Small Wars Journal

The End of Counterinsurgency

The End of Counterinsurgency by George Friedman of Stratfor, via Real Clear World.

The U.S. military for years has debated the utility of counterinsurgency operations. Drawing from a sentiment that harkens back to the Vietnam War, many within the military have long opposed counterinsurgency operations. Others see counterinsurgency as the unavoidable future of U.S. warfare. The debate is between those who believe the purpose of a conventional military force is to defeat another conventional military force and those who believe conventional military conflicts increasingly will be replaced by conflicts more akin to recent counterinsurgency operations. In such conflicts, the purpose of a counterinsurgency is to transform an occupied society in order to undermine the insurgents.

Understanding this debate requires the understanding that counterinsurgency is not a type of warfare; it is one strategy by which a disproportionately powerful conventional force approaches asymmetric warfare. As its name implies, it is a response to an insurgency, a type of asymmetric conflict undertaken by small units with close links to the occupied population to defeat a larger conventional force…



Sun, 06/10/2012 - 1:28am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Yes, Karpman's Triangle beats Maslow's Hierarchy.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 06/09/2012 - 11:39am

In reply to by Scott Kinner


Scott Kinner

Sat, 06/09/2012 - 9:06am

I think everyone (so far) appears in violent agreement that "Third Party" COIN is very, very difficult (I borrowed "Third Party" from somewhere - but it is accurate, no?). In the end, you enter the fray as an external power overtly supporting one side over the other - in this case the HN government. As most seem to agree, our support for the HN government is probably not predicated on nicety but on necessity.

So now - you are the foreigner, you've picked a side, and that side is crappy enough that people don't like it (South Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, the Banana Wars, etc.). In addition to fighting, you are also trying to "reform" said government enough that it'll stay in place and keep doing what you want it to do.

No wonder we "suck" - that's a tall order for any occupation force. Is the US "good" at COIN? Well, in the academic sense - the only way to determine how good the US military really is at COIN would be to fight an insurgency here at home. Thankfully that's not in the cards - but I hope you understand my point.

Should we consider that our approaches, however we promote and/or advertise them, have nothing to do with benevolence; this fact being well understood -- if not by certain of our citizenry -- then certainly by those states and societies that are in our cross-hairs.

Undermining, de-legitimizing and/or destroying the opponents way of life -- by various means (to include, it would now seem, counterinsurgency) is our modus operandi.

Consider the American Plains Indians -- we destroyed their way of life (centered around the buffalo) -- and prevail.

Consider the Southerners of the American Civil War -- attack is focused on destroying their way of life (centered around slavery) -- so as to prevail (no appropriate follow-through = significantly delayed results).

Consider the Japanese Samurai -- destroy/outlaw their way of life -- and prevail.

Look toward the former USSR -- via containment, cause them to ultimately abandon their way of life (centered around communism) -- and thus and in this manner, we prevail.

Our efforts today? Much in this same vein. Designed to de-legitimize, alter to our advantage and/or destroy the thing that makes nations strong, viable and willing and able to resist, to wit: their way of life.

Is this pattern not an accurate depiction of the "American Way of War?"

Thus, if not by nation-building counterinsurgency, then certainly by other means will we continue to seek to undermine and/or eliminate those differing ways of life of other states and societies (replacing these with something more akin to our way of life) -- and in this manner -- hope to prevail.

Considering the success stories listed above, why would we alter our method? Has it not often served us well against both insurgents and great powers; against both "red indians" and "reds?"

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 06/08/2012 - 7:14am

The real message is not about "COIN" (because while we call these missions COIN, that is really a horrible misnomer on our part that confuses us as to our purpose for action and actually contributes to our failures), but is about the US's inablity to grasp that other people/nations do not want their government/governance manipulated by the US any more than they do by any other outside party.

We go in armed with the delusion that we are bringing something better to these people in (insert name of country here), and because what we bring is so good and because we are such good guys that they will overlook the illegitimacy of such actions or the violations of sovereignty and will simply embrace this new governance as their own. Then, when any aspect of said populace rejects our actions, we brand them as "insurgents" and set out to defeat them with one hand, while we seek to bribe the affected populace with development and other gifts from America to buy their submission to our program with the other hand. We never seem to grasp why this does not work in these places, even while we clearly appreciate why this would never work if someone attempted to do the same thing for/to us at home.

Until we can be intellectually honest about the self-serving purpose and the illegitimate nature of such operations we will continue to flounder at them. The US does not suck at COIN, but we do suck at this form of aggressive, manipulative foreign policy. This is a tool we should take out of our policy tool kit and stop sending the military out to attempt fix what policy has broken. These are failures of policy, not failures of military. Ron White said it best, "you can't fix stupid."

Friedman points out that the U.S. isn’t good at COIN based on our experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, but the greater reality is most foreign forces in an occupation role are not good at COIN. If the occupier insists on transforming the society, then brutality is normally required (if you consider our domination of Germany and Japan before we occupied them, it was extremely brutal, they had it with fighting by the time we put boots on the ground). The other successful approach is for the occupier to accept the culture as is and work through local leaders.

Neither approach seems to fit the American way of war, but fortunately for us, COIN is rarely critical to our national interests, so not being good at it just doesn’t matter that much. What does matter is that our near singular focus on COIN for the past decade has eroded some of our war fighting capabilities (whether for non-state or state actors), and put our nation at increased risk. We have lost perspective in pursuit of the “End of History” myth, and delayed modernization of the force that is required to address emerging threats. It is time we take a more realistic view of what is important and re-orient our military to meet the challenges that are critical to our national interests.

I’m not advocating once again losing the hard learned lessons from our recent COIN experiences, like we did after Vietnam, and fortunately you don’t see the anti-COIN movement in our leadership ranks like we did post-Vietnam. Instead we see a call for balance, which is a big different. All realize there will likely be a time again where we’re an occupying power and we will have to conduct COIN, and when we do we should at least get the tactical to operational aspect right, even if in the end the policy/strategy aspect fails us.

Taking a step back from COIN (where we’re an occupying power), we are at least moderately proficient at FID, but success in FID rarely if ever hinges on the support we provide, but rather on the government of the nation we’re assisting. As long as we accept that it isn’t our fight to win or lose, we’re just helping (leading a horse to water), we should be able to avoid the belief that it is now our fight to win or lose. If we can do that, then we’ll avoid unneeded quagmire scenarios.

Friedman points out something we have discussed many times within SWJ when he wrote, “The population may want the economic benefits offered by the occupying force, but that does not mean citizens will betray or ostracize their friends and relatives. In the end, it is a specious assumption that a mass of foreigners can do more than intimidate a population.” Contrary to a comment below, insisting on U.S. direct involvement to transform society is the ultimate form of arrogance, not the absence of it. We need to take off our white hats and put it back in the closet. Our savior mentality is not good for us, or for those we hope to help. Friedman is right to argue for more limited missions when possible.

I also think he points to a credible future threat and that is non-state actors acquiring technological parity with us in many respects, and we’ll need to be agile and responsive to neutralize these threats as they’re identified. We won’t be able to do that if we’re tied down in one land locked nation attempting to transform a population that has little inclination to change. None of us can predict the future character of war, but those who advocate that we should maintain a near total focus on developing our COIN capacity because they think it will be the future of conflict are deceiving themselves just as every other pundit has who throughout history has claimed to know what the future of war held for us.

Our leadership is calling for a balance of capabilities, and that is rational, because they’re not attempting to predict the future (there is no global COIN scenario, or an enduring Fulda Gap), just point to obvious trends that we can see manifesting and the likely capabilities will need to defend against them.

Scott Kinner

Thu, 06/07/2012 - 11:01am

Friedman is arguing from a realist perspective - and so it ought not be surprising that his approach focuses on gaining the most benefit for the the lowest cost. To use his example - if all we really need is an Afghanistan that is not harboring persons, resources, or interests that are actively seeking to do us harm, then who really cares what they do there or how they do it? The answer among the American people at the moment is - we don't.

Now, SWJ is full of debates on the merit and ethics of that approach - but Friedman is at least being intellectually honest and coherent up front.


Thu, 06/07/2012 - 6:11am

I too read the George Friedman article. My first reaction was that the raiding strategy was more akin to that of the era of Viking raiding around Western Europe many centuries ago; for Americans perhaps the nearest equivalent would be the response of the Red Indians.

Secondly the USA has far, far more to offer the world and until relatively recently was widely respected for its contribution to human life.

The focus of such a strategy is not on the world, but on those places that displease the USA by hosting nuisance actors, who rarely inflict pain (such as USS Cole, Beirut USMC Barracks and the Underpants Bomber).

Then reading Vitesse's comment, especially with the reference to 'Afghanistan, Ethiopia/Somalia, Angola, and Nicaragua' these are places the USA has very little awareness of, minimal historical involvement Etc; OK Nicaragua maybe an exception. Ignorance, that's the word needed.

So is the Friedman strategy: We don't know you, we don't care, we are going to raid you and if needed we'll be very harsh?

How long will such a strategy last if there is a repeat of the "Blackhawk Down" effect, amplified not by traditional media, but the new media?

Vitesse et Puissance

Wed, 06/06/2012 - 1:18pm

This approach was going to come up sooner or later. The problem I have with it is Friedman's apparent assumption, so beloved of the inside-the-beltway elite (as well as its paleocon and left-wing critics) that the United States can afford to stand offshore and not get enmeshed with these grubby little societies. It is an arrogant and frankly racist point of view. Unaided by a real engagement with the societies with whom we come into conflict, it is doomed to fail.

That said, I have no real argument with the military-strategic, operational or tactical approach Friedman suggests, inside a large strategic context that does include irregular warfare and big bone hard balancing. Contrast Friedman's approach with the Reagan Doctrine. Friedman's position is that the US is a strategically offensive disruptive power, not an equilibrium seeker, not a "status quo" power qua Kissinger that lives within the "rules of the game". But his operational prescription is a operational and tactical counteroffensive - really just a series of raids - with a negative end.

The Reagan Doctrine, by contrast, actively supported local insurgencies to combat the dominant, at least notionally sovereign governments in Afghanistan, Ethiopia/Somalia, Angola, and Nicaraugua. And what we got out of that deal were a series of outcomes that required continued US involvement to correct for the excesses and instability we ourselves helped bring forth. In Afghanistan, the rise of the warlords and the Taliban, in Somalia, a society breakdown that dwarfed the excesses of the Mengistu regime and the Somali claims to the Ogaden Desert. In Angola, we ended up betraying our client insurgency in favor of our former enemies. In Afghanistan, the very factions our intelligence service supported most vigorously became our deepest and most ineradicable enemies.

I think it goes without saying that if the only thing the United States has to offer these societies is violent coercion, the natural conclusion is that the United States is a natural enemy that understands nothing but violence. As much as my inner realist would like to condone Friedman's Machiavellian streak, a reading of Machiavelli himself teaches us that war cannot be undertaken at arm's length, and that economy of force is not a virtue in the hands of the diffident:

"Because the Romans did in these instances what all prudent princes ought to do, who have to regard not only present troubles, but also future ones, for which they must prepare with every energy, because, when foreseen, it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they approach, the medicine is no longer in time because the malady has become incurable...Thus it happens in affairs of state, for when the evils that arise have been foreseen (which it is only given to a wise man to see), they can be quickly redressed, but when, through not having been foreseen, they have been permitted to grow in a way that every one can see them. there is no longer a remedy. Therefore, the Romans, foreseeing troubles, dealt with them at once, and, even to avoid a war, would not let them come to a head, for they knew that war is not to be avoided, but is only put off to the advantage of others; moreover they wished to fight with Philip and Antiochus in Greece so as not to have to do it in Italy; they could have avoided both, but this they did not wish; nor did that ever please them which is for ever in the mouths of the wise ones of our time:— Let us enjoy the benefits of the time — but rather the benefits of their own valour and prudence, for time drives everything before it, and is able to bring with it good as well as evil, and evil as well as good."

- The Prince, Chapter III

gian gentile

Wed, 06/06/2012 - 7:01am

In reply to by SWJED


I always took the underlying point from te phrase "no more Vietnams" to mean not so much no more counterinsurgency as a tactical method applied in war but instead no more stupid wars fought under botched strategy.


I'm old enough to remember the political mantra of "no more Vietnam's" and young enough to pick up on the political and Service budget (read big-ticket defense programs require big-ticket as well as "conventional" adversaries) in-fighting that has skewed the real threats (no more Iraq's and Afghanistan's) in favor of the threats we want to face. It is a damn shame as this mindset kills and maims our young as well as expends other national treasures. But with that, SWJ will be here for the years to come, providing a springboard to the lessons learned and unlearned, the historical debates, and the insights and observations for the next time we fight a war we said we'd never fight again... - Dave D.