COIN vs. CT?

by Laleh Khalili | published January 9, 2012 - 12:23pm

On January 5, amid much pomp and circumstance, President Barack Obama released the newest version of the US Defense Strategic Guidance. The document delineated the future course of US defense strategy, reiterating the commitment of the US to its strategic partners -- the oil sheikhdoms -- in the Persian Gulf, and shifting its focus to conventional warfare and deterrence capabilities in East Asia. So far, so predictable. Also notable, however, is this paragraph:

In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant US force commitments to stability operations. US forces will nevertheless be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible. Accordingly, US forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations (italics in original).

What this means is that the era of counterinsurgency (or COIN, as those in the know call it), of large “surges” of military forces, of massive military engagement -- those clichéd boots on the ground -- to suppress and discipline intransigent populations has now given way to counterterrorism (or CT, as the acronym-loving military epistemic community calls it). In fact, the very first paragraph of the section titled “Primary Missions of US Armed Forces” is all about “counter-terrorism and irregular warfare,” which is seen to consist of a “more widely distributed” military effort “characterized by a mix of direct action and security force assistance.”

So what does the new strategic review document mean? Politically speaking, it means we are back to the era of US hegemonic rule (or at least a desperate attempt by the US to get back there): an era in which US dominance in the world is mostly exercised through economic means (i.e., the neoliberal consensus), obeisant allies and proxies, and an occasional display of spectacular military power with a constant hum of military activity in the background. It also means that the US will continue -- or intensify -- its effort to secure the allegiance of its clients and allies in all the trouble spots of the world. This will occur whether via ever more intimate military links, or through other means: non- or semi-governmental funding for democracy “education” and “promotion,” forging closer links to new groups in power (such as the Islamists being elected to parliaments in the wake of Arab uprisings), and continuing its kid-glove treatment of friendly autocrats in power.

Tactically, the review indicates that the US hopes not to deploy large-scale land forces to intransigent places, or attempt to remake these places in our image via “armed social work” -- the combination of clear-hold-build military practice, and “developmental” policies (whether of building social facilities or of improving “security and governance” apparatuses). Instead, the use of force will now be all about murky and shadowy deployment of covert forces, whether they are Special Operations forces -- the executive branch’s own military -- or the CIA in all sorts of places, combined with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) to collect intelligence and assassinate troublesome adversaries all around the world. 

And perhaps most importantly, what does the strategic shift mean not in Washington but in all the places where US has declared its “interests” and will continue its military operations? That US forces would rather not capture enemies as that would entangle them in legal obligations; assassinations are easier, if not cheaper. That the US will again depend on proxies -- no matter how history proves that imperial clients tend to be venal, corrupt and power-hungry. That the window dressing of “development” and the soft liberal discourse of “persuading” undecided civilians in contentious places have given way to what has been since the end of the Cold War at the core of US military policy overseas: full spectrum dominance; shock and awe; 700 to over 1,000 military bases from which it can project its power, and whatever else may justify a military budget that is still -- even after all the cuts and savings -- larger than those of the next 10 countries put together.