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Counterinsurgency and Its Discontents

As I hear more voices join the chorus against counterinsurgency, both its theory and its practice, I get the sense that the ‘counterinsurgency era’ that began some time after the invasion of Iraq is now reaching its end. Yes, NATO will retain a presence in Afghanistan for years to come, but there is little enthusiasm for the idea of counterinsurgency or hope that the lessons of FM 3-24 might help, either in Afghanistan or elsewhere. In fact, mentions of FM 3-24 and of counterinsurgency are increasingly likely to invite sniggers, tired sighs or outright hostility (‘how dare you theorise about hearts and minds when there’s a war going on?’).

It might be interesting to trace how an idea so welcome less than four years ago has since fallen from grace. Was it the perceived confidence with which the concept was rolled out? Was it the perceived automacity of its widespread acceptance? Is it anger at the arguably simplistic explanation that counterinsurgency, and counterinsurgency alone, won the day in Iraq? Or is it due to a perception of counterinsurgency experts gaining power and prestige in DC by peddling a theory that is not working so well in Afghanistan?

What follows is an attempt to address some of these issues: how did we get here, are the critics right, and is there anything in this bathwater that should be saved? This is hardly an exhaustive take on the topic, which would require much more than a blog post, but just a few thoughts.

Theory and Practice

This blog has previously touched upon the distinction between counterinsurgency as practiced, particularly in Afghanistan, and as elaborated in theory. It is, to my mind, unfair to conflate these two, yet this tendency lies at the heart of counterinsurgency’s decline.

Attempts to disaggregate theory and practice has in turn engendered the accusation that counterinsurgency is like Marxism, in that its supporters insist on the doctrine’s infallibility and claim it simply hasn’t been implemented properly. It is a powerful analogy: a concept that survives only on paper has very limited worth.

But counterinsurgency principles have shown practical value, not just in ‘counterinsurgency campaigns’, but also in other campaigns concerned with stabilisation, pacification, peacebuilding – call it what you want. This is not wholly surprising, as many of these principles are quite banal, even commonsensical:

  • Effective strike operations requires good intelligence;
  • Defeating an armed group requires co-option as well as coercion;
  • Understanding your environment, its people and structures, will provide for more and better options.
  • Effective control begins with a monopoly on the use of force;
  • Legitimacy and trust are important when asking people to follow your lead.
  • The relationships built with local leaders and populations help determine their level of support for your cause — and so on…

A quick survey of past operations and campaigns reveals the general validity of these broad principles, even if the campaigns they have been associated with were not always successful. Which brings us to Afghanistan…

Operational or Strategic?

A powerful reason why counterinsurgency today is so unpopular is because its principles are looked upon as strategy in their own right. As should be clear, the principles and theory of counterinsurgency are only relevant as a means toward a strategic end, which itself may be more or less realistic: to help a country recover from protracted conflict; to bolster the legitimacy and reach of a government, etc. Even then, the theory is not a silver bullet but mere guidance – a collection of lessons learned – that may help in the design and implementation of an effective campaign plan, a plan that must, as counterinsurgency theory clearly stipulates, be adapted for specific environments.

Afghanistan muddies the water here, because the link between the stated strategic goal (to ‘disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda’) and the operational tenets of counterinsurgency is difficult to discern, not just because of the practical difficulties of ‘state-building’ in Afghanistan, but also because al-Qaeda is not limited to Afghanistan, or even to Pakistan, but would subsist even if the region turns into Central Asia’s answer to Switzerland (there are some parallels).

More generally, however, counterinsurgency theory would be relevant to attempts at stabilising a war-torn country or to defeat an incipient armed threat to an established government, though importantly, counterinsurgency theory says nothing about the wisdom of embarking on such campaigns (if anything, a note of caution can be parsed from the field manuals and main texts).

Both Antithesis and Thesis

But if counterinsurgency theory is just ‘useful guidance’ or ‘some ideas’, what good is it? I think our own Faceless Bureaucrat hit the nail on the head in a previous post: ‘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?”’. I’m currently reading Keith L. Shimko’s The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution, which provides a bitter reminder of the muddy RMA-type thinking on war within the Pentagon as it invaded Iraq. The discovery of counterinsurgency as a body of theory and lessons was definitely a step forward, but today it is no longer the antithesis, but itself the thesis. Its function as a reaction to muddy thinking is still being served, but it is also being held up in its own right and subjected to critical scrutiny.

That is good: the assumptions, the historical cases leaned upon, and the modern relevance of counterinsurgency theory are all areas that scream out for further research. More generally, much of the scholarship on counterinsurgency can be faulted: as mentioned previously on this blog, the discussion is often vague and analytically unsatisfying, not least because there is no agreed definition of what ‘counterinsurgency’ truly is. Furthermore, despite the growing chorus of discontent, counterinsurgency is still the next big thing to many analysts, and there is a tendency to want to be the one to crack the code, find that particularly nifty acronym that explains it all, or show why everyone else has gotten it wrong. Within the ensuing deluge of counterinsurgency-related articles and books, there will be wheat as well as chaff.

So there is definitely a need for criticism, but the aim of such a debate should be to improve on rather than kill the scholarship. There seems to be a desire to resign the whole ‘counterinsurgency’ concept to the intellectual wastebasket, which risks sacrificing what the concept has provided: a useful starting point to understand and discuss armed conflict and political violence, issues that today need to be discussed, whether in terms of ‘counterinsurgency’ or not.

A Matter of Expectations

Perhaps by scaling back on what is meant and promised by the concept of ‘counterinsurgency’, it may be possible to enter into a more constructive debate about the nature of political violence, the requirements for effective intervention, and the wisdom of such intervention in specific cases. What does it mean, and what does it not mean, to see value in counterinsurgency as a concept? To me, counterinsurgency retains value because it:

  1. reaffirms the need to understand the social, cultural and political dimensions of the operating environment;
  2. reaffirms the significant requirements of effective intervention in foreign polities;
  3. emphasises the political essence of armed conflict;
  4. recognises the local population as a significant player, rather than as an obstacle to circumvent;
  5. recommends a more-than-military approach to the problem of political violence.

What counterinsurgency does not do is:

  1. suggest the facility of foreign intervention so long as you’ve read Galula;
  2. provide a formula or scientific model to the problem of political violence;
  3. provide an answer to ‘the War on Terror’, or al-Qaeda writ large;
  4. provide an answer to what the US should do in Afghanistan;
  5. suggest that the use of force is irrelevant in modern conflicts.

It is on this basis that I would regret the disappearance, once more, of counterinsurgency. The one good reason to get rid of the term is precisely because of its divisive and distorting connotations; the aim then would be to talk more plainly about the requirements of war-to-peace transitions. But this presumes that the lessons of counterinsurgency have been sufficiently internalised that the concept has lost its utility as an important antithesis. And I fear that we are not quite there yet.

April 2011 Update: for more on this topic, please see the SWP study: ‘Counterinsurgency and its Discontents: Assessing the Value of a Divisive Concept’.

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25 thoughts on “Counterinsurgency and Its Discontents

  1. Weichong Ong says:

    For those of us involved in the delivery and facilitation of Professional Military Education, the real challenge is to convince our audience in the operational merits of COIN outside the classroom. The community of COIN scholars has not done terribly well in this respect. Maybe we’re too obsessed with selling the theory rather than honestly asking ourselves what realistically works given the tools that we have – a tool kit that includes mid-ranking officers with the professional opinion that ‘you have to first train soldiers to kill before training them not to kill’.

    • I think you are right that there was an initial tendency on the part of those pushing counterinsurgency onto the table to be overly defensive about the doctrine.

      Andrew Exum talked about this in a not-so-recent post, which I think is relevant to this thread.

  2. How much is the mismatch between political-strategic goals and operational means going to taint COIN?

    Iraq, and then the 2006 Lebanon war, seemed to bury a lot of the “next-generation warfare” type concepts as popular subjects for military discourse – RMAs, EBOs, shock and awe/rapid dominance, etc.

    My guess is that while COIN has only been put into practice recently in Afghanistan, policymakers will associate COIN with the pitfalls of nation-building and the war in general, rather than just the period of time in which COIN was actually tried.

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  4. Jeff M says:

    I will beg to differ about seeing counterinsurgency’s demise … in the case of the present, I do hope, though have absolutely no expectations, that it will fade fast. Instead of the ‘best and brightest’ trying to figure out how to make counterinsurgency a la FM 3-24 work, a better use of time would be to devise a strategic approach that is more sensible for the conflict at hand. No need to be trapped in the FM 3-24 and ‘surge’ mentality. Surely we have not reached the end of military theory!!!

  5. Steve B. says:

    I think what we’re seeing is another institutional cycle turn…similar to what the Army writ large did after Vietnam. It’s made more obvious now due to both the speed with which the Army tried to adapt to this current conflict as opposed to Vietnam (due in no small part to improved communication speeds for the debate) and the speed of the counter-reaction (brought about by the same improved communication speed).

    The American Army has always had something of a doctrinal penchant for wanting to fight the next “big war,” even though the majority of its history indicates that smaller wars will be much more common. After Vietnam the Army attempted (with much success) to purge Small Wars/COIN/LIC/insert the next acronym here from its collective memory. The manuals may have existed, but training was quickly oriented away from them to focus on the Fulda Gap scenario and lessons perceived from the Arab-Israeli wars. As a result the Army found itself relearning things every time it went somewhere other than Central Europe. When you combine that with a personnel and training system that is in major need of an overhaul (we’re not fielding a draftee force intended for the Normandy meatgrinder anymore).

  6. DE Teodoru says:

    If a doctor would have operated as the military operates now he would be in jail for killing people. Our war on terror is like an incompetent surgeon who botched an operation on a patient and, after the patient miraculously survives, insists that the patient must let him back in to try again because his reputation as a surgeon is at stake. From Bush down to our SOFs we have been criminally negligent, living on illusions rather than past lessons and must face up to it.

    American COIN cannot exist because American forces go in heavy. Because of that their logistic lines are thick and very vulnerable. The success metric of their commanders is and always will be: low casualties (ours) and high body count (theirs). That precludes successful COIN warfare. And yet, Americans keep going to war intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb. Nevertheless, American troops kill to survive while the enemy survives only to die avenging victims of the Americans. Thus, the equation can never balance and Americans will seek to even the odds with massive airpower and ordnance. COIN is population control but how can you control the population you bomb and whose sons fight you as an invader and/or occupier?

    The real goal of COIN is “low intensity.” That goal is un-American. Our soldier is an extremely expensive killing machine, hard to maintain. His training is ritualistic not experiential. His enemy is trained in Darwinian manner—by learning through surviving. By the time Americans come in to impose themselves in a contested area the insurgents had a lot of bonding with the population and training through surviving. The American’s ultimate survival tool is “nuke the bad guys.” This only makes more bad guys from populations that know only family, revenge and pride. We now know that shahids do not do it for religion but to attain the social status they could never attain in any other way. Thus, the distance from fighter to suicide bomber is very short. All we can do is shooting in fear, out our rage and avenge our dead. Again, this only makes for more enemies.

    Lastly, since Vietnam, the military has not had access to the best and brightest in our society; worst still, rising in rank was reserved for the yes-men. Bush fraudulently violated the promise to Reservist mom and dad soldiers and furthermore prolonged them by “stop loss.” All these things make for blind shooters…with automatic weapons, blind sprayers. In turn that makes the logistic line that much thicker. Today our logistics supply trucks pay 15% of the cost of transport to the Taliban as toll to let supplies get through. That comes to millions of dollars that serve killing us.

    With criminal incompetence from the Commander-in-Chief to the field officers, we owe it to the mom&dad soldiers that are all volunteers to bring them home to defend the nation rather than attack countries that, coincidentally, are involved with the appetites of corporate America. History will be less kind with the current stock of self-promoting generals than it was with MACV officers. In Vietnam soldiers were on average 5 years younger than today’s forces so the incompetence of current command is making for a lot of widows and orphans in America that we can’t afford. Our soldiers should come home to raise the next generation of Americans properly so that it can take over rather than leave their kids devoid of parents, dependent on the kindness of strangers. Worrying about their families makes impossible trying who try to keep up with guys who get an “adrenaline rush” from shooting people.

    When you’re in a room of poison gas, you must hold your breath and try to get out fast. Because Americans can now say: “ain’t my kid going to war,” they demanded victory. But once they realized that the cost is prohibitive they lost their taste for victory. Had we had a draft these criminally incompetent wars that never learned from the past (just read Petraeus’s PhD thesis, McChrystal’s Report and Flynn’s discussion of our intel to see what I mean) would have never been allowed to happen by the people. So we can’t have an all-volunteer army until people realize that patriotism means not allowing to be done with “OUR” kids what you wouldn’t allow be done with your biologic kids. Our survival as a nation is at stake. Our real future enemies are watching us self-exsanguinate.

  7. Thomas Rid says:

    Robert Blackwill, no stranger to trouble spots, had a must-read op-ed in the FT two days ago (see we’re reading). He’s a critic.

    An excerpt:

    The Taliban cannot be sufficiently weakened in Pashtun Afghanistan to coerce it to the negotiating table. America cannot win over sufficient numbers of the Afghan Pashtun on whom Coin depends. President Hamid Karzai’s deeply corrupt government shows no signs of improvement. The Afghanistan army cannot stand up to the Taliban for many years, if ever. Pakistan’s military continues to support its Afghan Taliban proxies. And the long-term Coin strategy and the far shorter US political timeline are incompatible.

  8. IronCapt says:

    I’ll admit, when I clicked on this link from the Small Wars Journal, I was expecting this to be another COIN bashing article. I’m relieved to see reasonable and well formed thoughts. I’ve written for the SWJ several times and so I’m naturally defensive about such things.

    So, my COIN education began with a class called Low Intensity Conflict at Annapolis. West Point taught a similar class called Stability and Stabilization Operations (SASO). We used the same textbook and had similar discussions about what we call this… thing. There have been good and bad terms thrown around for this… thing (hybrid war, 4th generation warfare, Phase 4, ect). Annapolis still calls it LIC, probably out of tradition. The name Small Wars Journal borrows from the Small Wars Manual, which was itself another clumsy concept.

    So, if we don’t call it COIN, what do we call it?

    • Thanks for your comment. For all sakes, let’s continue with COIN – at any rate, I doubt the introduction of a new term would help much. The problem is just that it is a divisive term. It may be better just to talk about ‘war’, but we’d then need to agree on an understanding of war as a political phenomenon.

      I also think that by calling it ‘counterinsurgency’, we can more readily draw on the lessons from previous such campaigns, which when researched properly is a good thing. By the same token, of course, there is a danger that we therefore miss out on the lessons from analogous campaigns, that happen not to be called ‘counterinsurgencies’.

    • Ed says:

      Is it just me that sees the situation progressively getting worse and bloodier while the following two factors are still in place: 1) Karzai’s lack of legitimacy, 2) the ISI’s (alleged) continuing support for the Taleban? Until there is political change on both those points, I don’t see even a possibility of success.

    • DE Teodoru says:

      Mr. Ucko– a brilliant writer whose book I read three times and marked up something awful– please consider that we can no longer fight COIN because we have nothing to attract people to our side but the inverse of what happens to them if they be the passive solvent into which the insurgent solute disperses: TOTAL ANNIHILATION!

      I have desperately proposed that NATO build several modern cities—AND EXCLUSIVELY RUN THEM– in safe areas, inviting Afghanistan’s youth to live, study and work there in REAL jobs paying real money. When that money becomes remittances home, Taliban propaganda will seem like crap! ISAF’s job would be to set up a protective perimeter around these cities and protective links between them. This would be a MODERNIZATION counter-revolution for the young as an alternative to the Taliban’s Muslim revolution as Jihad. It would also, over ten years, create a generation ready to take Afghanistan out of the one-village-at-a-time nonsense of the Petraeus peanut gallery. I saw up close American pacification in Vietnam from the point of view of both Republican and Communist people and its only success was when people sought to escape our indiscriminant ordnance by moving to the cities where “Blowtorch” Komer’s CORDS enabled them to become what Radio Hanoi called “petites bourgeois.” Thus, the guerrilla “fish” were left high and dry as the peasant “sea” moved to towns. As Le Duc Tho admitted in 1984, there was no VCI in the cities so Hanoi had to attack the cities at Tet 1968. It failed as urban South Vietnam stood. South Vietnam went from 85% rural to 75% urban so Hanoi could only win by outlasting us investing, as of 1964, al but one division of regular PAVN units rather than win by guerrilla war.

      Somehow, the pompous “pros” who love killing Afghan “bad guys” deserve to learn by seeing their defeat through to the end; but Americans no longer want to pay for a lesson that will soon be forgotten like all previous ones. So, say what you will, we’re on our way out, shamefully wasting our mom&dad soldiers to this utter crap. It’s amazing how the perspective of age makes all these novices who just discovered the wheel seem like fools unable to learn from the past. But again, what do you tell the parents of the soldiers that died pointlessly?

      I tried to ask you, Mr. Ucko, what you think happens when the military loses access to the best and brightest and is led by wakos for whom this is all career building through getting noticed as enthusiastic “yes sir” can-do type. War hasn’t changed, it’s just become the “new” (sic) thing of guys with nowhere else to go.

    • Ed says:

      I have desperately proposed that NATO build several modern cities—AND EXCLUSIVELY RUN THEM– in safe areas, inviting Afghanistan’s youth to live, study and work there in REAL jobs paying real money. When that money becomes remittances home, Taliban propaganda will seem like crap! ISAF’s job would be to set up a protective perimeter around these cities and protective links between them.

      A “protective perimeter”, like around Baghdad’s Green Zone? Or like the one around Kabul? Why not just create a “protective perimeter” around the whole of Afghanistan? (Oh, and how much would such a set of “modern cities” cost to build?)

    • DE Teodoru says:

      First of all, ED, I’m on your side and a survivor of 9/11. But I don’t want to see repeated what I saw in April 1975 and for more than a decade before that. Your comment reminds me of a story about a German occupier seeing a French boy making figures out of manure in the street. He asked the boy: “What are you doing?” The boy said: “I’m making French soldiers.” Inquisitively the German officer asked: “Why don’t you make German soldiers instead?” The boy replied: “Because I don’t have enough manure.”

      Ed, we don’t have enough soldiers to occupy all of Afghanistan and we are compensating by using what we have exactly as we did in Vietnam: as bait to bring out Taliban so air strikes can be called against them. That’s not COIN! In Vietnam 70% of all firefights were initiated by PAVN. The result you already know. Already a report by the NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH showed that the less WE kill, the less THEY kill. Doesn’t that tell you something? 15% of our logistic costs go to Taliban so they won’t blow up the trucks that make our shooting people possible. What does it take for you to see beyond your nose, where we’re going in the long term? THINK STRATEGICALLY! Cities would not only cost less but would do a lot more (unless we use the same Bush-it contractors we used in the past). Europe would prefer this to SOF crap. Soon US will be alone, bleeding alone, beaten, once again, by men in rags as in Iraq where they stopped killing us only once it was clear we’re leaving….AND ALL FOR WHAT?

      Or, maybe you don’t realize all this because then you would have answered your own question. Today four soldiers were blown to bits and two were captured….and it goes on with no end in sight. The more “Taliban” we kill, the more we face. The only case one could make for this idiotic attrition is that as the numbers of men in armed forces go up crime in US cities goes down. But somehow I don’t think that the enlistment bonus is attracting criminals away from crimes. Rather, seeing America’s wealth decline, they look for greener pastures and cops do less arresting and reporting of crimes. We are slowly exsanguinating our men. A couple of cities are easier to defend than a lot of mountains. I’m really surprised by your sarcasm. It is people, not just money, we and the Afghans are losing as we leave. In the end it comes down to Kerry’s question about Vietnam: WHAT DO YOU TELL TO THE PARENTS OF THE LAST AMERICAN KILLED ON THE WAY OUT?

  9. Joel I says:

    Polemics aside…

    I think there’s an important distinction between counter-insurgency as a method of operational design (how to crack a particular nut) and COIN as a strategy (an approach to integrating national power to crack all the nuts on the table).

    COIN is an appropriate operational choice in certain circumstances: it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. In certain circumstances, the best outcome for the foreign power is defeat on their terms: the British gave up Malaysia in the end, and their victory consisted of it not becoming a Communist client. In other circumstances, the foreign power simply can’t construct a viable host-nation government (USSR in AF, US in VN) capable of winning over the population.

    Nonetheless, COIN doctrine offers a useful model for identifying and applying specific approaches to stability and security operations across a wide spectrum of violence. I think, in the end, the contribution of FM 3-24 is that it provides an inter-service doctrinal model for military operations short of major theater war.

    COIN is not a strategy in the borad sense: it’s not an overarching vision for applying national power (economic, military, social, political) to achieve broad strategic objectives. And it’s phenomenally resource-intensive, requiring both military and civilian manpower and money. Not to mention discrete expertise, often resident in non-deployable government agencies.

    So to adopt COIN as a model for strategic engagement, and apply a whole-of-government approach to a broad range of campaigns, is a bold statement. It requires establishing what amounts to a colonial office (see State Dept, Office of Reconstruction and Stability) and deploying government civilians to work in tandem with large numbers of military troops in order to establish governance in a foreign country. There’s not many places in the world where that kind of effort is worth it.

    I’d suggest that Mexico is a better candidate for a successful COIN campaign than Afghanistan: its government functions better, its strategic importance to the US is greater, and the potential damage if it collapses are greater. The Taliban are a threat only insofar as they offer a haven to Al Qaeda, but since AQ already has that in Pakistan it’s not clear to me that we need to be worried about establishing stable governance in AF.

    • camino says:

      Interesting points Joel although not sure how you come to the conclusion that Mexico would be a successful candidate for COIN. Indeed, the institutions are historically resilient; the government is legitimate; the country is of strategic significance to the US. But while the government might be losing control of some parts of its territory and the institutions are increasingly being penetrated by organized crime cartels, the crux of the problem is not Mexican or Mexicans – it’s North Americans and Europeans who continue to have an insatiable taste for cocaine. Furthermore, the ‘situation’ in Mexico is not contained within its own borders and linked only to consumer markets – it is linked to the major production zones such as Colombia and to other transit and distribution zones such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Namibia to name but a few, and wheeling and dealing is carried out in physical space as well as the less penetrable and detectable cyber space. Hence, any strategy to deal with the phenomenon would have to have a global reach. Notwithstanding, there are attempts to rein in the reach of organized crime through the Merida Initiative – a US-Mexico joint offensive; however according to a recent review by the US Government’s Accountability Office little regard has been afforded to whether the millions of dollars expended are actually having any impact. The State Department, which is overseeing the Merida Initiative, is alleged to have failed to “set specific targets to determine whether the money was having the desired effect of disrupting organized crime groups and reforming law enforcement agencies.” Sound familiar?

  10. DE Teodoru says:

    Joel I, Americans needlessly died like flies in their “COIN” warfare because they never realized that they are NOT fighting a counterINSURGENCY war but a counterREVOLUTIONARY war. What have we offered them but Karzai, the Tajik and Uzbek warlords and crooked corporate Americans? For that, as in Vietnam, we expect them to sell out their fathers and sons? The Taliban offered each village the historic element that kept their region from chaos: REVOLUTION of SWIFT AND BY-THE-BOOK ISLAMIC JUSTICE. Once again, we sent in killers who love to shoot at people from the air or from hideouts. Aping the Israelis, Americans killed “towel heads” from afar…what kind of counterrevolution is that? I remind you that Bush only abandoned Afghanistan, allowing Rumsfeld to cannibalize it for his Iraq War, only after the CIA provided an analysis showing that the pipelines to bring oil&gas through Afghanistan to the Pakistan’s coastal ports would cost more than they are worth.

    As I wrote, America is like an incompetent surgeon who insists that he must be allowed to go back in if his patient survives because his reputation as a surgeon is at stake. The incompetence of the generals who were parrots on Rummy’s shoulder and Petraeus&Co– a peanut gallery of weird shaped COIN “EXPERTS”– who were not his advisers but his agitprops—was total criminal negligence. Yet they get away with it while a physician goes to jail. McMaster’s DERELICTION OF DUTY was repeated ten times worse by the utter mediocrities in Rummy’s Pentagon. His “modernization” scheme is testimony to his pompous incompetence– the worst kind, that can’t change. All this military degeneracy can only happen because people could say “ain’t my kid going to war.” Only when it cost them cash—as with LBJ’s 10% tax surcharge turned them against Vietnam—do the American people say “enough,” cut-and-run! As a result we are led by people with no respect for their soldiers. Gen. Weyman and Col. Summers (I knew both and respected them greatly) wrote so well:

    “War is death and destruction. The American way of war is particularly violent, deadly and dreadful. We believe in using ‘things’– artillery, bombs, massive firepower– in order to conserve our soldiers’ lives. The enemy, on the other hand, made up for his lack of ‘things’ by expending men instead of machines, and he suffered enormous casualties.”

    The necons bragged about having led America into a “WORLD WAR IV” against Islam and Bush called in a “Crusade.” Do you think Muslims will come running to our psyops run by GED graduates? The Afghan casualties multiply ten fold the number of insurgents, all devoted to killing us in revenge even at cost of their lives. Coward Bush, after insisting that we won’t consider Iraq until we finish Afghanistan, should never have been allowed to cower to Rumsfeld under threat that Bush’s “missing” Reservist records could magically be found; Rummy mindlessly cannibalized Afghanistan for Iraq for Bush’s oil pals. It was bait-and-switch so Congress couldn’t refuse funding soldiers already in the field. As the records open decades from now, Americans will then too suffer “ain’t my kid going to war” disconnect syndrome because, after raping Clio the Muse of History over and over again through pliant media now, over time Americans lose interest and never revisit the catastrophe; so they’ll be doomed to repeat it.

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  12. Daniel D says:

    I am in agreement with those here who think that COIN in itself is not an alternate to strategy in the conventional military sense but is in fact a (dare I say it) a more humanistic evolution of strategy.

    But there are some problems…

    1.) COIN or whatever we want to call it, has yet to translate upwards from military theory to politics, or at least the policy formulation process which advises politicians. All the good theory in the world is useless if its not a part of the process that decision makers use when considering conflict as an option.

    My study in this area always ended at the level of tactical more than strategy with those giving lectures and presentations making only cursory nods to what would happen if the ideas there were espousing had to be implemented into a conventional military policy process.

    This appears to be an almost willful ignorance of the fact that war as we know it is in a major evolutionary stage and that insurgency/terrorism as a growth area is a reflection of that and not just a by product of not fighting against major industrial nations.

    As the Chilicot inquiry seems to be saying there was no factoring in of what was going to happen once the “war” was over, perhaps they couldn’t conceive of it due to their limited spectrum for “conflict” and the highly focused nature of the militaries which were being used but the fact seems to remain, like the elephant in the room, that if it was considered it was either ignored or was genuinely not considered at all, which is worse I dont know.

    2.) COIN as a way to fight conflicts runs counter to the nature of the arms industry.

    Super expensive super fighters aside, the COIN doctrine is low intensity in equipment and much more focused on considerations which cannot be sold or packaged by an industry which sells in the billions (if not more) of dollars weapons which are designed in most cases to do things (kill, maim, wound etc) which can and do feed back into the cycle of violence much more than “eliminate” the problem.

    Worse still is the manner in which a conventional military floods into a combat zone, swamping it with weapons, many of which fall into the hands of the insurgent and thereby fulfilling one of the basic tenants of the insurgent (fight the enemy to gain/capture the weapons you need to expand the struggle).

    All of this leads to the “if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” problem which has sadly characterized many COIN campaigns and seems to have been the hallmark or Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Military force as the primary option to a problem such as this is very akin to using gasoline to put out a fire, its a feedback situation and one which seems to lead to the idea of pouring more gasoline on rather than a sudden and savage reassessment of the situation.

    This is blinkered thinking which reflects the heavy mechanical systems of WW II far more than anything since, large ponderous and brute force being used to blast all and anything which is considered a problem.

    Often hidden deeper in RMA thought highly differing ideas can and do exist but are often overshadowed by the almost knee jerk reaction that leads the discussion of the RMA into the cul de sac of more and more expensive military hardware, the technological fix, the war junkie high. John Boyd, famous for his OODA loop, also pushed ideas which went much further and recognized a greater subtlety than any next gen fighter or super aware battle field surveillance system articulated.

    3.) COIN may in fact reflect a much larger strain of thought, one running at cultural levels and one which points to a future in which the MAD paradigm of Nuclear war is now also brought into play at a conventional level.

    I mean call me a bleeding heart liberal (or whatever derogatory label i s preferred) but even as a military scholar and one who has also served in the military I can see the futility of trying to create a garrison state and the incredibly destructive effects that it would have on culture and open thought.

    And thats not even going into the area that past history has shown when states adopt highly militarized postures and allow such reactive thinking to dominate. Unrestrained economic theories, neo liberalism, the rise of the corporate state are all just precursors to the fascist model of for a state or worse, year zero thinking, genocide, and hubris and delusions of grandeur which are fractionally short of megalomania.

    Im not arguing for a model of communist collectivism, or socialist radicalism but I do acknowledge that COIN has a direction of thought in its broad based, humanist, social orientated thinking which is an immense leap from the crude and reactionary culture which inhabits the majority of military thought (my apologies for those who may take offense to that definition).

    Perhaps the leap required by military minds to grasp the larger social concerns which underlie COIN thought at its most sophisticated (because COIN can and does have some practices which are analogous to conventional military behaviors) are just too far to go for a mind trained to a high degree to see things in a manner that is highly Darwinist, dominator orientated, real politik and zero sum in nature.

    Are we just asking too much for a mindset which has been a hall mark of male dominated cultures to roll itself back and make room for others?

    And in a sense this comes back to the failure of the political systems to consider outcomes beyond the “hit the nail with the hammer” paradigm. Iraq is a prime reflection of this, the war was supposed to be won, done and dusted and everyone (or the winners at least) could have a big victory parade (some did) and that would be the end of it. That outcome did not eventuate and its easy to see why when you stop looking at everything like a nail.

    4.) To the gentlemen from SWJ.

    Thanks for coming over to check us out, we have been willing to discuss the failures of COIN but that doesnt make us anti COIN or hysterics or unable to see the value of the ideas it has but I think a few of us here are arguing that its not going to work in any of the current conflicts due to the problems mentioned above and perhaps also because time is one the side of the others who after nearly nearly 60 years of experience in dealing with western military intervention have not only a greater and more comprehensive body or knowledge of what to do when a colonial western power rolls into your country but also systemic and proven track record of behaviors and practices which have yet to be effectively countered using the means currently available to the West.

    What I think may differ us here from SWJ (and forgive me if I am generalizing but I take my cues about SWJ from the majority of opinions i find there) is that we thin its time to pull back and either allow for the wholesale reorganization of our militaries, states, political and policy processes and even our cultural values before engaging (if at all) in situations such as these and that the changes required cannot be achieved under fire or while engaged in such high stakes and dangerous operations where its peoples lives that will bear the brunt of failure.

    Such changes cannot be done in a combat environment as the mass technological nature of the western approach to war is too well ingrained to allow its realignment when its in motion.

    I suppose in that sense I am a “discontent” but in arguing that it has failure I am not arguing for a return to the past but an evolution forward, one that the situation on the ground suggest is coming, if not already here.

    But the interim tools that we use today and designate COIN are merely short term means and methods and that at the tail end of the half millennium of western dominance with greater global concerns than what are currently enshrined in economic and political thought we need newer and better means to deal with the problem of conflict that the approaches we use today.

    COIN at its best reflects those potentials for newer ways of dealing with conflict, if not wholesale then definitely at the retail end in the idea that there is a greater reaction that will be provoked than can be contained in conventional military definitions or frameworks.

    At its worst COIN has become a handy little book of simple sounding ideas, folksy stories and down home homilies which hide behind a veneer of Zen simplicity to hide the fact that they fall down in practice but sound great in theory.

  13. DE Teodoru says:

    Perhaps this is why COIN conversations don’t go far: (1) the theory was blasted by academics on grounds that it is plagiarism…..a sentence here, a sentence there, like a quickly slapped together term paper (read Petraeus PhD thesis and ask yourself if a non-military grad student would have had it accepted that way). I had lived with the “theory” since the Albanian ops by the Brits in 1950s. In Paris the ongoing Indochina ops were very interesting. The wonders of what Gen.Chanson did in Cochinchina was overshadowed by the Piaster scandal. And there is the ultimate killer of COIN: we pick the most compliant opportunists who speak English and then act surprised when all they do is steal some 10% of what our corporate contractors steal. Carefully reading the words of Holbrooke, Petraeus, McChrystal, Flynn…..and the military guys in the middle, I am reminded of Mao said about soldiers: a soldier is like a frog looking at the sky from the bottom of a well….Now the penultimate characterization of much of the tactical mil-blog debate of strategic issues. As for my “hysterical caps” (#$%%&^@!!!*&&!!) Jesus, if I knew how to underline on the computer I wouldn’t have used caps. But it seems petty to have forced that as the counter with a vapid statement.

    The outcome, over and over again gentlemen, speaks for itself. We who had to swallow Vietnam’s outcome realized that JUSPAO was not enough to hide the inevitable truth. Now Petreaus’s peanut gallery of psyched-up abstract warmongers like the Kagans and Biddle etc can’t counter the real outcome of Iraq–>Afghanistan…..

    By the way, I am very emotionally invested at the thought of my helplessness as a citizen in preventing the mother&dad casualties abroad and all the orphans at home, having so avidly supported Bush in 2000 and Obama in 2008. If you were a healthcare provider and had vets coming to you desperate because the VA dropped the ball (having worked there I know that the best and brightest in healthcare DO NOT work there) and they need care NOW, you would feel personally the fate of this generation’s volunteers upon return. As with Vietnam, many know the real ground level abandonment due to cutbacks for the sake of other electoral priorities.

    But of course, no need to deal with anything said or the arguments made because each deems his little tactical piece of the issue as the ultimate expertise. The little piece of tactical sky you saw there is “THIS IS IT!” and never mind in which direction the inevitable history of the Iraq/Afghan wars is going. Just hang the previous top general and hail the new one and that way you get endless do-overs as if nothing happened that should not happen again. Well, when you’ve seen what the Soviets did there and what we’re doing– I mean in terms of the lowest common denominator– sending in our intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb soldiers…always justifying as: “hey, no one forced them, they volunteered”….then you have the current situation. But fact is, Americans would rather increase your risk, even make your work useless, once the $-cost reaches past their economic tolerance threshold and stop the $ hemorrhage. THAT is the fact and all the interpretation of caps to emphasize decreed as hysteric will not make your case.

    Recently I saw an army truck at a town fair attracting kids with a video game on a large screen in the back of the truck; they got to shoot bad guys, watch them bleed and fall by the road side. THAT’S HOW WE DRAW IN VOLUNTEERS– WITH VIDEO GAMES KILLING THE BAD GUYS!!!! (that, sir IS what my hysterical rage is all about as someone plans for another generation of wasted volunteers!).

  14. Jack says:

    A lot of really interesting thoughts about COIN in the above statements.
    People have spent a long time thinking about what they are trying to achieve too, with very different ways of reaching the end. Could it be that in all of this the approach is from the wrong end?
    Does it not make more sense that in effect you are at the recieving end of a counter-insurgency stategy? It is the international forces that are perceived as the occupying force are you not?
    It appears to me as if it almost insane to think of the foreign presence as the defender of the land or is it just me? How can any troop other than an Afghan/ Iraqi truelly be judged to defend the Afghan/ Iraqi people? No matter how noble the reasons for going there? Is it not obvious from the experiences of those before, that the only way it stops is by the occupier leaving, no matter what other consiquences there may be? That you may even be a unifying factor in the “enemy of my enemy, can be my friend” kind of way?
    Or does this line of thought not have a place in the current thought proscesses?

  15. DE Teodoru says:

    Oh Jack, your words of sanity invoking the obvious are so welcome. Imagine, 92,000 pages of milit-int released all of a sudden at cost to a man’s personal freedom and there’s almost NOTHING NEW in all this “secret” stuff—it only confirms what we all knew since 9/11. Suddenly, the milit hypers are quiet because they are either despaired to see that what they saw in their small corner was true or that what they saw is countered by 92,000 pages worth of intel. But fact is that in our “get for yourself as much as you can” society the best and brightest are not often encouraged to go army but to Wall Street instead where the gold is. And the milit promotion is too often to the look-up and salute “yes sir, can do!” mediocrities types, leading mom and dad soldiers to their doom.

    COIN warfare, once it has become full blown mobile units type warfare, has always been too little too late because it then becomes endless small unit warfare, soon unaffordable to us. The more locals we kill, the more join the guerrillas to avenge the dead, especially in family-oriented rural societies. Even so, you might have noticed that the typical shahid’s profile—usually imported from Arab countries– is not some retard who has no idea that he’s going to blow himself to pieces but rather, quite often, a highly educate and technically skilled individual. In Muslim World education is a big issue, many sacrifice for a son’s education and, upon completion, he is expected to do much for those who sacrificed for him. And yet, most university grads in Mideast have no future. So they are forever a failed investment for their marginal families, a badge of shame forever around their necks. But suicide killing brings a few thousand bucks (a fortune to most Mideast families!)– much more than they invested in the education of the prospective shahid– and fame and respect for the shahid will forever follow his name. When you know the emotional ups&downs of Mideast youths you can see why so many become shahids.

    Yet, somehow, we assume we can kill the “bad guys” while getting the people to love us. And yet, our “human terrain” crap consists of broken promises and invariably the death of many as “collateral damage” whom we seek to draw to our side. In the end we get what we look for supporting us: crooks that speak English and will kiss our butts for a couple of millions $$$. Their greatest use is in that they will be a cover for American corporate theft of “reconstruction” funds.

    I had seen American pacification since a small child. From my perspective, US GIs were the most lovable people on earth (especially compared to the other troops I encountered– Germans, Russians….” And yet to my highly educated parents it was semi-literate American officers telling them what’s best and what to do in countries where Americans are invariably intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb, somehow convinced that they can prevail nevertheless. In Iraq and Afghanistan we started out with an imbecile president, a schemer SecDef trying to replace the president in 2004 and a lot of pin headed bureaucrats passing the buck, allowing it to always land in the pockets of Bush’s corporate friends. The idiocy of America’s brass was legendary– still is. To make things worse, self-promoters like Petraeus left a trail of their “intellect” like droppings to characterize their acumen, emphasized by the incredibly dumb and dishonest dropping of their peanut galleries of civilian military affairs “experts.” And the results in both countries: massive unemployment while KBR brings in Third Nation Nationals as cheap labor instead of using local nationals. The youth became cannon fodder for the enemy and as our commanders sought promotion through high body count (theirs) and low casualties (ours) by killing people indiscriminately, the revenge motivation went sky high. But of course, the American community college graduate running the local pacification team was not about to grasp the local nuances.

    Now an old man, I always despair over the ignorance of most Americans because they don’t care– especially now that they can truly say: AIN’T MY KID GOING TO WAR– and at all the war profiteering bureaucrats and “experts” who push their monologues on people, astudiously avoiding dialogue so as not to expose their chicanery and polemics.

    Our deaf, dumb and blind soldiers are moms and dads. They have families to go back to and want to shoot first and look only when feeling safe amongst the body count; anyone can understand that. What is not understandable is American hubris, especially when it comes from assumed affordable ignorance. Well, Jack, the best and brightest did the American economy far more damage that binLaden would ever have dreamt of doing. The mediocrities hiding behind the flag have done to America’s global position an equal amount of damage. And still, the mediocrity star whores generals still think that these wars have something for them to exploit for career futures. That’s why we’re losing; because we assume that we can be dumb as dirt because everyone in the world is inferior to Americans. So, Jack, how many more wars do you think we can lose and how many more Wall Street collapses can we recover from before we go the corrupt way of the Roman Empire? While our “Rome”– Wash DC– burns, mil acads fiddle with distinctions without differences between COIN theory and practice as if either were really guided by knowledge and forethought. I cry for our America at the hands of mediocrities. No one would allow a doctor to practice with a record like the Pentagon generals’ 92,000 pages leaked to the press. And yet, our putrid media and academia, instead of seeing the dialogue prospects of so much intel, just Tsk, tks it all while the patriot who released it pays with a long prison term.

  16. Pingback: Gates on COIN: what was really said? | Kings of War

  17. Pingback: Counterinsurgency and its Discontents: Part 2 | Kings of War

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