No COIN for You? The Most Stagnant Debate in Strategic Studies

January 30, 2014

Counterinsurgency remains the most controversial topic of debate in the U.S. military and strategic studies community.  While AirSea Battle and the so-called “rebalance” to Asia raises the temperature in the room, counterinsurgency still blows the roof off the building. But, the debate on that topic has stagnated well beyond the point of diminishing returns. It revolves between two poles that are little more than simplistic views on what is more important, the population or the enemy. Counterinsurgency is called the graduate level of war, but the counterinsurgency debate has yet to graduate from middle school.

In 2012, Colin S. Gray bemoaned the lack of strategic theory applied to the population-centric versus enemy-centric counterinsurgency debate. He noticed that the debate was taking place in a world apart from reality, as if counterinsurgency was some special form of warfare immune to the precepts of strategic theory. In my recent article for Military Review, I attempted to square the circle by applying Clausewitzian ideas, especially the trinity, to the problem.

Both sides of the debate were right and wrong. By focusing on one aspect of war and applying it to counterinsurgency, theorists discovered applicable ideas, but then stopped short of viewing war as a whole—its gestalt. Since both sides see only a part of conflict rather than viewing it as a gestalt as Clausewitz would have done, the debate continued without resolution or progress. This caused the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan to pivot between two poles, first attempting to defeat insurgents directly and then indirectly, without ever pursuing a comprehensive strategy that takes advantage of both methods. While the tilt towards pop-centric counterinsurgency in 2006 after the release of FM 3-24 was probably a necessary corrective, it went too far. U.S. military forces were called upon to build schools, repair infrastructure, and take on basic governance for which they were ill-suited, diluting the combat power available in theater. While these tasks may be necessary, other elements of national power could be deemed more appropriate for their accomplishment. Certainly, the practice of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan exhibited both methods, but that just goes to show how little the debate serves the practice. Practice is already far beyond the theory.

A look at Afghanistan is illustrative. Afghanistan has a population of about 30 million people. If the United States was effective at turning 90% of the population against the Taliban—a generous assumption —that would still leave the Taliban with a support base of three million. Moreover, counterinsurgency operations could never put a dent in the Taliban’s ability to use Pakistan as a rest and refit location and the resources gained through the narcotics trade and other international sources. The idea that the Taliban would just fade away due to a lack of popular support is fantastical. But, the other side is just as unlikely. Killing or capturing every Taliban fighter, would-be Taliban fighter, and anyone who might take revenge on behalf of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan to end the insurgency is impossible. It’s undeniable, however, that both methods certainly put pressure on Taliban leadership. The problem is that choosing one can rarely be sufficient. There are exceptions, of course. Attrition worked in Sri Lanka, but fighting an insurgency on the isolation of an island—rather than a landlocked territory covered in mountains, desert, and forest—gave the Sri Lankans a geographical advantage.

That’s why it’s time for the counterinsurgency debate to move beyond the simplistic population-centric versus enemy-centric dichotomy. One side wants to tame the passion and enmity of conflict (loosely associated with the people) while another wants to focus on the enemy portion of the “secondary” trinity. Multiple lines of operation—to borrow a term—must be employed. In terms of the secondary trinity, this means developing an effective partner government, wooing as much of the population as possible, and pursuing and defeating insurgent forces simultaneously. Focusing on one or the other allows the enemy space to operate where the counterinsurgent is not. The guerrillas that swim in the sea, as Mao described them, cannot all be individually caught, but they can be asphyxiated. The Boer War is a good example of this. The British faced a tough insurgency with no end in sight. It was not until the British achieved military victories, control of the indigenous governments, and gained control of the population (unfortunately achieved through cruelly administered concentration camps) that the last insurgents gave up.

This is certainly a daunting task that harkens back to another of Clausewitz’ precepts: that one must truly understand the nature of a conflict before embarking upon it. The U.S. military leadership failed to understand and consequently failed to advise policymakers about the expense and challenges of counterinsurgency. Concepts that propose a quick route to victory through one center of gravity or another are snake oil. The tendency of U.S. military leaders to focus on the tactical at the expense of the strategic is one reason for this. Wooing the population and fighting the insurgents are good tactics, but they are just tactics. If they do not serve a comprehensive strategy, then good tactics can never reach a resolution.

The application of strategic theory to counterinsurgency not only grounds the debate on solid intellectual footing, but also lends new insight into the nature of such conflicts. The debate has remained unresolved, even by academic standards, for so long because it has sailed off in wild directions. Sweeping pronouncements that claim to reveal the key to counterinsurgency success gain attention, but are not useful to the practitioner, theorist, or policymaker. Rather than join one faction or the other, theorists should focus on the similarities between counterinsurgency and any other methods used to organize violence to achieve policy goals. This will better translate into bridging the gap between policy and strategy, thus making it easier for military forces to pivot from established doctrine to applying broad principles within the context of counterinsurgency.


Captain Brett Friedman, USMC is a field artillery officer stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC. He normally writes for the Marine Corps Gazette blog. His views do not represent the USMC.


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