Counterinsurgency is Not the Problem

In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, Colonel Gian Gentile has written another article promoting Iraq and Afghanistan as exemplars of why “nation-building at gunpoint” (read : counterinsurgency or “COIN”) does not produce a “better state of peace”, the object of war as elucidated by B.H. Liddell Hart.* The article highlights the high cost in lives and money and the poor return on those investment in both countries: specifically, that neither place is stable and it is unlikely that they will become so in the foreseeable future. Gentile continues a familiar line of attack against the narrative of the “savior general” – specifically, the notion that General David Petraeus’ leadership turned the tide of the Iraq war – and the application of COIN tactics in the absence of a proper strategy.

Gentile has been an important voice over the years challenging conventional wisdom. But his attack on a specific operational concept misses the fundamental reason that counterinsurgency has failed to achieve its intended results.

I accept his criticism of the “savior general” trope — with the caveat that leadership still matters and some generals are more effective than others. Iraq is an excellent example, because General Petraeus’ predecessors failed to enforce unity of command and effort. General George Casey did oversee COIN operations in Iraq, but did not effectively incorporate special operations forces, civilian assets, or even a theater-wide operational plan. Petraeus’ successes had less to do with implementing the COIN doctrine set in Army Field Manual 3-24 than with his ability to abide by the principles of war. Petraeus wasn’t a savior; he was simply a more effective commander.

But the bigger issue, aside from leadership, is that Gentile is aiming his fury at the wrong target when he grinds his ax with population-centric counterinsurgency. His quip that COIN is a strategy of tactics is partially true, inasmuch as all strategies are composed at least in part by tactics. In the “ends, ways, means” construct of strategy, “ways” consist primarily (but not exclusively) of tactics. Given how COIN was evangelized throughout Department of Defense beginning in 2007, it is conceivable that ways dominated ends in the strategic calculus that determined how America would fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  However, this is not an inherent flaw of counterinsurgency; rather, it is a flaw in how we devised our strategy.

It should go without saying (but obviously it must be said) that ends should drive ways and means, and in turn, strategic ends should support stated policy objectives.  You must know what you want to achieve before determining how you’ll get it done and with what assets. But this is where our strategy development went off the rails. The International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan mission statement provides an excellent example of the problem:

In support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, ISAF conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.

In military mission statements, the objective (or end) is found after the “in order to” clause. In other words, ISAF’s objective is to “provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.” If we ignore the nonsensical qualification of “observable to the people,” we see that ISAF does not intend to create sustainable stability, an objective the American people desire as a palpable indicator of the value of our sacrifices. However, the American government merely intends to create the secure environment that allows that sustainable stability to exist, putting the truly preferred objective in the hands of a party to which the United States has limited control, i.e., the host government. In other words, we’ve succeeded if we create the conditions that permit the Afghan government to take advantage of but only succeed in the eyes of the American people if the Afghan government takes said advantage.  We don’t care to create a better state of peace, to borrow Hart’s phrase – it’s sufficient to create a better war (one that we don’t have to fight). As violence in Iraq continues to escalate, it becomes apparent that even when we do attain the conditions we seek, it sure doesn’t feel like we’ve won the war if the host nation cannot seal the deal. The problem is not with our ways, but with our ends.

That’s how COIN fits into all this. COIN provides the ways to create this desired “secure environment.” Still, it is ultimately a military solution to a political problem. To feel that we’ve won these wars (e.g., measurable, sustainable stability) requires a significant political line of operations, beyond the establishment of governance structures. And yet, with a handful of short-term exceptions, we have failed to establish those structures. The United States has viewed these wars as military problems – they are wars, after all. But a military tool cannot solve a purely political problem, which is what we’re left with once we’ve created the breathing room for a political process. That’s why it appears that COIN has failed.

So no, contrary to Gentile’s argument, Iraq and Afghanistan have not proven that “nation-building at gunpoint” does not work or that COIN is ineffective. There are a number of cases to prove the contrary, including Kosovo, Malaya, and other colonial wars. These wars have only proven that we need to improve how we develop strategy and that we cannot achieve political goals with military tools alone if the political objective exceeds merely military objectives. That the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan – which heavily relied on COIN – failed does not invalidate COIN as an operational concept. Rather it invalidates the use of COIN to solve problems that cannot be solved with COIN. This conclusion might be self-evident or even tautological, but it has been missed or ignored by policymakers and senior military leaders in the last decade.

So let’s not yet sign the death certificate for COIN because it didn’t work in these cases. COIN and its tenets may be useful in future conflicts. Rather, let us better understand what we want to achieve in our wars and how to go about achieving that. I don’t know if any wars can be truly “satisfying”, but if we do this better, future wars will certainly be more satisfying than Iraq or Afghanistan.


*For more on Gentile’s writing, see this review of his book by guest contributor Crispin Burke.


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