COIN Think-Tank Jumps Shark

The first thing one noticed about this year’s annual conference for the Center for a New American Security – the think-tank for the Washington defense and foreign policy establishment today – is how un-newsworthy it was.

In fact, Google it, and pretty much nothing comes up.

It might have been planned that way. The year before, CNAS brought in Gen. David Petraeus as the keynote, and with him a phalanx of reporters and news cameras. It was the largely Democratic group’s third annual conference and the first since President Barack Obama took office, so the whole place was high on a great sense of purpose and a righteous mission. Audaciously appropriating the so-called Petraeus Doctrine – or COIN strategy – from the outgoing Bush administration, Afghanistan was theirs to win.

But a year later, “victory” in Afghanistan is more elusive than ever and the “COINdinistas” are either disappearing to other realms of pop doctrine or standing around defensively, trying to backtrack and redefine tactics to accommodate the negative reality on the ground. So, as last year’s event mimicked the preening confidence of a new sheriff in town, this year it amounted to a lot of whistling past the graveyard.

Whistling past the graveyard seems to be the only way to describe the sense that no one really wanted to talk about the 800-pound gorilla in the room: how their venerated COIN formula – you know, the one that would have worked in Vietnam if spineless bureaucrats and long-haired hippies hadn’t gotten in the way – is actually playing out in Afghanistan today.

This was the largest congregation of the uniformed and civilian defense policy establishment all year. CNAS (pronounced see-nass) had been writing non-stop about Afghanistan in some capacity since its inception in 2007 – including a recent study by fellow Andrew Exum, “Leverage: Designing a Political Campaign for Afghanistan.” The fact that on June 10, the morning of the conference, one of the major front-page headlines in the Washington Post blared “Commanders Fear Time Is Running Out in Marja” should have been the perfect launching point for a stimulating discussion.

Instead, you had panel after panel nibbling around the edges and a keynote speech that managed, gratingly, to avoid talking about current operations altogether. Indirectly, the day provided a few tiny glimpses into how the COIN community and all of its defense industry hangers-on are feeling about the state of things. And it is not good. Unfortunately for them, the lack of public candor just added to the growing sense of doom.

What a difference a year makes.

First, there was Tom Ricks, COIN hagiographer and CNAS fellow, who promoted the CNAS confab on his Foreign Policy blog as follows:

“This afternoon I’ll be at the annual CNAS policy hoedown. We will decide, among other things, whether COIN is last year’s flavor or simply the beginning of a new era of warefare [sic], as for example Mexican drug cartels erode national security on our southwestern border.”

This is the guy who in December brought us “The COINdinistas,” an outrageous paean to his Washington friends, who I pointed out were quickly becoming “last year’s flavor.” This year, in his clunky way, he suggests things have been trending bargain bin. He didn’t even give the conference any more blog space, moving right to a posting on Rebecca’s war dog of the week: Meet Sgt. Pauley and his K9 pal Sgt. Jack” on Friday June 11.

And Ricks, as usual, didn’t get it right. They didn’t “decide, among other things, whether COIN is last year’s flavor”; they didn’t talk about that at all.

In fact, the first panel, “Future of the Force,” for which Ricks moderated, turned out to be a mishmash of topics, from robotics to the use of private contractors in-theater – but no frank dialogue on whether our forces could handle another two years of war, or whether the drive toward COIN within the force structure today was even working.

Instead, Adm. Eric Olson, commander of U.S. Special Operations, who in other venues has taken to criticizing COIN directly (he’s gone so far as to say COIN is “an imperfect template from which we must deviate”] pulled his punches. After giving a brief history of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), he said virtually nothing. When asked a round robin of “what is your greatest fear about the future of the force?” he suggested cryptically without follow-up, “COIN without counterterrorism is the wrong strategy” that “COIN is local” and should be used by individual Special Forces units as they see fit.

Then, CNAS President John Nagl, who has been called the “Johnny Appleseed of COIN,” chimed in with this nugget: COIN was indeed not meant for widespread use by “general purpose forces,” and though forces “have to have a better capability for COIN” our “foreign policy should be designed so that situations don’t reach that level.”

Huh? This is the guy who spent the last two years championing COIN against conventional warfare like it was the civil rights movement of the military. There wasn’t room for such nuance before. When asked what his “greatest fear” was, John “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife” Nagl proceeded to talk about a “great level of vulnerability … where your adversary is not clearly defined … no good and bad guys and shades of gray … [we] don’t have the local knowledge about the culture and political relationships.” Whoa, things aren’t going so well; please explain – but the conversation went nowhere.

Then, the Brookings Institution’s Peter Singer, typically a smart military critic, said his greatest fear is that “Afghanistan becomes our Boer War.” Wow. This is one that has been floated around lately, but it’s a bold statement nonetheless – comparing our involvement in Central Asia to the long British “counterinsurgency” campaign in South Africa that symbolizes, for many, the end of Britain as an unquestioned global superpower. And at a CNAS convocation no less. But if this was bait, no one here was biting. The discussion quickly shifted to Q & A, and with a crowd of mostly contractors, wonks, and uniforms, that became just as snooze-worthy as the preceding hour.

“As a journalist, could they have made this any more difficult to cover?” asked one national security writer, after the next frustrating panel discussion. The topic’s title, “America’s Enduring Interests in Central and South Asia,” certainly held promise. Finally an honest, unavoidable crack at Marjah, Kandahar, and the amazing Karzai brothers. Instead, half the time was sucked up with a game: pretend it is 2013 and you are briefing the president on the “current” situation in the so-called Af-Pak region.

This made for a lot of tedious wishful thinking, gentle scolding of the Obama administration, and a regurgitation of the unrealistic goals already set by today’s most conventional establishment thinkers. In the way that the last administration’s neoconservative surrogates took the bone of war and refused to give it up, many of the COINdinistas represented here clearly believe the Obama administration was foolish to establish a timeline for withdrawal (July 2011), and they subtly blame any current or future failures on that “premature” announcement.

“We have to think long term,” said Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Iraq under President Bush, who predicted in his imaginary briefing to the president that things improved in Afghanistan when “they finessed the 2011 withdrawal date.”

Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, COIN adherent and senior CNAS adviser, (yes, that Barno), was less optimistic. He predicted that the “beginning of the end of the U.S. commitment” was the declaration of withdrawal, which “inadvertently reinforced the [Taliban] strategy” to “run out the clock” on the U.S.  and began the “breakdown of trust” between the people and the U.S.-backed Afghan government. As a result, the Taliban “simply chose to melt back into the shadows” to fight another day.

Scanning the blue-suited, uniformed crowd at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, a swanky Washington institution a stone’s throw from the White House, it was clear this was the message they wanted to hear: that the U.S. must dig in stubbornly for the long haul. Privately, they may say otherwise; as a retired military colonel and prominent analyst told me in the hallway, “Afghanistan is no longer strategically important to us.”

Refreshingly, CNAS didn’t forget its stated obligation to try and appear open-minded, so it let at least one heretic into the proceedings. Last year, Andrew Bacevich played the role. On Thursday, Paul Pillar, the former CIA officer and Army veteran who has been crossing the conventional wisdom about preemptive war and the counter-terror operations abroad since the Bush administration, was the skunk at the tea party.

“The presence of the U.S. in the theater … has continued to be a stimulus for radicalism,” the Georgetown University professor intoned without hesitation in his 2013 briefing to the president. But unlike Bacevich’s critique, which prompted a touchy defense of COIN by Andrew Exum last year, Pillar’s blasphemy was met with relative silence.

Then onto the main event, the keynote by Michele Flournoy, co-founder and former president of CNAS who, along with other CNAS alums, now works in the belly of the beast – the Obama Pentagon. As undersecretary of defense for policy (Doug Feith’s old perch), she is part of the prestigious “E Ring” of powerful DoD decision-makers and planners, and as the No. 3 civilian there, one of the highest-ranking women at the Pentagon ever.

Should have some pretty neat insights, right? Wrong. Her talk was an exercise in caution that went beyond much of the milquetoast analyses the audience had endured thus far. It was terribly boring. When she wasn’t meandering into the weeds of the defense bureaucracy (“at the DoD we have begun to make some real progress in our 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review”), she was channeling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her prosaic speech about the new National Security Strategy two weeks ago (“we have been able to craft a principled and pragmatic approach”). She indulged in tedious clichés (“we will need the agility of David, not the clumsiness of Goliath”), and when pressed on more provocative issues during the Q&A, she answered like a coached witness on the stand (“we have a deep and abiding interest in Israel’s security … and that is not going to change anytime soon”).

Funny – CNAS, led by Flournoy, became an early interlocutor between the Obama administration and the military and was a principal driver of the COIN doctrine, yet Flournoy spent not more than a minute talking about Afghanistan, or even Iraq, which supposedly was a key success for COIN under CNAS favorite Gen. David Petraeus. Her remarks seemed deliberately broad and ponderous – and all in industry-speak, almost as if addressed to staff rather than a broader Washington audience.

Perhaps that was the point. Many of the people in that room were more concerned with self-preservation than with getting to the bottom of what went wrong in Afghanistan. They wanted to be assured that the wheels of war were still turning, and for the most part, they got what they came for.

So, head down, whistle high, past the graveyard and smack into another one. Glad to see the Washington establishment is as predictable as ever.

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.