Keep Fighting: Why the Counterinsurgency Debate Must Go On

December 3, 2013

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine in general and the military’s FM 3-24 in particular have been the subject of extensive and often vitriolic debate in recent years.  Now the debate is finally subsiding, but not in a satisfactory way.  It must not be allowed to die yet.

The broad cycles of the counterinsurgency debate have followed a dialectical process as so many other historical and political debates do.

Thesis: Population-centric COIN works!  People like John Nagl, David Kilcullen, and David Petraeus came out with enthusiastic endorsements of population-centric counterinsurgency based in large part on the British experience and the work of French officer David Galula.  The Army-Marine Corps COIN manual, FM 3-24, came out in 2006 and was promptly published by a university press, which is unique for field manuals.  When Petraeus went to Iraq and “The Surge” and the Anbar Awakening happened, the situation in Iraq immediately turned around and the United States military was saved from an embarrassing defeat.  Petraeus came home to a hero’s welcome in the United States.

Their books:  Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam by John Nagl, and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 by Tom Ricks.

Antithesis:  Population-centric COIN is a crock!  Before long, people like Gian Gentile and Douglas Porch launched vigorous counterattacks.  They said that the historical foundations of COIN doctrine were weak and that population-centric COIN had a poor track record.  Others, like Doug Ollivant, argued that a close look at the chronology of events in Iraq showed that the turnaround in Iraq had little to do with COIN.  Finally, they noted that the application of the COIN FM 3-24 did not produce particularly good results in Afghanistan.

Their books: Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency by Gian Gentile and Counterinsurgency:  Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War by Douglas Porch.

Synthesis:  Well, here is where things get dicey.  Some works of synthesis have been written, but mostly the result seems to be fatigue and disgust on all sides.  “The debate is played out,” as Crispin Burke put it.  A laudatory review of Porch’s book in The Guardian enunciated the problem: “If I have a reservation about Porch’s book, it is that he doesn’t offer any alternative strategy. There remains a question of what the best response to 9/11 was: without COIN, there would certainly have been a policy vacuum.”  In other words, the synthesis of this important debate seems all too likely to be “oh, just forget it.”

The United States has a history of turning its back on this difficult problem.  Consider the Philippine War, once known as the Philippine Insurrection.  This war was a profoundly uncomfortable one for the United States on ideological grounds. It seemed un-American to oppose a people who only wanted what the Founding Fathers had wanted: freedom from foreign colonial powers—and because of the conduct of the war, notably the use of torture, sometimes seemed distasteful.  Nevertheless, the U.S. Army displayed an impressive ability to adapt and learn and ultimately won.  However, the war was so uncomfortable that the Army consciously decided to forget.  It locked the records away and pretended that nothing had ever happened.  The United States military did something similar after the Vietnam War.

This must not be allowed to happen again, but there is all too much danger of just that.  In short, counterinsurgency is “in crisis,” to steal the title of the fine new book from David Ucko and Robert Egnell.  The United States and countries it cares about will be involved in counterinsurgency campaigns in the future (and probably at inconvenient times).  Therefore, two things are necessary.

First, we need to keep the issue on the front burner and try to come to supportable conclusions about what is and is not likely to work in this difficult realm.

Second, and underpinning the first, the answer to the counterinsurgency question depends in large part on a proper understanding of history.  Thus, the practitioners must encourage historians to work on the history of counterinsurgencies.  What really did happen in Iraq and in which direction did the causal arrows point?  What really happened in Malaysia?  And what can we learn from counterinsurgency campaigns not conducted by the United States, Britain or France?

This is likely to involve deeper research than is often done on the topic.  To begin with, far too many prominent studies on counterinsurgency assume a God’s eye view never actually discussing the question with real Iraqis (or Afghans, Malaysians, Irish, etc.)  There is another way in which research on the topic is often thin.  David Ucko has suggested that the historical research underpinning many counterinsurgencies is thin because historians mostly only research the military components of the conflict.  They seldom research as deeply (or at all) the records of the political authorities and even less so the police and the intelligence services.  It seems to me, also, that in the case of intelligence services’ records, it’s not just a question of being unwilling to troll through boring records, but also how long those records are typically classified after other things have been released.  Nevertheless, Calder Walton’s new book, Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War, and the Twilight of Empire starts to hint at some of the potential utility of intelligence records in understanding British counterinsurgency operations.  It is also likely that sooner or later intelligence revelations will force a re-evaluation of the Northern Ireland Troubles, much as the release of the ULTRA secret and the Double Cross system in the 1970s changed our understanding of World War II.

The American and British militaries as institutions and their members as individuals can play a big role in ensuring that the synthesis of the COIN debate is not “oh, just forget it.”  By keeping the debate going in their own circles—even if they are thoroughly sick of it—they should attract attention from historians.  They need to keep writing in the professional journals and commissioning studies both within the military system and from think tanks.  At least as importantly, they must take steps to encourage academic historians and students of strategy to work in the field.  The simple fact is that scholars usually go where the data is.  Accordingly, the American and British militaries should declassify records promptly and fully and encourage other relevant agencies to declassify their records as well.  Moreover, the personnel involved in these struggles should make themselves available to scholars for interviews.

The Deputy Commander of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command recently said that the COIN debates were merely intellectual exercises of little relevance to future challenges.  Anybody who knows anything about history knows that he is almost certainly wrong.  The choice is simple: we can enter future wars smarter than we are now or as dumb as we are now (maybe even dumber).


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

49 thoughts on “Keep Fighting: Why the Counterinsurgency Debate Must Go On

    1. I think you are mixing apples and oranges.

      Historians rooting through archives–even doing field work–are ridiculously cheap. So, too, are the salaries of strategists who think about the practical implications of the historians’ work.

      Fighting counterinsurgencies is NOT cheap, true. But I’m not arguing for more wars, merely observing that sooner or later another counterinsurgency will happen and we should be intellectually prepared when it does.

      1. “Nevertheless, Calder Walton’s new book, Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War, and the Twilight of Empire starts to hint at some of the potential utility of intelligence records in understanding British counterinsurgency operations.”

        There seem to be a lot of relatively recent books along this line, I’ve tried to find my list but can’t at the moment. At any rate, this is a very interesting topic!

        1. “Britain’s shaky international position heightened the importance of propaganda. The Soviets and Americans were investing heavily in propaganda to win the “hearts and minds” of the world and substitute for increasingly unthinkable nuclear war. The British exploited and enhanced their media power and propaganda expertise to keep up with the superpowers and preserve their own global influence at a time when British economic, political and military power was sharply declining. This activity directly influenced domestic media relations, as officials used British media to launder foreign-bound propaganda and to create the desired images of British “public opinion” for foreign audiences.”

          Amazon blurb to “British Propaganda and News Media in the Cold War” by John Jenks. And the Americans and others were just as involved. I always wonder how we are to interpret certain historical data based on all of this? Not my area, don’t know how it’s done formally in scholarly circles. Okay, I’ve done enough damage on this thread. That’s it for me :)

  1. Is there any military intellectual debate that doesn’t involve some federal grant somewhere, COIN or ASB?

    Bryan McGrath is right too, it’s just that intellectual debates don’t necessarily need federal grants.

  2. Dr. Metz, that’s a good comment.

    What was most interesting to me about this post was the bit about destroyed or still hidden classified information, etc. Whatever concept you are discussing, from COIN to more conventional warfare, how can anything be properly planned if it is based on faulty or missing information leading to absurd assumptions?

  3. Mark – great post, and largely agree. Three thoughts on moving the conversation forward:

    First, we need to start distinguishing between the viability and track record of COIN as an operational approach, and the viability of the political strategies it is implemented to support. In Iraq, for example, I’d argue that COIN worked pretty well to take advantage of dynamics at the local level, but foundered when we proved unwilling/unable to alter the national level political strategy and dynamics to accommodate Sunnis.

    Second, the critics were right to point out the selective use of history by the COINdinistas, but are now guilty of exactly the same sin (in spades). The distortions of Karl Hack’s excellent work on Malaya to fit the anti-COIN narrative is one of the clearest examples of this syndrome. If we insist on misrepresenting history to support polemics, no amount of good scholarship will make a difference.

    Third, a major theme underpinning those anti-COIN polemics has little to do with the actual viability of COIN as an operational approach, and more to do with the strategic question as to whether the stability of far-flung countries matters much to our security. It’s not a new debate, and one we should continue to have, but it is also a fundamentally different question requiring a different mode of inquiry. And while the answers should obviously should inform each other, we should be honest enough with ourselves to separate the debate as to what is generally achievable through COIN from the debate about whether intervention is strategically worthwhile (notwithstanding that any specific case should be examined on its own terms, rather than framed through over-generalizations).

    I look forward to/dread the comments that will greet the new version of JP 3-24 when it comes out later this year (assuming anyone reads it). It is by no means the final word, but we at least tried to address some of the issues and assumptions of previous COIN doctrine, and incorporate research and lessons from Western operations and non-Western experiences, both recent and historical.

    Steve – I hope you will see your argument reflected in the new pub, because we tried to emphasize the concept of local expectations rather than Western assumptions about legitimacy and governance as the critical consideration.

    1. This is unsserious. Have you even read Hack? His work on Malaya is complex and informed by the guerrilla’s perspective once Chin Peng came in from the cold.

      If anyone has misused history it’s been the dilettantes who aren’t historians who have fancied a lazy narrative about what worked, and didn’t, in Malaysia.

      I always wonder how deeply you’ve ventured into the small canon on small wars. This latest missive doesn’t dispel my concerns.

  4. Hi Gian,

    Well, I think you did in your Autumn 2009 Parameters paper. You (rightly) criticized the Templer-as-savior narrative, and went on to 1) assert that the Briggs plan ‘broke the back’ of the MCP insurgents, and 2) describe the Briggs plan as the ‘heavy handed use of military force against civilians’ in supposed contrast to the ‘population-centric approach.’ Hack presents a far more nuanced picture. In his June 2009 article he talks about the Briggs plan as having broken the back of the MCP as a ‘high-level insurgency’, but goes on to emphasize the importance of the ‘optimization’ phase under Templer. Moreover, Hack quotes original documents from the Briggs period that emphasize the importance of effective population security. Hack also contrasts the Briggs period with the earlier ‘counter-terrror and sweep’, which he describes as having “had double-edged results. It increased Chinese alienation and MNLA numbers, but also broke up larger guerrilla groups and prevented the loss of whole districts.”

    Hack further clarified his argument in his 2011 interview with SWJ, in which he stated that “the ‘back’ of insurgency looked different in each of three phases, and was broken in each by different bundles of tactics. It is a case of ‘Horses for Courses’.”

    In both articles Hack emphasizes the importance of spatial and population control to secure the population and isolate the insurgents, and in the 2011 interview says unequivocally: “In fact the Malayan campaign was turned from its peak levels during 1950-52 by a population- centric approach which both tightly controlled population, and persuaded it that cooperation was rational and safe (e.g. via contact with village police posts via enforced home guard duty), even while many hearts still festered.Things that are normally considered as ‘winning hearts’ were, for the key, Chinese rural population, only incipient at the time the communists changed their policy in October 1951.

    So the ‘winning hearts and minds’ tactics at that point primarily meant controlling space, providing security to people, and so persuading the fence-sitters amongst the latter rationally to cooperate even when their hearts were reluctant. It was about their ‘confidence’, and their calculation that maximum safety and minimum threat came from avoiding insurgent support.
    So for ‘fence-sitters’ it was less about winning hearts before 1952-3, and more about persuading minds, and security and confidence were critical to the latter.”

    Hack expands on this, stating that “There is, however, no doubt that the extension of administration was deeply embedded from Phase 2 [Briggs Plan period] in Malaya. In addition, though, there was a vital political element to this. The Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) played a key part not just in providing social welfare in resettled ‘New Villages’, and in filtering detainees (sorting sheep from goats), but also in providing an outlet for political expression. The MCA’s leaders included traditional clan and business leaders, and even where villagers might not like this arrangement; they did provide a funnel for villagers’ demands and needs to be expressed to government. The MCA worked closely with government from formation in 1949, and from 1952 increasingly carried political clout as one of the parties likely to dominate Malayan politics in coalition with its Malay partners. So it was not just an administrative integration of vulnerable populations, but also the provision for them of a political transmission belt.”

    Altogether a different picture from the one presented (albeit briefly) in your 2009 article, and by many who reference it to denounce whatever they define as ‘population-centric COIN’. I think that in referencing Hack’s work, we would all be well-served to hew more closely to his extremely nuanced analysis and recommendations.


    1. From that SWJ interview:

      “That is a bit like asking, ‘In making a cup of tea, which action is the game-changer: the heating of the water, the addition of the tea bag, or the correct amount of steeping? If you don’t heat the water, or don’t add the teabag, or under or over-steep, you don’t get a drinkable cup of tea. In addition, if you do things in the wrong order, it may turn out disgusting. You can’t just skip a stage and go to the one and single ‘really important’ bit of tea-making.”

      Malaya is an example of a colonial authority, which is a pretty big reason the US was not going to get a drinkable cup of tea. The governing authority is completely and totally different in contemporary US examples versus the historical example of Malaya.

      Mark Stout’s points seem extremely important it seems to me; a lot of information is simply not a part of the record. This should matter to scholars, especially those interested in context, not just those interested in countering an insurgency of whatever variety. I still can’t believe how little curiosity a variety of pundits show in these sorts of things, how little the actual history of regions seems to matter when discussing the optimal military strategy or operations or tactics.

      Isn’t it stunning that we are discussing a historical example that may be distorted by missing evidence and data? How are we to know? What is missing? What was planted at that time in the papers given the way in which communist and anticommunist played games in the written record, how much of the primary record is the correct primary record?

      (In the intro to Gian Gentile’s book it says, “Karl Hack took a needed wire brush to my Malaya chapter”.)

      1. Madhu – we will always have incomplete and missing information. And even if we could talk to a large number of the people directly involved, we’d still find ambiguities – see Paul Brass’ Theft of an Idol or Jean Hatzfeld’s Machete Season for a great illustrations of this phenomenon (from post-Colonial periods, too). While there has to obviously have to be some evidentiary standards, it doesn’t make sense to entirely dismiss cases for lack of lab-experiment levels of statistical certainty. Moreover, I’d argue that cases like Malaya – where you can talk to the both insurgents and counterinsurgents (as Hack did with Chin Peng) – actually have an advantage over more contemporary examples where the conflict is still active.

        As for the Colonial versus invasion context – can be more specific about the differences in governing authority you see as being significant?

    2. At the risk of saying something so blatantly obvious that it would take CNAS a year to discover it, Karl Hack reviewed Gentile’s chapter on Malaya in his most recent book.

      It’s why he got some kudos in the introduction.

      So perhaps before you start handing out advice to professionals about how they should listen to Hack, you might need to find out if he’s on Gentile’s Xmas card list, shouldn’t you?

      I mean, you wouldn’t want to put anything in writing that might, in hindsight, make anyone who understand all of this cringe.

      Oh. Wait.

  5. Counterinsurgency, or COIN, isn’t going anywhere—because insurgencies are alive and well, and they’re taking place in almost every region of the world right now. Egypt, Libya, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China are just some of the countries facing active insurgencies as we speak. Jabhat al-Nusra has put forward an active campaign for Syrian hearts and minds; passing out ISIS brand backpacks and school supplies to refugee children as well as holding Koran-reading contests with ice cream prizes. It’s no mystery who they’re trying to court—the youth. China has delt with mild insurgencies in remote villages by appeasing the movement and quelling reasonable demands, such as the desire for municipal elections. In other provinces, like Xingjiang where the Uyghur uprising took place (Ürümqi riots), Muslim insurgents have been violently killed by the PLA in an attempt to deter or repress further revolts.

    As far as Afghanistan goes, only time will tell how successful COIN will be (or was) — however, it is my personal belief that Counterinsurgency was never successfully implemented through the entire chain-of-command in Afghanistan. Shortly after FM3-24 was published we had soldiers burning Korans, pissing on Taliban bodies, and that one guy who went into that village and raped and murdered a girl and her entire family? Yeah, we’re totally going to win them over with that. I know the average private is a teenager who has no interest in learning basic Pashtunwali code of conduct, but for the sake of actually making a difference in how we are percieved by the average Afghan, it should and NEEDs to be done. I think if we reform the way we conduct COIN it can produce successful outcomes.

    1. Of course there are insurgencies out there.

      The argument over COIN is an argument over so-called “big expeditionary third party counterinsurgency” Just which historical example has shown that this works? The colonial examples are just that, colonial. The US in Iraq or Afghanistan is not colonial Britain or France. The example of China is of a sovereign government, something the US is not as the example of Karzai shows.

      How are we even discussing this at this point and why are people making the same erroneous arguments over and over again?

      My interest in the post (and I’m surprised to see blogger Fabius Maximus missing the point on Twitter, he’s very good on this subject) is in the area of missing or destroyed colonial era documents, something that of necessity ought to be of interest to people studying the a region in the hopes of having some understanding of contemporary fault lines and trends.

      The main point of the post is a plea for a more complete knowledge and understanding, it seems to me.

    2. I could’ve sworn that counter-insurgency was any tool in the kit that — wait for it, wait for it — countered insurgencies.

      To say that measures weren’t employed against the various Taliban before, presumably the publication of regurgitate Maoist claptrap in FM 3-24 or the arrival of the first messiah, Barno, in Kabul is, well, insane.

      It appears as if you believe that only trillion dollar, multi-generational neo-colonial efforts to transform cultures at the barrel of a gun truly conspire to constitute “COIN.”

      I would suggest the that literature on the subject posits relatively few foreign occupations similar to OEF, and a tiny number (perhaps zero) that would be considered successful.

  6. “The argument over COIN is an argument over so-called “big expeditionary third party counterinsurgency” – I don’t think that’s quite true, Madhu. Gian’s arguments over the years concern the fundamental dynamics of socio-political mobilization and military success in the context of insurgency. There are others (like David Edelstein) who make more the more limited argument, but much of the debate goes well beyond an issue of scale. And as I mentioned before, I don’t think you can simply dismiss the Colonial examples unless you offer a more detailed argument as to precisely how that context affected the course of the conflict.

    1. What I meant is that American 2000’s era COIN is synomymous with a certain way of countering an insurgency. There are other ways. People use COIN without qualifying it.

      It seems to me Mark Stouts points are larger and do with the very nature of what we know and what we don’t know.

      As someone of ‘South Asian” heritage, this is a big complaint among a certain diaspora. We ALL know certain documents are missing in the historical register, so to speak, it is such common knowledge that it makes the American military look a little foolish by not knowing or acknowledging it.

      Who is dismissing the colonial examples? What some are saying is that the colonial examples were misused as a basis for current doctrine and part of the reason is poor quality historical research.

      The main point about colonial government is so obvious that I think that is the reason miss that important error: colonial governments can do things we can’t. It affects every aspect of what an outsider does.

      This is not a difficult concept. I see this mistake made constantly and I don’t understand it. Colonial governments are so different from what the US is doing that I never understood how it is that it could be used as an example of what to do? The key differences are deal breakers.

      1. Madhu – I think you’re absolutely right about the length of tours/engagement in the Colonial era. It is arguable, though, whether that was always an asset for COIN efforts: the European ex-pat communities in both Algeria and Kenya, respectively, fundamentally distorted how the relevant Colonial powers understood the nature of the problem, and vociferously blocked compromises and accommodations that might have mitigated the conflicts.

        As for authority and freedom of action – it’s an interesting question, because at the outset the US and its allied had full control and complete freedom of action in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Arguably the speed with which we stood up new national governments and handed over de jure sovereignty was a factor in the emergence of robust insurgencies. I agree that it became a major challenge in the latter phases of both campaigns, though.

  7. The debate will continue because it is much larger than COIN. This population centric idea is in our stability doctrine as well. This shift involves fundamental changes in the nature of the Western political world. It reflects a change in the way we think about ultimate victory. With a shift towards more liberal beliefs comes a shift towards seeing the population as the source of political power. Maneuver warfare can destroy the enemy’s ability to fight, but not necessarily its will to fight. As long as we believe that the true source of all political power rests in the population, then the acquiescence of the target country’s population and not the capitulation of the target country’s political leaders will be the ultimate political goal. If, for human rights reasons, we are not willing to use the tactics of the past to suppress opposition, then we will have to figure out how to win over the target country’s population.

    1. I forgot to add that, if the target country’s population does not believe that the general population is the source of political power, our doctrine is designed to convince them otherwise.

  8. Here’s another quote that I left at SWJ:

    “Using counter-insurgency campaigns as paradigms for contemporary practice also involves ignoring their less savoury aspects. These were deliberately concealed by the destruction of incriminating written materials relating to brutality, murder and torture. Even the ashes of burned papers were pulverized by the British, while crates crammed with papers were dropped into deep sea, where there wer no currents to wash them up again.”

    – Michael Burleigh, Small Wars, Faraway Places

  9. T.X. Hammes at SWJ:

    “We also forget that the British had a Colonial Office. They signed up to spend 20 years overseas with the full expectations that the locals will kill you somewhere on the border and in some places probably they will eat you. OK, the Colonial Office guys were good with that, but it required a different personality.”

    It’s more than that, more than the difference between a colonial administration and a four year at a time elected government, colonial powers could do things that outsiders to a system can’t (and shouldn’t, given our values) do.

    They don’t have to ask for permission from local governments, they don’t have to work around certain logistics, they had a latitude we didn’t in our strange mishmash of governance in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  10. /cont.

    They had a deep decades long colonial infrastructure to draw on.

    And all of this matters in the debate about Air Sea Battle too, because without context, without understanding our own history in the region, what category errors might we make as we think about how to use ASB in the region, especially given the Western and American tradition to not only forget, but to lack curiosity and to lack hunger for certain types of knowledge?

  11. All right, I’m flipping out in the comments again and I promised myself I wouldn’t do that. It’s weird, even for an arty chick like me.

    So, here’s the thing, it matters that documents are missing and an attempt to hide information was made when you are using an example as a basis for doctrine.

    How can this point be nothing? You don’t have to agree with my interpretation but you should know these things or you will engender a certain kind of contempt in those you are going to work with, if not worse. You understand?

    Sorry folks, I don’t know what gets into me :) Good conversation.

  12. Max:

    It is patently false to suggest that in my Parameters essay that i “distorted” Hack’s argument. I did nothing of the sort and represented it correctly, and you have not presented anything in your reply that suggests that i did. It is one thing to disagree with my interpretation and analaysis, but something completely different to suggest that i “distorted” the work of Hack.

    1. Gian,

      I am puzzled at your insistence that there is no contradiction between what you wrote in your Parameters article and what Hack has written. Let me narrow the issue to two contrasting quotes.

      From your 2007 article:
      “Second, history has shown that insurgencies can be defeated by means other than the population-centric approach. Consider the recent defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan military. Or consider what actually broke the back of the Malayan insurgency in the early 1950s, which
      was not so much the hearts-and-minds persuasion of Templer but the hard-handed use of military force against civilians, combined with a major resettlement program.”

      From Hack’s 2011 SWJ interview (articulating the same evidence and history as his 2009 article): “In fact the Malayan campaign was turned from its peak levels during 1950-52 by a population- centric approach which both tightly controlled population, and persuaded it that cooperation was rational and safe (e.g. via contact with village police posts via enforced home guard duty), even while many hearts still festered.Things that are normally considered as ‘winning hearts’ were, for the key, Chinese rural population, only incipient at the time the communists changed their policy in October 1951.

      So the ‘winning hearts and minds’ tactics at that point primarily meant controlling space, providing security to people, and so persuading the fence-sitters amongst the latter rationally to cooperate even when their hearts were reluctant. It was about their ‘confidence’, and their calculation that maximum safety and minimum threat came from avoiding insurgent support.
      So for ‘fence-sitters’ it was less about winning hearts before 1952-3, and more about persuading minds, and security and confidence were critical to the latter.”

      To my eyes, these present diametrically opposed versions of the history of COIN in Malaya. What am I missing?


  13. Hi Mark:

    In your article you said this about the American Army after the Philippine War and then again in a similar way after Vietnam:

    “It locked the records away and pretended that nothing had ever happened. The United States military did something similar after the Vietnam War.”

    Do you have primary source proof (and not the secondary sources of Nagl, Krepinevich, Kaplan, Boot, Ricks, to name a few) to support this assertion?

    In fact the American army did nothing of the sort. What it did with regard to Vietnam was to turn its focus toward western europe and the Soviet Union (directed by the way by the purported Coin savior in Vietnam General Creighton Abrams).

    Assertions that say the US Army “locked the records away” burned coin books, threw holy water on coin doctrine and institutionally conspired to forget the lessons of Vietnam and never do it again are not based in any kind of fact of the historical record.

    So please stop trotting out this tired, half baked trope. It does nothing to further knowledge.

    For whatever it is worth your call for a “synthesis”, based on the tone and argument of your piece, is simply another form of the stock coin narrative, albeit gussied up with some quotes from current Coin experts and doomsday warnings of not forgetting the lessons of coin this time around.



    1. On the post-Vietnam thing, perhaps I was too loose in the use of the word “similar,” but the effect was largely the same. The topics of COIN, counter-guerrilla operations, small wars, etc., was disincentivized as a professional field in the military and fell into obscurity in the surrounding defense intellectual community, as you note.

      Granted, the mechanism here is largely different from what happened after the Philippine War, but if nobody is working on the topic as a result of decisions made in the DOD, then nobody is working on the topic.

      On the question of synthesis, it is true that I am broadly sympathetic to the recent American ideas of COIN. That said, I don’t participate in the debate and I do not in the least consider myself an expert on it. In fact, I don’t find COIN particularly interesting. (I DO think that the phenomenon of the debate itself, as an example of military intellectual adaptation, is interesting.)

      What I do observe, though, is that there is not an agreement on the answers to the important questions in this debate. Those answers–whatever they turn out to be–will be the synthesis I urge.

      Perhaps, my piece wasn’t clear enough, but if I had to sum it up in one sentence it would be the following:

      “Don’t stop the debate until there is some agreement because our country will suffer if the next time a conflict arises we are still confused.”

      1. I would imagine that the SF FIDdies would be quite surprised to hear that someone rolled all the old COIN doctrine into a doobie and smoked it while guarding the Fulda Gap.

        I suspect that the iterative teams we sent to El Salvador also might’ve retained some best practices on the subject, just as the Marines throughout the 1990s papered their HQs with 4GW wallpaper (oops, bulkhead paper).

        See also MOOTW and all sorts of other concerns prompted by Sierra Leone, Haiti, Somalia, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, et al., that bedeviled American and British forces throughout the better part of a decade.

        What the profession as a whole didn’t do, of course, was begin to believe that wars only would be amongst the peoples. The challenge becomes addressing force requirements in the future, all those messy sorts of arguments about blood and treasure.

        If the choice is either/or — either we engage in multigenerational slogs that costs trillions of dollars and lead to murky foreign policy results or we don’t, then I confess the choice seems pretty clear. At least to the next generation or so of American policymakers.

  14. Mark is right to say the COIN debate must continue, alas to date this debate is very limited OUTSIDE the US military, who have recently come to dominate the debate.

    From my British vantage point, with the current Afghan and Iraqi experience in mind, there is NO political will to debate COIN. In some West European countries (including Canada) there has been a public debate about the validity of prolonged campaigning in such places.

    How much debate is there in France for example? We know that French policy in its primary theatre of intervention, Africa, has changed in the last twenty plus years. I suspect that was a politically driven policy stance.

    There are FAR more users of COIN than the USA. India for example has a significant problem.

    Nor is COIN always a military-dominated campaign and across the world today it is far more often a joint police-military effort alongside varying degrees of civil government.

    I would argue that it is the weakness of US civil effort in your recent COIN campaigning that is your national weakness, not the military. This weakness has also been seen in the UK’s role in Helmand, with some startling decisions by DFID and other civilian partners.

  15. Oh, haha, now I see what happened. I completely misread the post, at least judging by the most recent comments. As usual, I am in my own world. I stand by my ellpitical and off-the-wall interpretation, however. And here’s why: I wrote the following to another commenter:

    ‘I was just so happy to see someone finally acknowledge what I think is a blind spot in the conversation, a blind spot for American Right and Left alike (interventionists and non-interventionists, Weekly Standard types and Tom Dispatch Types), that I went down the tubes a bit in my comments over there, didn’t I?

    “The Cold War in South Asia provides the first comprehensive and transnational history of Anglo-American relations with South Asia during a seminal period in the history of the Indian Subcontinent, between independence in the late 1940s, and the height of the Cold War in the late 1960s. Drawing upon significant new evidence from British, American, Indian and Eastern bloc archives, the book re-examines how and why the Cold War in South Asia evolved in the way that it did, at a time when the national leaderships, geopolitical outlooks and regional aspirations of India, Pakistan and their superpower suitors were in a state of considerable flux. The book probes the factors which encouraged the governments of Britain and the United States to work so closely together in South Asia during the two decades after independence, and suggests what benefits, if any, Anglo-American intervention in South Asia’s affairs delivered, and to whom.”

    The Cold War in South Asia
    Britain, the United States and the Indian Subcontinent, 1945–1965

    I’m sorry if this is a bit obscure. If I have a chance, I will try and tie these comments together.’

    Just as Vietnam has had outsized effects on American military thought, so too has a certain NATO or Anglo-American lens that never really went way after the Cold War, even to date, in both American Right and Left. That’s why I think British or Australian or Canandian or non-Anglophone writers tend to see it better.

    1. That this should be the case for the Washington Consensus makes sense but that it is present in parts of the American non-interventionist and pacifist community is the part that seems very, very interesting to me….

      Once again. Lost in my own world.I am terrible with policy and should stick with the more strictly academic work.

  16. In my opinion the debate will go nowhere as long as it is framed as described above. Let me offer another way of looking at the problem:
    1) What was wrong with the way we were handling things in Iraq that required us to apply population centric counterinsurgency?
    2) Did our APPLICATION of population centric COIN correct the problem the in the way we were handling things?

    If the answer to the first question is that we were trying to forcibly democratize a population who did not have a democratic value system then our application of COIN would still fail. We were concentrating the population and legitimacy; we were just not using any form of legitimacy the population was comfortable with. This problem is even more pronounced in Afghanistan.

    So as long as we look at this problem as being a question of whether the surge worked we will get no closer to understanding the actual issues at hand.

  17. Not sure where to start. There are a number of rather astute observations already presented and generally well agreed/contested. I have spent the better part of the last 15 years playing, at varying times, in the dirt and the command posts of our recent campaigns. My outlook can’t be supported by an impressive list of degrees trailing my name, only my direct observations.

    All that providing my caveat and shield – COIN may perhaps be the shiny object we have been collectively reaching for at the bottom of the hastily constructed raccoon trap. It is important, as is the debate – and extending further so is Petraeus’s FM – because it has stirred the interest of big brains far more capable of wading through storied tomes than I. Beyond the debate (which in my opinion should continue -and likely will), COIN is a subset of a larger issue at which some of the previous commenters have taken glancing blows. The US military’s ability to engage in social contexts rather than kinetics underlies all of it. Understanding and manipulating social power dynamics relevant to culture (histories, mysteries and myths – or narratives) has been our biggest struggle. Understanding contextual effects and capitalizing on them is right up there as well. Appreciating that diplomacy IS being conducted at the tip of a spear – like it or not the military has presented at times 150k diplomats for every team of fresh faced DOS post-grads. How do we best integrate the two?

    Statistics and quantifiable ‘successes’ are aberrations so prone to intentional and accidental distortions that they are useful only in the writing of policy rather than the conduct of the engagement. The US (and the West in general I suppose) has forgotten patience. I don’t mean to point back to the old ‘tactical patience’ or ‘strategic patience’ references, but more to the generational growth/progress concept. We can’t wait 4 minutes to boil the water for our oatmeal, how are we going to construct a strategically sound engagement strategy that can be practically applied to a conflict in which both opposing sides are comfortable waiting ten years for a marginal victory?

    While I appreciate and promote the idea of continuing the debate about COIN or any other irregular warfare strategy, the bottom-line truth is that there are no constants. That brings up the point we can begin to standardize. When I gather together with my industry peers there are two distinct camps. One camp constitutes roughly 75-80% of us and argues that the military is and ever should be a hammer. Because of this, it should be used to drive nails. Anything else is a fool’s errand. The rest of us believe that the military (or some parts of it) are both capable and well structured (and supported) to walk the grey area between traditional diplomacy and outright murderous campaigning. The rift points out that there are, like it or not, officers that have the intellectual flexibility to write sound COIN/IR/AW strategy and apply it as well. There are also those that can’t. As much as we’d like to throw out comfortable caveats indicating that we won’t have the economic stability at home to project stability abroad, we will continue to find ourselves confronted with grey area unrest. We need to provide our forces with the tools they need to engage and succeed – here’s the catch… Those tools are not wicked sweet biometrics or complicated algorithmically driven database analysis programs (as much as I like those for their ability to help make up for terrible analysts). The tools are competent, intelligent, flexible commanders, and operators/analysts capable of informing and executing ‘new-breed’ mission-sets.

    All this probably sounds like the same old gripes and indefinable half-time-motivation-speech garbage. I appreciate that. By way of an example, it might be worth taking a look at the new interim pub the Marine Corps is working on under the title “AtN Activities.”

    One of our recent debates was over how to impress on future leaders the importance of environmental shaping. For me, this was an effort to re-introduce the dynamics of a larger more holistic approach to intelligence preparation of the battle-field (or if you prefer – intelligence preparation of the operational environment). The current standard sits on acronyms like PMESII or better PMESII-PT, ASCOPE, SWEAT, SWEAT-MS, CARVER, what have you. I argued that in order to understand the complexity it would help to identify critical environmental variables. For what it’s worth – PMESII is one construct of that. The outcome, unfortunately, was a new list of critical environmental variables. Careful not to miss the distinction. My argument was that each context contained its own critical variables. Further, each actor (person or network) moved to the rhythm of their own list of critical variables. To a large degree many of these lists overlapped. The new “list” did not identify possible variables – it identified THE new CRITICAL variables. Essentially it was a recrafting of PMESII and the like.

    To wrap both ends together – the propensity to ‘capture winning’ techniques and processes misses the point entirely. The ability to read population and environmental dynamics resists ‘capturing’ to the point of creating unfortunate imbalances in the process. Those imbalances create tomorrow’s conflict. We need commanders (and policy-makers) that understand the vagaries, trust in their assessments, and are resistant to PEOC quarter-backing.

    Just because I’m sure my homework on evaluating peacekeeping operations will distract me from getting in the last couple comments…

    The peace-loving folk have some valuable strategies themselves, and despite the historic hostilities between them and the hammers some collaboration is needed.

    Also, for what it’s worth. We have organizations focused on collecting the valuable lessons learned. I am wholly in favor of what they are doing to capture our processes and tactical procedures and what they contribute to our future capability. That being said, in the social spaces (hearkening to Black’s arguments), we have, at best, a list of not-failures to draw lessons from. Each of our previous engagement attempts have failed for one reason or another and often despite the valuable work that is being done on the ground. We do have the capacity to draw significant successes from our enemies though. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, etc have provided us with innumerable techniques in almost every context and the outcomes we can use to gauge their relative success. For that matter, Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela were amazingly adept at crafting narratives and generating support – albeit for very different reasons. Mbeki being a net-exclusionist and Mandela being a net-inclusionist. I’m not advocating that our military take control of the social domain, but understanding the dynamics and the limits/capabilities inherent within them – we can do.

    Alright enough slogging about. I’ll check back later to find out how wrong I am or how much I can pick up from everyone else’s more academic (and venerable) approaches.

  18. The COIN debate certainly is NOT an irrelevant intellectual discussion, it is vital. My own position tends toward the Gentile camp but with one very major caveat, and it is supported by Mark’s final words above.

    Simply, do not forget these hard lessons. Or in the famous words of Admiral S.O Makarov, “Remember War.”

    My own observation with now almost 18 years of association/education with the Army Command and General Staff College is that any reason to NOT teach professional officers about insurgency and counterinsurgency doctrine will be jumped upon and all the hard lessons learned from Francis Marion to the Lone Survivor will be forgotten, at least as far as PME curriculum is concerned. And it cannot be shunted off to JUST us military historians to teach in one or two “history lessons.” The doctrine itself must be studied as a component of a broad study of war by field grade officers and then again in the more senior war colleges. Should it be the ONLY thing studied? Absolutely not, but to shelve it because of past strategic errors would be a mistake I would prefer not to see our nation make again.

    These opinions belong entirely to me and represent no official position of ANY US government organization.

    John T. Kuehn
    Stofft Professor
    Fort Leavenworth, KS

  19. With the indulgence of the editors of WOR, I’ll post this comment that I left at SWJ:

    “I apologize for the tone of my last comment.
    At the end of Gordon Corera’s book The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6 is the following about Daphne Park:

    “There was a reference to her fascination with the riddle of power but also with the most ordinary people.”

    Well, I’m an “ordinary people,” (and clearly proud of it) but the riddle of power and that which animates ordinary people are topics that fascinate me too.

    I was a bit frustrated with the comment thread to the War on the Rocks post, although I wrote half of the comments myself.

    I was frustrated because there is another story, narrative, ecosystem, human domain, set of assumptions, strategic context, or understanding beyond Coindinista and Cointra and I keep seeing it in the corner of my vision, sometimes clouded, other times coming into focus a bit.

    As long as you all will tolerate my sometime bad behavior, I am going to explore that story. It’s not about “South Asia”, I am only using the topic as an intellectual lens, a foil, a way of understanding.

    The human domain that most interests me is what is in YOUR mind as military and foreign affairs professionals and why it is that you develop certain passions that carry you away from time to time….

    Curiously, The American Conservative and Tom Dispatch types follow the same patterns too which is odd. A function of an American lens of whatever variety?

    But, once again, I apologize for the tone of my previous comment.

    But you have, or had, a pattern that carried you into the very earliest days in Afghanistan and that initial campaign against the Taliban. That pattern is present in a generation of South Asian analysts and the Anglo-American “understanding” (which was not always the same) of the region which has its roots in the period immediately after WWII, if not earlier.

    I used to think that maybe this was one of my flights of fancy that might not pan out but I am seeing too many serious academic works on the subject to think I am totally off track.
    Pivoting to Asia, staying home, or continuing in the Mid East, these patterns remain in some ways. You should be interested in this aspect of your human domain.”

    OTOH, I might be full of it and there may be no human pattern, only muddle and Occams’ Razor.

  20. I am curious about something. It seems that Malaysia is a linchpin in the argument in favor of COIN – it is the shining example of COIN success. What I wonder is why is that exactly? Malaysia would see years more of strife followed by illiberal governance that continues to this day. Could someone be so kind as to articulate exactly why they think Malaysia is the best argument in favor of COIN?

    1. I think the reason is something I’ve been talking about for some time now and I’ve alluded to it in my other comments here. There is a sort of oral culture, there must be, a shared Anglo-American mythology and one part of the mythology is the stories those interested in counterinsurgency told themselves: the British are a learning organization, we should have done what they suggested in Vietnam.

      So, the COINdinistas and their historical mythos, arising from that traumatic period in Vietnam, combined with the other trends in the American military (NATOization, the Cold War and its peacekeeping 90’s extension) brought up all their old stories and myths when it came time to deal with the violence in Iraq.

      Some of the books mentioned in this post talk about that mythology but I think one area that deserves more study is the Anglo-American angle and the cultural back and forth.

  21. “One more from that link:

    Once, searching for something on Malaya, I came across a so-called “Coindinista” oriented Power Point that mentioned Robert Thompson and his memoirs; he suggested in the memoir I believe that the British as a learning organization in Malaya ought to be studied.”

    I am so disorganized, someone else would have written a million papers with my so-called “research” questions.