The South Asia Channel

COIN is dead, long live the COIN

When the U.S. Army and Marine Corps released their FieldManual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency, in2006, key military leaders and civilian advisers promised a different kind ofwarfare. Written as Iraq crumbled, the manual institutionalized key tacticaland operational methods that were geared to fighting against irregular armedfoes, rather than the maneuver warfare most of the U.S. military had ...


When the U.S. Army and Marine Corps released their FieldManual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency, in2006, key military leaders and civilian advisers promised a different kind ofwarfare. Written as Iraq crumbled, the manual institutionalized key tacticaland operational methods that were geared to fighting against irregular armedfoes, rather than the maneuver warfare most of the U.S. military had preferred.The new theory was based around several key principles, including proportionateand precise use of force to minimize civilian casualties, separating insurgentgroups from local populations, protecting populations from the insurgents, theimportance of intelligence-led operations, civil-military unity of effort, andsecurity under the rule of law.

Some of these methods had already been practiced in Iraq byinnovative commanders, but Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw the process of writingFM 3-24 and later went on to command U.S. forces in the country, was key to theirinstitutionalization and broad implementation in the context of an overalltheater-level strategy.

As President Barack Obama decided to "surge" forces intoAfghanistan in late 2009, former Joint Special Operations Command head Gen.Stanley McChrystal was tasked to follow the Petraeus playbook in Afghanistan.When he was relieved, Petraeus, the man many saw as having helped bringstability to Iraq, was called upon to do it again in Afghanistan. However,success has eluded the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whichhas been unableto translate operational progress into strategic success. A number oftriumphant obituaries for counterinsurgency have since emerged, as it becomesclear that the campaign in Afghanistan is failing to deliver on its promises.

There are five inter-related drivers of this cauldron ofdiscontent with COIN: First, the rise of counterinsurgency as a standardpractice in the U.S. military left skeptical American officers and institutionswho preferred emphasizing conventional capabilities (large-scale armoredwarfare, for instance) feeling disenfranchised. Second, the common narrative ofthe war in Iraq viewed (and somestill view) Gen. Petraeus as the hero who brought counterinsurgency (andsubsequently stability) to the country. This narrative alienated some officerswho had already been using some counterinsurgency methods effectively beforethe introduction of FM 3-24. Third, among the commentariat, the caustic domestic political divisions from thefirst phase of the Iraq War, divisions that were aggravated in the lead-up tothe Afghan "surge", remain unhealed. Fourth, the military officers and thinktank scholars who became most closely associated with COIN’s rise developed apartially-deserved reputation for cliquishness, self-reference, and conceit.And finally, there has been a dearth of clarity on the goals of the Afghancampaign on the policy and strategy levels.

Col. Gian Gentile (who represents the first, second, andfinal strands of anti-counterinsurgency discontent) presents one of his standardarguments in "COINis Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics." He argues the UnitedStates military has failed in Afghanistan and Iraq because it allowed afascination with the tactical and operational methods of COIN to supersedeimplementation of an actual strategy in those conflicts. In fact, looking atoperations in Iraq and Afghanistan for lessons is a fundamentally misguidedventure, he argues. Rather, we can only view our experiences of the lastdecade as lessons in failure and return to embracing our conventionalcapabilities.

Others are preoccupied with the political battles behind counterinsurgency.Michael Cohen, a vocal critic ofthe war in Afghanistan, refusesto acknowledge that counterinsurgency lessons are worth keeping andinstitutionalizing until advocates of the population-centric approach inAfghanistan "loudly acknowledge – indeed even shout to the hills – that everytime someone recommends fighting a counterinsurgency this is [a] really,really, really bad idea…." This seems akin to arguing that we cannot updateour doctrine on nuclear warfare, expeditionary warfare, and other capabilitiesthat are far more costly until we "shout to the hills" that to use these wouldbe a "really, really, really bad idea." Advocates of maintaining counterinsurgencycapabilities have been happyto acknowledgethese campaigns tendto be long, hard slogs, but Mr. Cohen’s criticism does not address the military’sneed to be able to adapt to contingencies as ordered. We cannot wish away theagency of our enemies.

Still others see those who support counterinsurgency’s place inthe toolbox of American power as being part of a new "military-industrialcomplex." Major Mike Few, an armor officer (like Colonel Gentile) and editor ofSmall Wars Journal, arguesthat some think tanks and defense contractors have formed a "cottage industry"that champions counterinsurgency for ego and profit at the cost of "trillionsof dollars, thousands of lives and abandoned security projects elsewhere thatcould have benefited our republic exponentially more…"

For one thing, the weaponssystems, equipment, and capabilities necessary for modern "conventional"campaigns are far more costly and more lucrative for defense contractors (the2009 defense industry-subsidized congressional debateabout the F-22 reminded the world that the original military-industrialcomplex is alive, well, and costing the U.S. taxpayer for over-budget,malfunctioning weapons systems of questionable utility). Further, the use ofconventional capabilities against a major power may well take more militarylives than those we have lost in Iraq andAfghanistan. But this aside, our abilities to conduct counterinsurgencyoperations and major combat operations are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, aspeople like Maj. Few understand, John Nagl’s Centerfor a New American Security — the unnamed bogeyman in his critique andothers — did not decide to go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nagl was merely oneof many in the U.S. Armed Forces who sought to make the campaigns of twoconsecutive Commanders-in-Chief work.

Indeed, the debate surrounding counterinsurgency has becomehighly personal, emotional, and angry. This has been most recently demonstratedby the snideand personalrejoindersto a recent articleteasing out the lessons of Iraq by Dr.David Ucko of the National Defense University. Increasingly for somecritics of counterinsurgency, their opponents are not just wrong, but immoralliars. Yet for all of the heat this debate, it has produced little substantivediscussion of the future of counterinsurgency after the wars in Iraq andAfghanistan, or more broadly the appropriate uses of limited funds andmanpower.

Before declaring the death of counterinsurgency and maligningthose who see value in some of its precepts, analysts should ask if insurgencyis dead. Indeed, the most significant failure of these anti-COIN arguments istheir shared focus on the response to a problem — counterinsurgency tacticsand strategy — at the expense of the problem itself. None of these articlesproclaim that "insurgency is dead" because to do so would be absurd. Insurgencylives, and has proven itself throughout history as the best means by which tooppose established political and military power. AsAndrew Exum recently observed, about 80 percent of all conflicts since theend of the Napoleonic Era have been insurgencies or civil wars. Futureinsurgencies are all-but-certain to challenge American interests to the pointthat our civilian political leadership will need to decide if our military willbecome involved in countering them. And if insurgency lives, then so must counterinsurgency.

Critics also make the mistake of particularizing a form of counterinsurgencydesigned during a specific historical period meant to counter a distinctiveform of insurgency known as popularprotracted warfare. If anything, the key failure of counterinsurgency inthe past decade has been the myopic view of the military and key counterinsurgencyproponents that counterinsurgency could only take the form advocated byscholar-practitioners like the French officer David Galula (who developed histheories in Asia before implementing them in Algeria) and the British officerSir Robert Thompson in Malaysia, who were both grappling with different, lessevolved forms of violent struggle than what we have seen in Iraq andAfghanistan. Thus, for critics to proclaim the death of counterinsurgencymakes them guilty of the same error that they often pin on their opponents: relyingon an expired intellectual framework.  

The real question is: what form will American counterinsurgencytake in the future? It seems reasonable to argue that "big footprint," "population-centric"counterinsurgency is dead, but "small footprint" counterinsurgency that focuseson security force assistance, Special Operations, and/or foreign internaldefense lives on (see Yemen,the Philippines,and Somalia).But is it really inconceivable that we will ever again conduct another large-scalepopulation-centric counterinsurgency campaign? Those who think it impossible mightconsider how the United States would respond to violence spilling over theborder from catastrophic state failure and humanitarian crisis in Mexico, forinstance.

As always, our choices will be structured by the agency ofour competitors. Therefore, we would be foolish to avoid learning the tacticaland operational as well as the policyand strategic lessons of the last ten years. We must maintain our capabilities and competencies for counterinsurgency,if only because history has shown that they will come in handy again.

How we do this is what we mustdebate and discuss.

Ryan Evans is anassociate fellow at the International Centre for the Study ofRadicalisation and Political Violence and served in Helmand Province, Afghanistan as a Human Terrain TeamSocial Scientist. The views and opinions expressed here do not represent those of theDepartment of the Army, Training and Doctrine Command, or the Human TerrainSystem.

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