Teaching COIN to a (Mostly) Non-Practitioner Audience

The Project

This last spring, I developed and taught a graduate seminar on counter-insurgency for fourteen terminal Masters students at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. The course was intended to make my small group of students as familiar as possible with the foundations, practice, and implications of counter-insurgency theory. Most of my students were civilians, although three had served in Iraq and one remained active duty Army.  The purpose of this article is to give professors and instructors at both the graduate and undergraduate level a sense of the promise and possibilities of a Counter-Insurgency course.  Although this course was geared towards graduate students, many of the readings and units would be appropriate at an undergraduate seminar level, or even in a large undergraduate class.  Undergraduates can also manage much of the reading, although in many cases smaller chunks (with less repetition) would be appropriate. 

Why teach a graduate or undergraduate COIN class?  For me, the answer is obvious; many of my graduate students will go on to work in government, and good counter-insurgency is demanding of all elements of the government.  Some of my students have served in the military (some are still serving), and a greater familiarity with the classics of counter-insurgency can only help.  On the narrow front, my hope was that they could take this familiarity would help them get jobs, and (more importantly) help them excel at the jobs they got.  Knowledge of Roger Trinquier may seem abstract from the point of view of an entry-level position at a government agency, think tank, or NGO, but an understanding of the basics of counter-insurgency theory, while the United States remains engaged in at least two counter-insurgency wars, can only improve job prospects and professional effectiveness.   Moreover, my hope was that the counter-insurgency course would prove attractive beyond the group of students pursuing national security majors. If we know anything about counter-insurgency, we know that it fails when there is insufficient cooperation between civilian and military agencies.

But a COIN class can also be worthwhile for undergraduates, and for graduate student uninterested in government careers.  It’s worth asking whether the counter-insurgency project is right for the United States in a strategic sense.  Understanding with some precision the foundations of counter-insurgency theory, as well as the demands of a well-structured counter-insurgency campaign, is important to thinking about whether and when the United States should undertake counter-insurgency campaigns. Again, some of these considerations may appear to be above the pay grade of entry level government employees.  The point, however, is that both the execution of a counter-insurgency campaign and the evaluation of whether a counter-insurgency campaign is sensible are improved if the participants understand what they’re talking about. 

The School

The Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce has been training graduate students for foreign policy careers since the 1950s.  The program last eighteen months and requires 30 credit hours of coursework. Our students go on to careers in government, in the intelligence community, in think tanks, in NGOs, and in private industry.  Roughly thirty-five students matriculate at Patterson each year, majoring in National Security and Intelligence, Diplomacy, Development, and International Commerce. 

Unsurprisingly, students at Patterson are more policy-oriented than many graduate students, and better prepared that most undergraduates.  A more academically inclined political science or history approach to counter-insurgency theory would use some of the same texts I describe below, but would attempt to frame such texts against an intellectual history background, and evaluate them on the basis of methodological rigor.  An undergraduate course would leaven some of the more difficult theoretical readings with concrete, practical accounts that brought theory to life. 

The Syllabus

The reading for this course was substantial, including thirteen books or manuals and a number of articles.  Most students were also enrolled in my Defense Statecraft course, where FM 3-24 was required reading.  As part of the Patterson Summer Reading List, all students were familiar with David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla. In addition, I expected the students to stay up to date on several counter-insurgency themed blogs, including  Small Wars JournalDanger Room,Threat MatrixAbu Muqawama, and Democracy Arsenal.   

In large part the extensive reading list reflected my preference for offering substantial amounts of material, while giving the students some leeway with respect to how much of it they read closely, and how much they simply familiarized themselves with.  In an undergraduate course where ensuring student reading of the material becomes an issue, the reading list would necessarily have to be curtailed.  Where possible, I also chose readings that were freely available on the internet, or that could be accessed electronically.  Since much of the best work on counter-insurgency is recent, however, students were still expected to purchase several books. 

The reading list included a broad survey of post-World War II literature on counter-insurgency theory and practice.  We began with Roger Trinquier’s Modern Warfare and David Galula’s Counter-Insurgency Warfare for a grounding in the 20th century counter-insurgency “classics”.  For a theoretical foundation, we read John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife and  David Ucko’s The New Counter-Insurgency Era.  These books put us firmly in a frame for thinking about counter-insurgency from an organizational perspective, with focus on how organizations became adept (or failed to become adept) at counter-insurgency.  Andrew Krepinevich’s The Army and Vietnam, James Russell’s Innovation, Transformation, and War, and Peter Mansoor’s Baghdad at Sunrise built upon this theme, while also providing a degree of subject matter knowledge on Vietnam and Iraq. 

The course then shifted to alternative perspectives on insurgency and counter-insurgency, including Antonio Giustozzi’s study of the new Taliban, Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop, and Thanassis Cambanis’ A Privilege to Die, on post-2006 Hezbollah.  We also read Gregory Feiffer’s The Great Gamble, which provided the opportunity to contrast Soviet counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan with American.  The course concluded with units on counter-insurgency and airpower, counter-insurgency and journalism, and the future of counter-insurgency in the US military. 

The course included some critical approaches to counter-insurgency theory (most notably from Colonel Gian Gentile), although it did not explicitly discuss many of the broad, external critiques of counter-insurgency that have developed over the past few years.  My belief was that it was more important to develop a familiarity with COIN theory before applying available critiques.  By following the blogs (a key source of information about contemporary developments in the counter-insurgency debate), students were able to get a sense of the controversy associated with COIN, and to become familiar with both internal military and external critiques of the COIN turn.

We also read two novels; Sadie Jones Small Wars, an account of the Cyprus conflict from the British perspective, and the Karl Marlantes opus Matterhorn. The former touched on issues of torture, detainee treatment, and civilian casualties, while the latter conveyed the experience of infantry combat in the Vietnam War.  The inclusion of novels depends largely on taste and audience; a more academically inclined graduate audience may find them of limited use, while undergraduates will probably enjoy a break from the theory and history. 

The Guests

We were fortunate enough to have the connections and resources to bring in five guest speakers, including Colonel James Crider, Colonel Peter Mansoor (retired), Mr. Will Marshall, an analyst at NASIC, and Spencer Ackerman of Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog.  Also, Brigadier General H.R. McMaster was able to join the class by conference call.  The guest list was heavily weighted towards practitioners and relatively sympathetic observers.  In part this was accidental; Major General Charles Dunlap (retired) was invited, but couldn’t make it because of a scheduling conflict.  I strongly considered trying to find a former insurgent of some stripe in the Lexington area, but wasn’t able to devote sufficient resources to finding and vetting any potential speakers in the time allotted for the course.

Circumstances differ, but many departments may lack the resources and good fortune to have access to as many excellent speakers.  Nevertheless, I found the experience of having speakers invaluable, and I would encourage instructors to make an effort to contact local veterans associations or campus ROTC in order to find individuals with experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Vietnam.  I was also fortunate enough to be able to draw on the experience of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan among my own students. 

The Class

The course took place over fifteen weeks, including thirteen two and a half hour seminar section as well as the odd beer drinking sessions.  Each class opened with a student presentation on the week’s reading, with topic restrictions interpreted liberally. On days where guest speakers were available, the presentation was on hold until the guest had spoken and gone through a question and answer session.  In all cases, the student presentation was intended to set the terms for discussion of the topic of the day.  As needed, I would interject with commentary about the material, or to steer the discussion back towards the topic at hand.

For graduate or senior undergraduate courses, the seminar approach should work well.  It depends on a relatively low number of students, most of whom have the capability and interest to do most of the reading.  In larger undergraduate courses the lecture format would be more appropriate, as summarizing the readings and placing them in context would become particularly appropriate.  Because of the richness of the literature, however, counter-insurgency theory is especially well suited to a discussion/question and answer format. 

The Film Series

I accompanied the course with a optional series of films about insurgency and counter-insurgency.  Patterson normally runs spring and fall film series, usually four films each.  This semester, the films included the COIN themed The Wind the Shakes the Barley, The Battle of Algiers, and both halves of Stephen Soderbergh’s Che.  With the exception of Battle of Algiers, these films present counter-insurgency warfare primarily from the view of the insurgent, rather than the counter-insurgent.  Few films involving insurgencies discuss COIN in sophisticated terms, although Battle of Algiers is again an exception.  However, counter-insurgency depends on an understanding of the development and practice of insurgency, and especially on an appreciation of the relationship between the insurgent and the population.  All of these films opened a window onto that relationship.  Even Che, an overlong and terribly boring pair of films, was productive in that it forced a comparison between insurgent success in Cuba and failure in Bolivia. 

I had the advantage of being able to screen films in a separate evening series, and thus didn’t need to use much class time.  In a graduate or undergraduate course without such luxury, I would recommend keeping Battle of Algiers, which has become a counter-insurgency artifact in and of itself.  In the era of Netflix, it has also become easy to assign films as homework, keeping valuable class time for discussion. 

Major paper product

For evaluation, I asked the student to write three 6-8 page short research papers.  I did not give a final exam, although in an undergraduate course a written final would have been appropriate. As would be expected of professionally oriented graduate students, the class produced some fantastic papers.  These included Mao's Success or Chiang's Failure: Why the Nationalists Failed to Conduct a Successful Counterinsurgency in China, From Peacekeeping to Counterinsurgency in Africa,  Birth of an Insurgency: The Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland and the Founding of the Provisional IRA, Alternative Roles for Airpower in Counterinsurgency, The Long War in Guatemala: How the US tried to Implement Regime Change on the Cheap and Lost Long Term Control, Regional Insurgency Susceptibility Analysis: Central Asia, and Boring But Necessary: Why Logistics May Determine the Success of COIN Operations.

As this list suggests, the students took advantage of wide latitude in formulating and writing their papers.  Four papers in particular stood out.  Patrick Davey wrote Moffing the Kick: Why the Galactic Empire Failed to Conduct Effective Counter-Insurgency Against the Rebellion, arguing that Imperial shortcomings in the Star Wars franchise were the result of a series of poor doctrinal choices.  Rather than develop methods of fighting a series of low-level planetary insurgencies, the Empire remained wedded to outdated tactics of the Clone War era.  A more appropriate subtitle might have run “Clones Don’t Do COIN.”  Taking advantage of the recent “zombie turn” in foreign policy literature, Nick Paden drew parallels between counter-insurgency and counter-zombie doctrine, noting that improper doctrine towards the beginning of a conflict can lay the seeds of disaster later on.  Tyler Scott’s India's Prolonged Struggle for Control of the Naxalites closely examined the roots of the Naxalite struggle, and critiqued the Indian Army for not facilitating the learning culture necessary for good COIN.  Captain Andrew Betson (US Army) wrote The British Experience in Contemporary COIN, focusing on the aptitude of the modern British Army for organizational learning in counter-insurgency contexts.  Captain Betson developed this paper into an article that will be published this summer in Armed Force Journal. 

After Action Report

The course evaluations were generally positive, although some students believed that the topic merited less than a full semester long course.  One student wrote that the major points of the course could have been made in a two week seminar.  Most students, however, were enthusiastic about the course.  I also received numerous requests to teach the course again in the future, although the nature of the Patterson program will probably preclude this for some time. 

There is no doubt that this was a demanding course from an instructional point of view.  Prior to the course I had not read many of the books I assigned, meaning that the workload fell heavily on myself as well as the students. In addition to the guest speakers, the students included three veterans of the Iraq War, and one former contractor who had worked in Afghanistan.  Keeping up with my students, therefore, was also a demanding task. 

Nevertheless, I believe that the course was professionally productive for me and educationally productive for the students.  As long as modern COIN doctrine remains a vital theory in the US military, and as long as the United States remains committed to Iraq and Afghanistan, both graduates and undergraduates will benefit from a study of its precepts.  With luck, teachers can use this article as a tool in developing their own counter-insurgency courses.

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