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Gates on COIN: what was really said?

March 1, 2011

Kings of War, 27 Feb 2011: There has been ample coverage of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ final speech to the West Point cadets last Friday, with much of the attention focusing on an apparently growing disenchantment with counterinsurgency, a theme previously touched upon on this blog.

For obvious reasons, the quotation that got the most play in the press was Gates’ quip that any future sec-def who advises the sending of ‘a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined”’. This sentence has been picked up upon as a candid admission by a straight-talking and possibly repentant Secretary of Defense, wishing to use his last appearance at West Point to highlight the folly of ongoing campaigns. In reality, the statement has been taken out of its context and therefore risks being misinterpreted, along with the rest of the address.

At the Washington Post, Greg Jaffe interprets these lines by Gates as signs that the Army ‘will not engage in large-scale counter-insurgency wars like those in Iraq or Afghanistan’. He picks out another sentence from the speech to back up this theme:

Gates said he was not advocating the Army should become a counter-insurgency or nation-building force. ‘By no means am I suggesting that the Army will, or should, turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary – designed to chase guerrillas, build schools or sip tea’.

At the New York Times, Thom Shanker sees Gates’ speech as a blunt warning to his audience ‘that it would be unwise for the United States to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the chances of carrying out a change of government in that fashion again were slim’. Here Shanker refers to Gates’ statement that ‘the odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq – invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country – may be low’.

Clearly Gates said many of those things and the coverage is in that sense more or less correct. The problem, however, is that these articles are giving far too much attention to the hedges used by Gates to qualify his main argument, rather than to the argument itself. Read the whole section of the speech and see what you think:

The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest. And one of the benefits of the drawdown in Iraq is the opportunity to conduct the kind of full-spectrum training – including mechanized combined arms exercises – that was neglected to meet the demands of the current wars. Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements – whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere. The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions. But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.

The bottom-line seems to be that Army will mostly be playing a supporting role to the Air Force and Navy in future ‘high-end’ expeditionary operations. In other words, this had nothing to do with counterinsurgency, or with ongoing campaigns.

But what of this other statement, where Gates says he isn’t ‘suggesting that the U.S. Army will – or should – turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary’? Does this not mean that Gates is joining the growing chorus of counterinsurgency critics, spelling the end of this latest fad? Not quite. Again, this sentence is merely a hedge used to qualify a main point. Note the ensuing sentence, starting with that inevitable conjunction, ‘but’:

But as the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size, and cost of its heavy formations to those in the leadership of the Pentagon, and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who ultimately make policy and set budgets.

This is pretty much the same message as above: while a draw-down from Afghanistan offers the Army welcome opportunities to revisit its conventional capabilities, its future role and configuration for large mechanised warfare will become more difficult to defend as budgets decline. If anything, Gates seems to be suggesting that the Army’s future is more likely to involve various types of ‘irregular’ or ‘advisory’ roles, like those it has been used for in recent campaigns.

But what then of that third sentence, where Gates states that ‘the odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq – invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country – may be low’. Again, the press seems to suggest that this was some sort of warning against future counterinsurgency campaigns, or an admission that these operations were mistakes that will not be repeated. But note the language that follows and the critical recurrence of that good old conjunction:

But in what General Casey has called “an era of persistent conflict,” those unconventional capabilities will still be needed at various levels and in various locations.  Most critically to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly – and controversial – large-scale American military intervention.

Rather than foretelling the death and irrelevance of counterinsurgency, Gates seems to be suggesting that the skills and capabilities that recent campaigns have called for will also be critically needed in the future, ‘at various levels and in various locations’, and that they must therefore be institutionalised. To a large degree, he is arguing for the relevance of continued counterinsurgency training and education, not their demise.

The problem with the coverage of this speech is that it combines hedges and qualifying preambles from disparate parts of the address and paints a picture of a Secretary of Defense disenchanted with counterinsurgency, and repentant about ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Too much attention is given to the shaping of the arguments rather than their intended thrust. A closer read of the address reveals a very different, and very important message, one that is unfortunately struggling to get out.

You can read it for yourself here.

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