In "COIN of the Realm" (Foreign Affairs - November/December 2007), Colin Kahl divided counterinsurgency (COIN) theory into opposing two schools of thought: "hearts and minds" versus "coercion". Khal cited me as an advocate of "coercion", quoting my observation about "a radical religion whose adherents are not susceptible to having their hearts and minds won over."
Kahl is right; Al Qaeda must be destroyed, not converted. But having spent years on battlefields as a Marine in Vietnam and now as a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, I am leery of academic categories. In the actual fight, it's hard to distinguish the 'hearts and minds' from unreconstructed 'coercion'. Counterinsurgency is not an either-or proposition. Kahl rightly praised the Army/Marine manual on counterinsurgency for emphasizing moral behavior. But COIN is still war. It is a bromide to assert that an insurgency is 80 percent political. American soldiers do not win the hearts and minds of al Qaeda in Iraq; they kill them. Killing members of al Qaeda is the essential 20 percent.
In Anbar Province, the heart of the insurgency, the tribes have rebelled against the al Qaeda extremists they welcomed a few years ago. The United States didn't win those Sunni hearts; al Qaeda lost them. The tribes chose to align with our soldiers because, as one sheik told me, "Marines are the strongest tribe." The tribes could not destroy al Qaeda; our military could. To cement the gains, the US military is also acting as an ombudsman for the Sunnis (the "hearts" part) and pressuring the Shiite government we created to provide the Sunnis with resources and assurances. That 80 percent political solution has followed after - and depended upon - the 20 percent battlefield success that was due to the daily grind and grit of our soldiers.
The COIN manual has set the proper strategic tone in Iraq. It has also provided foreign policy elites with an intellectual rationale for grudging acceptance of the fact that the US military is prevailing in Iraq. Nonetheless, Kahl concludes that Iraq remains "a recipe for likely failure" and thus illustrates that even the best counterinsurgency theories cannot change some hearts and minds.