most of America that the surge was a success by artificially lowering violence statistics through buying off the insurgents and cooking the figures. Petraeus hand-picked Special Operations assassination-ring leader Stanley McChrystal to repeat the success of the surge in Iraq, and Stan the Man has done exactly that – to disastrous consequence.

Three years and change after the surge began, Iraq still looks like a zoo after an earthquake. Its government and security forces are rife with laziness, incompetence, graft, cronyism, and nepotism. Violence levels in Iraq would be considered horrific if they existed in any Western country (Petraeus boasts that things have improved because there are only about 20 attacks on U.S. troops per day). The Kurdish issue will likely never be resolved, nor will the matter of oil revenues. Despite our efforts to keep Iran from becoming a regional superpower, its influence on Iraq will handily eclipse ours (it may already have). Iraqi democracy is a sham; Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be trying to steal back the recent election by pretending it was stolen from him.

U.S. commander in Iraq Ray "Desert Ox" Odierno considers these problems to be mere "tactical considerations" and says the election was "very much a success," but he’s still making boo noise about how we may not be able to stick to our withdrawal timeline. (Odie wants to see 30,000 or 35,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq through 2014 or so.)

Afghanistan is a blazing saddle that’s about to fry our national backside to a crisp. After brazenly stealing an election that we fecklessly stamped with our seal of approval, President Hamid Karzai has thrown us under the Hummer, accusing us of having been the ones who tried to rig the election against him. He now says that if we don’t stop interfering in Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency will become a "legitimate resistance" movement.

In response, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, our Bobbleheads of Defense and State respectively, went on the April 11 Sunday gab-athons to defend Karzai. Clinton said Karzai’s "outlandish claims" were "really unfortunate" but, she said that Karzai is under "enormous pressure" and that she sometimes wonders how "anybody can cope with the relentless stress" the poor, poor boy has been under.

Gates called Karzai’s remarks "troubling" but reassured us that "McChrystal gets very good cooperation out of President Karzai.” Sweet mother of pearl. What kind of cooperation is it when your ally calls your enemy a "legitimate resistance movement"?

Shock and Awe and Network-Centric Warfare gave us the false promise of easy conquest through gadgetry. COIN promises us nothing but a Long War foreign policy as concocted and conducted by fools and fanatics like Gates, Clinton, Petraeus, McChrystal, and Odierno.

Why do we follow such people?

A better question: why does the man we elected to be commander in chief tolerate them?

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.