The $64,000 Question: What if COIN doesn’t work?

Now, dear Readers, while I do not agree with everything Ms. Marlowe says in her post, I do very much like her line of reasoning.   She wonders:

What if counterinsurgency has never, ever, anywhere actually worked? What if our military has been chasing a chimera for almost four years — or more?

Marlowe states that while “COIN makes sense intellectually”

there doesn’t seem to be any increase in security when our troops do the right stuff (getting out among the people, lots of presence, lots of talking). We’ve got it down to a science now: the shuras, the projects, the provincial development plans, the embedded partners…It’s a lovely theory, but it may be a waste of time, and of all those young men and women who get blown up by IEDs while getting out among the people.

If we follow this thinking, it raises several other thorny questions, such as:

  1. How do we know if it works?  By what measures?  In whose opinion?
  2. Do we restrict the question only to COIN as we define it doctrinally, or across the board, to COIN as a concept?
  3. Do we restrict the question to current operations, geographically and temporally, or across all places and times?

Our own David Ucko makes an astute comment on the post, wondering if we are not falling into the logical fallacy of ab abusu ad usum non valet consequentia (not in so many words, maybe, but the point is there none the less).  David asks if it is valid to judge the efficacy of something by examining instances where it is not applied correctly.  Perhaps COIN works, but crappy COIN doesn’t. 

Good questions, all.

It seems that the conventional wisdoms of the current age–hearts and minds, COIN–are now being challenged.  No matter what the answers are, this can only be seen as a good thing. 

When we (observers, practitioners, enthusiasts) fail to question, but instead simply drink the Kool-Aid and go along blithely and blindly, we run the risk of falling, lemming-like, over the edge of a conceptual cliff. 

The trouble is, after so long in places like Afghanistan, and with the appeal of doctrine such as the current COIN thinking, it takes a great of guts to develop a new approach.  Such arguments, made ab inconvenienti, are tricky, but are sometimes exactly what is required. 

What if COIN doesn’t work?  Is anyone prepared to answer the question, when the end/exit is already in sight?  Even if we all agree and answer, “No, it doesn’t”, where will that lead?  I have suspected for a long time that COIN itself is merely the knee-jerk answer to a previous question, “Do kinetic/conventional/body-count campaigns work?”  The answer was no, so the 180 degree opposite alternative was chosen as the replacement.

Marlowe suggests heading in that direction:

More and more, I suspect that it’s the brutality that works, not the COIN. It’s moving hundreds of thousands of people across a country, or shooting all the men in a village as a reprisal for terrorism, or taking hostages, or doing extra-judicial kidnappings. Of course, the brutality would work without the COIN, too.

The trouble is, according to Marlowe, the paradoxical nature of Western ethics when it comes to waging these types of campaigns:

Brutality works. But that’s not who we are.

So, the real $64,000 question is not, “What if?” but rather, “Then what?”


27 thoughts on “The $64,000 Question: What if COIN doesn’t work?

  1. Quintin says:

    Pardon me for stating the obvious, but I can see the parallels between this question, and that of the previous blog relating to the Termination of War. By phrasing the question differently we get: When have I won my COIN War?

    Please allow me to simplify the question in terms of scope for the moment to: When does my War end? To this effect, I wonder if it is possible to rephrase that question to: When does my Peace start?

    Assuming that the latter is valid, I’d like to take a detour to the definition of War. My favourite is Clausewitz: the mere continuation of politics by other means. As a distraction, my translation states Policies, rather than Politics – but in my opinion, the latter is more relevant, whereas the former often forces me to the edge of reason. Distraction over, if War is the continuation, then the Commencement of Peace could be defined as the conclusion of politics by other means.

    Back to my re-translation of Clausewitz, the replacement of Policy with Politics now allows us to draw on the definition of Politics – and here too, I have a favourite… that of David Easton, being:the authoritative allocation of values for a society

    Dwelling on Authority, we see that it is “Accepted Force” and as such, consists of two correlary constituents that are intertwined and interrelated, namely Acceptance and Force.

    Given this understanding, we return to Clausewitz to merge with Easton and see that his “other means” is not some ethereal resource, but the “Allocation of values for a society by Force”.

    Prepared as we now are, (I think – it is all such a lovely blur), we return to a version of the earlier question: When have I won my War? And we argue a Successful War can be defined as: the achievement of politics by other means, that is, our values are now Accepted by this (opposing) society – we no longer have to use Force.

    We are reminded at this stage by another statement by Clausewitz, intended to curb our enthusiasm: The result in War is never absolute, so the Acceptance by the opposition is going to be a transient state (I’m sure there are exceptions).

    Back to the question: When have I won my COIN War?, it would appear that the answer would be influenced by the extent which our values are alien to those of the opposition, and the degree to which their opposing values are embedded – based on the assumption that more diverse and embedded values will require the application of more Force over a longer period of time in order to achieve the desired Acceptance.

    Considered in association with the transient nature of Acceptance, the clinical answer is: somewhere between When Pigs Learn To Fly and When Hell Freezes Over.

    Invoice for $64,000.00 is in the post.

  2. Somewhat seriously and somewhat facetiously, real COIN can never fail, because real COIN presupposes constant adaptation to specific problems along with a well-resourced and carefully conceived strategy for self-sustaining stability. With those starting conditions, how can you fail?

    The $64,000 question is what to do when those starting conditions don’t obtain, as they rarely do.

    • Quintin says:

      Damn, there goes my new SUV. Get you next time FB…

      On a (slightly) more serious note, I’m reminded of Rundstedt’s response to Keitel’s “now what” question after the failure of Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein – something to the effect of “Make peace, you idiots!” But I am also aware that, for his pains, GroFaZ had him relieved of his Command.

      Then again, it is Friday and sunny. By Monday, I may have a far more pessimistic view regarding the question.

  3. Cincinattus Jr. says:

    While I continue to reflect on your post and Ms. Marlowe’s underlying points, are you saying that “kinetic/conventional/body-count” are actually synonymous (or immutable parts of a whole) in terms of the “alternative” to COIN?

  4. Formerly Grant says:

    The Soviets and the Kuomintang both could be rather brutal. It isn’t brutality that works, it’s that calculated brutality taking advantage of norms can work.

  5. SNLII McRealname says:

    Well, I went back and searched my emails. Apparently, two months ago I carried on a fairly long electronic discussion with Ann Marlowe, academics, COIN practitioners and elites in the US Departments of Defense and State about this question.

    Because I assume this communal conversation was (as journalists say) “off the record,” I won’t go into much detail. But suffice it to say that the interplay touched on any number of topics, including Professors Betz and Mackinlay’s research into what now is termed a Post-Maoist phenomenon; the war correspondence of Carl Prine; Gian Gentile and Con Crane’s books on air power; the paradoxes posed by Tocqueville when he scrutinized the French Revolution; the RAND studies nearly four decades by Leites, Mitchell and Wolf; the analysis of Africa by Robert Calderisi; Niel Smith’s recent look at LTTE; Stéphane Taillat’s scholarship on French historiographical
    framing of COIN; and the difficulty of establishing metrics for CORDS/Phoenix during Vietnam.

    None of these people took part in the electronic conversation, but their works were considered.

    Which is to say, it was a fairly wide ranging inquiry into assumptions about COG in OEF, how we might identify COG during these “post-Maoist” conflicts and whether we might find some means to track “winning” or “losing” (solving or mitigating the causative forces of insurrection) on an irregular, highly complex battlefield.

    So I would say that Ann’s thesis really isn’t all that original, but it’s timely. It seems to be an outcome of an intellectual zeitgeist after nine years of parsing assumptions in the Hindu Kush.

    Ann obviously isn’t an expert on COIN (neither am I), but she certainly knows about Afghanistan.

  6. Daniel D says:

    There are so many angles to this but I will stick with two.

    1. COIN well done and “crappy” COIN.

    In some ways COIN is the tail end of Napoleons successes 200 years ago. The industrial war paradigm and playbook was written by him and states have sought to emulate him and his successes ever since.

    Throughout the 19th century industrial wars methods, techniques and technology expanded and helped to enable much of the colonialism which swept the non western world. It also found its logical and absurd conclusion in WW1 and WW2 where the western powers sought obliteration of the other in near total warfare. By the end of WW2 the intellectual paradigm was dying and resolutely dead by the end of the Korean war. The technological strains of this mode of war have persisted as you dont need to have a total war to sell the materials of total war.

    But WW2 also broke the strength of the west in its colonies and the first phase of decolonization went hand in hand with the first phases of insurgency and the rise of the first COIN operations and studies (notwithstanding the various small studies and books/manuals that had appeared prior to WW2).

    Most of the first studies in COIN went hand in hand with attempts to hold ground, to refuse to budge against the enemy and to seek a decisive victory ala the “real wars” but in a COIN mode.

    All but one of these efforts on a major scale failed and the one real success (the British in Malaya) was based around the realization (more based on the sheer cost of holding empire rather than any altruistic notions of granting independence) was in fact a failure when defined by conventional standards of industrial warfare (big battles, decisive victory leading to political victory).

    COIN in almost all of these instances is the last attempt to hold to the industrial war paradigm, to employ methods to ensure the political success that the earlier wars brought. In this sense its been a near total failure. (I will also ignore for this moment the developments of “unconventional” and guerrilla warfare as a means to avoid the obvious strengths of the west militarily in the various doctrines of Mao etc).

    So if COIN is viewed as a means to achieve a conventional victory it is a failure. If its viewed as means to defuse a situation in which a colonial or occupying power is engaged in conflict with a population not a conventional military and needs to find a way to disengage with as minimal casualties to all sides and to decolonize then it can be done rightly and viewed as a victory.

    You might not like the government or system that comes in place but you have a much better chance of getting something you do like if you allow and create the process by which those you like get some power or say than to forcefully put them into power and support them despite their corruption and unpopularity. That has been shown to drive the populace towards the other side and marginalize any trust of the populace has for that point or view.

    Of course current US efforts around the world are colonial to the populations they affect weather the US likes to paint it that way or not. Bringing democracy to the a nation is just a more updated version of ‘white mans burden’.

    So as mentioned in the above posts, bringing an end to the conflict is what wars are about, a conflict that cant be settled by non violent means. COIN is an attempt to still grant the west victory but by using means other than straight up conventional war/Big Win.

    The problem lies in that using conventional militaries and their conventional equipment to win an unconventional war with the definition of victory defined by conventional standards is an exercise in futility, absurdity and stupidity.

    The US high water marked this phase and effort in the Vietnam war, near total war but waged through a COIN to “Win” paradigm. Its failure came over time and as it did it degenerated into things such as the Pheonix program (now operating again in a similar form in Kandahar), the secret bombing of Cambodia (drones in Pakistan) and incidents like Mai Lai (any random Afghan wedding) and a host of other abuses as the want for hearts and minds broke down and revenge and retribution took over.

    The US attempts of vietnamize the war were simply trying to achieve the same result but by substituting proxies of a corrupt and unpopular government for the US troops, again a failure.

    Today the US and NATO are still using the COIN to “Win” methods and ideas and facing the same results as before, in almost repeat detail and incident. Recent attacks on Bagram airbase have shown that even areas thought to be friendly are not safe and that short of the US killing everyone (as mentioned in the Marlow article) they just cant win (also the Soviets tried that method and it still failed).

    It also doesn’t help that people like Kilcullen and Exum etc still try to paint COIN in big Win terms but with a gloss of sociology and anthropology to make it seem new. In effect its still explaining and endorsing the same old methods.

    2. COIN cannot be about creating a perception of winning based on a perception of winning, which is what COIN today is, it cant be an insincere effort to build a school, or hospital just to win the hearts and minds of the populace.

    Hearts and minds in the Malayan context (or even in the Monty of Alamein context) is about genuine feelings and genuine actions (from opposite sides as one is about a populace and one is about ones own soldiers but the idea is the same)as well as the understdning that those who want self determination will fight to get it and die in defense of it.

    The US has used COIN and more sophisticated versions such as HT to still try and go for the big “Win” rather than a managed transition (small win) and in doing so have created a situation in which is likely to end up like Vietnam all over again.

    911 as a moral context for anything went belly up at the moment of “mission accomplished” but its still resonates in the US/NATO efforts, it is now the raison de’etre for their efforts there and yet they are still viewed as invaders and colonialists.

    Marlowe’s article expresses frustrations (in the kill em all comment) which shows that Big Win COIN is nearing total failure as its a reflection of a growing sentiment but also a failure in understanding of what COIN is about (the name COIN in itself is a problem).

    This means that COIN can be done well and even won but even Napoleon found out (in his occupation of Spain) that its not a win in the conventional sense, its a victory in avoiding further conflict (and more lives lost) not by taking and holding terrain (which was what was happening in Spain and today in Afghanistan) but through avoiding the obvious conflict that attempts at Colonialism bring.

    If I was asked to place a bet on the outcome of Afghanistan or Iraq I would bet against the west and for the other sides, not because I want them to win but that the way the west is fighting them guarantees total failure for the US and NATO if there is even a sniff of irony left in the modern history of COIN with its repeat ad nauseum of the same Big Win methods and out look of war.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      I do have some concerns with what is written, but to keep it brief and legible I’ll focus on the My Lai mention. Unlike the case of My Lai, at the moment I don’t know of an instance where it was proven that Coalition soldiers fired on a wedding deliberately. It might have been better to compare it to Haditha.

    • Daniel D says:

      I was a bit facetious with the Mai Lai/Wedding reference but there have been a few cover-ups regarding shootings of civilians in Afghanistan (the incident involving Australian forces being the first one that comes to mind) or Haditha in Iraq.

  7. CAG says:

    A thought regarding COIN in the Af-PaK war.
    1) The discussion is on whether or not COIN will work in Afghanistan. Whether it will or will not is a moot point. The Obama Administration has all but announced its timeline to declare victory and withdraw. As with Vietnam the reality on the ground does not matter as much as the political reality in Washington. If we get out on time, if the Karzai (or whoever is in charge) keeps things together for say, what, six to twelve months. The reality will be sorry it isnot our fault.
    The what if is simple enough. The US will stay long enough for the Obama Admin to say he is strong on defense. Or more importantly not to give the Republicans the opportunity to say, that he is soft on defense. Past that, Clausewitz does not apply. Sorry to all of you who think some grand game is afoot and the US really cares about human rights, women’s rights or camel rights in Afghanistan. Obama was left with this turd of a war and he will do what he has to mitigate it’s affect on his reelection. After that it will all be a fast fading memory.

    • Quintin says:


      You are correct in pointing out that we need Will and Ability in equal measures to succeed.

      Having reiterated that, and with reference to David Ucko’s “somewhat facetious”, yet penetrating “real COIN can never fail, because real COIN presupposes constant adaptation to specific problems along with a well-resourced and carefully conceived strategy for self-sustaining stability.”, I think that we’re staring down the throat of the problem.

      However, I maintain that Clausewitz has everything to do with it. His definition (and my rather facetious manipulation thereof), still describes the War in Afghanistan, irrespective of what the US president does. There are a couple of aspects associated with my previous post that I should have perhaps pointed out more diligently – assuming as I did, that these would be apparent to the reader – but please bear with me while I attempt to address these shortcomings by expanding on these:

      In this (admittedly light-hearted) analysis, I attempted (by referring to Jeremy Black’s excellent presentation pertaining the termination of War), to point out that there is more to Hearts and Minds than what we generally accept. Not only do we need to win Heart and Minds of the Local Population (in itself a near impossible task, given the political history of the Pashtun), but we also have to win the Hearts and Minds of the Insurgent… that is, we need to create within him, the mindset that he had lost and that he should accept the values that we prescribe to him. And I point out that we can expect this last requirement to take a very long time (if it is at all possible). We all know how unpopular that “another 10 to 15 years” statements are at home.

      From here, it is but a short leap to conclude that total Hearts and Minds – though a requirement, will not win the War – except if you have a near limitless amount of time and money.

      On a previous occasion, I’ve argued for the reconsideration of Hearts and Minds as a Doctrine (or part thereof). I attempted to draw on an analogy of a football match, with Hearts and Minds being the Ball. Having possession of the Ball will by no means guarantee winning, but not possessing the Ball will almost certainly guarantee failure. To put it differently… winning the Hearts and Minds of the population, whilst an imperative, will only place you on the starting grid – it is a Lottery Ticket (not the Lottery Prize). To win, we need to do something about the Insurgent.

      So… my (re-formulated) question is: how do we win the Hearts and Minds of the Insurgent? Is it at all possible? Exactly how absurd is the construct of: I will create an untenable situation for the Insurgent by performing public works and pursuing a construction programme? Or is this where we accept that the above stinks as a value proposition, we cue Wagner and “let the bodies hit the floor”?

      Of course, we could do that – on condition that we do not take a swipe out of the Hearts and Minds of the Local Population – if we do, we lose our position on the starting grid, and we need to go back to the end of the pack… with the associated penalties on our prospects to win. And if we have to do that often enough, the relationship between Will and Ability gets skewed. And if we do that often enough, we get black-flagged and it is literally “War Over”.

      We now have to question the validity of such an approach. COIN is in scope, more Total than any conventional conflict – we even include the Local Population in the definition of the battlefield. Given the split of Local Population and Insurgent within Total Population (and accepting the Insurgent’s immersion in the Local Population as one of his key attributes), how long can we kill Insurgents before the Local Population bodies start piling up? I think it will happen in no time at all.

      Where does that leave us? Not in a very happy place, I’m afraid. We are confronted with a scenario where there is no longer a Single Working Solution… only opinions (and I’ll include my own here), and where opinions are not well received – because they do not imply good news. Zooming out, our opponent has a method of applying means of coercion to create an untenable situation for us… in Strategy Speak… he’s winning. We’ve run out of time. We’ve run out of runway. We need to take off now, or abort.

      Expecting the flat rejection of the latter, how do we “take off”? In my opinion, we need to get back to Basics:

      a) Understand our opponent. We need to know him like the back of our hand. We need to understand his weaknesses, his organisational challenges (yes, he will have those), his goals, his resources… everything about him.

      b) we need to devise designs that will negate his strengths and target his shortcomings – first to manipulate, then disrupt, and ultimately to prevent or destroy. In short, we need to work the word “enemy” back into our designs. We need to stop acting like deer in headlights whenever we hear the word COIN.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      Taking your posts together, I think the “hearts and minds” that are really crucial to the outcome (“victory,” “defeat,” “endgame” or whatever term your discipline and opinion dictates) are those of the people (electorates) within the US, UK and other coalition “partners.” This is IMHO the real lesson of the Vietnam experience that has been referred to several times in this thread. CAG touches on this in discussing the domestic political aspects in the US (although I differ as to the view that He somehow merely inherited the Afghanistan “war” when He has gone out of His way at least when campaigning–before and after His election–to embrace it) but to focus on His dilemma misses the larger significance of a self-absorbed and economically distracted population with the apparent collective attention span (excluding reality telly series) of nano-seconds, especially for something as “remote” and “arcane” as a COIN op in SW Asia, wherever THAT is.

  8. Jack McDonald says:

    I think the thing that struck me most was the phrase “Brutality works. But that’s not who we are.”

    I think when you get down to it, Western States can, and will be pretty brutal and vindictive. A group of men, individuals, attack a few buildings in New York and Washington, posing a non-existential threat, and in retaliation, America and her allies promise to hunt them down to the ends of the earth and destroying a few states in the process (as in the governmental bureaucracy, not all the people). When that doesn’t work, we appear to have switched to dropping a bomb on whoever picks up a call on their mobile phone in the hope that it’s one of them taking the call. When you think of the numbers involved (bodycount and financial) it is pretty mindblowing.

    I think the problem is that we have the memory of two world wars hanging over our heads, in the sense that unless millions of people die, or 50,000 men get mown down in a day, we don’t tend to think of a war as brutal. We might conduct war in a diferent manner, but the strategic aims are, when you look at them carefully, every bit as maximalist and unwavering as fighting the third reich. At least when we rounded up the Boers and stuffed them in camps, we didn’t expect them to change their identity or view us as benevolent rulers. Nowadays, unless someone changes their worldview, they are considered a security threat in perpetuity.

    Following on from that, while the more high-minded among us might take delight in the infinite intricacies of counterinsurgency and state building, the “less well informed” members of this democracy seem to have pretty much one of two opinions: “Bring the troops home now” (in a ‘what are they even doing there?’ sense, not a CND sense) and “Why don’t they just kill them all and then bring the troops home?”

    If McChrystal sketched out a plan that involved the forced movement of the rural population of southern afghanistan into “strategic hamlets” and turned the entire area into a free-fire zone after curfew, there would be outrage from the intelligensia, but such a program might not meet with such resistance from western electorates at large. In fact I’d wager a fiver that it wouldn’t.

    • SNLII McFakeyFakeName says:

      Well, all of that might or might not be true, but the strategic paradox of the US efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn’t fool Liddell Hart.

      In reality, Vietnam’s “strategic hamlets,” rural development, defection reclamation and all the other trappings of “pacification” were to be handed off to Saigon. The model then as it is now requires an indirect approach and we remain dependent on what our faithful or feckless proxy does to “win” the population’s hearts and minds (whether that universally works or not remaining in some dispute).

      I believe that Ann’s very brief essay was meant merely to be provocative. Much like Ucko’s “real COIN” proposal above, it’s empirically unprovable; or at least there appears to be no way to procure the evidence necessary to refute it within her argument.

      But this also goes to the heart (if not the mind) of finding metrics that peg progress or failure in these murky sorts of wars amongst the people. In Vietnam, an obviously Maoist conflict, HES and all sorts of other measurements failed for all sorts of reasons, and PAAS (an attitudinal survey) arrived just as “Vietnamization” began, which required a quite different approach to measuring success (ARVN competency and capabilities, metrics which also failed us).

      Which means that Ucko’s statement about this Platonic form of “real COIN” should be taken as faith-based, even with his qualifications about it, until proven otherwise with some sort of evidence.

      Rather than hearing from COIN academia, perhaps we might pay attention to a practitioner who also watched a counter-Maoist strategy fail.

      “In war, the measured use of violence is neither pure nor simple. It is a mixture of the horrible and the sublime, of ambiguity and contradiction in the image of men.”

      That was Jean Pouget, who was tortured in Vietnam and then tortured and executed — rarely but when necessary — in Algeria, to some local success.

      The point Ann might make isn’t whether the “Roman” method works better than “real COIN,” but rather that in a media-saturated battlescape, for all sorts of domestic and international reasons the US can’t be seen as “Roman.” There must be some plausible ability to deny that stigma when it’s suggested on Al Jazeera broadcasts; and, moreover, there are concerns about discipline in the ranks deteriorating when everyone is conducting a Haditha every week.

      Ultimately, an institution like the US military is going to conclude that it’s more important to preserve discipline than it is to wage “Roman” war. Perhaps that’s why Phoenix was farmed out to CIA and Saigon under CORDS.

    • I should specify that my ‘real COIN’ comment was ironic, an attempt to get at the fluidity of the concept and the logical circularity that ensues. If ‘real COIN’ is taken as shorthand for a resourced strategy tailored perfectly to the problem through effective adaptation, and we can agree that such an approach would by definition succeed, then the notion of ‘”real COIN” always working’ is not faith-based as much as tautological. Arguing about the merits of such an approach – whether it works – is just absurd.

      If we are more finicky in our definition , and add more substance to it, we would need to look for situations where the agreed-upon ‘practices or principles of “real COIN”‘ have been attempted and failed. Take ‘population security’, if we agree that that is a principle of ‘real COIN’. Can we find a correlation between progress in stabilising war-torn areas and the achievement of ‘population security’? Again we are back at tautology. OK, take ‘intelligence-led operations’. Can we find a positive correlation between effective ops against insurgents and those cases where we know who they are and where they are hiding? Of course.

      The COIN principles are commonsensical, even truistic, in theory. But in practice, they are damn difficult to get right. But does that mean that it is the principles that should be revised, or the way they are implemented on the ground.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      Perhaps you are right but as to

      “At least when we rounded up the Boers and stuffed them in camps, we didn’t expect them to change their identity or view us as benevolent rulers. Nowadays, unless someone changes their worldview, they are considered a security threat in perpetuity.”

      I think there are salient differences between this situation, where as far as I am aware, the Boers had no ideological or territorial ambitions beyond “their” own “borders.” Without further hijacking this thread with a discussion of the extent to which the Afghanistan conflict involves purely indigenous insurgents with no objectives beyond like those of the Boers or something else, suffice it to say there are those (of us) who believe there is sufficient evidence to conclude that at least some part of that conflict and the larger context of the WFKA (“War Formerly Known As”) the “War on Terror”, now I suppose (I have not checked on the progressive lexicon change for today) is called something like:

      “disconnected overseas contingency operations definitely not caused by or otherwise involving islamic extremism/terrorism but merely disaffected individuals and otherwise benign groups who have no recourse but to turn to violence due to the overreaching oppression of the US-dominated capitalist “system” or if in the US by evil, bigoted and ignorant “tea party” goers turned homegrown terrorists like the fellow who recently planted the Times Square VBIED…oops…well never mind about him, harumph harumph…”

      is interested in much more than some particular territory or limited goals of some other truly “internal” conflict. If this is true, then perhaps as we ring our collective hands and consider “what to do, what to do” with Afghanistan we still need to keep at least one eye open toward the larger “threat” that, contrary to Jack’s (to me incredible) minimalist view of the 9/11 attacks, is indeed “existential” in its nature, scope and depth.

  9. SNLII McFakeyFakeName says:

    “and we can agree that such an approach would by definition succeed”

    No, I can’t, for the reasons mentioned above and the examples cited from the 1960s RAND analysts on. Then, as now, there are critics who suspect that Hearts and Minds (HAM) remains an unproven thesis, which was Ann’s point.

    Kitson’s Kenya was population-centric and properly resourced, and even contained an internal strategic logic tied to the colonial project. But it didn’t require HAM to triumph and used coercive practices that make today’s OEF appear like the play of children.

    Karl Hack’s research into Chin Peng and Malaya might force us to reconsider what worked there, too.

    There really is little that’s new about COIN. The 20th century masters, Lawrence and Mao, were born within five years of each other (and around the time of C.E. Callwell’s doctrinal summation of British best practices, just as Gallieni arrived at Madagascar in 1896).

    Their perspectives on insurgency might not be so radically divergent as some imagine.

    What it really devolves into isn’t so much a Platonic form, a road map to getting best practices right. Rather, it’s an acute understanding of how force might be articulated to achieve pacification, which is itself a search for the causative forces of rebellion and informed notions on how to “solve” or mitigate them.

    Adaption and resourcing play a role in addressing that, but so would they in any other form of war.

    Sometimes, HAM might work. Other times, the RAND chaps might be onto something, and the real goal is to shut down the exogenous and endogenous inputs upon which the revolution engine runs or it shall clank to a halt, a phenomenon that might be met through population-centric COIN but usually isn’t.

    The more we research 21st century revolutions, the more we realize just how difficult it is to control those inputs and how unnecessary the “people” often are to providing them. One might suggest that the various Taliban in Afghanistan gain more from skimming our own HAM redevelopment projects than they do taxing opium production.

    In which case, HAM actually is feeding the war against it. We have met the enemy, as Pogo would have it, and he is us.

    • The point I am trying to make is that a COIN strategy that insists on HAM even when HAM is counter-productive is a bad COIN strategy. You see how ‘real COIN’ is like Teflon in that regard? Is HAM intrinsic to ‘real COIN’ and if so according to whose definition?

  10. SNLII McFakeyFakeName says:

    It’s hard to square that with “(t)he COIN principles are commonsensical, even truistic, in theory. But in practice, they are damn difficult to get right. But does that mean that it is the principles that should be revised, or the way they are implemented on the ground.”

    Because it seems to assume that the principles are probably right and not their implementation. The obvious problem intrudes amongst the believers in the faith-based principles: If HAM isn’t working, then it’s because of a lack of resources, or a corrupt and incompetent proxy, or the stabbing-in-the-back media, lawmakers, domestic population, whatever.

    HAM, a subset of population-centric operations, therefore could be expanded to pop-centric itself: The people were the prize, but the HAM failed; we were too kinetic and irked the people; the domestic political timeline didn’t quite work out but (Sorley alert!) the pacification processes really did because our metrics (which measured occupation if not pacification) said so.

    But what if the people aren’t the prize in post-Maoist insurrections like those in Afghanistan? What if they NEVER were the prize, at least not for the counter-revolutionary? This gets to the heart (if not the mind) of the “principles.”

    Who is behind the “principles” anyway? This, also, has been a longstanding concern, but for all sorts of reasons (mostly politeness) we don’t like much to probe the minds of those who push the principles upon us.

    But there are some who have. As Eqbal Ahmad put it in 1970, he continuously confronted generals and civilian planners at the Pentagon who behaved like “men who play with the lives and future of the masses in the manner of obsessed gamblers intent on a final win. There is much emphasis in their rhetoric on ‘realism,’ ‘rationality,’ and ‘objectivity,’ but they are rarely influenced by these characteristics in rejecting the realities that threaten the presumption of success.

    “Their rationalizations lie more in the realm of political pathology than of ‘objective’ analysis. They tend to explain away their failures by pointing at flaws which underscore the need for ‘greater effort’ — lack of execution, paucity of trained personnel, sabotage by politicians or conventional generals, and finally the failure of public will in the metropolitan country to sustain a protracted struggle.”

    Maybe there’s no getting anything right. Maybe all it really comes down to is the compulsion of elites, COIN gurus, and their enablers who continue to point to a few “successes” that traffic in bad analysis of cause and effect.

    But if you say that, then the “principles” have no meaning. And we’re back to Callwell and the Small Wars Manual and some nod to the “population” but really something quite different.

    Or, a brave old world.

  11. Daniel D says:

    Theoretical HAM, like Theoretical War is something that Clausewitz discusses as something to strive for but in reality unobtainable due to the movements of the enemy, friction etc etc.

    HAM can be achieved but its not likely to be perfect or please everybody but if it can get the majority to be supportive it will work.

    The problem with HAM lies in the fact that if you are fighting a majority sector of the population HAM is not possible short of some radical moves or concessions.

    Malaya succeeded because the British kept the majority (the Malay) happy with the promise of independence while going after a small minority inside the Chinese minority in Malaysia.

    Had the British not promised the Malay independence the outcome might have been very different as the malay would have had no real reason to support the British and greater reason to support the CP.

    HAM failed in Vietnam and Algeria because it was the majority that was fighting and therefore much less susceptible to being woo’ed over with basic promises of anything less than independence. Even with the French military successes in Algeria it was the population which was unwilling and all the successes did was push the conflict down the scale into terrorism.

    The “kill em all” or “Roman” method (I prefer to call it the Genghis Khan method”) is often the last resort as a population has hardened against any HAM. Id agree with David Mcdonald point about the “brutality” of the west, if you pile up the casualties from both sides it is grossly unbalanced towards non westerners and a major driver of the discontent in the region.

    And if the majority of the population is against you then its is either the Roman method or defeat. The Boer War was not exactly this method but close enough and caused a backlash strong enough to prevent those methods from being used again. Also keep in mind the British planned had settled the region as well and were not simply an occupying power as such.

    Lawrence in Arabia also used the promise of freedom to pry the Arabs away from the Turks, not a hard thing to do in the circumstances, but essentially working the HAM angle.

    It is also worth noting that British Colonial methods included divide and conquer methods, using various populations against each other rather than allow them to unite against the British. Or in some instances shipping troops from one population area into an other to use as a means of suppressing the population.

    They also did deals with local elites and sometimes to large extents allowed various practices and customs to continue rather than upset the delicate balance they had achieved.

    US hearts and minds in the Philippines could also be shown as a success against the Hyuk (a minority population) but also in its earlier efforts to control and pacify the population there.

    HAM should not be just a COIN principal but a political one in general. All political system rely on good will of the populace to some degree to carry out their functions and the greater the police state or repression apparatus then the less HAM there is in the population.

  12. Daniel D says:

    Also lest anyone think I am full of love for hearts and minds as some sort of social outreach program I know that the British balanced their HAM with harsh punishments for those who broke the laws and a good dollop of surveillance and espionage to identify and root out insurgents or thwart their plans (which is what I think the Chin Peng comment is alluding to).

  13. Jack says:

    Could it be that the assesment in the original post slips by un-noticed? The point-of-view used as annilisys is the ‘us-versus-them’ method. If knowing your enemy is anything to go by, then there is a somewhat opague understanding as to why the Afghans in particular are fighting. Or the Iraqis for that matter. The forces representing them are there for their own good we, tell them. We are there to help them, we say.

    Has anyone bothered to ask them?

    Not on how we can build a school, give them water or set them free, just what they think of the situation?

    I don’t think I am to far off the mark in thinking that ISAF is perceived as an ‘occupying army’ with little in common with the local population. In a mostly secular Western society religion is often not an issue of commonality is it? when last has the West had to deal with a tribal structure? I am not talking about football here either.

    I also think a new definition for “win” would not do harm here. As was stated, the standard still seems to be the occupation of land, the control of infrastucture and the re-alighnment of the political aims of said “win”.

    But we deny the fact that the intention is colonizing the country in question. Confused? I am, because you, by your own policy will have to leave. A carefull look at Mogadishu is the best exsample in modern times of what this campaign is going to play out like, I think.

    So by being strong, you play right into the opositions’ hands. A more sensible approach would be hard to find really. I can not beat you by facing off, but i don’t have to. I am not going anywhere am I? I can be a combatant today, tomorrow I’ll sell you fruit. I can strike when I please, where I want, with little fear of anger from my own people. As long as I hurt you.

    What are you going to do? Since they have all the time they can ask for, their intelligence will always be better. In the mean time, your support leeches away, the longer you stay.

    So how do you ‘win’ this? Probably by admitting that your strategic outlook did not include a plan for what to do, once you have it.

    Just as I believe the golden opportunity to get out of Iraq was the moment they captured mr Shaddam Hussein, the moment has been lost in Afghanistan. Bin Laden is there no more. So the justification there was for being there has left largely too. In fact, no one seems to know where he is. At least not in public.

    So if this is a clandistine situation, in a people driven climate, why the expensive toys? A lot has been done to respond to IED’s, little or nothing to stop the people building them. Since it is not a very costly exercise in human life for them, they’ll continue to use them.

    What is also not seen in the ‘outside the fence’ idea is that a modern soldier travels to heavy. They are far to reliant on the conventional support employed for the deployment. The Malayn/ Borneo adventure utilized the strenghts of the SAS to great effect as an example, becoming the ghosts that could appear out of nowhere, after weeks in the jungle.

    Another modern evolution of this idea was the psuedo squads in what was known as Rhodesia. Irregular forces that ‘become’ the enemy. Very un-sporting of course, but very effective if combined with a CID-like intelligence network, based on police work and a rapid reaction force standing by for back-up.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      Much food for thought but as to your final paragraph, I suppose much depends on your definitions of “un-sporting” and “effective.” My study of such ‘pseudo-squad” efforts such as the Selous Scouts notable in your specific reference and other examples (some aspects of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam for example such as the “Provincial Reconnaissance Units”) persuades me that these approaches are fraught with problems in that too often (always?) the means and methods typical in such units involve serious ethical and legal issues.

  14. Jack says:

    What you tend to forget is that the rule book is out the window here.

    COIN is more of a quasi-political paint job on basic guerilla tactics. Time and again we refer to the ‘irregulars’. Does that not call for irregular tactics?

    I am also from a country that has some rather intimate experiences of this type of war, some even giving us the credit for dragging geurilla war into the modern age and having the last ‘gentleman’s war’. Since we have never had the comfort of huge defense budgets and rely heavily on civilian reserves we have never really been able to work on conventional grounds.

    The terrain also echos that of Afghanistan closely, with a very patchy-at-best infrastructure. Self reliance, bushcraft and fluid inovation was a constant factor. Because of the distances ( think mountains for ‘stan ) light fast moving forces made a lot of sense.

    The benefit here of course was that this was not a power projection, with a conventional enemy in mind. But even there, having a smaller mobile force with the right armament can seriously slow down a bigger armored foe. Something that even the West recognizes by deploying troops with tanks, to protect them from tank killing teams.

    I would love to know what sort of ethical and legal problems would arise from this though. At least the last time I checked, in war someone has to get hurt.

    But then, I have no trouble in looking at the above as just other tactics in the ever evolving science of war. For this simple reason:
    You should never comit to a tactical or strategic course that leaves no options other than the course. Battle should be fluid and organic, with plans and orders, based on good training.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      With respect, I am not sure what you mean by the “rule book is out the window here,” “Does that not call for irregular tactics” and “dragging geurilla [sic] war into the modern age and having the last ‘gentleman’s war’.” Also I am not aware of the country of which you are from so I cannot speak to the specifics relating to that.

      That being said, my point about ethical and legal problems, especially in the context of the units I cited–the Selous Scouts and the PRUs, was that the very nature of their operational concepts and especially in the means and methods used resulted in instances where by all accounts noncombatants were abused, tortured and even murdered. this should not be a real surprise in that the history of such “irregular” units is replete with instances of such behavior. the moral of the story is that to the extent “Western” nations comprise the COIN force–whether directly or by proxy using indigenous or “private contractor” personnel, the “niceties” of combat ethics and the applicable laws of war are very much relevant, and if that is what you mean by “a gentleman’s war” I think you are making too much of the gritty intensity found in most “irregular” war that neither equates to nor permits any “relaxation” of those norms. This is so from both a juridical sense as well as a political one in that “Western” nations, especially in today’s news fishbowl or the 24 hour news cycle and near instantaneous internet communication of events, cannot sustain COIN ops that are facially indefensible from the standpoint of existing norms of the laws of war and combat ethics. See in this regard for example Tovy’s work “The Theoretical Aspect of Targeted Killings: The Phoenix Program as a Case Study” in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 2009 and the work of Geraint Hughes and Christian Tripod, “Anatomy of a Surrogate: Historical Precedents and Implications for Contemporary Counter-insurgency and Counter-terrorism,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, March 2009, pages 1 – 35.

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