What hath COIN wrought?

In the decade during which the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have defined in large measure American (and Western) military activities, the matter of COIN has received no small measure of consideration and discussion. It will be for future historians to hash out the assessments of what was done. Here I only wish to consider the effect of the American military’s efforts as a counter-insurgent and how this will influence the armed forces in the decades to come.

These musings first arose in response to a recent article by Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times (27 May), “West Point is Divided on a War Doctrine’s Fate,” which highlights the Army’s internal debate over the issue, as played out in the halls of the institution’s oldest academy. When asked what had been gained from the COIN doctrine and the strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan it had inspired, with particular attention to the costs and the scope of the efforts, Colonel Gian Gentile, military historian, professor, and a veteran of Iraq, offered a succinct response: “Not much.”

There is no shortage of voices within West Point, the Army, the American military establishment, and in the commenting population at large to offer all manner of contrasting opinions to those of Colonel Gentile, but it is his position that spurred my thinking. His opinions in this matter are important, but I have trouble reading them as quite so black and white as his comment suggests.

First, his judgment in this particular piece seems more a critique of the guiding policies regarding Iraq and Afghanistan rather than a wholesale denial that sound COIN doctrine and strategy have any value. That is, the problem has really been with the choices to commit not only to regime change but also extensive state building in each country. The case for the latter choice was arguably weak, especially for Iraq, but that is a different matter from whether COIN is or was a sensible military strategy to pursue. Thus, the lack of success in either conflict ought to accrue to bad policy and not doctrinal errors.

Second, one must ask what would have resulted in either of those campaigns had no COIN effort been implemented. The lack of a rousing success for COIN does not necessarily mean that conventional strategies and tactics would have brought better results. In fact, given the difficulties there have been even in a COIN-dominated effort one can plausibly argue that conventional approaches would have proved even more damaging to the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so, I certainly do not think it sensible that the COIN baby should be tossed out with the water as the interventions wind down. I am no blindly worshipful disciple of John Nagl, but his comment in the article is spot on: “Does COIN work? Yes….Is it worth what you paid for it? That’s an entirely different question.”

Third, understanding a bit about the broader scope of his position, Colonel Gentile’s significant concern is with the effect upon the Army as a whole and his concern that COIN will overtake the institution to the exclusion of other forms of warfare. I agree with him that a wholesale reorientation to and adoption of the capabilities for COIN warfare as the Army’s sole purpose would not be wise. However, by the same token, a narrowly construed focus upon and strict adherence to conventional warfare is equally wrong-headed. Unless there is an extant enemy or war impending it is best not to pigeon-hole military capabilities. In this critique his may resonate more than people are considering, a point for consideration below.

Beyond arguing for a particular understanding of this piece of history, the article leads me to consider the influence and implications of the history. As it is the path that was chosen, what can we make of the decade since COIN became the strategic and tactical cause célèbre of American military defence policy?

The foray into COIN with an earnestness never before seen (at least not in the American military establishment) should have been a valuable interlude for the American armed forces. To think through an unfamiliar form of warfare is an exercise which can benefit military capabilities as well as the intellectual depths, flexibility and creativity of the personnel.

The latter effect cannot be doubted. The former inspires reason for pause, if not concern.

Let us consider the good news. Taking only the internet activity as the indicator, American military personnel have made great use of the opportunity created by the rise of COIN. The discussions, debates and ideas generated from the need to adopt and adapt to a new doctrine as well as the specific concerns arising within each theatre (and down to even more localized fronts within each) has been nothing short of spectacular. Truly, impressive stuff, whether it was in information sharing, ownership and refinement of the doctrine to reflect lessons’ learned, or increased interest and inclination to look to the broad historical record on the subject for further knowledge or understanding. Additionally, the COIN years, if approached correctly, could help the process of anticipating the next form that asymmetric warfare will take. Even if not, the mere exercise of imaging such possible forms will improve the capabilities to adapt when that next challenge does arise. Finally, even Colonel Gentile’s critique of the rise and influence of the newest iteration of COIN doctrine is part of this intellectual flowering within the armed forces. Whether his position is correct or widely held is less important that its existence or the furthered discussion on the matter that it has impelled.

Why am I concerned about the future effect of this experience in COIN? On several fronts I see evidence of disturbing trends. Consider the matters of casualty and discomfort aversion. Iraq and Afghanistan have seen nearly unimaginable efforts to soften the experience of war, at any cost, while endeavouring mightily to limit (also at any cost) American exposure to harm. With respect to the matter of comforts, the logistics costs have been astronomical, and they are likely to be unsustainable in the future. More worrying have been the step taken to limit risk to American personnel, the worst of which has been the rise of the UAV as a weapon of war. I have not quite given over to Doctrine Man’s fear of the rise of SkyNet, but the increased reliance on these weapons is troubling enough in non-apocalyptic scenarios. Taking only one aspect of this issue for consideration to believe that we can fight wars without incurring risk for the personnel is foolish beyond measure. I particularly fear that should we limit the exposure to the military we will simply invite our enemy to target the homeland and population. I do not (as I feel I must constantly repeat) despise or hold cheaply the lives of those in uniform, but neither do I believe we must make them so precious as to become useless or irrelevant. Cold fact though it may be, better the armed forces than the Sears Tower. Finally, having given over fully to COIN in the past decade, there is no denying the loss of certain military capabilities. Taking one branch as an example, artillery is practically a lost art. Where there existed a broad spectrum of capabilities in mass and maneuver, application in Iraq and Afghanistan has narrowed usage considerably. Furthermore, officers who entered that field at the start of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and now represent the newest generation of field-grade officer, have limited experience in their military specialty. And artillery is not the only area in which ground has been lost. How the armed forces will deal with these deficits, especially with this critical weakness at the middle ranks of leadership, is a matter of no small concern.

Beyond these are even deeper, more troubling issues. The real problem for the armed forces and the defense intelligentsia, with respect to COIN and other issues, will be the consequences of perceived defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Across the Atlantic, to the other Times, the concerns and ideas of a British journalist coming to terms with his country’s participation in OEF (“The Army hasn’t pulled out. So why have we?” 14 July 2012) give me pause. In this opinion piece filled with pathos regarding the individual experience and cost of war for British personnel, Matthew Parris’ concluding remarks should be considered in the American case as well. Pointing out that “there is decency in losing a war well, in facing up to a mistake,” he goes on to argue that “we can learn, can’t we?”

But can we? While I don’t fully agree with the totality of his opinions as to the specific mistakes and the lessons to be taken, for the American side of things, certain aspects of our character in war give reason for concern in this area. Simply put, we do not lose wars well. America ad Bellum, the manner in which we go to war, is extreme in the existential terms in which wars are written. For a public not generally inclined to war or conflict as a matter of course or rational policy, support is usually generated by casting the struggle as a necessary and noble cause. This works well for getting the people behind a policy, but it makes defeat difficult to sell or accept. Furthermore, we are generally not good at admitting mistakes and tend to seek external sources for blame. And so, the most common popular explanation for events in the Vietnam War is that the media was to blame for defeat, an explanation which defies every effort to be put down as it sensibly should. These characteristics do not bode well for the quality of future analyses or the lessons that will be learned from these conflicts.

What hath COIN wrought, indeed.


9 thoughts on “What hath COIN wrought?

  1. COIN also has a huge problem in that its proponents have greatly overblown its value and success for political reasons. I think that this has the opposite effect, long-term, from what they intend: sure, for a while it makes Petraeus (or Lyautey!) look good for their superiors but when the next generation of COINers come along they have to compare themselves against the inflated claims of the previous.

    The end-game for COIN looks suspiciously orwellian and resembles a justification for total militarization and surveillance more than a successful strategy.

  2. I think these musings on COIN would benefit from some delineation of what COIN is and is not, an admittedly difficult nut to crack. For sure, the casualty-aversion, the selling of progress for political reasons (that Marcus Ranum notes) and the difficulty of losing (without finding someone to blame) — all these tendencies look likely to feature in any war, whether COINtastic or not. Among the many points alluded to here, which belong exclusively to COIN and which are just typical of war pure and simple?

    • MikeF says:

      I tend to agree with David; however, I think that the question is what do we think COIN should be or needs to be rather than what is it in the current practice? Gian Gentile’s next book will argue that we took a maximalist approach for minimal outcomes. Translated, he is asking was it worth it?

      For the military, folks are prepping for their final tours to A’stan trying to sort out the messiness of handing over battlespace while engaged in combat. At the same time, leaders are taking a deep breath (and often a long sigh) pondering what (if anything) they accomplished over the last decade. Simultaneously, they are trying to figure out what they need to do next- how to train the next generation and what fight to fight?

  3. Jill S. Russell says:

    Marcus – I really like your points about Petraeus, whose cult of supporters I’ve always been skeptical of. I’m not sure that it will be much more difficult to break the normal anti-counter-insurgency mentality that normally takes hold of military institutions – after all it took something of an effort to shake off the malaise of the “it’s just Hussein dead-enders”. I’m not sure I agree with the pessimistic view of counter-insurgency doctrine generally – in fact, I would submit that quality counter-insurgent practices are about de-militarizing the overall effort, about improving the effectiveness of local governance, and so forth.

    David – in this particular case I am taking the liberty of using COIN as a historian describing the contours of an era given OIF and OEF, and that it has been a topic on the lips and minds of a great many involved in many fields relating to war, etc. I could proffer my definition of COIN, but that won’t cover the concepts of many others – in fact, I’m not sure that any single definition could do so. Moving on to the other points of your critique, I do not mean to suggest the issues I highlight are unique to a COIN environment – not at all. Rather, I am concerned with how these transcendant issues will be shaped by the peculiarities of playing themselves out in this period. However, I might go so far as to say that the comfort and casualty aversion issues do relate to matters of success in counter-insurgent environments. As compared with conventional warfare, in COIN it is simply less obvious why personnel must be sacrificed – there’s no objective to take that is nice and tangible – or why relative luxury disparities between military forces and locals might have greater strategic relevance.

  4. A very good post.

    The major issue here as I see it is that the success of COIN depends much on having enough fortitude to see it through no matter how long it takes. However, a big part of the problem has to do with the American people who have been conditioned to think that all wars must end as WWII did, i.e., with parades and much pomp and circumstance and unambiguous victory. And because of this the kind of “war” that COIN requires, namely, a long drawn out conflict in which gains cannot be readily observed is simply a difficult one to grasp for most of the American public. Also, COIN usually has to be justified or accounted for by means of “national security interests” which is something else many Americans don’t get (or choose not to) because they erroneously believe that every war (or most at any rate) that the US has been involved in has had a strong moral component. Thus, for most Americans any military struggle that the US does get involved in must necessarily have some kind of moral reasoning behind it otherwise it is not justifiable.

    In other words, what I’m trying to get at is that the success of COIN, because the United States is a (indirect) democracy, depends on the American people’s understanding and (full) acceptance of such a doctrine which because of the reasons given above I don’t think is likely to happen. In terms of COIN then there simply is a limited amount of political capital that the makers of US foreign policy and military doctrine will have to sustain them in the application of COIN strategy which in the case of Afghanistan seems to be about ten years.

    In short, COIN takes a long time to be “successful” and most democracies in this media saturated world are I think ill-equipped to effectively see any COIN doctrine through to that end.

    Btw, I was a soldier in Afghanistan and while there I wrote a brief blog post about my thoughts on COIN that if you are interested can read here:


  5. Matt says:

    I guess if COIN is worth the cost depends on the threat assessment level. If the threat assessment level is low and non threatening ( not in the national interest, a non core interest) no intervention is required let alone COIN. If the threat assessment level is deemed to be severe ( a core national interest) then intervention is required and COIN is a viable option. To achieve the desirable outcome.

    The question is why the nation building aspects of COIN can take decades, the phase of foreign occupation before indigenous forces are ready to take control. Is using the ROE and WHAM which may led to more causalities in the short term, yet ends the war within 5 years. Compared to a more aggressive ROE, with no WHAM which prolongs the occupation phase for 10 years.

    It is clear a more relaxed ROE protects troops with a higher level of collateral damage over the civilian population. Which generates more insurgents and support for the insurgency and prolongs the conflict and thus the KIA rate of the occupation force. Not to mention the fiscal costs on the occupation country.

    It is a question of winning the battles but losing the war, containing the insurgency and achieving a political settlement to the conflict.

    So like in Iraq al-Qaida has a presence but are not a threat to the state as the insurgency is contained, due to the majority accepting a political settlement. Which allowed the US to disengage without leaving behind chaos. Because the insurgency is contained, a political settlement is achieved and indigenous security forces created which can deal with the contained insurgents.

    Also the intensity level of COIN allows for the containment of the insurgency by the foreign occupation force, which leaves a buffer period for the indigenous security forces over the insurgents groups. So they cannot regenerate into a threat to the state.

    Don’t judge COIN on the outcome in Afghanistan alone.

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