Small Wars Journal

COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory

Concept Failure? COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory by Colin S. Gray, Prism 3, No 3.

Much of the debate in recent years between rival groups of military intellectuals over counterinsurgency doctrine could be rendered more coherent and useful were it conducted in the intellectual context of general strategic theory. In a nine-part argument, Colin Gray addresses misconceptions and confusions inherent in the debate and discusses the need for a re-conceptualization of counterinsurgency through formal education in strategic theory for scholars. Gray concludes by stressing the fallacy of viewing counterinsurgency as either a principally military or principally political venture and the dangers of removing it from its conceptual setting.


I agree with the general consensus that Gray’s article is non-specific. Perhaps that is the point? I’ve consistently thought over the past decade that many military professionals assume that insurgency is a very specific kind of war which a specific strategy and set of tactics could counter. Because of this they apply the recently established doctrine dogmatically without fully understanding it. However, as Gray points out (and even a superficial individual study can confirm), each is unique and the techniques needed in each case require an understanding of strategy. “Whether or not an insurgency should be opposed is not a general question. The answer always must depend on the specific circumstances. This is not so much a matter of COIN doctrine or techniques, including the military; rather, it is first and foremost a political issue.” In that I see an answer to COL Gentile’s observation that American COIN is in fact nation building… it doesn’t have to be and a better understanding of strategy by policy makers and especially by military officers of all ranks would enable a clearer matching of ends, ways, and means. Of course if a stable western style nation is the desired end-state then perhaps nation building fits as the proper means. However, I find it disconcerting that the military and national pundits seem to treat COIN as a very specific kind of war in which only a specific set of tactics will apply. It is doubly disturbing when it is described as separate and distinct from “counter-terror”. Both COIN and CT can be, and usually are, interconnected and can apply across the spectrum of ‘types’ of peace and war. They are all possible ways to apply means to a specific end.

-MAJ Derek O. (As a student at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff Collage I have to note that “the views expressed in this posting are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”)

Mark O'Neill

Tue, 06/12/2012 - 7:34pm

In reply to by Mike Few

Sure, I agree with you about the problems. I am not as confident about the future trajectory as many of the India 'boosters' in our respective countries.



Mike Few

Tue, 06/12/2012 - 8:53am

In reply to by Mark O'Neill


To clarify, I was referring to India in the classical sense. Both China and India have been around for thousands of years, so one century is a small amount of time when looking at it from that lens.

But to your point, universal suffrage does not necessarily equate to equality. There's still unresolved tensions with the Maoist as well as a disfunctional relationship with Kashmir and Pakistan.

Mark O'Neill

Mon, 06/11/2012 - 8:14pm

In reply to by Mike Few


India is a parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage. Has been since independence. In fact, they actually claim to be the 'worlds largest' democracy (based on population). No need for them to 'transition', they are already there.



Mike Few

Mon, 06/11/2012 - 10:12am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C,

Significantly transformed? Yes, but I want specificity :). I think you went too far in the first paragraph so I'll start there.

1. Political. Can people within a state govern themselves in a version of democracy? This is still contested. Dictators still abound in many states. If we look at China/India, then they will say yes, but they must transition slowly. I think that most of the China/India leaders, if asked in private, would accept that democracy will win out in another 100 years.

2. Economic. Yes, absolutely. Capitalism works, but what is now contested is to what end? I actually like Slapout's answer, "It's Americanism not Capitalism." If we decide that "Greed is Good" and taken to an extreme, then we'll be seeing a future of greater conflict.

3. Social Arrangements. I'll call this norms, values, and beliefs. I submit this is the most contentious realm perhaps even goes back to Huntington's Clash of Cultures and Zakaria's Why They Hate Us. If we look at Afghanistan in the 1990's, the primary driver in our (the World/UN) refusal to accept the Taliban as the legitimate governmental authority after the Civil War was because of their treatment of women.

If I am right, then we have to ask ourselves if we're willing to justify war over social arrangements? Contrastingly, we could stop trying to force others to accept our norms, values, and beliefs and focus on good governance internally.

Otherwise, we'll just have to give the Taliban their own reservation or FATA where they can keep their cucumbers (male) and tomatoes (female) separate in order to maintain sexual purity :).

Bill C.

Mon, 06/11/2012 - 9:47am

In reply to by Mike Few


Should we consider that the ways of life (and the political, economic and social arrangements which help determine such ways of life) of many/most of the populations groups that you note -- regardless of whether they are Asians, Europeans, Americans and/or Africans -- have already been significantly transformed along modern western lines?

Our efforts, which I suggest cannot be called either "nation-building" (too vague as does not state what specific kind of nation -- and society -- that we are attempting to build) nor "counterinsurgency" (more likely to cause and aggravate an insurgency than to quell or defeat it) being applied to those relatively few remainder states and societies who do not presently order, organize and orient their lives as we require.

Mike Few

Mon, 06/11/2012 - 8:49am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C,

I've been following the evolution of your questioning with interest. If you are right, then we must consider the scale and scope of the project. If we zoom out to the 50,000 foot view,

If you could fit the entire population of the world into a village consisting of 100 people, maintaining the proportions of all the people living on Earth, the village would consist of:

57 Asians
21 Europeans
14 Americans (North, Central, and South)
8 Africans

Taming the world today is much more difficult than expanding Pax America from 1600-2000.

Bill C.

Sun, 06/10/2012 - 10:42pm

In reply to by gian gentile

For my part, I am constantly striving for specificity.

For example: I am generally unsatisfied with the term "nation-building" (the nation built could be any old kind of nation; and this is not what we have in mind). This is why I state specifically that what we are trying to do is to transform states and societies along western lines.

Likewise, I try for even greater specificity when I suggest that the goal is -- much as in the case of the American Indians, the American Southerners, the Japanese Samurai, the former USSR and in various locales throughout the world today -- to undermine/discredit/marginalize/eliminate/destroy the old way of life of various outlier states and societies and to attempt to install, in the place of these old ways of life, something that is much more akin to our own intertwined political, economic and social systems.

And I just cannot see this approach as something that we can call "counterinsurgency;" in that it would seem to be much more likely to cause and/or aggravate an insurgency than to quell or defeat one.

gian gentile

Sun, 06/10/2012 - 9:53am


Agree completely. Usually Gray produces first rate work but i was dissatisfied with this piece. To add to your criticisms if he is going to try to play the role of the one who sees the forest through all of the trees of the so called coin debate then he really needed to identify specific arguments within the so called debates that he has problems with. He only generalized various themes and arguments when specificity was needed, in my view.

Also I was struck by what seemed to me to be his inability to see that American counterinsurgency is in fact nation building. He appears to think that American coin and nation building are two separate things when they are in fact one in the same.


Robert C. Jones

Sun, 06/10/2012 - 9:16am

"COIN is war and it involves some warfare, but it is conducted for political reasons. This logic is absolute."

I have to admit, I was hoping for more from this author and from this article. I was hoping not to read yet one more treatment of COIN that failed to first take on seriously an analysis of Insurgency itself. But why study insurgency if it is simply a form of war and if the resolution of insurgency is simply a matter of waging war back and defeating the insurgent? If it were indeed so simple, one would think we (a very Royal we, including governments everywhere throughout all time) would be better at it, no?

I believe that resistance insurgency is war, a continuation of state on state conflict after the military and government of one state have fallen, yet the populace remains in the fight. Such an insurgent must indeed be defeated if the invading state hope to truly prevail and exercise its dominion over this conquered land and populace.

I believe that some separatist movements can, when certain conditions are met, also be war. The American Civil War is one, where the separating party began by declaring a new state, with organized government intact, and then prepared to defend that action in a very state on state form of conflict. But many, perhaps most separatist movement come of revolution, not political action, and are arguably not war at all.

Revolution is internal. It is political. It is illegal. But it is only at times violent (though in some cases obscenely so), and often only seeks to force the government to actually listen to the concerns of some disenfranchised segment of the populace and to make small, reasonable, but significant changes in how it goes about exercising its sovereign duties.

The relationships of the parties and purpose for action are far more critical to defining such conflicts than the degree of violence employed, or the nature of the tactics applied.

So, I found little new here that helps us get to a better understanding of the problem itself. Until we can remove the bias of governmental, military, and intervening perspectives from our thinking we will continue to come to variations of the same answer that has never really worked very well.

I wish Colin would have devoted a third or so of this piece to a discussion on insurgency itself. I would like to read what his thoughts on that topic are. But if this is absolutely simply war and warfare, why bother right? This is, however, the first step in good strategy. We must first seek to better understand the problem. The problem in general, in a very theoretical way, and then the problem actually before us, in a way steeped in the history and culture of what has led this particular populace to act out against the system of governance over them.