The South Asia Channel

This isn’t the COIN you’re looking for

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the muchneeded conversation over counterinsurgency (COIN) has returned. Ryan Evans’ COINis dead, long live the COIN attempts to addto this debate, but his efforts fall short, because he and other COINproponents refuse to understand the underlining flaws in counterinsurgency as astrategy. COIN as a strategy cannot ...


As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the muchneeded conversation over counterinsurgency (COIN) has returned. Ryan Evans’ COINis dead, long live the COIN attempts to addto this debate, but his efforts fall short, because he and other COINproponents refuse to understand the underlining flaws in counterinsurgency as astrategy. COIN as a strategy cannot work in today’s world, given the currentlimitations in available resources, time, and national will.It was a collection of tactics and operational arts developed for twentiethcentury wars of nationalism and communism. Strategy, defined as the ends, ways,and means of American policy, must rise above a collection of disjointedtactics that have no proven cumulative effect. 

Refusing to understanding the disconnect between tactics andstrategy leaves analysts like Evans wondering why "success has eluded theInternational Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which has been unable to translate operational progress into strategicsuccess," as one recent journal article asked. Instead ofaddressing the underlying problems of the fledgling Afghan state, the regionalgeopolitics, and COIN in general, Evans in his article looks internally at theAmerican perspective far removed from the fight and examines how "divisionsthat were aggravated in the lead-up to the Afghan ‘surge,’ remain unhealed"leading to a current "debate surrounding counterinsurgency [that] has becomehighly personal, emotional, and angry."  Evansthus ignores the possibility that tension in the COIN debate may arise from ouractual failure in war.

COIN, derived from the writings of David Galula and SirRobert Thompson, analyzed and reformulated by former and current militaryofficers and thinkers like Dr. John Nagl,and codified in Gen. (Ret.) David Petraeus’ Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, is a series of bestpractices from the post-colonial experiences of Malaya, Algeria, and Vietnam.COIN, better known as population-centric counterinsurgency and brandedPop-COIN, became a fashionable study in security studies. As the wars in Iraqand Afghanistan dragged on, COIN attracted young scholars such as Evans and Dr. Andrew Exum.

Using data from the Correlates of War dataset, Evans statesthat "about 80 percent of all conflicts since the end of the Napoleonic Erahave been insurgencies or civil wars. Future insurgencies are all-but-certainto challenge American interests to the point that our civilian politicalleadership will need to decide if our military will become involved in counteringthem. And if insurgency lives, then so must counterinsurgency." 

While the data is accurate, this analysis tells us nothingnew. Since Herodotus wrote of Darius conducting a scorched earth guerrillacampaign in 512 BC, scholars have been talking about the tactics used by theweaker foe to subvert the stronger power for thousands of years.  Most guerrilla tactics not only have remainedthe same — ambushes,raids, concealed movements — but they’re also core functions of the counter-insurgentin the professional military, a point often raised by researchers such as DavidBetz and RobertAsprey.  

It is also true that most American military campaigns havebeen either small wars or civil wars and not conventional wars. As the Americanmilitary learned during the Revolution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, tamingthe American West, building the Panama Canal, and more recent humanitarianmissions in both Haiti and New Orleans, it is best focus simply on goodleadership, tactics, and training.  Whilemilitary officers will argue the proper mixture of high- versus low-intensityconflict, most agreethat balance is required.  As werecover from the wars of the last decade, we will certainly need seriousreforms, but these reforms should focus on bureaucratic structures,decentralization, information flow, and intelligence not the tactics andtraining of our platoons and companies.   

As COL (Ret.) Robert C. Jones stated in conversations with me, "Whilemost in government recognize that the world is changing in significant ways,few are yet able to envision how we could change our approaches to the world inequally significant ways, or are simply unwilling to accept the risk associatedwith changes that would demand the U.S. take a much smaller role in definingwhat a proper outcome looks like." He continued, "We are still at the point ofsticking pretty much to business as usual, to include defining what right lookslike for others (based upon what we think will also be best for us). Theroots of our frustration are in the strategic essence of what we are trying toaccomplish. We justify overriding the sovereignty of others as necessary topromote and preserve our own sovereignty."

As we move forwardtrying to solve future problems, the key is to figure out how to avoid becomingmired in bloody, protracted conflicts not hinting at population-centric COINfor "catastrophic state failure and humanitarian crisis in Mexico."  This reasoning stinks of fear mongering andlacks creativity. We are better than this, and we must strive for bettersolutions that do not exhaust the nation’s wealth.

As the United States militarylearned the hard way in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a counterinsurgency"strategy" based on a post-colonial framework does not translate well into themodern world that has left colonialism far behind. Simply put, COIN as astrategy fails to confront the challenges of the modern world in three fatalareas that its proponents either ignore or wish away in their planningassumptions,

1.    COIN fails in environments where the government is weak or has lowsupport of the local populace, failed states with little or no functioninggovernment, or nation-states recovering from the aftershocks of regime change.

2.    Generallyspeaking, people view foreign armies as occupiers.  The populace’s reaction to attempts atwinning hearts and minds is often taken to be support, but in reality, thesereactions show deference, perceived legitimacy, and temporaryrespect whose impact is fleeting and fluid.  

3.    COIN requires a whole of government approachmore commonly known as nation-building that is currently lacking in the UnitedStates foreign policy arsenal, despite repeated talk about thiscapacity in the post-Cold War period and flawed efforts at nation-buildingincluding the CoalitionProvisional Authority in Iraq and Afghanistan’s "Government-in-a-Box."

The bottom line is Malaya, Algeria, and Vietnam were notsimply independent nation-states but remnants of the British and French Empireswith pre-existing government structures, systems and process for rule of lawwhen they faced their civil emergencies. These foundations set the conditionsthat preclude all three major problems today.

In "An Absence of Strategic Thinking," Col. Paul Yingling highlights the failureof not addressing these problems, by noting:

Those advocating a program ofcounterinsurgency in 2009 behaved as if these events (failures from 2002-09)either did not happen or did not matter. But a decade’s worth of blunders andmisrepresentations has exhausted the patience of the American people…Devotingthe hundreds of billions of dollars required by a counterinsurgency campaigninto an open-ended conflict in Afghanistan would have been difficult even in2001. By 2009, such a policy became impossible.

Similarly, in 2009, scholar and military theorist Dr. StevenMetz clearly forecasted these problems in The CivilianSurge Myth: The U.S. needs to pretend it can stop doing nation-building. Andthat same year, Col. Gian Gentile rather bluntly asked if our efforts were "NationBuilding at the Sound of a Gun?"

The understanding that armies must train predominantly for conventionalwar has led Gen. Ray Odierno, the former U.S. commander in Iraq and currentchief of staff of the army, to develop the Prevent, Shape, andWin construct, and to refocus the US. Army towards high-intensity conflicttraining.  Additionally, the U.S.military isnow planning to rewrite the existing COIN manual in order to beginaddressing the flaws in the colonial model aslearned in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts.

The world is no longer in the colonial age. I believe thatwe should drop the outdated foundations of our existing manual and begin anew. Thecosts and time expended in these "savagewars of peace" should be enough evidence at this point to suggest that we lookfor better ways. It is time to start evolving past the colonial model andthinking in terms of strategy.

Maj. Michael Few isan army officer who served in Iraq in 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007 in variouscommand and staff positions in Infantry, Armor, and Special Forces units. He isa graduate of the United States Military Academy, and he currently serves asthe editor of Small Wars Journal. The views expressed hereinare his own.

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