Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A few words in defense of Colin S. Gray’s essay on COIN and our future strategy

By Adam Elkus Best Defense COIN respondent Colin S. Gray‘s recent article in Prism, when read in context with his other works, reveals much about how an inadequate grasp of strategic theory compromised the counterinsurgency debate. Tom has graciously provided me space to elaborate on why Gray’s corpus is valuable for American defense policy and ...

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.

By Adam Elkus

By Adam Elkus

Best Defense COIN respondent

Colin S. Gray‘s recent article in Prism, when read in context with his other works, reveals much about how an inadequate grasp of strategic theory compromised the counterinsurgency debate. Tom has graciously provided me space to elaborate on why Gray’s corpus is valuable for American defense policy and strategy.

COIN as Concept Failure

It is pointless to argue, Gray claims, whether or not COIN has failed or succeeded. This is because COIN is not a concept. Debaters argue for or against COIN, a position as ridiculous as arguing about whether anti-submarine warfare is inherently good or bad. As Gray observes, COIN is not an internally coherent set of ideas. It’s just a descriptor for what armies do to counter insurgents. If this sounds a bit reductive, consider that the enormous losses suffered by the Allies at Cambrai in 1914 did not constitute proof tank warfare itself had failed, nor did decisive combined arms tactics in the Gulf War prove that tank warfare was successful.

The merit or demerit in COIN "cannot sensibly be posed as a general question." Insurgency has been a constant feature of strategic history, and will likely continue to be. Whether or not to intervene in another state’s internal politics is a question best left to historical circumstance and it is impossible to put forth one policy solution that will hold for any and all cases. In any event, the idea that one has a choice to engage in COIN is also a matter of context. Domestic insurgencies always must be countered as a matter of basic political survival.

It is a category error to argue that COIN is inherently more political than interstate war, as this implicitly uses a war’s intensity as the defining measurement of how much it is dominated by politics. All wars involve the use of force for political purpose, are shaped by context, and feature two forces seeking to impose their will on an adversary. In other works, Gray has sensibly noted that the supposed differences between irregular and conventional warfare are ultimately cosmetic. Categorizing wars according to the predominant combat style of one or more of the belligerents leads to analytical confusion. For example, the idea of "cyberwar" erroneously implies that combat action will solely be limited to computer hackers volleying computer network attacks against each other across the digital ether.

Weapons obtain meaning only through the strategic effects they enable, making it difficult to categorize a war solely through military technology. In American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, conventional platforms, skills, and specialties were used against primitive opponents — and tactical innovations pioneered there will likely play prominent roles in major war. The spectacle of Canadian Leonard tanks firing on Taliban guerrillas and the reverse engineering of counter-IED technology into tools for destruction of conventional air defenses should be sufficient demonstration of the arbitrary distinction between conventional and irregular challenges.

One consequence of this categorical confusion is the idea that that one side’s tactics and technologies should be defeated through deliberate mirroring. Networks should defeat networks, governments and third parties must out-govern insurgents, and so on. But there is nothing essential to a given war’s policy or strategy that demands a perfectly symmetrical response. This is obvious when the enemy is a global terrorist organization — no one would argue the U.S. should carry out suicide bombings. It is less obvious when the enemy is a guerrilla organization contesting control with a government and a third party force. Counterinsurgents do not have to "out-govern" insurgents simply because the enemy uses shadow governments for strategic effect. The enemy does have a vote, but that vote should not unnecessarily narrow counterinsurgent strategy.

COIN and Strategy

Gray’s previous works have emphasized that although the logic of strategy is timeless, strategy in practice defies the American obsession with definitive principles of war. Context rules all, and principles of war are in reality only principles of warfare valid for certain temporal, political, cultural, and material circumstances. The only principles of war that truly survive are so general as to be practical nubs: war is a political act conducted for political purposes, war is a cultural undertaking, etc.

The COIN debate has essentially been a tireless search for eternal principles. But this debate, as Gray, David Kilcullen, Sebastian Gorka have all argued, rests on a tiny sliver of contemporary military history. Insurgencies differ radically according to context in strategic history, and dependence on a small set of cases (Algeria, Vietnam, Malaya) exacerbates the already Sisyphean search for principles of COIN warfare. A universally "right" way to conduct COIN does not exist, not least of which because the idea supposes a Platonic ideal that can be divorced from political and cultural circumstance. Gray argues that the sheer diversity of phenomena herded under the common moniker of "insurgency" inherently creates a plurality of strategic methods that can guide COIN tactics.

The diversity of strategic approaches to dealing with insurgency, Gray points out, means that "best practices" can only be realized on the level of tactics. As Gulliver of Ink Spots observed, all armies need to know how to shoot, move, and communicate. Even then, the usefulness of tactics is contingent on how they enable strategic effect determined by policy. There are tactical best practices for countering insurgencies utilized by other powers that American policy has determined to be out of political bounds. Other governments will reject tactics for what may seem like completely arbitrary reasons to Americans. The dispute between the U.S. military and the Afghan government over night raids in Afghanistan is a case in point — a tactically sound approach that favors an American strategic objective may not serve Afghan national and personal interests.

Gray echoes Joshua Foust and other regional analysts of Afghanistan in noting that discussion of COIN within the context of current operations has really been a provincial debate over American COIN doctrine. Policy and strategy, which by necessity are formed by the conversation between national interest and regional knowledge, sadly emerged only as adjuncts to theological debates about COIN tactics. Doctrine is important, but even successful doctrine is too narrow a prism to look through when examining war.

Gaining Strategic Advantage

What does Gray’s view of strategy have to say about how America should understand the business of winning (or losing) wars that feature COIN? First, a basic truth of strategy is that it deals with, but is not ruled by, warfare. States can sometimes win war by dominating the warfare, but this is not always the case. The Israelis arguably won the warfare in 1973, but the strategic shock inflicted by the Egyptian assault had far-reaching political effects. Likewise, the Chinese performed poorly in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese conflict but still rattled the Vietnamese enough to gain the Chinese political object. Finally, as the United States discovered at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, even victors do not always gain peacetime objectives they seek. And success always has some kind of unintended consequence. Above the tactical level, an objective concept of victory does not exist. Victory and defeat are governed by only by political context.

All this is also true of counterinsurgency. Strategy is enabled by tactics, and military defeat of insurgents does not guarantee strategic defeat because the physical ability to annihilate them requires a degree of decision that small-scale counterguerrilla operations cannot always provide. The Chinese communist ability to survive numerous encirclement operations in the Chinese civil war, coupled with their greater faculty with local deal-making among powerful elites, enabled them to survive and eventually outgrow their nationalist enemies. As Lukas Milevski observed, battles make up the raw material of warfare but do not necessarily equal the whole of war. Hit-and-run attacks, sabotage, targeted killings, battle avoidance, and raw attrition are not chivalrous but also inflict important physical and psychological losses. The story of guerrilla warfare is mostly (but not always) a story of erosion. The victor is often the one still left standing.

While guerrillas can sometimes win through strategies of erosion, so can governments. Destruction of enemy resources, safe havens, and population control as a means of restricting enemy movements are all ways governments impose cumulative material, psychological, and political costs on insurgents. Through controversial, intelligence-based leadership targeting, the use of "pseudo-gangs," and informers are all part of the toolbox governments and their allies use to gain some measure of control over the adversary. And control — gained either through erosion or decisive warfare — is crucial to success in COIN. The public are not just spectators to warfare in COIN, and control is one of the various means governments and insurgents use to gain support and legitimacy.

Perception, Legitimacy, and Politics

"Legitimacy" should not necessarily be understood solely as a synonym for "consent of the governed." Rather, legitimacy can have a variety of meanings among various audiences. But one side’s staying power is crucial to local perception of legitimacy. Gray’s most important point is that success in COIN is not likely if prior or parallel nation-building is a precondition for victory. Analogies to nation-building in Europe and Asia miss the point: many of the most successful efforts occurred after a great deal of bloodletting to gain physical control. Control enables police to create order, tax collectors to receive revenues, and institutions to be built. And even then the outcome is not guaranteed. The Union military overawed the South but prewar political and cultural institutions reasserted themselves with malicious energy during Reconstruction.

COIN efforts can be crippled by bad politics, but COIN also suffers when physical control cannot be exercised. While military effects can sometimes gain political decision, it does not follow that political work can always compensate for military failures. Tactics must serve strategy, but the converse is that strategy without sound tactics is also dangerous. One Afghan example that Gray repeatedly returns to is the failure to destroy the enemy sanctuary in Pakistan. Strategic defeat of insurgents is impossible without tactical actions to neutralize the major source of their political power: the perception they can and will outlast their American adversaries in a war of attrition.

Perceptions in Afghanistan rest on material realities. The Taliban are unlikely to perceive themselves to be defeated if they can regenerate their power in secure sanctuaries. And as Foust suggests, Afghans are unlikely to be convinced of government staying power if the Taliban can consistently mount terrorist operations around the pinnacle of Afghan and Coalition political power in Kabul. It is true that defeat in the battle of perception can raise the cost of coercion. But good works do not guarantee cooperation, and accidental cultural gaffes and collateral damage do not inherently lead to conflict. In fact, sometimes the opposite can occur in both cases. Why? The behavior of populations in war is motivated by a variety of factors that include political mobilization, sectarian and family loyalties, safety, and material interest. Outside forces must deal with these motivating forces but should not assume they can easily alter them.

The challenge, as in any other kind of war, is to use force in a manner that enhances rather than detracts from control. This does not mean assuming that the population is the center of gravity. Taking the human terrain into account is simply smart politics, something armies and their political masters should always be cognizant of. Insurgents are successful when they use existing political forces to their advantage, but governments can also do so even in when they are unable to obtain consent. Israeli military and civilian intelligence efforts rest in large part on extensive exploitation of political and social friction between Palestinians. Consequently, a popular uprising defeated Hosni Mubarak because he lost control of Egyptian elite politics.

Finally, as Gray notes, if tactical setbacks cannot be tactically rectified, the problem is the policy or strategy rather than cultural awareness or COIN deficits. If a general or a politician cannot solve the problem caused by a "strategic" corporal, it is not primarily the enlisted man’s fault that the war effort collapsed. In Somalia, the tactical disaster of Mogadishu would not have mattered if the war had greater support in American domestic politics. Once the war shifted from a humanitarian operation into military operations, a gaping hole in the "strategy bridge" left the entire structure vulnerable to fog and friction and enemy adaptation.


Gray’s essay is first and foremost a plea for COIN theorists to consider the canon of strategic literature and human experience beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. We ought to carefully reflect on his words before we find ourselves encountering the same problems on new military frontiers. Strategic theory will not guarantee victory, but it can help us shed illusions about what force and persuasion can and cannot achieve.

Adam Elkus is a PhD student at American University. He blogs at  Abu Muquwama, CTOVision  and Information Dissemination on strategy, technology and international politics.

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

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