Carl Prine is a consummate critic. Using a pseudonym, he long dominated the comments section at Abu Muqawama and then at Ink Spots, where he sniped at blog posts and commentators alike but also provided lengthy and often insightful analysis of the issues being discussed. He has since dropped his pseudonym but continues to offer sharp commentary and criticism over at Line of Departure. Occasionally, his readers are treated to an evisceration of an article, or more specifically an author. The titles will be as uncompromising as the content: ‘Starbuck is Wrong’, ‘Finel is Wrong’, and so on. Prine writes and argues well and is widely read, but sometimes his tongue seems far sharper than his eye. Now that your humble author is in his firing line, let’s take a moment to reflect on what he has to say about the surge and counterinsurgency.
First some background: this all relates to an article of mine published this week in PRISM, the journal of the Consortium of Complex Operations. Titled ‘Counterinsurgency after Afghanistan: A Concept in Crisis’, the article sought to do three things: to assess the increasingly disparaging narratives about counterinsurgency in the United States and beyond; to tease out the concept’s contributions and limitations; and to chart a way that would see us retain the valuable lessons of the last decade of operations.
Carl Prine severely dislikes the article and penned a lengthy critique. He has many problems with it, but in the haste to provide his readers another ‘assault and battery’, he misreads that which he is reviewing and contradicts both himself and the scholarship that he cites. In typical Prine style, let’s go through it point by point.
Prine misrepresents the COIN debate
Straight off the bat, Prine argues that my article makes points that ‘almost everyone already shares, even the most revisionist of the many critics’ of US operations. Prine’s own post would seem to contradict this claim – after all, he thinks I am ‘mostly wrong’. As to the notion of a consensus on this topic, Prine himself notes (just two sentences earlier) the ‘increasingly shrill debates over COIN, the Iraqi “surge” and the “strategy in Afghanistan’. So in fact the debate is far from settled (something further illustrated by the discussions on Small Wars Journal, World Politics Review, and beyond). This is precisely what prompted the article: an attempt to chart a middle course and establish common ground between two polarized camps, so as to reach multi-causal explanations for complex problems.
Prine sees COINdinistas under the bed
Prine suggests that I am incapable of charting such a course because I have a ‘career stake’ in promoting counterinsurgency (given the book I wrote on the topic in 2009 and the ‘counterinsurgency-friendly’ people I interviewed for it). This raises two points. First, the book was on the rise of counterinsurgency within the US military, which it welcomed as a necessary innovation given previous narrow and reductive thinking about war and the benefits of ‘transformation’. That does not, and has never meant, that counterinsurgency is itself an infallible concept, particularly given the fact that it means so many things to so many people. It should also not mean that I am now too biased to have a worthwhile opinion on the matter. Indeed, if someone who has written on the topic is automatically dismissed as ‘tipping the scales’, as Prine suggests, who should we trust instead?
In the end, trust comes down to arguments and evidence – and we’ll get into that in a moment. But this relates also to Prine’s effort to tar me as biased based on the people cited in my book. Why does Prine concentrate on the sources for a book written two years ago when reviewng an article published this week on a different (albeit related) topic? Because doing so helps Prine class me as a ‘COINdinista’ (a term Prine coined for those who ‘like’ counterinsurgency) and as a ‘COINdinista’, everything I say can be dismissed using rote arguments and accusations of buy-in. Suddenly I am a pamphleteer, a propagandist and echo chamber for the ‘dominant narrative’ spun by power-hungry generals and politically-motivated pundits.
The thing is, viewing the debate in terms of ‘COINdinista’ and its antonym, COINtras (a term also coined by Prine), is deeply unhelpful. This is an overly reductive dichotomy: counterinsurgency is not a flavour of ice-cream or a sports team, to be liked or disliked, but an ambiguous term with many meanings and facets. It should therefore be eminently possible to appreciate counterinsurgency for its contributions, all while critiquing its limitations. Indeed, this is the only way of getting beyond this tired polarization that has stifled the debate to date.
Prine doesn’t like nuance
Prine doesn’t seem to like this. He also criticises my apparent desire to ‘have it both ways’ with regard to ‘the surge’, because I argue that it is difficult, or at any rate too early, to identify one singular factor that caused the decline in casualties in Iraq at that time. It is necessary to understand the admixture of influences, including US inputs and local factors, that led to this decline. Still, the evidence so far strongly suggests that while the surge was not ‘the only or the main factor’ it was nonetheless important and provides some very relevant lessons. Its effect varied across time and space – another reason why a blanket dismissal seems so tendentious – but there is ample evidence of it having, together with other factors, affected the calculations of local actors on the ground, resulting in new political opportunities and partnerships that were fully exploited.
Prine misuses his own statistics
Speaking of the surge, Prine tries to use a Pentagon and Congressional Research Service report from 2008 to show ‘a downward slump’ in casualties beginning in December 2006, ‘three months’ before Petraeus arrived. This, Prine says, shows that Petraeus was incidental to the stabilisation of Iraq during this time: ‘by the time Petraeus arrived three months later to begin Surgifying Baghdad and environs, that toll had dropped by nearly a third’.
Now, if Prine’s loyal readers were to consult the actual report, they would see that whereas there were certainly fewer casualties in January 2007 than in the previous month, we are still talking of more than 3,500 deaths in that month alone (p. 19). Second, Petraeus arrived in early February, not March, which invalidates the point being made – though this is really a technicality. Third, even if there was a decrease in casualties in these early months of 2007, Iraq still faced, until August 2007, between 2,000 and 3,700 casualties per month. It would be interesting to hear how the people mired in that violence would react to Prine’s description of it as a ‘downward slump’ in casualties.
Still, the more fundamental point here is not to get hung up on when Petraeus arrived and whether there were 3,000 or 2,000 casualties that month, but on the subsequent reduction in casualties, by November 2007, to the 750 range and below. Thus, whereas Petraeus’ arrival signalled continuity as well as change, the ‘long-term effect [even the medium-term effect] of the shift in strategy’ was ‘undeniably stabilizing’ (a quotation from the article that Prine attacked).
So Prine’s question of ‘why the surge get credit for trends that preceded it’ is misleading. It betrays an expectation that if Petraeus did not change everything, he changed nothing at all – again leaving little space for nuance. With the surge, Petraeus elevated practices that some commanders had come to beforehand through ad hoc adaption. He incorporated these practices, along with other tenets, into a strategic-level campaign plan that was closely tailored to the political conditions, challenges and opportunities on the ground at that time.
Prine confuses history with historiography
Still, Prine is right when he points to the lack of detail in the article on the Iraq and Afghan wars. Yet as any author of a journal article or a book will know, it is simply impossible to do everything and therefore necessary to focus on specific aspects (even if this means skirting over others). In this case, the article was about the popular US historiography of the surge and of counterinsurgency, not a history of politics in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such it deals with the narratives that are emerging in the US defence community about counterinsurgency, what it achieved, what it is and how it should be remembered. This is not, in other words, an article for those seeking to learn more about Da’wa-ISCI politics, the Sadrist militias in Basra and so on. Yet this does not mean that ‘Ucko’s Afghanistan and Iraq contain no Afghans or Iraqis’ or that I do not ‘care about Iraqi or Afghan politics’; these topics are simply dealt with in other articles.
But I still like Prine
I didn’t care for Prine’s review of this article, but Prine remains a vital voice in the debate on counterinsurgency. His passion in challenging the conventional wisdom and detailed understanding of the topics on which he writes usually provide for breaths of fresh air in a debate too stodgy, insular and self-referential. His wide area of expertise, stretching far beyond Iraq to large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and probably beyond, allows him to draw from a far wider canvas than most others.
Prine is a much-needed critic and he comes armed with a sharp pen. But the quality of his argumentation is undermined by the occasional ad hominem attack and his ‘pointlessly obstinate’ approach toward some issues (his words, not mine). My recommendation: your readers demand blood, but make sure they get a full serving of brains as well.