Small Wars Journal

Beneficial War: The Conceit of American Counterinsurgency

Beneficial War: The Conceit of American Counterinsurgency

by Gian Gentile

Harvard International Review

War is, by its very nature, about death, destruction, and pain for both individuals and societies. Despite what proponents of counterinsurgency might argue, war cannot be recast as a foreign policy tool that is beneficial to societies. It is something to be avoided, and only used as a last resort in the pursuit of national security interests. Experts should not giddily pursue wars as a means of testing their new theories of warfare in the name of transforming warfare and the foreign societies that are placed in its path of destruction. All of this is a strategic fool’s errand. To presume that there is such a thing as “better” and “beneficial” war is to operate blindly on faith rather than drawing upon an understanding of history and clear strategic thinking toward current and future security problems.


Don Bacon

Mon, 12/26/2011 - 5:40pm

I agree with Gian that CI as practiced by the U.S. is simply a violent form of societal transformation, and also with his characterization "The Conceit of American Counterinsurgency." But part of the reason for that is due to these conflicts not really being counterinsurgencies, rather they involve combating the resistance to a brutal foreign military occupation.

FM 3-24
Legitimacy Is the Main Objective
1-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.
1-114. In Western liberal tradition, a government that derives its just powers from the people and responds to their desires while looking out for their welfare is accepted as legitimate.
1-120. Military action can address the symptoms of a loss of legitimacy. In some cases, it can eliminate substantial numbers of insurgents. However, success in the form of a durable peace requires restoring legitimacy, which, in turn, requires the use of all instruments of national power. A COIN effort cannot achieve lasting success without the HN [host nation] government achieving legitimacy.(end FM)

There was no "organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict" -- the DOD definition of insurgency -- in Malaya, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Also there was (is) really no possibility of "HN [host nation] government achieving legitimacy." Therefore there could be no counterinsurgency.

What there was in these countries, was a resistance to foreign occupation enforcing a foreign or foreign-established political administration. There was not, in each case, a "constituted government" or a "Host Nation" -- there was instead a British (Malaya) and U.S. (the others) puppet government, one which replaced a constituted government. There have been others in this category, for example the Indian overthrow of the British and the French resistance against the Vichy government.

Host governments, in the FM 3-24 sense, are indigenous and not imposed, and they do experience insurgencies. FM 3-24 COIN is intended to eliminate these insurgencies, not to transform the societies involved. There have been true insurgencies, though not the ones mentioned. Recent examples have been Libya and Syria. (I didn't see any rush by their rulers to purchase FM 3-24 for advice on countering these insurgencies.)

So my contention is that the societal transformation by force that so characterized these bogus "coin" exercises and made them all-out wars resulted precisely because they are not coin exercises, but rather neocolonial imperialist military aggression designed to support illegitimate governments, purple fingers notwithstanding.


Mon, 12/26/2011 - 5:38pm

In reply to by gian gentile

It's hard to know whether disbanding the Baath Party and the Iraqi Army was a mistake. Certainly we know that the impact of that move on the Sunni community was not good, but we don't know how the Shi'a and Kurdish communities would have reacted to us <i>not</i> draining the Baathtub or disbanding the army. Not happily, one might reasonably guess. When the road taken turns out badly it's easy to assume that the road not taken would have been better. That's not necessarily true: there may not have been any good road available. A different policy might have just created a whole new problem set that was as bad or worse than the one we faced. Of course that's speculative, but saying that things would have gone better if we'd done something else is equally speculative.

I agree that the mistakes were primarily on the policy level and no tactics or strategy can save bad policy, but it seems to me that the core mistakes occurred pre-invasion, with our drastic underestimation of the extent of ethnic/sectarian tension and our drastic overestimation of our capacity to resolve that tension. We assumed a capacity to control the post-Saddam environment that we did not actually have. That was always going to be trouble.

gian gentile

Mon, 12/26/2011 - 10:17am

In reply to by Steve2


No I am not saying that at all, in fact i think you can look to those two decisions early on as having a decisive effect on how the following years played out. But those decisions were of POLICY. What i disagree with is the idea that an enlightened general rode onto the scene and armed his army with a suite of so called new tactical methods at coin, and becuase of these things rescued a war that had been fought under failed strategy and policy. As Jed Medlin pointed out earlier on this thread, and very rightly so, that armies in war can learn and adapt all they want tactically and the war can still be lost.

Better tactics in war can not save failed strategy and policy.

Gian- Are you saying that disbanding the Iraqi Army and the Baath Party was not a mistake or not relevant?


Bill M.

Sun, 12/25/2011 - 1:22pm

In reply to by Jed Medlin


Excellent point, and sadly we have too many supposed experts espousing their pet theories as the sole cause and effect on the outcome of an insurgency in a complex social ecosystem. First there was no victory in Iraq, we simply suppressed the ethnic violence and AQI (which subsequently has reemerged because there was no political settlement, but rather it was simply suppressed through security operations, and now that dynamic has changed). Whatever happened in Iraq wasn't due to political settlements, surges, or leveraging ethnic grievances, but rather all of the above and then some. Each action/factor creates ripple effects that impact other factors based on the overall context of a particular insurgency. It is hubris to assume otherwise. As we move into the New Year, I hope we see multidisciplined studies on these conflicts, and less drum beating on particular models and doctrine.

The insurgents in Malaysia were a minority, and they were effectively suppressed by security operations (to include the use of some harsh resettlement practices), which helped facilitate a political settlement. Vietnam was decided when N. Vietnam drove its tanks into Saigon, but of course there is more to the story, but to pretend that the military action was insignificant is almost comical. To pretend the the military action was solely responsible is equally comical. As a community we can do better than this.

gian gentile

Sun, 12/25/2011 - 6:30pm

In reply to by Bill C.

It might be Bill but either way you cut it FM 3-24 style Coin is just that: "state and societal transformation," albeit at the barrel of a gun. The two things are really quite synonymous.

Regardless if people like John Nagl try to suggest that FM 3-24 is not primarily a military program of nation building, it really is and there is no other way to understand it but as such.

Bill C.

Sun, 12/25/2011 - 5:15pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I think we may have to get past this idea that what we are doing is counterinsurgency.

We would not seem to be doing COIN. We do not look to be seeking a forum for reconciliation or accommodation.

Rather, what we would seem to be attempting is state and societal transformation; with "war" -- and those follow-up actions that might be required -- to simply be seen as a means of achieving our objectives (the fundamental transformation of the subject state and society).

Thus, if we were simply to call what we are attempting "State and Societal Transformation" (SST) would this be more helpful/more useful than such terms and concepts as "COIN?"

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 12/25/2011 - 1:17pm

In reply to by Jed Medlin

Studying COIN is not important, understanding insurgency is.

Insurgency indeed is not rooted in law, but rather in human nature, which is actually much more universal and enduring than any law. Understand human nature, understand the political basis of insurgency, and understand the dynamics of history, culture, terrain, governace etc of the situation one is facing, and one will do fine. Showing up an expert on COIN without that and one will likely just get into trouble.

Jed Medlin

Sun, 12/25/2011 - 12:40pm

An often ignored fact is that COIN is theory, not law. It focuses on the people and, as a result, is social science rather than hard science. Regardless of FM 3-24, COIN as a social science cannot be tested in a laboratory and proven like the laws of the hard sciences which were established in a controlled environment controlling for intervening variables. Ground forces may do everything right according to COIN theory and still may not be successful. Therefore, it is important to recognize that our current strategy is based on theory which is something that has not or cannot be proven and continue the debate regarding the steadfast aherence to such a tactic or strategy that many COIN proponents speak of as if it were indeed law.

Jed Medlin

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 12/25/2011 - 12:04pm

Insurgency is primarily political. One must have the proper political framework in place if one hopes increased security efforts to have a positive effect. In Iraq the Sunni resistance was addressed at the political level, so the increased security did not exacerbate that problem and could focus on expanding stability and governnace.

In Afghanistan no such effort was made to address the similar concerns of the Non-Northern Alliance populace groups (Largely Pashtun), so the surge of troops against the resistance as made the resistance grow.

Not understanding insurgency, there was a broad assumption that it was the military efforts that created the change in Iraq; but it fact the key was the political.

Bad captures of lessons learned historically contribute to this. The much studied Malaya insurgency similarly turned the corner once the political drivers of the conflict were addressed. The Brits ended up losing control of the colony in this "victory," but gained a parter and ally. Success is not measured through the situation of either the preservation or the defeat of some government. Success is when the conditions of governance improve with greater equity across the entire populace. Sometimes that happens when the government wins, some times when the insurgent wins; sometimes it doesn't happen at all and we repeat the whole process all over again 15-20 years later.

gian gentile

Sun, 12/25/2011 - 10:48am

In reply to by David Ucko

Dear David:

I am the sole author of the piece, it is a new web page venue for the HIR and somehow the name of "Kate Vinton" appears alongside mine.

But to your question, i said that the notion of Petraeus as the savior general who turned the war around is what is spurious. But of course the idea that enlightened generals who ride onto the scene in these wars of coin is a crucial element in the "better war coin narrative" (e.g., Malaya/Templer; Vietnam/Abrams; Iraq/Petraeus; and Afghanistan/McChrystal/Petraeus. It is clear from the evidence David that the other conditions on the ground were much more important for the lowering of violence than the surge of troops. Now to be sure the surge of troops had an effect, but more of a secondary one, in that they allowed a speedier reduction of AQI through kinetic action. The idea that you have put forward that Petraeus and the Surge of Troops was some kind of strategic, game changing event is not supported by the operational record on the american side, and as Carl Prine has pointed out to you on numerous occasions, nor is it supported from the Iraqi side.

And my assertion that Coin as an operational method employed as an element of strategy by a foreign occupying power does not work, nor can one find any example of it working as such in history.



David Ucko

Sun, 12/25/2011 - 11:36am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Peter, I agree with your last point. It is exactly the interaction of these dynamics that has to be appreciated. The 'surge' was enabled by and conducted for the opportunities on the ground. It cannot be understood and would not have worked in the absence of those conditions. What I find irresponsible in this debate - and what accounts for its circularity - is the attempt to claim that it was either all surge or that it was completely irrelevant. In that sense I find the argument by Gian Gentile about as credible as those pundits who claim it was the surge all along.

Peter J. Munson

Sun, 12/25/2011 - 10:46am

In reply to by David Ucko

This is illustrative of the problems and the lack of academic responsibility in this debate of supposed academics. Statements are cherry-picked, mischaracterized, and commented on in ways that impugn the academic credentials of those spouting them.

I agree with Gian that the reduction in violence cannot be attributed to the savior general or to the surge. It is attributable to dynamics in the Sunni-Shi'i and Shi'i-Shi'i struggles that created an impetus to stop fighting. I believe that the surge contributed to this reduction in violence, but it would not have succeeded without the Iraqi dynamics that underpinned it.

David Ucko

Sun, 12/25/2011 - 10:19am

Gian, Kate, or both,

<blockquote>In Iraq, violence diminished in 2007 not because of General Petraeus’ role as a savior general, but rather because conditions such as the Anbar awakening and the Shia militias’ decision to stand down concurrently reduced violence</blockquote>

Just so I get you right here, the change of strategy and infusion of extra troops had no effect whatsoever on the reduction in violence, in any place of Iraq at any time? Those troops, just pissing in the wind, were they?