“It is time for a change of mission in Afghanistan,” write Lieutenant General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.), Dr. Andrew Exum, and Matthew Irvine in a policy brief for the Center for a New American Security. For those unfamiliar with CNAS, IPS Special Project Right Web describes it as:

… one of the Barack Obama administration’s key outside think tanks on national security and defense policy. … John Nagl … CNAS president, is a retired army officer who specializes in counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. The Inter Press Service described Nagl as “a poster boy for COIN enthusiasts, including influential neoconservatives.”

The CNAS trio continue.

U.S. and coalition forces must shift away from directly conducting counterinsurgency operations and toward … advising and enabling Afghan forces to take the lead in the counterinsurgency fight. … Since 2009, coalition forces have achieved significant operational successes in Afghanistan, reversing the Taliban’s momentum in many areas and greatly expanding the size and capability of the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces]. … Yet these gains, achieved at significant cost in blood and treasure, must ultimately be sustained by the ANSF.

Based on interviews with field commanders in Afghanistan conducted over the past 12 months, we are not confident that most U.S. and NATO commanders have come to grips with the reality of the impending U.S. and allied transition. U.S. commanders are focused less on partnering with their Afghan allies and more on fighting the Taliban. … While there is an energetic program in place to recruit, train, organize and equip Afghan forces, there is no similarly focused and adequate program to advise these same ANSF forces in combat operations and to thus maximize their effectiveness. … Afghan military forces have not played a leading role in Afghanistan since the war began. The vast majority of military operations in Afghanistan today are conducted by U.S. forces. … Conventional Afghan security forces tend to perform only ancillary missions such as holding areas that have been cleared and partnering with coalition units to put an “Afghan face” on counterinsurgency tasks.

In other words, the coalition won’t let the ANSF take off its training wheels. Repudiating, or, more accurately, shedding, counterinsurgency is a big deal for “COIN-dinistas” CNAS, Nagl, and Exum. Before we continue, here’s a working definition from the Counterinsurgency Army Training Manual (2006) of counterinsurgency, one of those words that has become part of the zeitgeist without many of us understanding exactly what it entails.

A counterinsurgency campaign is … a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations. It requires Soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies. The balance between them depends on the local situation. Achieving this balance is not easy. It requires leaders at all levels to adjust their approach constantly. They must ensure that their Soldiers and Marines are ready to be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade while taking on missions only infrequently practiced until recently at our combat training centers. Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors.

As you can see, one can be forgiven for failing to understand exactly what counterinsurgency is, both because it covers a lot of ground and because in practice its requirements keep shifting.

Meanwhile, for those COIN-dinistas who feel betrayed, Exum wrote a post at his popular blog Abu Muqawama titled Just to be clear, COIN isn’t going away.

As the United States draws down in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can cut some of those ground forces … that you need for large-scale, resource-instensive [sp.] counterinsurgency. … But it is a mistake to assume the U.S. military will never fight these wars again. We’ve done that before, with disastrous results. Ignatius [the Washington Post columnist]:

There’s a consensus in the country that the big expeditionary ground wars of the past decade should end, and Panetta has his budget priorities right. But it would be wrong to repeat the mistake that followed the Vietnam War, when hard-learned counterinsurgency tactics were jettisoned in favor of conventional weapons for fighting quick “winnable” wars. During the COIN years, the Army and Marines learned how to adapt and fight in the most difficult environments. What a waste if those skills, acquired at such cost, were discarded and lost.

Defense budget eventually permitting, Somalia and Yemen, here we come!

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