Best Defense

Ten questions about the future of counterinsurgency and stabilization ops (I)

By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen’s Royal Hussars Best Defense guest columnist There appears to be a growing sense that the era of COIN that began on 9/11 is drawing to a close. The chief prophets of the philosophy are, for various reasons ranging from the personal to the professional, no longer quite the force they ...


By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen’s Royal Hussars

Best Defense guest columnist

There appears to be a growing sense that the era of COIN that began on 9/11 is drawing to a close. The chief prophets of the philosophy are, for various reasons ranging from the personal to the professional, no longer quite the force they once were, or are not needed quite as urgently by politicians who have accepted the drawdown from Afghanistan as the end of the era of nation-building through COIN. Nations are growing tired of seemingly endless wars that rumble on, without a positive conclusion. There is a belief that we, the West, cannot afford to fight these campaigns anymore, not in an age of austerity and fiscal cliffs, which seems to be the one thing on which economic commenters and treasury secretaries across the political spectrum and across the West can agree. Perhaps more interestingly there is also a growing belief that we can opt out of fighting such wars in the future. The trend in staff colleges around the world is to return to the proper business of soldiering — major combat operations. This trend is bolstered by a belief that our skills in this area have atrophied over the last decade or so of constant patrolling in the deserts, towns, and mountains of obscure foreign countries of which we never really knew much about, or cared much for.

Notwithstanding the wishes of senior commanders, who make much of the fact that the we in Western militaries must not simply press the reset button and dump our experiences of the last decade, it seems probable that the need to train for "old school" major combat operations will probably lead to this happening in practice — because people train to be good at what they are going to be assessed on, which in the near future is going to be old fashioned warfighting, however it is currently described. And at the moment we lack experience in this area. A personal example illustrates this. I will take command of a cavalry squadron in September; I have not been employed on tanks since 2005 and the sum total of my armored experience amounts to a little less than two months. If you were my regimental commander, in a post-Afghan conflict world, would you be more worried about training me to do my core skills — armored warfare — or ensuring I retained more esoteric knowledge that is no longer in vogue — COIN?

As this belief grows stronger (and it will — especially after 2014) there will be a tendency to put away the lessons of the period of 2001-2014, in a part of our brain that we do not choose to look at very often. And then, when in years to come we find ourselves fighting another similar campaign in another part of the world that we also know little of and care even less for, we will find ourselves having to go through the same painful process of learning and adaption that we have experienced over the last decade. At the risk of naming the elephant in the room, we run the risk of repeating the mistakes of the post-Vietnam era.

There is an even more frightening prospect than this, however. What if we don’t actually learn the correct lessons at all from our experiences? What if, in the hurry to put away the experiences of the last decade, we find ourselves failing correctly to identify what it is we have been doing, and so when the time comes to bring forth the knowledge so painfully earned, we bring forth the wrong solution? Put bluntly — will we actually learn any lessons at all, let alone the correct ones, or will we simply repeat the platitudes of today in the future, while ignoring the hard facts? If we avoid the Vietnam syndrome, will we fall victim to the Northern Ireland syndrome?

This is an urgent point that needs to be addressed. Now. Not when we next find ourselves doing COIN. To try and ensure that this is not the case I have drawn up a list of 10 questions which I believe it might prove profitable to answer, or at least discuss. I have no particular answers in mind for them, because I myself was a distinctly average COIN practitioner, full of zeal but lacking tact and understanding. With these limitations in mind I present my questions for better minds than mine to answer.

Question One — Have we really been fighting counterinsurgency campaigns at all? The simple answer to this question is, "Yes. That is what the manual is called, idiot." But before the idea that we haven’t been fighting counterinsurgency campaigns at all is dismissed out of hand, consider the following supplemental questions. Is it possible to fight expeditionary COIN? Can you fight a COIN campaign when you first have to remove the legitimate government of another country? Can you fight a COIN campaign when you are seeking to radically alter the fundamental nature of a society? Or, taken together, do these factors make you a better fit for the role of the insurgent (albeit one so well-equipped with iPads and bottled water that we could pass for the Occupy Movement) than counterinsurgent? This links back to the fundamental question asked by Clausewitz — what sort of war are you fighting? It is critical to acknowledge that we are not likely to deploy deliberately to fight a COIN war; we deploy to do something else — e.g. foreign internal defense or regime change — and then our stabilization operation goes wrong and we are forced to fight a COIN war. Being able to recognize this (the nature of the war we are fighting) is the first step in being able to adapt and win.

Major Tom Mcilwaine is a British Army officer who is currently a student at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Ft. Leavenworth. He has deployed to Iraq as a platoon commander and battalion operations and intelligence officer, to Bosnia as aide to the commander of European forces and to Afghanistan as a plans officer with I MEF (Fwd). The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the School of Advanced Military Studies, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, nor perhaps even those of the Sussex County Cricket Club.

(To be continued)

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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