Small Wars Journal

Will the COINdinistas Rise Again?

Will the COINdinistas Rise Again? By Zach Abels, The National Interest

… The intention here is not to wax poetic about how the mighty COINdinistas injected thirty thousand troops into Iraq, saved the day and galloped off into the sunset. Petraeus has been mythologized too often. The military historian Douglas Porch, Petraeus’s harshest critic, titled his scathing polemic Counterinsurgency Myths. Even sympathetic observers point to Petraeus’s preoccupation with his own glory and his cunning in spinning self-serving narratives.

Nor is it reasonable to paper over U.S. killing. Brought back to Iraq to oversee strategy during the surge, McMaster was vehement that some insurgents had too much blood on their hands to be politically accommodated. Under Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Joint Special Operations Command took scores of these irreconcilables, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, off the battlefield. But McChrystal opted for the scalpel whenever possible. His kill-and-capture missions were designed to be discriminate. Collateral damage would only breed more terrorists.

Besides, controlling territory is not the jihadist’s only concern. Al Qaeda and ISIS inflict the deepest wounds on the virtual battlefield. A suicide bombing at a market has little military value; it resonates as “propaganda of the deed.” ISIS recruits foreign fighters and radicalizes homegrown terrorists online. Viral, emotive images are its weapons of choice. And as Graeme Wood argues in The Way of the Strangers, ISIS’s weaponization of theology cannot simply be dismissed as a bastardization of Islam.

Mending social cohesion in Iraqi communities, therefore, is only part of the story. Suffice it to say, the combination of the surge and the “Awakening”—the widespread Sunni uprising against Al Qaeda, underway before Petraeus took over—dramatically reduced violence. From 2004 to mid-2007, more than 1,500 civilians died every month in Iraq. By December 2007, that number plummeted to five hundred. From June 2008 to June 2011, around two hundred civilians died every month.

The military could not occupy Iraq forever. America failed to establish a sustainable political order before withdrawing. Communities lacked closure, and tensions gestated. Maliki’s overt hostility toward the Sunnis stoked discord and violence. ISIS exploited these divisions, co-opted Sunni tribes who once fought alongside the Americans and, in short order, routed the Iraqi army. In June 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate over a broad swathe of territory. At its peak, it controlled 40 percent of Iraq.

In Washington, reluctance to intervene understably found voice. The Iraq War scarred America. Words like “quagmire” are never far from the lips of those who advocate for retrenchment. The Iraq War is as politically corrosive as ever, a reliable dog whistle that incites rabid denunciations of hegemonic overreach and paternalistic democracy promotion. But Iraq is more than just a trope. The decision to invade, among the worst foreign-policy blunders in U.S. history, and the prosecution of the war are two different things. Conflating counterinsurgency with the neoconservative worldview—just because they have Iraq in common—is reductive. Petraeus and McMaster did, in fact, make common cause with neocon stalwarts like Eliot A. Cohen and Frederick W. Kagan as they labored to convince President Bush to change tack. They were playing the hand they were dealt. Neocons broke Iraq; Petraeus and McMaster were tasked with putting it back together. Trump himself seems amenable to this sentiment. In March, he told Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s moderate prime minister, “We shouldn’t have gone in, but certainly we shouldn’t have left.”

Jettisoning the lessons of the Iraq War for fear of striking a political nerve would be feckless. Gaslighting the COINdinistas would be cataclysmic…

Read on.


Outlaw 09

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 2:57am

IMHO this article is largely a waste of time as many still do not fully realize that the US military literally walked into an already ongoing Saddam Sunni Salafist guerrilla war which if a Salafist was caught ended in hanging that was how serious it had gotten....

When we arrived in Baghdad we walked right into a full blown Mao phase two guerrilla war and never knew it...and that is what is sad......and by the time we awoke to that fact then COIN was thrown at the problem but it was to late.

Until we are willing to fully and completely understand that guerrilla war we only interrupted we will never get far in understanding Iraq/Syria and the role the US military is playing now in that guerrilla war ongoing in two countries.

Exactly how does the so called COIN debate fit now with US/CENTCOM/SOF supporting a Communist inspired/led Kurdish US named terrorist group...PKK... fighting for 40 years against a NATO ally?

BTW IS and even now AQ are pushing their troops back to the guerrilla war phase as they are being pressured out of their main areas...

Somewhere along the way we lost sight of Mao and his writings.....IS/AQ has not...

Sad is it not.....

Bill M.

Wed, 05/03/2017 - 11:04pm

This is a great article! I do question some of its assertions, but others are spot on. What I question is Nagl's assertion that the State Department has cultural experts at the local level. The following quote aligns with what many military officers seem to believe, despite having been down range and finding this simply isn't true.

QUOTE Nagl had a similar experience. “I became a Sunni-Shia religious, cultural and political expert—‘expert’ in quote marks!—on the fly because there was nobody else to do it,” he lamented. “When I was on the ground in Iraq trying to untangle tribal politics, I was despondent that I didn’t have help from the State Department, USAID or anybody. And I became convinced that investment in diplomats would literally have saved my soldiers’ lives.” END QUOTE

I think the military has always had unrealistic expectations of what the Department of State and USAID are manned and organized to do. The State Department rarely does grassroots diplomacy, they generally focus their efforts symmetrically with host nation government counterparts. Since 9/11 State has been attempting to transform, but I have seen little evidence they're any better at the grass roots diplomacy Nagl was hoping they would provide. Soldiers on the ground frequently understood the local culture and issues in more granularly than State counterparts who were largely confined to Embassy circles.

Increasing State's budget will not help, they will do what the military does, they will outsource their requirements to contractors. They often hire incompetent contractors. For one example, look at the various law enforcement capacity building efforts State funded in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, etc. to see they are not expert in this. Furthermore, they don't learn from their mistakes, they don't have a learning organization culture. Nagl should appreciate that, because that was the root of thesis in "Eating Soup with a Knife." State focuses on big diplomatic issues like resolving the Palestinian-Israel issue, and six-party talks to convince North Korea to give up their nukes, and then at the country team (Embassy) level various trade deals, convincing that country to send troops to help the UN or U.S. coalition, etc. They do a lot more, and much of it they do quite well, but they are not cultural experts who have detailed knowledge of issues at the village or town level.

USAID has had its problems also, being under resourced for years has been one of them. Unlike its parent organization Dept of State, USAID is a much better learning organization. However, much like State, and this is appropriate, they outsource their work through local contractors. So they won't have U.S. experts on the ground everywhere that understand the local grievances that Nagl was hoping for. Bottom line is the military will have to sustain its ability to engage with local populations to gain granular understanding of the issues in their operational areas, and then develop creative ways to address those issues that bend the local trend in favor of U.S. interests, or achieving our political ends. Wouldn't it be nice to have some outside expertise though?

USIP is another story altogether, USIP is funded by Congress, you can look at their webpage to research their history. This is exactly the type of organization we need to assist the U.S. military. The numerous examples of their success at the local level in Iraq should be read by everyone in Congress before they consider cutting their budget.

QUOTE USIP tapped into its reservoir of Iraqi intermediaries, whom the institute had for years been working with and training in conflict management.

Kershaw was constrained by chain of command; USIP was not. The institute collaborated with the State and Defense Departments to secure buy-in from integral power brokers at the municipal, provincial and national levels. Despite a hostile reception, USIP was able to extract an endorsement from officials in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s inner circle. END QUOTE

This is one of those rare occasions when Nagl's and my opinions are aligned.

QUOTE John Nagl considers USIP a “combat multiplier,” insofar as its specialists “understand cultures and tribal and local politics more deeply and more instinctually than anyone but the very best and rare American soldiers.” And it’s not restricted by limited deployments. Peter Mansoor lauded the institute’s “staying power.” When the Defense and State Departments move on to the next crisis, he said, “USIP stays behind for a longer-term commitment.” Its longevity allows it to accumulate relationships and granular expertise. END QUOTE


I’ve been digging back into FM 3-24 and reading it again. The biggest question that we have to come to terms with as we rewrite the FM is whether its foundation on the promotion of host nation government legitimacy should be preserved. The manual was written at a particular point in time when democracy promotion was a key tenet of American foreign policy. And the two most important counterinsurgency campaigns that we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan were campaigns in which newly created democratic governments were struggling. I am unconvinced that that is the right model, that the only way to achieve legitimacy is through democracy promotion early on in a counterinsurgency campaign. I think that this is the most fundamental question we have to come to terms with.

END LTC NAGL QUOTE (See the seventh question and answer segment.)

Counterinsurgency -- as we know it -- is based on U.S./Western belief that:

a. The problems which emanate from the socio-economic "South" (for example: rebellion, terrorism, insurgency, terrorist sanctuaries, genocide, poor preparation for and poor response to disease and natural disasters, local and international crime, human trafficing, etc, etc., etc.); all of these such "ills," and more, stem from a lack of the benefits provided by modern western political, economic, social and value institutions and norms. And that, accordingly,

b. The opening presented by conflict; this should be used to install exactly these such "better peace"-understood modern western attributes. This, so as to

1. Quell the current difficulties and

2. Prevent same (and others: see my "a" above) from occurring/recurring.

(In this regard, for example, see the "generals letter" referenced and linked toward the bottom of the first page of our article above.)

The problem, for example, as per LTC Nagl above, is in (a) the manner, (b) the order and (c) as per what more-reasonable time-line these such state and societal "transformation" efforts should be implemented during a counterinsurgency effort. (Herein, LTC Nagl seeming to suggest a "go slow" and "do things not all at once but step-by-step/incremental approach?)

Thus, as to the question: "Will the COINdinistas Rise Again?"

The answer here would seem to be (a) "yes" but (b) with a better-informed (by Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.), and thus revised, concept as to how, in what order and as per what time-line to implement our such political, economic, social and value institutions and norms changes.

(The bottom line problem with even this revised concept, of course, is that it fails to acknowledge that it is not a lack of modern western political, economic, social and value norms and institutions so much that gives rise to the, worldwide, great nations and small and state and non-state actor rebellions that the U.S./the West is witnessing today -- but rather -- the threat [to innumerable people, institutions, ways of life, values, beliefs, etc.] posed by the U.S./the West's active and aggressive promotion of its such, worldwide, state and societal transformation goals.

Thus, to see the world-wide great nation and small and state and non-state actor rebellions against -- unwanted and often alien and profane -- U.S./Western state and societal "transformation" efforts today; this, in much the same light that we saw a similar world-wide rebellions against -- unwanted and often alien and profane -- Soviet/communist state and societal "transformation" efforts yesterday?

Herein, to suggest that LTC Nagl's suggested more-gradual/more-clandestine approach to our "counterinsurgency via transformation" [or vis-versa] efforts; these such alternative approaches are not likely to fool anyone?)