Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgency is Not the Problem

Counterinsurgency is Not the Problem - Jason Fritz at War on the Rocks.

In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, Colonel Gian Gentile has written another article promoting Iraq and Afghanistan as exemplars of why “nation-building at gunpoint” (read : counterinsurgency or “COIN”) does not produce a “better state of peace”, the object of war as elucidated by B.H. Liddell Hart.* The article highlights the high cost in lives and money and the poor return on those investment in both countries: specifically, that neither place is stable and it is unlikely that they will become so in the foreseeable future. Gentile continues a familiar line of attack against the narrative of the “savior general” – specifically, the notion that General David Petraeus’ leadership turned the tide of the Iraq war – and the application of COIN tactics in the absence of a proper strategy.

Gentile has been an important voice over the years challenging conventional wisdom. But his attack on a specific operational concept misses the fundamental reason that counterinsurgency has failed to achieve its intended results...

Read on.


The problem is that we believe that sustainable stability -- and a better peace -- can only be defined as, and can only be achieved by, states and societies being transformed along modern western lines.

Herein, we understand and acknowledge that -- in the near term -- many populations will be unwilling and/or unable to:

a. Give up their preferred way of life and way of governance and, in the place of these,

b. Adopt modern western political, economic and social norms.

Thus, the goal of sustainable stability and a better peace to be understood -- not as a near term objective -- but, rather, as a long term goal.

In the interim, we expect the so-called "era of persistent conflict," a term we see consistently used throughout of our publications.

This "era of persistent conflict" is what we understand as the lengthy period between (1) when our initiatives to transform outlier states and societies are undertaken and (2) when this goal is finally realized and "sustainable stability" and a better peace is, thereby, finally achieved.

Thus, conflict, confrontation, counterinsurgency, nation-building, mission statements, etc., to be be viewed within the context of this continuing "long-war?"

Jason Fritz writes, "So no, contrary to Gentile’s argument, Iraq and Afghanistan have not proven that “nation-building at gunpoint” does not work or that COIN is ineffective. There are a number of cases to prove the contrary, including Kosovo, Malaya, and other colonial wars."

I would actually like to be proven wrong about my assertions that armed nation building doesn't work (meaning conducting nation building during a conflict, not that an Army can't support nation building, they proved they could in post WWII Japan and Germany). I think Jason's comment about Kosovo is incorrect, we didn't help them develop their economy and establish a democracy during the war, but after the war when we had relative peace (there were security events, but nothing on the scale of what we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan). The emergency in Malaya did include some minor efforts at nation building that contributed to defeating the insurgency. However, the main effort was focused very much on killing the insurgents. To better isolate the insurgents elements of the population were forcefully moved, and those forcefully moved were given economic assistance. If you want to call that nation building then yes, it played a role. Of course the reality in all of SE Asia that was affected by the war was rebuilding after WWII to the extent possible (let's not forget more Asians in this part of the world died after WWII than during, so that points the significant level of conflict that waged long after Japan surrendered). While often debated, Templer very aggressively pursued the insurgents (they didn't enjoy a safe haven) and under his two years of leadership they wiped out 2/3 of the insurgents. In short he took away any hope of a military victory for the insurgents and forced them to resort to other means to pursue their ends. During the conflict it appears that economic matters were secondary to aggressive and effective security operations.

Several other colonial conflicts demonstrated that nation building worked during conflict? Please name a couple where "nation building" both worked and contributed in a significant way to success? Sadly I can list several failures starting with: Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia (although it now seems to be making some progress on its own, not with an occupying Army attempting to force change), Democratic Republic of the Congo, and so worth.

In my view this particular topic is still very debatable. If nation building is effective, then please demonstrate where it has been historically, and if there is no historical precedent explain how it should work and why we failed at it repeatedly and what we need to do to make it work? With the author's comment implying that nation-building has been proven effective and therefore isn't part of the debate, I found the rest of the article to be spot on.