‘Not quite dead yet': the counterinsurgency debate continues…

Though some claim counterinsurgency is dead, the debate about it is still going strong. It remains to be seen whether the raft of recently released and soon-to-be-published books on the topic are the last, parting shots or just another salvo in a campaign with no end. What is certain is that there is still much to be said and understood about the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, about military intervention, and the proper application of strategy. As contributions to this debate, I alert you to three recent items by Kings of War authors (myself, of course, and also Ryan Evans):

  • For your listening pleasure, consider this podcast recorded by the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Advanced Governmental Studies. Mark Stout,  Global Security Studies Program Director, interviews me about my recent book and the strategic context of counterinsurgency. The conversation touches upon the British campaign in Basra, the relevance of counterinsurgency principles to modern warfare and the relation between counterinsurgency and the campaign plan.
  • Over at War on the Rocks, I have penned a short essay on clear-hold-build, examining the central contradiction between the dominance of this approach in counterinsurgency theory and its extremely patchy track-record when put into practice. What accounts for the gap between theory and practice and does ‘clear-hold-build’ have any utility as an approach to local-level counterinsurgency? The article links to a longer treatment of this topic, within Contemporary Security Policy, which the editors and Taylor & Francis have temporarily made ‘free-for-view‘.
  • Finally, Ryan Evans has penned a very useful review for Foreign Policy of three books dealing with Afghanistan: Matt Zeller’s Watches Without Time, Ben Anderson’s No Worse Enemy, and Carter Malkasian’s War Comes to GarmserWhile on the topic of book reviews, I will be reviewing Douglas Porch and Gian Gentile’s counter-COIN books in a forthcoming issue of Small Wars & Insurgencies dedicated in its entirety to counterinsurgency and the debate that it has fostered. Something to look forward to, right?

More to follow, no doubt…

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6 thoughts on “‘Not quite dead yet': the counterinsurgency debate continues…

  1. L.Midavaine says:

    Mr Ucko I’m listening to the podcast you were invited to. When you mention that politically the term “counter-insurgency” was maybe improper to define what was done in Iraq and Afghanistan where the Western force were in fact the proactive side, I was reminded of some texts I read in the “Les guerres irrégulières: XXe-XXIe siècle”, a corpus of texts selected by Gérard Chaliand (which I am sure you know of).

    Specifically a text by a French general (the exact reference escapes me) which felt the whole concept (and naming) of “counter-revolution” was in itself conceding the political initiative to the Communist guerillas and that it was important to be as aggressive in propaganda and initiatives to prove the (obvious, to him : different times) superiority of Western-backed regimes.

    It is interesting, as you note, that “counter-insurgency” and “nation building” were conflated. One may feel there’s a little bit of arrogance in thinking that what we were imposing was so right that it had already the legitimacy of a settled regime.

    • Thank you for your comment. I think you are precisely right. This is something Robert Egnell, the co-author of my recent book (Counterinsurgency in Crisis) has written on: http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jfq/jfq-70.pdf. The article discusses the use of the term ‘counterinsurgency’ in Afghanistan when, as Egnell argues, NATO was actually the one with the most revolutionary agenda there.

  2. Chris Pike says:

    Afghanistan was a great success
    Being alumnus rather than student or faculty, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate that I contribute to the COIN debate in this forum, but I feel I must comment on the continuing debate on this vital subject

    It does not seem to be realised that the COIN campaign in Afghanistan was a resounding success: the Taleban, plus whatever local militia was around at the time, beat the NATO insurgency into a cocked hat

    Despite having more troops, satellite surveillance, a more secure base, air power in abundance, sophisticated weaponry and a better command and control system, not to mention a modern PR corps, the NATO insurgency was bested by a ragtag army with little more than small arms and the ammonium nitrate that we kindly supplied them with

    Now retired, I spent my career encouraging senior industrial and commercial managers to think, and act, more strategically. After a lengthy process of teaching, coaching and case studies, I would ask them to produce their own Strategic Plans. Having listened to their presentations, my two most frequent comments were: (1) Yes, but what about the customers? How will they feel about the new initiative? What are their preferences? Will they buy it? (2) Yes, but what about the competition? In this instance, for ‘customers’, read ‘Afghans’. For ‘competitors’, read Taleban and local militias. It is obvious that there is considerable overlap here

    Strategy has to have a clear vision (ends) which is realistic and achievable: this can only to reached through the consensus of the participating parties

    Strategy is about choice (ways): there were other actions available to us/NATO/whoever (teaching civil administration à la Russe), building and maintaining communications, providing health care, etc.

    Strategy is competitive; everybody’s strategy depends on everybody else’s. There will most likely be somebody who is trying to prevent you doing whatever it is you want to achieve (which was what, exactly?). There’s very little in the 2010 SDSR, or the contemporaneous NATO ‘New Strategic Concept’ which recognises this. Did no-one think, or even know, how the Taleban might react?

    Strategy is contingent: it is almost certain that things will not turn out quite as you expected. Remember Napoleon’s dictum that if the enemy has only two possible courses of action, it quite likely he will choose the third. There is no excuse for not planning (the examination of various scenarios), but here, planning seems to have meant simply the logistical issues. Guerrillas, insurgents, partisans (whatever…) have been ‘hit and running’ and blowing up roads since time immemorial: might the Taleban not have thought of this as well?

    Finally, strategy is about capability (means): the best of the above is useless if the organisation is not capable of directing, managing and controlling the affair. But where was the political focus? Who was in charge? Had anyone, beforehand, thought about the problems of reaching any political consensus within the coalition, or with the people of Afghanistan? See David Miliband’s Ditchley Park speech (July 2013) for an answer on that one

    Whilst doing War Studies at Kings, I was absolutely assured that business experience had very little relevance to War Studies. But all social organisations have characteristics in common, whether that’s Megacorp plc, NATO, the British Army or the Taleban. Clear vision and the choice / competition / contingency / capability nexus is as pertinent to NATO, the constituent nations and their armies as it is to any social organisation

    One further thing: Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’S secretary-general suggested, in 2010, that the (new) Strategic Concept calls on NATO to ‘further develop doctrine and military capabilities for expeditionary operations, including counter-insurgency, stabilisation and reconstruction’. More excuses for tedious, expensive conferences and, no doubt, the setting up of more sub committees.

    So the third comment I would offer to my charges on their Strategic Plans was that ‘researching, analysing and studying’ (usual features) were fine, but at some point you have to make a decision, commit resources and initiate action. Without any political consensus, no amount of research, or any ‘new strategic concept’ has any meaning at all. But we knew that that all along……….

    It seems bizarre that the only action that NATO is now committed to is not to try this sort of malarkey again

    • Neutral says:

      It does not seem to be realised that the COIN campaign in Afghanistan was a resounding success: the Taleban, plus whatever local militia was around at the time, beat the NATO insurgency into a cocked hat

      Very clever, good work!

      After a lengthy process of teaching, coaching and case studies, I would ask them to produce their own Strategic Plans. Having listened to their presentations, my two most frequent comments were: (1) Yes, but what about the customers? How will they feel about the new initiative? What are their preferences? Will they buy it? (2) Yes, but what about the competition?

      One could argue that the coaching could have included this idea before their “final presentation”?

      But all social organisations have characteristics in common, whether that’s Megacorp plc, NATO, the British Army or the Taleban.

      Well said.

      ps I thought you were great in “Star Trek”.

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