The COINdinistas

The COINdinistas - Thomas E. Ricks, Foreign Policy.

Who knows everything there is to know and more about counterinsurgency and its current role in U.S. military strategy? These guys.

Pushed and prodded by a wonky group of Ph.D.s, the U.S. military has in the last year decisively embraced a Big Idea: counterinsurgency. Not everyone in uniform is a fan, but David Petraeus and the other generals in charge of America's wars are solidly behind it. Here are the brains behind counterinsurgency's rise from forgotten doctrine to the centerpiece of the world's most powerful military..

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I opted for top 10 instead of 100.

Well for whatever it is worth, I would happily give up my slot on the list for any of the others that have already been mentioned on previous posts.

My first choice though (and with all deference to others already mentioned and the many who have not) to fill my slot would be Ken White.


I am humbled you think of me highly, but I figure nowhere near the others on your list. Like you, I'm just one of the few who decided to write about it.

(also my command was in Tal Afar, my S3A work was in Ramadi, just FYI)

Will PM over your stories.


Most will only justify their inaction.

I've published four times on this site. I laid out my soul hoping that someone would tell me where I went wrong so that I could better myself. I've yet to see one person counter what I said.

Most savor in their own triumphs stuttering through half-truths.



Make your list, I just hope that you pursue it as far as I did.

As you ask the Navy, as you ask why they didn't handle the pirates, as you investigate the men responsible for the situation in Somalia, they'll tell you it's not their fault.

The lawyers told them they could not act.

The lawyers decide this conflict. Men who have gone to school to abstractly study Saint Augustine's determinations with no accountability to their own decisions. Men who have never felt the emotion of being shot at. Men who have never considered decisions that would result in other men's death regardless of the choice.

Men who will never be laid responsible.

There is much to be learned.


I'm going to come up with a list of the top 100 most influential lists - all English language lists, of course.

FWIW, I thought Ricks made a good comeback on his blog, in response to those of us hating on his list.

I liked Tom Ricks's list. It remains a good converstation starter. I'd prefer that it was the Heiman Trophy of modern small wars, and I would have included the Kagans (even if I may at times disagree with them).

I'm in the process of another list- dream team of offensive line or muddy boots practisioners award. I tried to expand past Iraq/Afghanistan to encompass the best practical applications in Today's small wars.

Here's the beginnings. My question was if I could hand-pick my own team, who would I choose?

1. Jim Gant- De Oppresso Libre

2. Mohammed Yunnis- Banker to the Poor

3. Ryan Crocker- The Resilient Political Advisor

4. Greg Mortensen- Teaching the girls to read

5. Joshua Kinser- The Pentathelete. My best NCO in four tours.

6. Niel Smith- A Tanker in Ramadi.

My list was chosen based off merit and potential.



Grant, good comment - I would also like to see something that detailed out what (and how) AMB Crocker accomplished in Iraq, and how he an GEN Petraeus worked together. We talk about unity of effort sometimes as if it is some kind of room you go into, or table to sit at - instead I think its more like a marriage.

I'd also like to see more case studies on how PRTs, NGOs, IOs, MNCs, Iraqi/GIRoA/FSFs units and U.S./other allied units worked together and what tasks they actually did (or thought they did) so we get a better picture of how things worked out, what were the challenges and how they overcame them (or did not). Unfortunately I think it would take a lot of work to reconstruct enough evidence to get a sense of trends, and I don't think we've done a real good job at documenting some of the needed people and incidents.

Best, Rob

My problem with this isn't that the military is getting the notice, it's that the civilian wing doesn't appear able to (or isn't getting credited for) get work done. Where are the civilian counterparts to Nagl? What guides are being crafted for civilians to use? For all the talk of civilian/military cooperation it seems to mostly be military convincing local civilians of something and foreign civilians are inconsequential.

Although I have read and have been well informed by much of his material, Tom Ricks' credibility with me has been declining since the fall of 2006.

The list he published is like a list of "buzz" words that could only really function to stimulate conversation. Certainly, since it excludes so many significant contributors to COIN, it could have no other meaning.

Why aren't there others such as LTG Dave Fridovich responsible for one of the unsung success stories in the GWOT in OEF Philippines. He designed a campaign in 2001 that was a model for how to support an ally conducting COIN. Again this was well before the COINdinistas were household names or became ideolized in the pop press. As Bill mentions above SF officers like LTG Fridovich have kept the COIN flame alive long before any of those on the list. This is not meant to denigrate the contributions of those on the list as important as they are but only to recognize there are many more out there worthy of inclusion.

Lately I've just been thinking about the question:

How do we know what we know - is really what we know?

I've not seen analysis on our actions that was backed up with MOEs (established prior to actions) that tied specific tasks to conditions we were trying to achieve. I've also not seen MOPs that were tied to those tasks.

I know that doing the work required to establish good MOEs and MOPs that can in fact be measured is hard work, but I also believe that without them, its really its really hard to establish any sort of causality which allows you know if you are doing the right things, how well you need to do those things, and how well you are actually doing them.

How this ties back to Mr. Rick's list is the attribution of ideas to outcomes. I do believe that the some of the people played important roles and their ideas and guidance shaped some operational outcomes. I cannot prove to you exactly how because of the lack of MOEs and MOPs in the post event analysis.

They may exist, I've just not seen them. I have seen MOEs and MOPs that did not seem to have much of a relationship but did to confuse - example "U.S. Unit X kills 12 enemy and therefor Foreign Security Force Y is being developed." While the killing of enemy by U.S. forces could be tied to establishing the conditions which support the development of the FSF, the unilateral killing of enemy by U.S. forces of itself does not to an increase in capability and capacity of the FSF.

In the broader context of the list, can Mr. Ricks prove how the ideas expressed, employed, expounded upon, facilitated those on his list have changed operational conditions or any conditions? Can he draw a line between ideas and events or is his connection anecdotal?

Anecdotal does not equate to bad, just unqualified as it relates to a cause and effect. Where an idea or a theory takes off, Clausewitz had a very good point about leaving it off the battlefield (or wherever implementation takes place) - it gets muddled real fast in the face of competing and the occasional somewhat parallel interests - and without someway like established MOEs and MOPs that accompany it into implementation you are left with trying to establish cause and effect in the face of bias and limited perspectives.

If we really want to know and benefit from our experiences, we're going to have to put some real rigor in the analysis, and where we can't because the information does not exist, or is just too hard aggregate from other concurrent events, we need to call it what it is so we don't trip ourselves in the future.

Anyway that stuff makes my head hurt, so we'll probably continue to make unqualifiable lists because they make us feel good, sell books, and pay bills.

Best, Rob

Lists are great conversation starters. You place a simple proposition out there, then rather than develop a really coherent or nuanced argument, you just throw out a set of anecdotal data points (X person because of Y... ). In the first place, its logical to attack the question: Has the military establishment "embraced" something called COIN? Depending on your opinion of either the veracity of that statement, or even its relevance (in regards to Don Vandergriffs post), then you can argue whether you believe in a "great man" theory that individuals really matter or whether this was a societal shift that some individuals just happened to voice, or get in front of, at the right moment? On the list itself, you can argue whether those on the list deserve to be (and priority of contribution/importance), or are there others who should be on the list.

I think that Rob Thornton is onto the critical piece in terms of ascribing outcomes to ideas. We are used to thinking that ideas matter (in fact the recent Army Capstone Concept is fundamentally based on this proposition). Yet what exactly counts for an idea, and can we really trace certain ideas to certain outcomes? Was our present state in Iraq brought about by the US military changed approach to COIN, or a multitude of factors, of which the supposedly changed COIN approach has had an indeterminate impact?

For my money, its not so much the answers, but the continual questioning and discourse that is of real value (its not the plan, but planning). I get really nervous when we claim to know the answers with any certainty because then we stop seeking answers. We are still questioning the hows and whys of the U.S. Civil War and World War II, so I dont see this current debate waning anytime soon.

If anything, Id rather see the question posed as "The U.S. military embraced the idea of aligning its tactical means and resources, with its strategic ends... " (or something similar) I think that is the more relevant debate and is the context within which we should look at COIN, Stability Operations, Major Combat Operations, Irregular Warfare, etc. That would be an interesting list too.

The COIN list (of leaders) by Tom Ricks versus my list of real reformers...
November 29, 2009 by don | Edit

Tom Ricks, who I do respect, and love his books, wrote a very biased list of reformers in regard to the COIN movement inside the Army today (he works with a lot of them as well). A lot of these people, if not most, are beltway insiders (I dont know everyone of them, but do most). They almost all get a lot of media attention for the wrong reasons. I disagree almost totally with Toms list. So, I published my own list below. I disagree as I explain below. Read Toms list at the bottom of this post, then read mine here.

Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas,


My original message in reply to Tom Ricks list posted on the Warlord Loop, a blog focused on strategy and warfare. Some of todays biggest thinkers contribute to this blog.

Why is it the guys on this list of "COINdinistas" the only ones noticed by journalists?

It is easy to read the bed time story to everyone. It sounds good, but more importantly to those in the beltway, it is easy to implement. It does not piss off anyone. It keeps the money flowing. Very few developing solutions that can be implemented today.

By solutions, I mean large-scale programs (not incremental improvements) requiring no substantial political or institutional changes. Not a surprise, as this is a high bar! So, we report on what is comfortable, easy to do, and does not offend many, except those we dont care to hear from anyway! It makes sure the pay keeps coming.

While it makes us feel good in the short term, it is killing us in the long term by minimizing their impacts and ideas. The key is organizational change. A focus on technology and ideas ignores the structural basis of present institutional behavior, giving too little attention to the methods which drive reform - and the countervailing forces which must be overcome.

That is one of my biggest arguments, we are advocating COIN, while not making the necessary structural and personnel laws and policies that will support moving the Army from the 2nd Generation to a 3rd Generation Force, that understand 4th Generation Warfare. I understand 4th Generation, not because, I think we can win it, but to avoid situations where we are putting our Soldiers (and all their cultural, structural biases) against it, with no way to win. This is what is occurring to us today be advocating what most in the beltway want to hear, we can win this one, if you employ this method!

Well, here is my list of the true change agents, some are being listened too, only one gets attention, rightly so for him, but all are people of character, who understand what has to happen for our Army and our nation to survive in the 21st Century. Don Vandergriffs list:

1. BG H.R. McMaster. HR is the future of the Army! He can lead and command in any environment as demonstrated by his tenure as the commander of 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He is one of the smartest people I know on the subject of war and then translate it to reality. The Army is smart in 1), promoting him to BG, 1) putting him at Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC-at TRADOC) writing the new doctrinal concepts for the future. HR also knows the people and training side as well, something that is not sexy, fun to report by anyone but a few, but is more important to armies than the other side (doctrine and tactics). HR is one of the reasons I have hope for the Army as he rises in the ranks.

2. COL Casey Haskins. Casey is leading the new Army training and education revolution through his concept of Outcomes Based Training and Education (OBT&E) that is already being written into Army training policies as we speak. COL Haskins performed incredible changes how the Army does basic training as well as its leader development when he was director of the Captains Career Course at Fort Benning, GA, and then follow on as commander of the 198th Infantry Brigade at Fort Benning, GA (where he took on and defeated the risk averse training and safety apparatus of the Army). He is now director of the Department of Military Instructon (DMI), where he, along with some great instructors, are changing the culture of West Point, while influencing the future of several thousand Army leaders.

3. COL (ret.) Andy Bacevich. He has torn apart the defense establishment for what it is, and what it is doing to the nation. I am impressed that he has gotten the attention he has on a few mainstream media shows, but if you notice, it is only for the moment, so they can say they are "fair and balanced." Dr. Bacevich has incredible moral courage for taking on the entire defense establishment and as well as our poor defense strategy or lack there of. Several of his books, including American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2002), The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (2005) and The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008)show where he has been "a persistent, vocal critic of the US occupation of Iraq, calling the conflict a catastrophic failure." In March 2007, he described George W. Bushs endorsement of such "preventive wars" as "immoral, illicit, and imprudent."

4. Dr. Bruce Gudmundsson. I consider Bruce the best of military historians, or at least one of the best. Bruce is currently, for the second time, leading the revolution in education at Quantico on teaching both officers and NCOs how to think. Bruces focus is on the way that modern armies adapt to radical change in their operating environments. He divides his time between historical research and assisting present-day military organizations with their own attempts to innovate. Bruces finest book of many, is Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army from 1914-1918. I made it required reading for all my students.

5. Mr. Winslow Wheeler. Its impossible to understand Americas wars unless one sees its political foundation in Washington -- our "Versailles on the Potomac." Few can give us that as well as Winslow T. Wheeler, Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. "The conventional wisdom amongst the elite in Washington is that they have done a pretty good job of taking care of our national defense, that things may be a little expensive but we have the best armed forces in the world, perhaps even in history, and we do the best for our troops by giving them the worlds most sophisticated equipment which is, of course, the most effective. We have, so the elite asserts, demonstrated our ability by knocking off Saddam Husseins forces twice and are in general a model to the rest of the world on how to build equipment and provide for forces. Thats all crap. None of it is true. None of it stands up to scrutiny." Win focuses on budget and acquisition issues, no fun at all, so it gets little attention, but if you study Winlows data, research and proposals, few if any can argue with him; so they ignore him.

6. Dr. Chet Richards. Chet has the best understanding of strategy I have seen. Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired), is the author of several books including (most recently) If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration that focus on strategy. Again, he is ignored by the establishment, because what he advocates is opposite of our ventures everywhere, and you have to do your homework to understand what he advocates. Nothing he writes fits onto a power point exsum. Unlike other publications now coming out on the Iraq War and the counterinsurgency campaign there, Chet rejects the notion that policy-makers can predict how well any such effort will work. The track record of military occupations in culturally and religiously alien lands in modern times is not good in terms of the end result for the occupier, the effects on the indigenous population, and the standing of the occupying nation and army in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Original Message ---- What this list features isnt the "brains" behind COIN, but rather those who most often are noticed by journos on the subject. Biddle, for example, isnt exactly a savant on the study. One might have mentioned someone with a similar name, Birtle, but then that would require a more substantive understanding of who actually studies this stuff, and who is influential. When in doubt, look at the footnotes in the studies. On a tangential note, if were discussing influence, then Dilegge goes at the top, with Kilcullen. I deserve royalties for "COINdinistas."

If he simply said here are 10 influencial men among many others who are shaping the COIN debate I wouldn't disagree, but like others I agree this list is far from complete.

My biggest disappointment is that he described these top 10 as the "brains" behind the re-emergence of COIN. Since he used wording similar to re-emergence, all is forgiven, but what about well deserved tip of the hat to the true founders of counterrevolutionary warfare ideas and doctrine that were developed post WWII; names we still borrow from heavily today?

I got it, Thomas Ricks hangs out with the GO's and Academics, so he doesn't fully appreciate the intellectual expertise at grass roots level that informs the brass and actually makes things happen (what's more intellectual, to facilitate effective action, or to wax and wane philosophically?). There was obviously exceptional intellectual ability required to identify the root of the problem and recommend a viable solution to then COL McMaster in the 5th SFG (A) advisors at the grass roots level as noted in the post by anonymous above.

In my opinion these lists do more harm than good, the people listed on them are professional embarassed and those not listed are insulted. The keeper of the COIN flame since the end of the Vietnam conflict has been the Special Forces community, yet no tribute was offered by Ricks to the quiet professionals who maintained this body of knowledge against opposition (SF served the role of the monastaries during the Middle Ages). Apparently if our senior officers are quiet professionals, then there is no light to draw in the moths (reporters) like Rick.

As someone on the list, and probably like others on that same list I had no idea about this until this morning, I would much rather see others there - many of whom, both individually and collectively, are mentioned above.

Moreover, the inclusion of SWJ was as the "town hall" so by inference or extension many unheralded heroes of our COIN efforts are indeed included - especially the practitioners - those boots on the ground who put theory into motion - often at great risk.

Bill and I are, I hope, a way for all those not on the list but with important contributions, to be heard - by policy makers and policy implementers - that is why we do what we do.

I salute and defer to them as the true COINistas. I also salute Gian Gentile for keeping this group honest. I just happen to be the town crier and as such was probably included as a way to place a name on what we do here at SWJ and SWC.



Well said. I said before in response to another foolish list, it's a bad idea to put pontificators and critics on a pedestal instead of the people who actually implement and execute their ideas. The latter put their lives on the line. The former only risk losing an appearance on Charlie Rose.

Food for thought...

2. John Nagl - Didn't serve in Afghanistan.

4. Janine Davidson - Hasn't served in both wars.

6. Andrew Exum - A few months in Afghanistan in 2001 and a month in 2009 don't make you an expert.

10. Col. Gian Gentile - Never served in Afghanistan. Will he?

I would concur with Rob's comments and Schmedlap's to a certain extent - most of the best ideas are bottom up driven and there was a lot of understanding of COIN well prior to the famed FM 3-24 especially at the tactical level.

I would call your attention to this excerpt from the Rand Study on COIN 2003-2006 (pages 39-41) :

"The ACR commander, Colonel (USA) H. R. McMaster, approached
the problem of Tal Afar methodically. Ultimately he was convinced by officers in the 5th Special Forces Group to move Iraqi Army forces out of static positions--the initial plan--and use them to conduct initial clear-and-sweep missions with Special Operations forces in some of the towns more troublesome districts. Aided by advisors from the 5th Special Forces Group, he conducted thorough reconnaissance of the area to uncover the power relationships.8 The 3rd ACR was reinforced with the 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry, and it partnered with the 3rd Iraqi Army Division, an Iraqi Border Police Brigade, and Iraqi police throughout Ninevah Province. On Iraqi advice, the 3rd ACR constructed an eight-foot berm entirely around Tal Afar to control
movement in and out of the city. From May though July 2005,
the 3rd ACR concentrated on developing detailed intelligence of the
area through reconnaissance and raids. It discovered that the enemy
was organized into four battalion-sized units, and its stronghold was in the Sarai district, a maze of alleys and densely packed stone buildings, where armored vehicles could not deploy. The enemy had an effective low-level air defense, consisting of a network of observers and large volumes of small-arms and machine-gun fire.

In late August, the 3rd ACR began a methodical advance into
the city, aided by a dismounted lead force of the 5th Special Forces
Group accompanied by Iraqi Army units intent on isolating enemy
forces in the Sarai district. As in Fallujah, U.S. forces allowed time
for noncombatants to leave before the final attack began. Reinforced
with the 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, the U.S. force cleared the area, going house to house. The 3rd ACR also had support from two companies of Special Forces, one of which led the way through the most troubled neighborhoods on foot, an unusual concentration of their strength. Additional Iraqi Army and police forces moved into the city and established a permanent presence.

These forces reformed the city administration, raised new police
forces, and started reconstruction, including restoration of sanitation
facilities, to effect an immediate improvement of living conditions. Theenemy responded with suicide-bombing attacks intended to intimidate the populace.

The 3rd ACR found that successful COIN required very close
cooperation with Iraqi government forces at the tactical level and
adopting at times unconventional suggestions from members of the 5th Special Forces Group. It established patrol bases where small numbers (less than a company) of U.S. and Iraqi government forces were permanently located. These patrol bases allowed U.S. and Iraqi forces to maintain close relations with the civilian population through continuous dismounted patrols and checkpoints. Every patrol was a combined force, i.e., included both U.S. and Iraqi personnel. The U.S. personnel treated their Iraqi counterparts as equals and trained them primarily by allowing them to observe how U.S. soldiers perform in combat. However, Special Forces officers continued to advise--even with much early resistance--that the 3rd ACR should have conducted combat advising operations to simultaneously monitor and encourage nearby Iraqi Army units.

How about the faceless E-4s, NCOs, and company grade officers who took somewhat ubiquitous doctrinal principals and figured out (often in the absence of doctrine they could understand) how to make it work under conditions that are/were considerably less clean/flat than those inside the beltway, or inside a major HQs.

I'm not trying to take anything away from those specifically named in the list, or from any specific names we can come up with, however, for every name we can offer there are perhaps hundred if not thousands of those who go unnamed - who moved it from a spoken or written idea into the the hard work of implementation. Often we over look just how hard implementation is, and those who get stuck with the task.

I've read many senior AARs, articles, reports, etc. where success was attributed to an order or an idea proffered from the top when in fact there is often evidence to suggest we may have succeeded in spite of some of that advice and direction, or that junior leader initiative and creative interpretation were often the keys to making things work out.

While its good to highlight smart people, and as such seek their thoughts on current and future problems, there is also a great danger of ossifying causal relationships to the point we forget how ideas must be implemented, and who must carry that burden. While much of what we do may not be rocket science, it can be relatively hard, and that burden most often falls on faceless.

Best, Rob

Ray Odierno, Pete Mansoor...

Concur--Bill Nagle's name often gets left out for some reason. (I sometimes wonder if it's because "Nagle" looks too much like "Nagl" and confuses people)

I concur. I'm not big on these lists, but would point out that at least three of the names on the list should be deleted and replaced with some guys who actually got the job done, rather than guys who have made a living writing about it. How about HR McMaster, Sean MacFarland, and Travis Patriquin?

IMHO - 5 should have also listed Bill Nagle the other cofounder of SWJ.