Keep Fighting: Why the Counterinsurgency Debate Must Go On

COIN Books

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.