The COINdinistas: Last Year’s News

In high school, there are always the Cool Kids. In the Washington military establishment, there are always the Cool Kids. Walking conflict of
interest Tom Ricks loves to write breathlessly about Washington’s prevailing Gang with the Name – the COINdinistas – most of whom now roost in the Pentagon or at the Center for a New American Security, which hired Ricks away from a full-time job at the Washington Post to do just what he’s doing now: shamelessly promoting the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

But even the cool kids will eventually fall out of style. Like haughty Heidi Klum says, "In fashion, one day you’re in, the next day you’re out!" Perhaps that’s why Ricks’ latest Foreign Policy panegyric to his friends seems even more cringe-worthy and awkward than usual, mainly because this gushing yearbook entry – dated December 2009 – could have been written a year ago. Today, it tastes like slightly overdone steak. Stick a fork in it… you get the picture.

Under the subheading, "Who knows everything there is to know and more about counterinsurgency and its current role in U.S. military strategy? These guys," Ricks effuses:

"Pushed and prodded by a wonky group of Ph.D.s, the U.S. military has in the last year decisively embraced a Big Idea: counterinsurgency. Not everyone in uniform is a fan, but David Petraeus and the other generals in charge of America’s wars are solidly behind it. Here are the brains behind counterinsurgency’s rise from forgotten doctrine to the centerpiece of the world’s most powerful military…"

No. 1 on the list: Petraeus, or "King David," "who rules the roost," according to Ricks. He’s followed by John Nagl, the former Army officer and Rumsfeld aide who now "beats the COIN drum" and might find himself in a "top Pentagon slot in a year or two"; Australian COIN-whisperer David Kilcullen, currently one of McChrystal’s key eggheads, whom Ricks calls "the Crocodile Dundee of counterinsurgency"; Janine Davidson, a Pentagon policy-pusher who Ricks says is "now sitting at the adult table"; Dave Dilegge, editor of Small Wars Journal, which is "avidly read by everyone from four-star generals to captains on the ground in Iraq"; and Andrew Exum, another CNAS wonk, Iraq vet, and blogger, who "in his spare time has been known to play paintball against Hezbollah – no joke."

If you’re not reaching for the gag-bag already, the list also includes Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s COIN-stacked review team for Afghanistan; Andrew Krepinevich; and Kalev "Gunner" Sepp, who "kept his COIN powder dry until someone was ready to listen." Ricks then throws in Col. Gian Gentile, probably the most effective anti-COIN voice in the military establishment today, at No. 10, in a clumsy attempt at balance. But why bother?

And why not add McChrystal to the mix? We all know how poor Gen. David McKiernan was thrown overboard in May to make way for McChrystal, an FOP (friend of Petraeus) who the COINdinistas gushingly declared "gets it." Let’s not forget Exum’s "game on" commentary 24 hours after McKiernan’s humiliating termination.

David Kilcullen (photo by Chris Leaman)

Now, I will try to give Ricks the benefit of the doubt. If this embarrassing assignment for Foreign Policy was part of the print version of the magazine, then perhaps it was sitting in the hopper for a few months. Why else would they print something so obviously perishable?

Sure, a year ago one could very well argue that Numbers 1 through 10 were "rock stars" – at least among the provincial sectarians of the Washington military policy elite. After all, this A-Team of Ph.D.s and GI Joes was fresh from successful Surge mythmaking in Iraq and the election of a commander in chief who seemed perfectly malleable, not to mention amenable, to their tune at the time.

But the glamour is rapidly wearing off. For lack of a better word, it’s a lot more "sexy" to be seen as "wonky" visionaries than tools for a group of seemingly recalcitrant military brass with an agenda of endless war and "changing societies" [.pdf] – an agenda the American people are less willing to pay and sacrifice for every day.

John Nagl

Plus, deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan expose more than ever the vast, open space between the COINdinistas’ high-stepping talk about "FM 3-24" and "population-centric warfare" and what is actually happening, much less achievable, on the ground. Civilian casualties increased over the last year, more U.S. and other international forces have been killed, and the Taliban is stronger than ever, according to most available military and think-tank assessments.

"They [COINdinistas] are running their own agenda [in Washington], and it’s completely different from any results on the ground," says Robert Young Pelton, author and frequent COIN critic, who just returned from a trip to Afghanistan.

Now, one may argue that McChrystal needed the past six months to recalibrate the mission (most of that time, the war policy was under review). Fair enough, but in that time, the entrenched nation-building exercise CNAS is peddling has slipped down the patience and priority index of American public opinion.

Furthermore, Ricks’ whiz kids are finding out the president has not entirely succumbed to COIN’s enchantments. Barack Obama, though he has disappointed the hopeful antiwar effort by escalating operations in "Af-Pak," refused to give McChrystal the 80,000 new troops he reportedly wanted, and he didn’t mention the word "counterinsurgency" once in his now infamous speech to West Point in early December. In fact, he put an 18-month "soft" deadline on the occupation, throwing not only the requisite warhawks on the Right into apoplexy, but confusing the hell out of the COINdinistas, who have been saying that an effective counterinsurgency would take at least five to 10 years to achieve.

And though I’ve written much about how the military has bullied Obama since day one, the Washington Post published a little-noted but nonetheless explosive piece on Dec. 26 detailing the growing divide between the military brass and the president’s national security team at the White House. Writers Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Greg Jaffe were initially convinced that McChrystal’s plans for COIN remained "largely intact" after the West Point speech. But they’re finding more pushback from Obama than meets the eye, suggesting that what remains "intact" now may be morphing into something completely different in 2010.

According to Chandrasekaran’s latest report, Obama seems to be leaning more on his National Security Council and a "narrower" approach in Afghanistan, which could conceivably lead to a counterterrorism-heavy mission, something Vice President Joe Biden has been advocating for months. This would mean more Special Forces engaging in targeted assassinations (which are already happening), Predator drone strikes, and possible deals with the enemy – a complete anathema to the COIN crowd, which has been pushing for a full-blown "whole of [American] government" exercise that involves propping up President Hamid Karzai, adding hundreds of thousands more Afghan and Coalition soldiers, sending tons more aid, and building a U.S.-driven civilian development presence in that country for another decade or so.

As a result, McChrystal looks more like an insurgent in the president’s team every day. From his curious public appearances to the leaked memos and now, according to Chandrasekaran’s Dec. 26 report, an almost passive-aggressive disregard for the president’s direction, McChrystal has drawn a bright political line between the military establishment and the White House that the COINdinistas clearly thought was unnecessary at the beginning of last year. Don’t they have their best people populating the administration?

Thomas Ricks

Just take last week’s release – via CNAS – of Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn’s scathing assessment of the intelligence-gathering activities in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war. At first glance, it would seem the Army is taking a healthy approach to real self-correction. But since when do high-ranking officers, much less the military’s top intelligence man in Afghanistan, release personal critiques through private think-tanks, outside of the chain of command, without repercussions? In fact, after being caught "blind sighted," Pentagon officials have rushed to tamp the fires down.

Meanwhile, from Politico gumshoe Laura Rozen:

"The report’s genesis seemed to be a talk Flynn gave at CNAS as part of a series it runs called ‘Voices from the Field.’

"Also strongly suggested was the possibility that Flynn was the proxy and taking the hit for someone bigger in the field, namely Gen. Stan McChrystal, who has previously been asked by the White House to provide his advice to the president in private.

"More headaches for CNAS co-founder Michele Flournoy, now undersecretary of defense for policy, about whether her influential think-tank is back-channeling the generals and COIN mafia outside of the chain of command?"

Andrew Exum (CNAS)

Nagl, who was made president of CNAS after Flournoy was absorbed into the Pentagon, and Nate Fick, another former Army officer/Harvard whiz who serves as the organization’s CEO, came barreling up to make the excuses.

As quoted at Wired‘s Danger Room, the two insinuate that Flynn had no other choice but to use a political (and make no mistake, it is) civilian organ to appeal to his superiors, including the commander in chief, who, if you read the Washington Post right, has been expressing some concern with "mission overreach" in Afghanistan.

Here’s Wired:

"In a conversation yesterday with Danger Room, Fick and CNAS President John Nagl acknowledged that the move was unusual, but said the decision to go through CNAS was based on Flynn’s desire to get the report out rapidly, reach the widest possible audience and provoke much-needed debate.

"’I think you quickly saw his chain of command say we support the forceful expression of new ideas,’ Fick said. ‘He knows he’s on a timeline. He’s got twelve months to demonstrate progress and to shake the bureaucracy into action. He had to go public, and an internal memo wasn’t enough.’

"’That was his judgment,’ Nagl added. ‘He reached out to us. We did not reach out to him.’ ….

"’Obviously, it was an irregular way to disseminate an idea for a serving officer,’ Nagl said. ‘Gen. Flynn decided for his own reasons – you should ask him what they were – to take this step. We were honored that he chose to do it through us. And we believe – I believe – that the issues he raised were of significance to national interest, and of immediate importance to our nation’s success in Afghanistan, so I was happy to publish it.’"

In 2009, Nagl & Co. were part of an "in crowd" that had all of Washington’s ear. No doubt – at least for this very moment – they’re still "in," especially with defense contractors, Long War hawks, and liberal interventionists who buy the whole humanitarian hustle. But they are competing now, like royal courtiers, to be heard.

In other words, the swagger seems to be missing. It’s head down and try to sell the Next Big Idea like everyone else. "They might as well be walking around with sandwich boards at the Pentagon that say, ‘counterinsurgency, not counterterrorism,’" says Pelton, who wrote Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns and the War on Terror.

At the highest levels, COINdinistas compete with skeptics surrounding the president such as Biden and the NSC, who want a narrower mission, and may get it. We are certainly seeing some of that today. For example, Kilcullen, Exum, and others have lectured that drone strikes detract from the overall "clear, hold, and build" mission because they turn local populations against us. Yet the strikes in Pakistan and just over the border in Afghanistan have been accelerating in the past year. In just the last week, locals have been in an outrage over a still unconfirmed number of civilians deaths from recent strikes against "high value targets" in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The CIA, reported the New York Times last week, has outposts all over Afghanistan, hunting terror targets, gathering intel for the military, and conducting its own drone strikes against Pakistan.

None of this is very good news for the antiwar effort, since the prevailing alternatives – counterterrorism or counterinsurgency – are so untenable. That’s the sad limitation to being on the "outs" in such a status-conscious city. Realists like Col. Gentile [.pdf] and Professor Andrew Bacevich are often roundly praised for their perception and wisdom, but they’re never embraced by those at the critical levers of power.

Still, it is satisfying to see the demigods of COIN brought back to earth, if only to scramble among the rabble of mortal insiders once again. In addition to not producing results on the ground, they look less like "intellectuals" and more like flunkies the more they defend McChrystal’s strange "civ-mil" resistance. It couldn’t happen to a nicer set.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.