Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Is COIN nation-building? I don’t think so

It occurs to me that one of the problems we have in discussing counterinsurgency is what we mean by the word.

Saddam_Hussain_Iran-Iraqi_war_1980s
Saddam_Hussain_Iran-Iraqi_war_1980s

It occurs to me that one of the problems we have in discussing counterinsurgency is what we mean by the word.

To me, it means confronting a situation in a hard-nosed, realistic, thoughtful way. That is, don’t make more enemies that you need to. Separate out the wavering from the hard-core. Find a way to entice the wavering. Protect those who come over. Best way to handle a foe is to convert him, second best way is to neutralize him, third is to imprison him (but carefully), and last is killing him. That said, some will need killing. It ain’t about being nice, and really isn’t about building institutions.

I mention this because an article by Dominic Tierney in the new issue of Prism seems to me to use “COIN” interchangeably with “nation building.” I don’t think that is correct. Nor is COIN “stabilization” — indeed, it often will be destabilizing, especially in areas where the enemy has influence. In Iraq, for example, the quickest road to stability would have been to leave Saddam in power.

It occurs to me that one of the problems we have in discussing counterinsurgency is what we mean by the word.

To me, it means confronting a situation in a hard-nosed, realistic, thoughtful way. That is, don’t make more enemies that you need to. Separate out the wavering from the hard-core. Find a way to entice the wavering. Protect those who come over. Best way to handle a foe is to convert him, second best way is to neutralize him, third is to imprison him (but carefully), and last is killing him. That said, some will need killing. It ain’t about being nice, and really isn’t about building institutions.

I mention this because an article by Dominic Tierney in the new issue of Prism seems to me to use “COIN” interchangeably with “nation building.” I don’t think that is correct. Nor is COIN “stabilization” — indeed, it often will be destabilizing, especially in areas where the enemy has influence. In Iraq, for example, the quickest road to stability would have been to leave Saddam in power.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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