COIN, Armed Nation Building, and Peer Competitors

Joshua Keating reports on some interesting discussions at a high level foreign policy conference. Of particular interest is Anthony Cordesman’s contention that the term “counterinsurgency” ought to be abandoned altogether in favor of “armed nation-building” and his unconventional thinking on the way in which the operation in Iraq is impacting what is generally thought to be a more important one in Afghanistan.

If we can move forward in Iraq in ways that seem possible, we may be down to 10 brigrades by 2009. You can’t suddenly move those brigades to Afghanistan. They require retraining. They will have to be re-equipped and restructed to fight a different kind of war on different terrain, dealing with a different culture with different values.

I also have to say that while troops are important… far more important are the aid teams and advisory teams… rapid turnover of deployments in a country where personal relationships are even more important than they are in Iraq, the inability to take aid workers out into the field where they are really needed… The problem isn’t troop levels and it won’t be solved by moving out of Iraq.”

That’s right, I think. I’ve been arguing since the early 1990s that the issue isn’t the size of our force but its alignment. While we’ve made significant adjustments since then, we still have far too few of the kinds of troops (linguists, MPs, civil affairs, etc.) necessary for non-traditional military operations, whatever term is currently in vogue for them.

Interestingly, though, Josh also reports that “Major General Charles J. Dunlap of the U.S. Air Force, for instance, worried that an overemphasis on counterinsurgency was leading the U.S. to ignore the possibility of warfare with a ‘peer country.'” Dunlap, who interestingly is a lawyer (indeed, the #2 JAG) is also one of the military’s foremost thinkers on force structure and civil-military relations. Indeed, I was reading then-Colonel Dunlap’s classic Parameters think piece “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012” around the same time I started calling for more MPs and so forth.

I continue to believe that the rise of a “peer competitor” is incredibly unlikely. But people who have thought that have been wrong many times in the past, with severe consequence.

On the nomenclature issue, I both agree that “COIN” is too narrowly focused but think “armed nation building” is problematic. Stability and Support Operations (SASO) seems to cover the gamut nicely without the baggage. Then again, there’s something to having an oxymoron, “armed nation building,” to remind you that it’s generally a bad idea.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The COIN Field Manual calls such operations “armed social work” — but I think this is a good thing. The term may seem contradictory, but perhaps it suggests a more accurate picture of reality on the ground, or at least a reflection of the dual-nature of what we’re dealing with.