Counterinsurgency: Idea vs. Implementation


“The distilled essence of an idea, which is infinite, must not be confused with its implementation, which is finite. The essence of an idea is not subject to change over time, whereas its implementation is variable, depending on time, perception, and understanding.”

-Daniel Barenboim, Music Quickens Time


The great pianist, conductor, and genius-in-general Daniel Barenboim wrote the above words in a chapter titled “Freedom of Thought and Interpretation.” Upon reading the passage, I was struck at how well his words also address the counterinsurgency (COIN) debate that I wrote about last week.  As Barenboim suggests, we cannot judge an idea – that is, population-centric counterinsurgency– by its implementation in two particular instances – that is, the poor execution of COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan. Judging COIN as an “infinite” concept according to two “finite” examples is logically fallacious. At the same time, however, critiques of implementation do not preclude critiques of the concept itself made on conceptual, rather than logical, levels.

First, implementation. It is absurd to extrapolate the utility of COIN as a concept from two case studies in which it was implemented, especially when so much disagreement still exists regarding what we actually did and what effects our actions had. Most reasonable analysts would agree that the American military’s use of COIN may not have been among the top reasons why violence declined in Iraq in 2008 – yet we have difficulty determining which of our actions may have brought about a shift in Iraqi behavior. Train and equip programs? Simply having more soldiers among Iraqis? A significant increase in our use of violence?  Better civil-military coordination?  The application of Field Manual (FM) 3-24, the COIN manual? To an extent, it was probably a bit of all of these at various times but least of all the last.

I was a serving army officer when the counterinsurgency field manual FM-324 was published. It was, for many officers, a watershed document – even though it should not have been. It claimed to provide a different and more complex vision of conflict than the worldviews put forth by the more conventional publications that had the Cold War as their context.  What FM 3-24 provided the U.S. Army was the perspective that there were more than two adversaries in a given war.  This may seem silly to us now, but for many combat arms units it was nothing short of revolutionary.

Of course we know now that all wars include people other than the primary antagonists. All wars are complex. All wars have a considerable political and social element. The actions of corporals matter in every fight. The fact that these sorts of ideas were only “found” in the new COIN doctrine speaks more to the weakness of existing doctrine of the time than to the genius of FM 3-24.

As a brigade planner during the 2007-08 Surge in Iraq, I can attest that the manual was absolutely useless in helping units develop plans. It provided no insight on how to balance violence with political and social actions. The section on how to measure success was so poor it was laughable, or at least it would have been had the stakes not been so high for so many people. The manual’s famous paradoxes make for great happy hour banter, but proved profoundly meaningless during the orders production process. As for hearts and minds – a phrase only mentioned once in the manual – we had no intention of winning either. We built what we felt we should to appease some parties, we employed Sons of Iraq to buy off other parties, and we used an impressive amount of violence against whoever opposed us with force.

FM 3-24 reminded us to not unnecessarily antagonize the populace and that development funds could buy us what our weapons wouldn’t win, but it would be a stretch to say we (at least in my brigade’s area) conducted population-centric counterinsurgency, as code for armed nation-building.

Logically, then, it is hard to extrapolate much about COIN based on what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, because COIN wasn’t really what we were doing.

From a conceptual standpoint, even more problems arise.  While Iraq and Afghanistan may not (epistemologically speaking) disprove the validity of COIN, there are serious definitional and categorical concerns.  No historical case study exists in the modern era of a successful third-party counterinsurgency, though there have been a number of attempts.  The only victories on record were won by colonial powers.  That’s because enforcing the rule of law in your own nation requires a remarkably different policy and strategy than enforcing someone else’s rule of law. This lack of precedence, while not damning, makes for a tenuous track record for population-centric COIN.

In my post last week, I mentioned Kosovo as an example of successful armed nation-building. I stand by that: we used armed forces in conjunction with political, governmental, societal, and economic building programs. But that isn’t the same thing as COIN, since most of the nation building was done after the preponderance of the fighting was over. The same was true in Panama after Operation JUST CAUSE.  The fact is that most of the non-military schemes we undertake in COIN are generally considered post-conflict activities. Some of these schemes, such as security sector reform or disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), tend to actually run contrary to the military objectives of the war. It’s hard to do DDR when you’re training and equipping every villager who can read Green Eggs and Ham. But conversely, it’s hard to establish lasting peace without an effective DDR program.  Finding the balance, if such a balance exists, between war fighting and peace building remains elusive.

And as I also pointed out in the post, COIN can only be as good as the strategy it supports. For the United States, that probably means fighting expensive and lengthy wars using counterinsurgency tactics only to create space for a weak government to build lasting stability. That sounds like a losing proposition to me. And yet, it’s not for the Department of Defense or the military departments to tell their political overseers that they won’t do COIN. It’s not their place to do so because COIN is meant to serve broader strategic objectives. Indeed, there may a time and place in the future when creating that space during an insurgency is in the nation’s interest.

At the same time, it’s also not the military’s place to sell COIN as something it’s not or to promise results it can’t possibly deliver. No member of the government should be doing that to promote any idea.

So here is my take on COIN: Iraq and Afghanistan, as instances of COIN’s implementation, do not prove that the idea of COIN is inherently flawed. On the other hand, we do not know if the idea would ever work even if implemented correctly, except for when objectives are very limited and temporary and when violence has decreased (for some other reason) to a level where typically “post-conflict” operations can be executed. And when money is not an object, because COIN wars are expensive.

Intuitively, I’m inclined to suggest that we should never undertake such endeavors again. Yet it is incumbent upon military leaders to ensure that their personnel are prepared to implement COIN when ordered to, because the question “is it worth it?” can only be answered by politicians. It is arrogance to tell the next generation that we have decided a potential tool of national power is off the table because our n=2 sample proved it useless, or because the historical record is mixed. I hope future generations do not feel the need to use it, but they should be armed with as much thought and knowledge of the idea as possible in order to make the best decision.


Jason Fritz is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. 


Photo Credit: 2nd Infantry Division, U.S. Army

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