A Few Random Thoughts on COIN Theory and the Future

"A Few Random Thoughts on COIN Theory and the Future" (or A Partial Response to the Small Wars Journal Weekend Homework Assignment!!!)

By Colonel David Maxwell

The re-emergence of counterinsurgency (COIN) theory has been important and necessary for the development of US military doctrine in the 21st century and has contributed to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in critically important ways. However, COIN seems to have evolved into a strategic doctrine and perhaps has itself become the basis for US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy. This begs some questions.

Is COIN theory the basis for 21st Century US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy?

Should COIN theory be the basis for 21st Century US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy?

Assuming that COIN theory in and of itself should not be the basis of 21st Century US Grand and National Security Strategy what should form the basis for it?

What if anything could form the basis of Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy?

I think there needs to be an underlying strategic theory to form the basis for strategy development - but is there a replacement for George Kennan's Containment theory? We seem to have replaced containment of the communist threat with the theory that we can change the conditions (on a regional and global scale) that give rise to terror and insurgency. We have developed a mindset (either knowingly or unknowingly, I cannot be sure) that we think we can change nations, tribes, and cultures to cause them to act in our interests.

Assuming that COIN theory alone should not be the basis for US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy in the 21st Century is there an overarching strategic concept for the employment of the US military in the post 9-11 world that will support a US Grand and National Security strategy vice drive the strategy?

It appears the COIN theory of dealing with national security threats is driving the employment of the US military in ways that might not be sustainable -- particularly because COIN theory is forming the basis for the training and employment of the bulk of the US military and the fact that this requires huge manpower levels that must be sustained over long periods of time.

Additionally, the COIN theory of the US military may be fundamentally flawed because it presupposes US forces being in charge whenever COIN is conducted. Though FM 3-24 discusses the importance of host nation legitimacy and even our Security Forces Assistance and Irregular Warfare definitions discuss the importance of legitimacy and the "relevant population" we continue to employ US military forces as battlespace owners which drives the mindset among US military commanders that we are in charge of operations because we "own" the battlespace (despite being in a sovereign country!) De facto we make ourselves the occupying force. Even GEN McChrystal's assessment calls for integrating Afghans into the command and control structure -- those very words imply that we are in charge and not the Afghans.

In the post 9-11 world the US has developed a military employment concept that envisions US military forces, including large numbers of its General Purpose Forces (GPF), deploying around the world conducting a myriad of so-called Security Force Assistance missions to train, advise, and assist (or TEA -- train, equip, and advise to put it in LTG Caldwell's new acronym) and build partner nation capacity and capability and conduct counterinsurgency operations. A host of new doctrinal and not yet doctrinal terms are being introduced to provide guidance for the GPF to conduct missions perceived to be beyond the scope of traditional warfighting activities. (However - it is ironic that both the Army and the Marines have been heavily engaged in irregular warfare and activities throughout their entire existence.)

However, the perception of the US military being in charge has led to sometimes counter-productive activities or actions by military forces and causes further conflict.

When US forces take the lead role using today's COIN theory and doctrine in actuality they are not conducting COIN since the insurgency is "not theirs to counter" because the responsibility to counter it should belong to the sovereign nation that is faced with insurgency. While the US can and must support the activities by correctly applying applicable COIN theory (adapted and adjusted for the unique culture and traditions and the conditions that exist in the conflict area) to support that sovereign nation, when the US takes the lead and pushes the host nation to a secondary role in its own country then the US takes on the role of occupier. They are conducting "pacification operations" causing the perception of being an occupying force more along the lines of the Captain Pershing in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th Century. The calls to read Brian McCallister Linn and his works on the Philippines perhaps have led some astray. The "Pershing model" in the Philippines is somewhat ironic because one of the goals of an insurgency can be to rid a nation of an occupying power and certainly by not granting the Filipinos their independence as had been promised made the US an occupier and the Philippines a US colony. This turn of the 20th Century model must be considered for updating and possibly replaced with a new more modern model for supporting the conduct of COIN by a sovereign nation vice the US conducting COIN in a sovereign nation. And perhaps we should be looking for a balance between Pershing at the turn of the century and Lansdale and Magsaysay in the middle of the 20th Century.

A debate has evolved between those who appear to espouse "COIN as the solution to every military problem the US faces" and those who believe that the military should get back to and protect its ability to conduct "traditional Warfighting" so the US military can fight and win its nation's wars. There are those who believe the focus should be on countering hybrid and irregular threats and those who believe that "full spectrum operations" will provide the military the ability to train for and conduct operations across the spectrum of conflict including the ability to counter irregular or hybrid threats and conduct state on state warfare when necessary.

This has been a fierce debate and has caused much confusion within the military as officers and men of all ranks seek to prepare for the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan while attempting to maintain and hone traditional warfighting skills. Yet the reemergence and general acceptance of COIN theory has benefited the development of military doctrine and the transformation of the Army in many ways to deal with the myriad of irregular and hybrid threats that will likely continue to evolve in the 21st Century. The fundamental issue comes down to how do we "win" the wars we are in without mortgaging the future of the US military capabilities. I put "win" in quotation marks because defining winning in COIN is something that we must consider. Can there be victory in the conventional sense in COIN? Or is it more along these lines: "Someday, if you are successful, the mission will disappear, like a river flowing into a swamp."

Which leads me to my final random thought: If you have to win a fight you send the Army and the Marines. If you have to help someone else win a fight without taking over the fight (and if it is going to take 10 or more years to reach a satisfactory conclusion), then perhaps another type of force is needed.

Colonel David S. Maxwell, U.S. Army, is a Special Forces officer with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University. The opinions he expresses in this paper are his own and represent no U.S. Government or Department of Defense positions.

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"If you have to help someone else win a fight without taking over the fight (and if it is going to take 10 or more years to reach a satisfactory conclusion), then perhaps another type of force is needed."

COL Maxwell, do you have any suggestions for the type of force that might do this? I am in favor of Thomas Barnett's idea of a "System-Administrator" force....a force of somewhat older, more senior and experienced military personnel that can work on SFA & post-conflict reconstruction as well as work with host-nation senior leaders (who tend not to respond favorably to being advised by young SGTs and CPTs...at least that was my impression).

In another post, the idea of a new US organization....a synthesis of DoD and DoS that does more than dipolmacy but less than all-out combat...is recommended. Are either of these in line with your thoughts?

Carl Prine:

No consternation on my part. I Just have much experience with my own 'shorthand' attempts sometimes failing to connect. One gem was the day I said that in the haggling culture of the Middle East compromise was seen as surrender. What I really meant was that an offer to compromise was viewed by most there as a sign of potential weakness to be exploited but that wasn't what I said -- I said 'surrender.'.

Far from the same thing and I properly got called on it.

Thus, in my view, the use of 'containment' by the good Professor -- who I suspect uses the word as do you and Gian, a euphemism for something less -- and by the two of you opens you up to some possibly bad misapprehensions.

What you say in expansion is that we do not have a strategy to achieve our policy goals. I totally agree. You and many others wish for such a strategy but I'm a very old and very cynical Grunt -- there won't be one; we'll cobble something together as we always do and it'll work out fairly well. No worries...

I say that because I doubt we're going to spend the effort required for the 40 to 60 years it would take to achieve our stated goal using any strategies or amalgam thereof. Nor or are we going to pull up stakes and leave (I've seen us do some dumb stuff but nothing that dumb. Yet.). So we'll opt for something in between that is not a strategy but a massive band aid on a self inflicted sucking chest wound. It's the American way; we're masters at it. Drives the rest of the world crazy because we should've disappeared long ago as have many nations who made far less egregious errors than we seem to on a constant basis. However, we just keep digging out and smiling...

"...government, noxious as it is, that we hope to protect and extend (a dire possibility for some Afghans, and another cause for their local revolts)."

That's the crux of it and the reason it would take many years. It can be done, given enough will and effort, most anything can be accomplished -- but the issue becomes is the potential result worth the effort and will it endure -- and the answer in both cases is flatly no.

But I also don't believe that we should overlook the mental composition of those who have become architects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of my overwhelming fears is that too often we neglect the Iraqi causes for the temporary pacification there.

I very much agree. Our egos do a constant disservice by allowing us to credit ourselves greatly when we really deserve little due to being so slow off the mark. Repeatedly. We also are reluctant to engage others and tend to blow off people who could be very helpful. Egos are terrible things and they've done a lot of damage to the US in many places.

While I agree with you regarding Iraq, the Afghans are a quite different batch of personalities and goals and I personally doubt that much from Iraq can or will apply in Afghanistan; different terrain, different people, different war. Quite different. METT-TC and all that. That is not to say that the Afghans themselves cannot and will not be involved in finding a solution, they must and they will be. I believe there will be no awakening, rather a tiredness will set in and agreements among Afghan groups will be made with little input from us, allowing us to leave so we will -- and they'll go back to being Afghanistan. Happily, at that. We'll have to wait to see what the annual stipend will be.

I have watched the USA grope for grand and national strategies for almost 70 years, since I was nine or so. We have never had one that outlasted an Administration -- policies, yes, goals, yes but no strategies. Our political system doesn't lend itself to that idea. Minor changes every two years, potentially major jerks every four years produce an incoherence all their own. S'Okay; we've done this bit before. We cobble stuff together really well...

Heck of a way to run a country but historically it works out almost always thus I can be cynical and an optimist.

I'm sorry that my use of "containment" as shorthand for "quit screwing the pooch" caused so much consternation!

I think Gian and Dr Finel are closer to the mark: What I'm really doing when I suggest the term is try to prod the US toward some notion of articulating a strategy whereby we might use force to achieve policy goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Thus far, we haven't been able to do so. I have argued above that a key reason why we haven't been able to arrive at this warm and fuzzy place is because we fail to fully comprehend the role the occupation itself plays in driving rebellions against it and the government, noxious as it is, that we hope to protect and extend (a dire possibility for some Afghans, and another cause for their local revolts).

But I also don't believe that we should overlook the mental composition of those who have become architects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of my overwhelming fears is that too often we neglect the Iraqi causes for the temporary pacification there.

But why do these COIN gurus fail to acknowledge the roles played by the "Awakening," the widespread ethnic cleansing that removed the seams of violence by removing ethnicities or the very coercive forms of policing employed by the Ministry of the Interior and the death squads affiliated with it?

Largely because they can't think outside their own models, their own referential minds, their own institutional biases. When they take "lessons" from Iraq to use in Afghanistan, they're lessons only half-learned.

They see the dance, but they can't hear the music.

Ken:

fair points.

Of course containment wasnt perfect as a policy, and the actual course of american foreign policy during the cold war which placed you often at its business end was in fact a shifting between containment and the precepts of nsc 68 and roll back. This tension was of course the dominant theme in historian John Lewis Gaddis's classic "Strategies of Containment." And in Gaddis's view prudent containment often times during the cold war ended up being the more imprudent approach of roll back.

I did not mean to imply that it was perfect nor did i want to give a romantic version of it, but again to take what you said but still use it carefully as an idea for today's debate over strategy and policy because it does offer the possibility through historical reasoning of alternatives.

v/r
gian

Gian.

I believe you have a rather romanticized view of 'containment.' Understandable, there's a lot of revisionist history out there.

"and not bouncing off of walls and going after every perceived communist expansion in the world."

As one who bounced off several walls pursuing communist bogeymen in six nations on three continents, I certainly do not recall that era from 1949 until 1980 or so basking in all that common sense you mention.

"the next stop wont automatically be Somalia with cops in Mogadishu to win hearts and minds in order to defeat forever the pirate threat there."

Hopefully not, the last time we went it was at the behest of an old Cold Warrior who was no neocon. Then his replacement, also no neocon, screwed the pooch on that operation...

"...and the foolhardiness of crusades to change entire societies at the barrel of American guns."

That's a great thought. I sure wish you'd shared it with the best and the brightest -- not a neocon among 'em -- who sent me off to Southeast Asia three times. I didn't mind going, what I got paid for -- but I did leave a lot of friends there for little reward accruing to the US. Left some more in North Asia earlier. No neocons involved there, either. No real rewards, either.

All that is not to defend neocons -- a pox on them and the horse they rode in on -- but they're no worse or better than their liberal predecessors who invented the idea of changing societies with American muscle. Politicians are politicians, their professed ideology means little -- nor does the word honor.

As I said, containment was not all it was cracked up to be. Each President during that period added his own ideas to the mix and efforts waxed and waned. It was as chaotic as the last fifteen years or so have been; the only real difference being there was only one 'enemy.'

I said on another thread that Bacevich's idea of containment was badly flawed and said why. You and Brother Prine may certainly use any term you wish -- but don't romanticize a period of American excess and an idea that was really not terribly successful as a strategy. The demise of the USSR was only very slightly attributable to containment.

As you know a lot of problems we have today, particularly in the Middle East, originated as a result of containment...

I'm not sure the search for an all inclusive concept to guide our policy and supporting strategy is the right answer. I'm also not sure our examples have really provided the consistency that we attribute to them. It' be interesting to see if there origins were born of forward looking logic, or out of strategic frustration.

What I would like to see is for us to understand when it is in our interest(s) to act, and to act accordingly - identifying the best ways, and applying the requisite means to achieve those ends. If this is how we want to define containment, I'd argue we should call it something else - maybe good policy

This will probably require that we maintain a diverse stable of capabilities required to cover all the bases. More importantly though it requires some foresight to recognize that one size does not fit all, and that a going in position is subject to change given new conditions and new objectives.

I think when we speak of containment it actually as a term operates more like a metaphor for an alternative approach to what seems to be the current neo-con driven foreign policy of liberal use of American military power into the world's troubled spots. I read Bacevich not so much as an argument for modeling the previous containment policy toward the soviet union and applying it today but instead a different way that seems to offer an alternative from one foreign crusade to another. Containment as a policy was about strategic choice, interest, measured response to threat, and not bouncing off of walls and going after every perceived communist expansion in the world. As a metaphor then the idea of containment therefore makes sense in that if it is followed philosophically today then perhaps when we are through with Iraq the next stop wont automatically be Somalia with cops in Mogadishu to win hearts and minds in order to defeat forever the pirate threat there. The opposite of containment--rollback via nsc 68--demanded a symmetrical response to any communist expansion in the world. As a metaphor for today NSC-68 would demand that planners now start figuring out where the cops will go in the Mog. It is in this metaphorical sense that the idea of containment is an appealing one for today because it offers the possibility of a different way that accepts the limits of American power and the foolhardiness of crusades to change entire societies at the barrel of American guns.

Sigh. Yet again zapped by the anonymous sign-in that Bill put there to trip and identify the old and senile. I'm responsible for the above brilliance or blather, view point dependent...

You still had some good comments, Carl...

Carl Prine:

Good comments above. Thank you.

I use a lot of shorthand in commenting but I think perhaps 'containment' as you're using it is not a very good choice. It has too many connotations in the minds of most.

On the "Lets Beat the Extremists Like We Beat the Soviets" Blog post here, I ranted in a comment about the improbability of containment as proposed by Professor Bacevich. I agree with Gian on may things but on containment, I do not agree...

In my comment on that thread, I ended with this:

"...Thus, seems to me that we should eschew large wars and midsize wars to the extent possible, recognize (and recall in the future) that we do not do limited objective wars or FID at all well and opt for what works. No sense in playing to the opponents strengths.


What's required is simply a number of Small Wars -- we do those well. That entails continued improvement of intelligence capability, far better and stronger diplomatic efforts to include an enhanced US Aid and US Information Agency and limited military involvement. It does mean a possible long series of small wars or even a 'Long War' but not on the terms the good Professor implied. Let's do it on our terms, not theirs."

I submit that most forms of containment would also fall into the 'do it their way' trap. To paraphrase -- be careful what you say you want, someone may try to give it to you...

its ability, not it's...

I'm getting sloppy on my vacation...

That's my only purpose in using the terms, Gian.

Rid thinks that it should be used more often, but I'm not so sure. At some point, it loses it's ability to pose another way of thinking about a problem and becomes, as Dr Finel says, another crazy trip down another rabbit hole.

My concern all along has been our inability to truly understand the historical roots of the endemic fighting in Afghanistan. We want to use stencils borrowed from others times, climes and places to make up for our cultural and historical illiteracy, but they don't seem to work all that well.

We've done it before. Stone was writing in 1961.

Carl/Bernard:

Yes good points, but you have to start somewhere and reasoning even by lose historical analogy that presents alternative thinking is a good place to start.

gian

I had that very conversation with Rid, Dr Finel. I very reluctantly use "containment" for two reasons: 1) It confers on al Qaeda or other armed Salafis the same level of threat as the Soviet Union, which is ludicrous; and, 2) It takes a grand strategic concept from the Cold War and attempts to make it serve as scaffolding for what's really a civil war in a pretty much strategically meaningless part of the world.

So why do I even bother with it? Probably because it's a way to discuss a topic with a shared glossary. Or, in other words, I use it as a form of rhetoric, not necessarily as a working concept.

It becomes a thinking point: Hmmmm, Carl is right. Attempting to roll back the various Taliban militias has not worked. Is there another solution?

It's a term of convenience. YOu might find that intellectually sloppy, and I would agree with you, but it is serving its purpose.

For now.

Look, it is easy to get bogged down into philosophical nuances, but at some point we need to address the microfoundation of military power. Militaries do precisely two things -- they kill people and destroy objects. Military power can be leveraged through the communicative act of threatening to kill or to withhold killing.

How do you protect the population? You do it by killing insurgents or threatening to kill them if they encroach on areas you are seeking to protect. You can threaten to kill them, and if you are credible, you might be able to deter them from operating in zones under your control.

The debate is not over killing or not killing. It is over whom you would kill (or threat to kill), under what conditions, and with what sort of tolerance for your own casualties and/or collateral damage. An effective counter-insurgent force must be proficient at killing.

The problem with COIN is that neither pop-centric nor enemy-centric enunciate a clear "theory of victory." The pop-centric guys wave this away with lots of theoretical happy talk about the linkages between "security," "legitimacy," and "control," but none of those terms is defined in any sort of conceptually coherent manner, and as a result there is no empirical reference on which to judge the argument. But enemy-centric COIN is not a ton better because when you read people like, say, Ralph Peters, it is clear that they don't have a theory of victory either. They rely in part of assumptions about attrition. But worse, they rely on a very vaguely conceptualized notion of the utility of the "demonstration" effect.

So, I get why we are talking about a "third way," but the fact that Nagl and Peters are both wrong, does not make something "in between" right either. So, I approach the debate over "containment" with a great deal of trepidation. Who are we containing? Containing them from doing what? What is the military component of that -- who are we killing or threatening to kill? What is the theory of victory that links the microfoundation of violence to the achievement of political goals?

As a result, instead of discussing grand abstract theories, I think we need to work on smaller, mid-level chunks of the problem. A promising one is on the CT front -- what precisely can we do using military means to eliminate various levels of terrorist sanctuaries? What are the costs and benefits of each?

Containment is, I fear, another intellectual trap. It is useful as a loose analogy, but if you press it beyond that it has the possibility of growing into the sort of shapeless, empiric-free generalities that are the downfall of the whole COIN debate recently.

My $0.02.

Carl:

Good to hear from you. My vote, containment, which was Bacevich's recent vote too along with Gaddis's in his classic "Strategies of Containment." The neo-cons and the liberal internationalist I fear have latched on to Nitze, rollback, and NSC-68, and to our detriment. Interestingly though, the liberal internationalists actually believe it will work as the rhetoric explains, but the neo-cons know better but dont really care as long as the United States keeps American combat power presence on the ground in the worlds troubled spots. The nexus between the two is an interesting one to be sure.

Ditto your point along with M-A Lagrange's about the ostensible French approach to coin via hearts and minds, population protection, and progressive penetration to the actual hard hand of war and the necessity of killing the enemy. Read of course the reality of civil wars and their logic of violence as so aptly explained by Kalyvas and his discussion of control via massed military power to suppress violence.

With this in mind I am thinking of General McChrystal's recent assessment and the part of using the additional troops to regain the initiative from the enemy yet there is no military explanation beyond the catechisms of population centric coin as to how to go about doing that. It is the assumption that if we just learn and adapt toward better population centric counterinsurgency, secure the population, etc then the initiative will somehow be gained. The military logic of his assessment though actually points to the opposite course of action if we want to regain the initiative against the enemy then we should use the enemy centric approach and the imperative to kill the enemy to do it.

gian

"(protecting the population) a skill the French brought to a high level during their colonial wars"
Well do not go too far neither. La bataille d Alger was not won with nice tricks. The population learned to fear the "para" and in France they use to be hated for what they did.
What was the key of French military engagement during the "colonial wars" (and your talking only about Algeria here) is that there was a true feeling that Algeria was part of France among the French intelligencia in power.
Once you believe you are fighting for a peace of home land you do not have the same reluctances than when you fight for a piece of foreign land.
Counterinsurgency starts there and nowhere else. You are the loyalist force because you believe the place is yours and part of your homeland (And you did rule it for some time in fact). The day you forget that and try to do COIN as a junkfood product for export then you are totally wrong and YOU are the insurgent trying to install and maintain a revolutionary regime. But may be that is the key?

Gian,

I think that a "third way" is emerging for your poor SFC tanker.

The link I just added came from Bing West's latest in Marine Corps Gazette. He returns to a theme I often mention: The skillset of the infantryman (the only military task I've ever known) is the same as the COIN practitioner even if we wish to disguise this in goofy terms like "armed social worker" or "strategic corporal."

It's to kill the enemy.

Now, there are times on the COIN battlefield wherein it's better to detain or deter the enemy, and not kill him. But the infantryman still must be capable of doing the killing, or his ability to articulate force to achieve foreign policy goals will be greatly truncated, as will likely be his life.

West proposes that we find better means (apparently without indirect fires or much CAS, per McChrystal) to do this killing. I second his Kitsonian approach to the many Taliban problems. I also his echo his thought that perhaps we're sugarcoating what our combatants actually do in order to sell our COIN operations as something that they're not (protecting the population), a skill the French brought to a high level during their colonial wars to sell their civilian elites on battles of dubious grand strategic value.

The crucial question remains: Do we do containment, or rollback? We've tried a whole lotta rollback and the insurgencies (plural) in Afghanistan aren't broken. Rather, they seem to be growing.

At what pont do we begin to consider containment?

I like to see two of my favorite COLs discussing US strategy (I'm being generous with my terms today, perhaps because I'm on vacation)!

I share with COL Maxwell a concern about how we envision COIN doctrine. A professor who is far brighter than I shall ever be, Thomas Rid, ends his co-authored 2.0 with a suggestion that perhaps we have granted to our enemy -- al Qaeda or the various militias of the Taliban -- the aura of existential threat that they don't deserve. When we discuss our counter-strike to the threat, perhaps we should mention it in the language of containment and not rollback.

This is brilliant, of course, only because I agree with him.

A topic that hasn't gotten much attention is based loosely on my COINdinista vs COINtra dichotomy. That was humorous joisting on my part. Had I been serious, I might have suggested that we instead explore the cultural and psychological foundations of those in any of four camps (Hoffman has sought to do this).

During the Vietnam War, two very supple thinkers, Eqbal Ahmad and Iz Stone, began to explore the mindset of those doctrinal thinkers about US warfighting in general and counter-insurgency in particular.

Ahmad found four post-WWII models: The conventional establishment (Eisenhower/Taylor and "massive retaliation"), the classic revolutionary (IRA, Tito, Mao, Algeria's FLN, COL T.N. Greene), the liberal-reformist (New Frontier ideologues) and the radical-heroic (Debray and Guevara).

When we actually look back to Vietnam and earlier wars of revolution, Nagl, Mansoor and many other fine minds seem eerily similar in many, but not all ways, to the "conventional establishment" interpretation of revolutionary war: 1) It's a technical problem that one solves by stopping the plotting and subverting through intelligence and suppression; 2) the belief that the conspirators are motivated by foreign ideology (Salafism in place of communism) or accidently turned into guerillas when the clash of ideology and local conflict come into play; 3) Training by the counter-revolutionary focuses on adapting to the irregular threat in his terrain; 4) The guerilla has the strategic advantage because, in the words of Rostow, "its task is merely to destroy while the government must build and protect what it is building," something which could be printed in FM 3-24 without blushing; and, 5) The civilian population is key to providing support to the insurgent, so by turning the civilians, one gains intelligence and "protects" them from the terror campaigns of subversion by the revolutionaries.

In other words, within the US military Nagl, et al, fall into a very old model.

Who is giving them their intellectual support? If he were alive today, Ahmad might point to the ranks of the "liberal-reformist" peeps. They're the ones pushing on Kabul notions such as "freedom," "progress," "reforms," "democracy" and "participation." Ahmad was studying Kennedy's New Frontiersman, but would he today fail to find a target rich environment for liberal-reformists undergridding AEI or CNAS in DC?

The roots of the liberal-reformist ideology, of course, dig deeply into colonialism. Despite the body count, they speak in euphemisms ("pacification" or "protection of the population" and "limited" warmaking), and often approach the topic of nation-building as a managerial challenge, much as their uniformed buddies in the conventional establishment mindset look at the battlefield.

They like Galula.

How often have we heard a member of either the liberal-reformist or establishment tribes speak of the "lessons" we have forgotten from Vietnam? During Vietnam, these same tribes spoke about the Philippines in much the same language. When they bluster on about "politics," they're being coy: This isn't so much about reconciliation with the occupied peoples, but rather just another tool to achieve a managerial goal -- quashing the rebellion.

In the hands of the establishment or liberal-reformist thinkers, the actual revolutionaries (if they are mentioned at all), are seen likewise as technocrats, building "systems" or "networks" of subversion that should be studied and then fractured.

What often goes missing is an appreciation of the historical reasons why such revolutionaries exist and the social/cultural support that gives their insurgency meaning. They write field manuals (FM 3-24 is the best proof) that posit a Maoist enemy without every considering the unique local conditions that informed (and continue to inform) the actual revolutions.

They see no inherent contradiction in certain paradoxes: Many Taliban supporters help the enemy because they dislike the Karzai or any other state government and they detest the occupation. So the solution is to help extend the Karzai kleptocracy to their village and bring in more foreign (or Tajik) troops to ensure that this is so.

To read more, check out "National Liberation and Revolution" (Free PRess: 1970).

In 1961, I.F. Stone wrote this:

"In reading the military literature on guerilla warfare now so fashionable at the Pentagon, one feels that these writers are like men watching a dance from outside through heavy plate glass windows. They see the motions but they can't hear the music. They put the mechanical gestures down on paper with pedantic fidelity. But what rarely comes through to them are the injured racial feelings, the misery, the rankling slights, the hatred, the devotion, the inspiration and the desperation. So they do not really understand what leads men to abandon wife, children, home, career, friends; to take to the bush and live gun in hand like a hunted animal; to challenge over-whelming military odds rather than acquiesce any longer in humiliation, injustice or poverty (...)"

M-A Lagrange:

Yes, I agree.

Ken White

The fact that counterinsurgency theory is used by non civilian to promote civilian oriented literature goes with the fact that Galula theory (as he wrote it not as it is promoted or resumed) is mainly oriented on the shift/addition of confrontation from military to governance/social services field. This opens door to many interpretations.
First thing is to recognise that COIN operation are also often seen as counterterrorist/police operation that are under civilian rather than military. (Surge was defenitively not civilian operation)
Second is to recognise that this shift at strategic level may geopardise the understanding of COIN by politician and civilian bodies.
Third, that soldiers are not that good in delivering social services/governance. And it is not their job neither. So they need coordination with civilian agencies.

The problem you might be pointing is the importance of security VS civilian oriented actions in actual understanding of COIN. At a point it is true that it is becoming silly and soldiers are perceived as armed reliefworkers or place military under relief workers/agencies direction... Which has already been done and failed in most cases.

Old Eagle:

I agree that COIN is a doctrine -- but suggest it is also a theory as its tenets are used to justify political efforts of various sorts by a good many non-military persons for specious reasons and to produce and promote a volume of quite civilian oriented literature.

A better question might be: On a cost-benefit AND a net strategic benefit basis, just how effective is COIN when performed in other nations with large bodies of US troops...

Old Eagle wrote:

"GWOT has not and cannot replace containment as a grand strategy, but nobody has been able to develop a construct that can."

A solid point, Old Eagle. I like to think of it this way, and I apologize if this is too elementary to be put on the comments board:

I think a few ideas pulled from Andrew Bacevich's WaPo Op-Ed sound feasible, but I'd add a few caveats. Bacevich advocates "decapitation, containment, and competition" to defeat jihadist terrorists. If I'm to stick to three nouns, it would be disruption, competition, and containment. It's more or less what Bacevich proposes with a few ideas moved into the "disruption" category.

In a cellular network (as opposed to a hierarchical network), decapitation works to the extent that those targeted possess unique characteristics. In other words, if we're going to target individuals, they must have some sort of technical understanding or political know-how that is unique to them and critical to the network. We also must eliminate them in a way that minimizes collateral damage. Kilcullen's "Accidental Guerrilla" hypothesis is relevant with regards to this point. Disruption, then, would include targeting these individuals as well as finding ways to interfere with the network's funding and supplies. The advantage here will be in keeping AQ and similar networks off balance, with the hope that by doing so we may cause their operations to become less organized and easier to detect.

Competition is the political, economic, and social element. Military force is a political tool, so it is also relevant in this context. I see FID as the possible military mission in relation to "competition." In addition, if we are to think of the current state of affairs through the lens of a backlash against globalization, our aim is then to demonstrate the good that globalization can provide. This will involve a complete rethinking of the way we provide aid. Microloans are instructive in this regard. Bottom-up reform through grassroots politics would be a low risk method of nudging the developing world toward stability and prosperity. Notice that I'm not saying democracy.

My use of "containment" is different from the Cold War theory, and in this way I borrow from Bacevich. We'll need robust border defenses, expanded airport and seaport security, and we'll need cybercom to keep our utilities and other electronic networks safe from foreign hackers.

Dave --

Thanks for getting this started.

I have a fundamental disagreement with you premise, however. COIN isn't a theory. It is a doctrine for the employment of military force, a "way" of the ends, ways and means paradigm. Likewise, I would argue that containment was not a theory, but rather a grand strategy. Containing the former Soviet Union became a "way" at that level, but also an "end" at the next level down -- national strategy. The ways of national strategy included ringing the USSR with a series of mutual defense treaties and organizations, supporting allies and partners in their resistance to communism, and actively countering Soviet-led/inspired military activities where it was seen in our national interest. Sometimes, those involved open HIC-type combat, as in both Korea and Vietnam, and sometimes COIN and/or FID.

GWOT has not and cannot replace containment as a grand strategy, but nobody has been able to develop a construct that can.

I think the application of "By, With and Through" may have a different context when seen as part of an operational approach.

We may need to think more in terms of:

"by" doing it for them, when they are incapable, unwilling or some degree of both (assuming its one our interest either directly or indirectly)

"with" them when they are willing but not fully capable (or when they are fully capable and just looking for some assistance)

"through" the development of their capbilities where they would be willing were they more capable of doing so.

That may not be perfect, but I think in may cases we are going to see some combination of two or more of those, we just need to know which one is most appropriate, and have the capabilities to make it feasible.

Best, Rob

Chris, you stated,

"Working by, with, and through indigenous fighters is obviously the preferred route when compared to a large-scale deployment of GPF. To me, the SOF route is a preventative measure. Once an insurgency has spread, it might be difficult for SOF to establish enough of a foothold to be successful - hence my earlier question about expanding the size of SOF to deal with geographically dispersed conflicts."

You've made some excellent observations on this thread. I'd ask you to consider some others.

-SOF does not equal SF.

-COIN does not equal FID.

-There are three types of wars, not two: Small, Medium, and Large.

-Clearing through the Pop-centric COIN mantra in Afghanistan ultimately may prove to be the modern-day version of a frontal assualt.

-It is better to find a way to manuever and breakout rather than assualt head on. "By, with, and through" is just one form of manuever through the human terrain.

v/r

Mike

Schmedlap wrote:

"Until the other agencies can get their acts together, DoD should not bend over backwards to push this pie farther into the sky. We have enough on our plates."

Agreed. Maybe we can channel the pro-COIN energy into rebuilding the State Department into an institution that is capable of augmenting nation-building and COIN operations.

Anon wrote:

"Isn't the rationale for having ARSOF is to field a "by, with a through" capability, and isn't the Marine Corps all about the Small Wars? Since when did waging COIN mean going all in with the GPF too?"

Working by, with, and through indigenous fighters is obviously the preferred route when compared to a large-scale deployment of GPF. To me, the SOF route is a preventative measure. Once an insurgency has spread, it might be difficult for SOF to establish enough of a foothold to be successful - hence my earlier question about expanding the size of SOF to deal with geographically dispersed conflicts.

Anon stated

"How about designating ARSOF and the Marine Corps as the lead military elements for conducting Irregular Warfare? They could be reinforced with selected GPF elements as needed and combined with a more robust civilian/NGO establishment to provide a whole-of-government capability. This would allow the balance of the GPF to remain focused on preparing for higher intensity conflict.

I have been wondering why the Afghan counterinsugrency could not be waged by using ARSOF elements to mobilize the tribal militias in a CIDG-fashion, while using Marine Corps and selected Army elements to operate with the ANA in a CAP-like fashion? Why use Coalition GPF for village point-defense when the local militias could supply the manpower instead? If the CAP/ANA mobile forces were insufficient to deal with the Taliban in force-on force situations, leaven them with a modest GPF capability. The key would be to mobilize the Afghans themselves to provide the COIN manpower, not the Coalition.

Isn't the rationale for having ARSOF is to field a "by, with a through" capability, and isn't the Marine Corps all about the Small Wars? Since when did waging COIN mean going all in with the GPF too?"

This option is one of the better ones that I've read.

v/r

Mike

Not disagreeing with Col Gentile, but just noticed his reference to organizational and structural transformation.

Until the other governmental agencies (State/USAID/etc) are able to field enough personnel to do something more than augment some EAR staff or man half a PRT, then all of this academic pontificating about organizational and structural transformation is just bluster that we're going to hear at think tank discussions and read in pundits' op-ed columns, but not something that will ever come to fruition. We depend upon the military because it has manpower and equipment. How many personnel can other agencies field in a given theater on eight years notice? And how do they sustain themselves - organically or by relying upon DoD's log tail? How many personnel from other agencies are on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan? I suppose DEA is setting a decent example. Anyone else? Until the other agencies can get their acts together, DoD should not bend over backwards to push this pie farther into the sky. We have enough on our plates.

>I think SWJ should give out a prize for someone who can find a way to >expand the US's unconventional warfare capability without sacrificing >quality.

How about designating ARSOF and the Marine Corps as the lead military elements for conducting Irregular Warfare? They could be reinforced with selected GPF elements as needed and combined with a more robust civilian/NGO establishment to provide a whole-of-government capability. This would allow the balance of the GPF to remain focused on preparing for higher intensity conflict.

I have been wondering why the Afghan counterinsugrency could not be waged by using ARSOF elements to mobilize the tribal militias in a CIDG-fashion, while using Marine Corps and selected Army elements to operate with the ANA in a CAP-like fashion? Why use Coalition GPF for village point-defense when the local militias could supply the manpower instead? If the CAP/ANA mobile forces were insufficient to deal with the Taliban in force-on force situations, leaven them with a modest GPF capability. The key would be to mobilize the Afghans themselves to provide the COIN manpower, not the Coalition.

Isn't the rationale for having ARSOF is to field a "by, with a through" capability, and isn't the Marine Corps all about the Small Wars? Since when did waging COIN mean going all in with the GPF too?

Maybe we have caused utter confusion and befuddlement in our good sergeants and lieutenants (especially of the combat arms persuasion). We lament that at the "schoolhouse" we still have not "gotten" the Coin thing. But what is a good 19K Tank Sergeant First Class to do? On the one hand he knows that his bread and butter, his essential core competency as a soldier and leader is to close with and kill the enemy with his tank. Can anybody out there really deny that for a tanker sergeant first class this should not be?

But then dissonance occurs because at the same time he knows that he and his soldiers might be deploying in the near future to Helmand Province or other parts nearby, might not be taking their tanks, and in fact may be operating as mounted infantry doing population centric counterinsurgency: A complicated situation to be sure for the good sergeant.

My point in all of this is that at some point unless one is of the mind that the American Army should be transformed structurally and organizationally to a Coin force then this kind of tension between Coin and "hic" will be natural and produce laments like we dont have a Coin "primer" in the schoolhouse. Until we decide how we want our army to be, this tension will continue.

gian

Schmedlap-

I appreciate the feedback, and thanks for calling me out on my lazy sentence.

I do not believe the alternative to COIN is HIC. I believe our enemies will exploit our weaknesses in any conflict, and embracing one method of war fighting over another will create a force that has uneven capabilities.

That being said, my intent in the last post was to draw attention to a problem I've noticed while in the schoolhouse - if we're fighting an insurgency, why not get a primer on COIN?

"I'm astounded at the contempt many training cadres and fellow officers feel toward COIN. COIN may not be the answer to every problem, but neither is a SABOT round."

I'm not asserting that you think this - I'm not sure if you do - but IF you think that the alternative to COIN is HIC, then this could be why you are astounded.

"Is COIN theory the basis for 21st Century US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy?"

I second the more esteemed writers above. At the same time, I'm not confident in saying that the COINdinistas see COIN as the solution to everything. Rather, COIN is another tool the military should have at its disposal, and should at the very least understand how to conduct COIN operations.

Andrew Bacevich's recent Op-Ed brings up some interesting points in how we might approach the long war. His argument is to wage a cold war against the "jihadists," rather than a global COIN campaign. I believe his argument to be persuasive.

Jihadist groups, whether they're global terror networks or regional insurgent groups, do not pose an existential threat to the United States in the way the Soviet Union once did. At the same time, global terror networks like AQ understand that the United States isn't built to sustain protracted conflict. It's not a modern phenomenon so much as something ingrained in our political genome.

What guides our military strategy should take into consideration ways in which to minimize the impact of a war's cost. Long wars are costly, and disrupt the American political psyche to an extent that we risk neo-isolationism after an extended engagement. It cannot be said that we have already fought our longest sustained conflict, but I'm sure many agree that fighting four or five more Afghanistans in the 21st century is not a good idea.

COIN calls for a large deployment of security forces - whether these consist of American soldiers or indigenous forces led by advisors depends on how we approach the coming years. If I'm not mistaken, this is the point COL M made at the end of his essay. Army Special Forces, in concert with a reconstituted USAID and other expeditionary social and economic teams, can keep wars small.

The call for an expanded corps of SOF isn't a new idea, and it's also somewhat problematic when considered alongside the SOF truths:

-Humans are more important than Hardware.
-Quality is better than Quantity.
-Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced.
-Competent Special Operations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur.

I think SWJ should give out a prize for someone who can find a way to expand the US's unconventional warfare capability without sacrificing quality.

With regards to the non-SOF military and the homework assignment, it's clear that core competencies will matter to some extent in every conflict. What's more important, at least from my perspective as a young grasshopper in the Army, is that we encourage creative problem solving with the assets available and stop pooh-poohing counterinsurgency. As the low man on the totem pole, I'm astounded at the contempt many training cadres and fellow officers feel toward COIN. COIN may not be the answer to every problem, but neither is a SABOT round.

-Chris

Mark:

I have read every one of his books; closely and carefully.

I drew this summary of his position from his review of Weigley's book in the 2002 April issue of the Journal of Military History. In this review Linn states this about the American Way of War:

"The American way of war-both in peacetime military thought and in wartime performance-has been characterized more by improvisation and practicality than by a commitment to annihilation." (page 503).

Then Linn concludes his review with this statement:

"...If an 'American way of war' indeed exists, it is far more complex than can be accommodated by Weigley's central thesis."(page 530)

Mark: Have you read this most important review that Linn wrote in 2002???

In fact a close reading of his newest book "The Echoe of Battle" builds on some of the themes that he developed in this review of Weigley's book in 2002.

I do think that you are right about Linn's work and the idea that the American Way of War is not simply just attrition or annihilation and how the debate within the Army over Coin doctrine and influence actually fits quite well I think within Linn's work. In fact I suggested to him once the possibility of adding to his three groups of army officers in Echo (Guardians, Managers, and Heroes)that he add Counterinsurgency Experts as a fourth group.

Maybe I should stop using the term Coindinista since it seems to rile you so. My friend Carl Prine last year came up with it along with the term Cointra. I thought that they were really in the spirit of good fun and nothing more.

gian

Gian,

your characterisatiion of Linn does not equate with any reasonable reading of his work:

McAllister Linn, Brian. The echo of battle: The Army's way of war. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2007,

In fact, the US Army that he describes has some resonance with the argument between you and what you call the 'coindinistas'. (cute IO, would be even better if your name them, and ascribe a doctrine to them that you won't resile from in subsequent argument..)

Cheers,

Mark

Mark

Dave:

Well done and a thoughtful piece.

Agree with one of Ken's points at the end about "serendipity" being a more accurate way of describing the American Way of War. In fact historian Brian Linn in a very, very important critical review of Weigley's classic "The American Way of War, (1973)" (Linn wrote the review a few years ago in the Journal of Military History) refuted Weigley's bifurcation of American grand strategy into first attrition, then as a result of the Civil War, annihilation. Linn in fact argues that the real American Way of War has been one of practicality and adaptability. Hence Ken's point about serendipity rings true to me and is in line with Linn's more developed argument.

And by the Way, the coindinistas over the years have had a field day with the Weigley thesis. Accepting it to be factually true (instead of an interpretive possibility open to challenge) and then using it to bludgeon the American Army away from the "big battle" mindset arguing that such competencies nowadays pale in comparison to the needs to be able to do Coin and other forms of irregular war. And the problem as I see it is that the Coin Experts are perverting the true way of American War which is one of adaptability and practicality and trying to push us down the road to single-mindedness. Ironically, the Coin Experts have replaced Weigleys strategy of annihilation with a strategy of Coin.

gian

We had national security concerns prior to 9/11 that still exist to this day, although it may not seem that way due to our tunnel vision like focus on the war on terror. I doubt that we'll ever see an unifying strategic theme like containment again in our life time due to the wide range of potential state and non-state threats to our national interests (even those are not entirely clear). That makes it difficult to say the least for for those who have to determine what tomorrow's military should look like, so we're stuck with trying to develop a balanced force, but in reality what does that really mean?

It is generally accepted the military needs to be better at countering irregular threats and that it still must maintain their capability to wage conventional or convential like operations. On the other hand, I tend to agree with those who think our FID/COIN doctrine is built on a weak fundation of false assumptions, especially when it is artificially migrated from the operational to strategic level (our strategy is to enable our partners to...). Furthermore, this approach can be prohibitively expensive, not to mention the challenge of maintaining the polical will to see an effort through.

I think part of the answer may be addressed in COL Maxwell's last paragraph, which I see as a paradigm shift from our current doctrinal trend where we bring in the military machine to conduct COIN (instead of assisting the host nation FID). While he may not have implied this, I think he addresses a possible solution to our biggest problem which is at the operational and strategic level. Our military members are very adaptable at the tactical level. Where we fail is at the operational level. If the operational level correctly identifies the problem the rules of engagement and the objectives, etc., then the troops will get it done.

I'll make an argument that SOF (specicifically those skilled in FID/UW) are probably the best qualified to provide that operational level HQs to support these long term efforts. This implies that GPF and civilian contractors (for skill sets that are too expensive to maintain in the active force) will work for these SOF operational HQs, and unfortunately this is normally a political hot potato; however, the advantage is we develop effective operational level HQs that are trained and skilled in either conventional or iregular operations. We can train the tactical forces quickly to adapt, it isn't as easy to transition at the operational level. Unlike our normal approach, which is focused on the shooter (bottom up), I'm proposing focusing on the middle (operational level), which will inform the strategy and direct the tactical.

Ken

You stated,

"Agree with you, Mike, on all save one aspect -- I don't think the answer will come after spirited debate; Serendipity is the American way. Or stumbling into a workable solution. Either way it'll likely just sort of happen. That's kewel..."

Not sure where we disagreed. You above all people know that I'm not your "Mini-Me." I just happen to believe that someone in SWJ is going to bust out with a post-Cold War theory to compliment Kennan.

It might be Slap or COL Jones. I don't know. . Maybe the disagreement is that I don't believe it'll "just sort of happen."

Even Kennan disagreed with his own theory. Maybe that's what you're saying :). I'm running in circles again...I'll just stick to my assertion that CNAS/AEI ain't Rand of the 1950's...

v/r

Mike

I get to post one of my usual agreements with Dave Maxwell and one of my rare disagreements with Mike Few...

Excellent essay, Dave. While I'm a full spectrum supporter for the GPF, I also am firmly convinced that they should train for FID/SFA support and we, the USA, should diligently avoid committing them to it unless there is no alternative -- and there most always is. As you say, there are better force options. Much better...

Agree with you, Mike, on all save one aspect -- I don't think the answer will come after spirited debate; Serendipity is the American way. Or stumbling into a workable solution. Either way it'll likely just sort of happen. That's kewel...

Is COIN theory the basis for 21st Century US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy?

No

Should COIN theory be the basis for 21st Century US Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy?

No. COIN, and FID/SFA, are most appropriate on the operational/tactical level.

What if anything could form the basis of Grand, National Security, and National Military Strategy?

Undetermined. We need to increase the state/NGO presence to at least an equal footing as the military (400,000 not 4,000).

I think there needs to be an underlying strategic theory to form the basis for strategy development - but is there a replacement for George Kennans Containment theory?

Again, undetermined. We have yet to have the breakthrough theory to replace Kennan. It won't be COIN, and it will probably be derived in SWJ and not through a think-tank. CNAS/AEI does not equal the Rand of the 1950's.

We'll get there. I have no doubt, but it will probably be through a spirited debate.

I'll end this with some of my own thoughts/questions- there should only be one COIN. We confuse ourselves in the debate between enemy-centric and population-centric. Those are both appropriate given METT-TC.

Most of my tactical experience in COIN derived from clearing safe-havens. Trying to dismantle enemy training camps and gov't infracstructure proved to be a highly kinetic tasks. Understanding the overall situation and implying the appropriate means and resources did not mean that I didn't get COIN.

v/r

Mike