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Army Turning Its Back on COIN?

The U.S. Army has been trying to resist the budget axe by citing to policymakers the lessons of history. Army leaders argue, rightly, that it doesn’t make sense to cut their active-duty end-strength from 570,000 to 420,000 as a result of sequestration: the U.S. has tried many times in the past to cut the army to the bone and every time we have paid a severe price in unreadiness to wage the next war. But sadly the U.S. Army itself is ignoring the lessons of history. That, at any rate, is the only conclusion one can draw from its decision to close the Army Irregular Warfare Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, on October 1.

The center was created in 2006, under the leadership of my friend Colonel Pete Mansoor (now a professor of military history at Ohio State), to instill in the army the lessons of counterinsurgency which were badly needed at a time when the entire U.S. military was facing a terrible defeat at the hands of Iraqi insurgents. One of the center’s first tasks was to oversee the production of Field Manual 3-24, the first such army/marine manual on counterinsurgency to come out in decades. It was General David Petraeus, then head of the Combined Arms Center at Leavenworth, who was responsible for creating the Irregular Warfare Center (then called the Counterinsurgency Center) and for implementing the recommendations of FM 3-24 in Iraq. It was, in fact, these very principles which made possible one of the biggest come-from-behind victories in the history of counterinsurgency (a victory that was subsequently squandered by the premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq but that’s another story).

The Irregular Warfare Center was only a small office in a big army but it represented something big–a reawakening interest in the principles of counterinsurgency by a force that traditionally had focused only on conventional maneuver warfare. Likewise now the closing of the Irregular Warfare Center represents something big–the army turning its back on what is the most prevalent and most important form of warfare not only in today’s world but throughout history. The army will of course deny that is what is happening and point to continuing offices such as the Army Peacekeeping and Stability Institute as evidence that it remains as committed as ever to COIN (counterinsurgency).

Count me as skeptical. Ever since the U.S. pullout from Iraq and now with another major drawdown imminent in Afghanistan, the army has been eager to get back to conventional soldiering against mirror-image adversaries even though the odds of fighting such a conflict are a lot lower than the odds of fighting myriad insurgents such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Taliban. I fear the army is now repeating the mistake it made after Vietnam when it also turned its back on COIN–and paid a steep price for its neglect in Afghanistan and Iraq. The army would have a lot more credibility making the case for itself based on the lessons of history if it paid greater respect even to uncomfortable lessons that it would rather ignore.


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