Kuhn on COIN: Revolution!…or Back to Normal?

The current edition of PRISM is chock-a-block full of good readings on COIN and state-building.  What does it tell us about the field as a whole?

Thomas Kuhn, in his enigmatic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, described that any given body of knowledge tends to settle or ossify.  Over time, thinking crystallises and becomes accepted as the status quo.  Kuhn called this the state of normal science.  When a body of knowledge is in a normal scientific state, the aim of those working within that body of knowledge is to bring theory and ‘fact’ into closer agreement.  Scientists strive to get more precise measurements and more data to get reality and model to become as similar as possible.  They are busy solving problems generated by model rather than questioning the model itself.

Inevitably, though, even the most normal body of knowledge is confronted by anomolies; findings that just don’t fit the model.  Ships don’t fall off the end of the supposedly flat earth when they sail over the horizon, for example.  While anomalies are inevitable, what happens to them is not.  Kuhn describes that there are three ways in which a body of knowledge can deal with anomalies.

First, a body of knowledge can accommodate the anomaly–declaring it to be a fluke (not statistically significant, for example), or socializing it (an exception that proves the rule)–and then comfortably returning to ‘normal’.  Something akin to ‘i before e, except after c’.

Second, a body of knowledge can determine that the anomaly is something that the current model cannot explain because of a lack of precision or capability, and not a flaw in the model itself.  So, in the case of particle physics, as measurements get more precise and anomalies in atomic weights become more noticeable, we see the model declare that there ‘must be another particle out there that we cannot yet find that explains the discrepancy’.  Here, too, we then see a return to a more or less normal state, with scientists now looking for said heretofore unidentified particle (probably with a very strange name), in order to bring the model and reality into better alignment. 

Third, and rarest of all, a body of knowledge becomes beset by so many anomalies, or by a few anomalies that cannot be accommodated or set aside (in Kuhn’s thinking, such a body of knowledge is said to be in ‘crisis’) and a new model is created, one that differs significantly from the original model and offers an alternative explanation.  The classic example here is the emergence of the theory of evolution as an alternative to Creationism.

When a body of knowledge is in crisis and produces a new model, there are two further options: one, the new model is eventually accepted and the original is discarded (there are no longer many non-Copernicans amongst us); or two, the old and new models co-exist, fighting for legitimacy within the scientific community, often with each model in a state of normal science (there are still some non-Darwinists amongst us). 

Where am I going with this, Dear Reader?  Well, if you read the latest edition of PRISM journal, you will see much of what Kuhn described in action, as it pertains to the field of COIN and statebuilding.  Allow me, for the rest of this post, to offer brief summaries of some of the key articles, thereby illustrating just what I am talking about.

Get Out

In The Opportunity Cost of Security, Dov S. Zakheim (a former Chief Financial Officer for the US DoD from 2001-2004) believes that, given the anomalies between the model (‘postconflict reconstruction leads to stability’) and reality (‘not so much’), the US should abandon the model, almost altogether.  Maybe others could make the model work better, but (as a bean counter) Zakheim has seen enough to declare that

it is highly questionable, given America’s record, whether it should seek to take the lead in postconflict reconstruction and stabilization. That is not to say that the United States should not play an important role in those efforts, only that its resources could be commanded by others—the UN, or Europeans, or Australians, to name the most obvious candidates.

Those anomalies?  They are so profound as to scupper the model.  [How the Australians might feel about being dropped into it is an interesting off-shoot of this declaration, but not the only one.]

Get Better

A contrasting view is held by Messrs. Upshur and Roginski and Dr. Kilcullen in their Recognizing Systems in Afghanistan: Lessons Learned and New Approaches to Operational Assessments.  Far from thinking that postconflict reconstruction and stability are a waste of time, these authors posit that the model is sound, if only we could improve the way in which we measure and, thereby fine-tune, its application.  Their opening salvo pretty much sets up their argument:

Until it was overhauled in 2011, the assessments process in Afghanistan’s Regional Command South was mired in 240 metrics and indicators—some of which were uncollectable while others were entirely irrelevant. It lacked focus, failed to define the problem, and was divorced from decisionmaking cycles. That is to say, it was representative of how operational assessments are usually conducted.

Now, what good consultancy firm would point out a problem if it didn’t have a solution (to sell)?  True to form, the authors have discovered

a mutually reinforcing cyclical effect among improvements in confidence on the one hand, and improvements in local security, governance institutionalization, and community resiliency on the other.

Moreover, they have developed what they believe is a simpler and more elegant set of metrics (arghh).  I will leave it to you to read the article for yourself and determine if what they propose is either simple or elegant.   

Those anomalies?  Oh don’t worry about them; we just need to tweak the way we run the model. 

Get Real

Marc Sedra’s piece Finding Innovation in State-building: Moving Beyond the Orthodox Liberal Model is subversive (in the best sense of that word).  Bringing in contributions from thinkers not normally found, but desparately needed, in a military-policy wonkish publication (such as Mark Duffield, Ronnie Lipschutz, and Charles Tilly) Sedra highlights that the current model of statebuilding is flawed because of its internal incoherence:

A part of the prevailing mythology of state-building is that it is largely an apolitical, nonideological, and technocratic enterprise. In reality, it is a deeply politicized and ideologically driven project, as much shaped by the interests of its donors as by the on-the-ground power dynamics of the recipient country. This lack of honesty, or perhaps this hubris, of today’s liberal state-builders has marred the project’s implementation.

Sedra’s solution is to acknowledge this reality and to create a model more in tune with it: 

The post-liberal model differs from its liberal cousin in its willingness to tolerate and support semidemocratic and even partially antidemocratic structures and practices, either as a transitional step toward a more orthodox liberal democratic order or as an endstate in itself, as long as those practices and structures are locally legitimate, operationally effective, and not inconsistent with basic human rights.

From  a Kuhnian perspective, Sedra’s new model is actually a description of what the old model looks like in practice, rather than a real step-change.  As he himself points out, “the Emergency Loya Jirga process in Afghanistan in 2002” and “the formation of the Sunni Awakening Councils in Iraq” were non-liberal anomalies accomodated within the putative liberal model extant at the time.  Sedra’s post-liberal model is an example of accommodation, not revolution.  Note that there is nothing wrong with that.  Revolutionary (in the Kuhnian sense) does not connote ‘good’ (or bad, for that matter). 

Those anamolies?  They are actually features of the new model.

Get Back

Colin S. Gray enters the debate without subtlety with his Concept Failure?  COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory claiming

much of the recent COIN debate fundamentally is nonsense; it rests upon false or misleading ideas, indeed literally upon misconceptions.

COIN, in this thinking, may be a new model, but it is no challenger to the Classical original.  Those anomalies?  The new model didn’t do a good job in explaining them, so let’s get back to normal. 

[The article contains some gems, worthy of a read quite apart from the Kuhnian aspect, including an updated list of the principles of war.  Also, the article contains some of Gray’s legendary combative wit.  I quite liked this zinger:

If success in COIN requires prior, or at least temporally parallel, success in nationbuilding, it is foredoomed to failure. Nations cannot be built. Most especially they cannot be built by well-meaning but culturally arrogant foreign social scientists, no matter how well intentioned and methodologically sophisticated.

He also gives tips of his hat to both David Ucko and Patrick Porter, presently and formerly of these pages respectively.]

Get on with it 

So where does that leave us?  Where is COIN? What is COIN?  Is it stuck in a normal rut or is it rocketing to revolutionary status? Will it co-exist with its traditional predecessor, fighting for legitimacy (as it might seem if we take the Gentile v. Nagl debate as representative)?  Or is it, in and of itself, an anomaly, easily absorbed into the exisiting corpus, without so much as a burp?  I, for one, am not sure, but the latest issue of PRISM has brought the matter into much sharper relief for me.


3 thoughts on “Kuhn on COIN: Revolution!…or Back to Normal?

  1. Stephen Downes-Martin says:

    Three additional documents (available on-line) that are highly skeptical of current efforts in creating metrics for COIN that might be of interest are:

    “Why Operations Assessments Fail: It’s Not Just the Metrics”, Jonathan Schroden, Naval War College Review, Autumn 2011, Vol. 64, No. 4, pages 89 — 102

    “Embracing the Fog of War: Assessment and Metrics in
    Counterinsurgency”, Ben Connable, RAND 2012

    “Operations Assessment in Afghanistan is Broken: What is to be Done?”, Stephen Downes-Martin, Naval War College Review 2011, Vol. 64, No. 4, pp. 103 – 125

  2. W4rlord says:

    Only TWO succesful post conflict nation building so far.

    Germany and Japan.

    Who is willing to bare the costs unseperable from these successful ventures? To rebuild something to last, one has to start from the real foundations. Both countries were demolished during and after WWII literally.

    All else is interventionism, colonialism, imperialism, adventurism, call it what you like.

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