Romancing the COIN

Editor's Note:  Jason Thomas takes a look at the romance of the COIN doctrine and the unwarranted complexity and confusion of ends it has led us toward in Afghanistan.  He argues for a more simplistic approach to the problem in Afghanistan.  As we grope in the dark for a way out of Afghanistan, perhaps his thoughts are timely.


In the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we were desperate to identify with our own Lawrence, Galula, Templar, Kitson and Thompson.    We found them in the likes of General Petraeus, Kilcullen, General McChrystal and Nagle.  Confident in their vision based on the romance of previous revolutionary wars.    In their ray of light Galula’s eight steps of COIN made logical sense, even if as Grégor Mathias recently showed, much of Galula’s success was in the eye of the beholder Not surprising since General Patraeus, believes in the premise of perception as opposed to reality as he wrote in his 1987 doctoral dissertation, "what policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters more than what actually occurred."   This paradigm should never be the basis of any war by a free and open democratic society.   It only gratifies the Rambo do-gooder in us all, which seems like a good idea until one is killed or wounded.  

COIN also appealed to the military and intellectual apparatchik’s psychological fallibility in wanting to demonstrate their ability to implement blindingly complex tactical and activity based nation building.  In doing so they failed what Jim Collins, calls the Hedgehog Concept – doing one thing and doing it well.    In Afghanistan we should have determined that as long as the Taliban do not let al Qaeda or a new form of non-state actor use Afghanistan as a base to train and launch terrorist attacks on our national interests then we will leave them alone.    Instead, the romance created one of the most costly and inconsistent strategic approaches to any war in the modern age. 

Something old, something borrowed but nothing new

A 1962 Rand Corporation Symposium on Counterinsurgency was held in Washington DC at the height of the Kennedy Administration’s Vietnam offensive.  The conference included the legends of previous COIN campaigns such as David Galula, Frank Kitson, Col. Wendell Fertig, Lt. Col. Samuel Wilson and Brigadier General Edward Lansdale.  The themes, discussions and shared experiences could have been held today. 

The participants agreed that counterinsurgent’s need to:

  • Identify and redress the political, economic, military, and other issues fuelling the insurgency
  • Gain control over and protect the population, which the counterinsurgent must see as the prime center of gravity in any counterinsurgency conflict
  • Establish an immediate permanent security presence in all built-up areas cleared of enemy forces
  • Accumulate extensive, fine-grained human and other intelligence on insurgent plans, modes of operation, personnel, and support networks
  • Avoid actions that might antagonize the population
  • Convince the population that they represent the “winning side” and intend to prevail until complete victory is secured

The modern day COIN warriors, including the authors of the Counterinsurgency FM 3-24, have merely re-packaged what previous military leaders and theorists already concluded.  

The irony with modern day COIN as a military doctrine is that it is a theory either built from military failures (Algeria, Vietnam), wars where the insurgents won (China) or where the counterinsurgent uprooted an entire population (Malaya) or brutalized their way to victory under a media free zone (Sri Lanka). Can you imagine the US-NATO forces being permitted by global public opinion to impose a massive population resettlement campaign as in Malaya, the 1982 Syrian Government massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising or the aerial bombing campaign in Sri Lanka?   Since the end of 2009 the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) has implemented the Malaya solution by bussing thousands of civilians out of the Tamil communities to the other side of the country.   The Sri Lankan Government also terrorised the population into silence by targeting and eliminating business people, doctors, academics, teachers and others who were suspected of sympathising with the cause.   Reflecting on Galula’s statements at the 1962 Rand Symposium, the GOSL implemented the tactics of the insurgents by winning the “battle of silence”.   That is, eliminating supports of the LTTE within the social, professional and academic classes in society.  On closer assessment it appears what has been claimed to be successful COIN campaigns had more to do with how prepared the government or defending regime was to cross moral boundaries.   As Martin Van Creveld argues the fundamental challenge in a counterinsurgency campaign is neither military nor political, but moral. 

Putting aside the romantic tales of gallantry, in theory as a conceptual framework, COIN appears to make sense.   However, there is no magic, mystery or romance with COIN.   It is no more than a framework for maintaining a stable, civil society.   It is what most governments do every day.  Shell has been doing it in Nigeria for years, minus the kinetic elements, with mixed results.   Under John Rawls’ Difference Principle the pillars of COIN are what a rational group of people would select behind the veil of ignorance; a hypothetical scenario where a group of people would choose the benefits and burdens of a society, if prevented from knowing (the veil of ignorance) what position in life they would end up. Look at any political party’s election policy agenda and apart from the military aspects it reads like the indicators for measuring success used in the Brookings Institute Afghanistan Index.    Yet even if the practice is as good as the theory, as with any government, not everyone is actually very good at implementing policy even in a modern economy.   On average those who write government policy are poor at understanding the practical consequences or the perverse incentives their policies create.  As historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. astutely pointed out in his 1977 biography of Robert Kennedy, the notion that reforms can be carried out in a wartime situation by a beleaguered regime is “the fatal fallacy in the liberal theory of counterinsurgency, with the United States so often obliged to work through repressive local leadership, the reform component dwindled into ineffectual exhortation.”

Let us say COIN is as feasible in practice as it is made out to be in theory.  The reforms it demands conflict with our short electoral timeframes even in a time of peace and in a modern economy; blunting any chance of long term strategic planning and implementation.   As Van Creveld contends, other than moral boundaries time is the key factor in counterinsurgency.   The difficult decisions for a government are those that will not benefit voters for years to come.   Investments in many aspects of Sewage, Water, Electricity, Academics, Trash, Medical Unemployment and Security (SWEAT-MUS), may not benefit the electorate for years to come.  This is a hard political sell when most households are focused on paying bills and day-to-day job security.  The same short-term political weakness was illustrated with the Obama Afghanistan surge in late 2009.  The surge of troops peaked mid-June 2010 and by June 2011 plans were already in place to begin the withdrawal. 

The full application of COIN involving military, governance, law and order, infrastructure, building the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and development only really started in Afghanistan with the full attention of the US administration in 2006-07.   Even then with too few troops and fewer civilian implementing partners who are prepared to get out from behind their fortresses in Kabul.   What this illustrates is the folly of attempting to implement a doctrine based on what was perceived to have occurred in previous revolutionary wars and believing the implementation would be the same in practice in Afghanistan.   This is not about arguing if only we had more money, or we will do it better next time.  That is the strong lure of cognitive dissonance at work.   What made the dissonance deeper was that Western leaders found a politically correct frame of reference to justify to their electorates the poor strategic approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If only we could win the hearts and minds of the population.

Control of the Population

COIN is built around clichés such as “winning hearts and minds.”   As with modern day political campaigns, slogans and carefully crafted presentations become powerful reinforcing agents and divert our attention from the cold hard and dirty reality of implementation.  In reality, “winning hearts and minds” is nothing more than pork-barrel politics.   As long as our aid money flows into local pockets we will retain their “hearts and minds”.  Even then as we experienced in places like Korengal Valley, the hearts and minds simply cannot be won regardless of the money.  We refuse to accept that regardless of how hard we try in Afghanistan we will never mould the people to our way of thinking.  Like water being poured onto sand, the effect may only last as long as we are prepared to keep pouring and may even be damaging by artificially distorting the local environment..    Interestingly, at the ’62 Rand Symposium Galula said “…they [counterinsurgent] should be aware, too, that aid programs and various other attempts to raise the people’s standard of living have never yet yielded the desired results.”   Surely, a focus on the enemy and all who support the enemy is what matters, as with the approach taken by the GOSL.

Not all COIN proponents agree with the modern day politically correct interpretation that controlling the population means showering them with money and post-modern social changes.   At the ’62 Rand Symposium, in the opinion of Australian Lt. Col. Bohannan the ultimate objective is the elimination of the enemy (by liquidation, neutralisation, or conversion,) but the path to that end runs largely through the civilian population.  For instance, the Sri Lankan Government was focused on killing the enemy and removing LTTE leaders far more than winning hearts and minds.   In Col. Bohannan’s view, people will revert to their indifference once the leaders of the guerrillas have been eliminated.  Col. Fertig agreed and argued that nowhere is leadership more important than in guerrilla warfare where there is often strong attachment to the individual who symbolizes the cause; by eliminating him you have accomplished much of your task.  This is one of the reasons night raids should continue despite the call at the November 2011 Loya Jirga in Kabul.  Even in loosely controlled insurgent or guerrilla movements leadership is symbolises the raison d’être of the cause. 

In Afghanistan we primarily saw the population as a homogenous group with generalised problems, when this is clearly not even the case in our own backyards of modern day marginal-seat based political campaigns.    The dominant ideology in the West is multicultural pluralism, which is not about celebrating diversity but “sameness”.  As Paul Collier explains, evidence from recent surveys found that with modernisation proceeding in places like Africa, identification with ethnicity increases.   Winning the population in a diverse tribal and ethnic religious based land such as Afghanistan would require a plethora of mini-COIN campaigns, each one requiring a generation of boots on the ground and foreign money.   Then it would be a complicated task to determine whether these mini-COIN campaigns needed to respond to the diversity or because of the many insurgencies and competing local interests.  

 In Afghanistan we further enflamed the diverse social and population bases (most of which are geographically isolated) through a series of manufactured, inorganic blunt, one size-fits-all instruments that continue to be an anathema to the local cultural and social architecture, particularly outside Kabul.    Most local Taliban could easily be picking up an AK-47 to shoot Coalition forces one day and a shovel to clean a karez the next.   Yet neither action is intended to be part of a global jihad or to overthrow the government in Kabul and they certainly cannot be easily acquiesced by the promise of democracy, building a new road or painting a school, when the basis for life in Afghanistan is a rigid belief in Islam and where all politics is local. 

The population is also host to a network of criminal elements and warlords who benefit from a potent mix of instability and development funds.  Many will recall claims by locals of violence and intimidation that was blamed on the Taliban but was actually the result of disgruntled criminals and warlords who were targeting a project for the very fact that their quasi-construction company had not received a slice of the action.  Because they cannot afford to alienate a large segment of the population, counterinsurgents are very hesitant to target criminal organizations that are supported by a significant segment of the indigenous society, even if the criminal enterprise causes substantial harm.       

The point is that “winning the hearts and minds” of the population is one of the worst populist planks of the COIN doctrine that limits, rather than opens, the strategic and tactical options available, especially in a place like Afghanistan.    The final argument in this paper contends that romancing the COIN also reflected a deep psychological driver that many intellectuals have to prove how good they are at the blindingly complex.   The modern day COIN warriors chose to be a fox rather than a hedgehog.

Failing the Hedgehog Concept in Afghanistan

Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” is based on a Greek parable: the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.   Berlin explains that the fox is cunning and can devise and pursue many complex ideas and strategies.  The hedgehog is not pretty or sleek like the fox, yet it doesn’t matter how complex the world becomes, he reduces all challenges into a basic principle that unifies everything.    Perhaps the Taliban is the hedgehog and we are the fox.  But we have chosen to be the fox because COIN doctrine is a powerful conceptual framework for intellectual elites to demonstrate they know many things, can pursue a myriad of complex strategies at the same time.   

In Afghanistan a hedgehog would determine the end state he wants and be unrelenting in the pursuit of that strategic objective, employing only the most efficient and effective means to get there.    A hedgehog in Afghanistan would not confuse the amount of activity, or the quantity of donor money spent as successful strategy.    As stated in the beginning of this paper, my hedgehog in Afghanistan would have determined that as long as the Taliban do not let al Qaeda or a new form or non-state actor use Afghanistan as a base to train and launch terrorist attacks on our national interests then we will leave them alone.   If the development and humanitarian community want to continue to implement social programs and rebuild the nation, then that is up to them and those who continue to fund international development initiatives. 

In becoming the fox, we turned fighting the Taliban into a multilayered offensive that attempted to attain the maintenance of security, the restoration of law and order, community and tribal mapping, rebuilding social, health and educational facilities, women’s rights and gender alignment programs, and establishing systems of governance, all while setting up a fully functioning federal government.     This is not even COIN anymore as argued at the 1962 Rand Symposium; it is nation-building by a fox on crack.  Maybe it is driven by one of the final scenes of Charlie Wilson’s War, where he was turned down by Appropriations Committee seeking funds for schools, after the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan.

It is difficult for a COIN campaign, let alone a conventional military campaign to succeed, without a clear, consistent and unambiguous strategy underpinning measurable objectives. In relation to Afghanistan since 2001 there have been two U.S. Presidents, at least one change in the head of state of all ISAF contributing nations and ten Commanding Generals.  Galula argued that, more than any other kind of warfare, counterinsurgency must respect the principle of a single direction and, if at all possible, a single boss must direct the operations from beginning until the end.  

Not only have we been a fox in the field, foxes have been in charge of the overall Afghanistan strategy.  Like a fox, the Obama Administration has announced a number of confusing strategic objectives.   When he announced his escalation of the war, Obama described his troop increase as a temporary surge and pledged to begin a withdrawal next July. The administration insisted that this is official policy -- but warned us not to expect, you know, an actual withdrawal.   On August 01 Defence Secretary Robert Gates said, "My personal opinion is that draw-downs early on will be of fairly limited numbers...I think we need to re-emphasize the message that we are not leaving Afghanistan in July of 2011. We are beginning a transition process and a thinning of our ranks, and the pace will depend on the conditions on the ground."

Eugene Robinson, from the Washington Post further highlighted the perverse logic at work when quoting Gates, who claimed that the administration's policy in Afghanistan is "really quite clear." But this is how he described it: "We are in Afghanistan because we were attacked from Afghanistan, not because we want to try and build a better society in Afghanistan. But doing things to improve governance, to improve development in Afghanistan, to the degree it contributes to our security mission and to the effectiveness of the Afghan government in the security area, that's what we're going to do."  Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a similar description of the U.S. mission: "Afghanistan has to be stable enough, has to have enough governance, has to create enough jobs, have an economy that's good enough so that the Taliban cannot return" to establish a brutal, terrorist-friendly regime.  Not only have we chosen to be the fox in Afghanistan, there are too many foxes in charge.

In November 2011 the Obama Administration set out a new strategy that will increase the military pressure (this is at the same time as the draw-down of troops) on the Haqqani network and other Taliban elements while opening opportunities for a negotiated settlement.    This does not require either COIN or nation-building and while this is a simplified approach, it does not translate into a simple crystalline concept, or what Jim Collins called in Good to Great, the Hedgehog Concept.   


When a doctrine has been resurrected by some of the most eminent military and civilian foxes in the world, based on the romance of legends, then it takes a great deal of courage to challenge that establishment.  Just ask Col. Gian Gentile.   Sure, there are plenty of anecdotes where a road here and a sewing project there, restored stability in a key district.   For example, the ability of Generals and visiting Congress members to walk freely around the bazaar in Marja, Helmand, is often used to highlight COIN success.   However, the decision makers who so strongly advocated rebuilding a nation should be made accountable for one of the most costly military and civilian projects since the Second World War.  It is not good enough to escape by claiming if only we had more money or we will do it better next time.  Those with the influence over the war in Afghanistan are at the Everest of their time in being able to look back down on history to see and who came before us and the consequences they faced.

As a construct modern day COIN is immediately and sensibly obvious and winning “hearts and minds” is a commendable populist ambition.  As discussed, in many theatres of conflict and politics the basic tenets work at some levels.    Irrespective of the environment, we are dealing with one of the most complex beasts on the planet - humans.   Hobbes based his theory of human nature upon the assumption that we are naturally competitive and violent.  We also forget that Galula, like many of us here, operated in an arena, fraught with layers of complexity, emotions, physical exertion and clouded post event recall.  No wonder there are discrepancies between the romantic constructs of COIN in theory versus practice as proscribed by the Lawrences, Galulas, Kitsons and other timelessly influential military heroes.   Throw in a bunch of foxes and we have a recipe for confusion.   This romance should have ended a long time ago. 

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The difficulty and failing of too many generals, admirals, and members of the executive branch of our government is that they think and conduct operations with tactical goals in mind and have little or no understanding of strategic goals. America's military forces should never be committed (in any manner) into a potential or actual conflict situation other than one with strategic benefit to this nation. It is not our mission to"repair the world" and bring democracy and freedom to all lands. Not only is that a ridiculous and unachievable goal, its cost will bankrupt any nation.

Sanford Sheaks in all probability accurately notes that "kinetic/kill-capture operations were alone not succeeding [in Afghanistan]. After coming along into positions of high authority and influence, ... Petraeus ... made decisions to also execute other lines of operation like governance, development and security force assistance. Were these decisions rational, reasonable and objective?"

Presuming this country is / was willing to commit numerous hundreds of thousands of troops to that effort over a multi-decade period, this "tactical" approach might have brought governance success--presuming that the culture of the various Afghan ethnic populations could have been radically altered in too many aspects to list. Even if this nation and other NATO entities wished to expend the costs to achieve this result--to what strategic end. It matters not one strategic iota to America's interest who controls / rules the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. Our only interest in an Afghan presence was to kill or capture the Al Qaeda forces operating in that safe haven and to prevent that area from being used by Al Qaeda as a base of operations. Add to that punish (temporarily) the Taliban for permitting Bin Laden Inc. to use their area as a base.

The US succeeded in cost effectively achieving some of those results through the use of Army Special Forces conducted operations conducted alongside Northern Alliance (anti-Pashtun) forces supported by delivered bomb loads from B-52's and other Air Force and Navy aircraft. Hunting down the remaining Al Qaeda forces and leadership could have been conducted from Special Operations bases located in Northern Alliance territory. In return for the US providing them arms and minimal support against their Pashtun enemies, we would have been welcome in their areas for decades to come. The former Soviet Union nations bordering the Northern Alliance territories are populated by the same non-Pashtun ethnic groups as the Northern Alliance and they would have welcomed and supported a US presence in that area, so long as we did not attempt to change their culture or methods of governance.

This approach would have saved the US hundreds of billions of dollars, resulted in the same end for Bin Laden, demonstrated to our enemies that we cannot be drawn into fighting on their "rifle to rifle" terms thus sacrificing our strengths, etc.

As for our meaningless intervention in Iraq, the Generals planning and commanding that operation should have had the courage of General Shenseski (sp?) when he defied Rumsfeld by informing the Congress that it would require hundreds of thousands of troops to occupy that nation.

Whether one agrees with his Vietnam war fighting views or not, similarly Lt. General Victor Krulak, USMC, Commanding I Corps area and commanding FMFPAC had the courage to tell President Johnson that his Vietnam strategy / policies were doomed to failure.

Both these generals lost their commands, but they did the proper thing Patraeus on the other hand developed a wonderfully written systems analysis style manual describing how to conduct counter insurgency operations, but failed to inform Bush and Obama that this "tactical" or operational method was so cost prohibitive and required such a long length of time to successfully(?) implement, it could not succeed in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

The mobile / armored ground war exercise US forces conducted in Iraq put fear into the hearts of our enemies in that region. Had we simply called back the Iraqi generals after the end of that campaign, told them to reconstitute their forces, that we would hang around for two or three months to help in that effort, and told them to retake control of their country at any cost--we could have left and been in a stronger image position in that part of the world. Instead we decided to repair Iraq--and what a price and to what strategic end.

Use any term one wishes (such as romanticizing) for the strategic fallacy of attempting incredibly costly COIN operations on a large scale in a culturally different (from ours) area, the result will always be the same--as an Army senior Sergeant (?) pointed out in a previous SWJ paper. It will bankrupt our country, turn our ground forces into policeman unfamiliar with true warfare operations, spend our military budget on buildings and roads in another country instead of on providing the technical systems needed by our Navy and Air Force to insure that we can remain dominant on future battlefields.

It is not counter insurgency efforts that are the strategic problem, it is when these efforts are so large and so dominate the military thinking and budget that they become prohibitively costly--particularly when they can produce zero strategic benefit to this nation.

Sanford Sheaks also notes that' "I think an overarching question that is a beyond or outside Jason’s thesis is this: Is there ever a time when it will be in the strategic interest of the United States to assist other nations in countering insurgencies? I certainly believe the answer is yes and because I work at the US Army Counterinsurgency Center, my focus is on counterinsurgency as a tactical and operational method. So if counterinsurgency theory has merit as a tactical and operational method, and if it is very likely the United States Government will direct our military to assist these nations, what should we teach and train our soldiers about counterinsurgency?"

First, he is correct, there will and have been times when conducting COIN style efforts has been in the strategic interest of the US. However, these have always been comparatively smaller scale operations as in Greece, Bolivia, the Philippines, El Salvador, etc, when carried out by Army Special Forces units so called COIN activities are a good approach to solving the type of military problems faced by the governments of those countries, and only in those type and sized environments.

As to whether all military forces should be trained in these type operations, I was a Navy Officer and from that prospective the answer would be a negative one. I have no ground warfare experience, but given that COIN operations are of such a specialized nature, and in my opinion should almost never be carried out by main line units on a large scale, I would think that training and doctrine development be carried out for and by those who volunteer for that type of effort such as the members of the Army Special Forces.

I like Jason Thomas’s article, Romancing the COIN -- he makes a lot of good points. I do have some ideas and counterpoints to add to the dialogue.

First, about GEN Petraeus and GEN McChrystal and others. Jason says that their judgment is romantically clouded by previous revolutionary wars and they want “to demonstrate their ability to implement blindingly complex tactical and activity-based nation building.” I don’t think Jason has made the case for that. These men came along during the midst of Iraq and Afghanistan (not before them) and could rightly see that kinetic/kill-capture operations were alone not succeeding. After coming along into positions of high authority and influence, both Petraeus and McChrystal made decisions to also execute other lines of operation like governance, development and security force assistance. Were these decisions rational, reasonable and objective? I believe so, given the context and circumstances. I am not saying they made the best decisions, given hindsight. I am saying that their strategies certainly had merit – even weighty merit. Also, in my opinion, their actions or recorded words do not reflect a desire to demonstrate their ability to implement blindingly complex tactical and activity-based nation building. I do not think Jason makes a good case for that.

Second, I do not agree that it was because of a romance with counterinsurgency theory that US strategy in Afghanistan is “one of the most costly and inconsistent strategic approaches to any war in the modern age.” Jason makes excellent points showing other reasons for inconsistent strategic approaches, many of which I agree with. I especially like his statement that “It is difficult for a COIN campaign, let alone a conventional military campaign to succeed, without a clear, consistent and unambiguous strategy underpinning measurable objectives.” Regarding Afghanistan, I agree that the United States Government has not had a clear strategy. But given all the arguments in the paper, I still do not see that our senior leaders, especially the two general officers mentioned, were romanticized by counterinsurgency theory.

Third, regarding counterinsurgency theory. Does it work? Dr. Christopher Paul in his RAND monograph, “Victory Has a Thousand Fathers” makes a strong case that it does work. Dr. Paul and his colleagues studied 30 recent resolved insurgencies and analyzed “good” and “bad” COIN practices used by counterinsurgents. They found that “regardless of distinctiveness in the narrative and without exception, COIN forces that realize preponderantly more good than bad practices win, and those that do not, lose. Successful implementation of identified good practices always allows the COIN force to prevail, independent of any uniqueness” (p. xix). Dr. Paul also noted in a Counterinsurgency Center webcast last September that “there is a remarkably strong correlation between the application of FM 3–24 (Counterinsurgency) principles and success in counterinsurgency.” (see here). GEN Petraeus and GEN McChrystal and Kilcullen and Nagl did not have the benefit of Dr. Paul’s study during the timeframes they had positions of authority and influence, nevertheless, they had the history of insurgencies and other military events that somehow guided their actions. I think there is just as much evidence that a reasonable study of history could have been responsible for their actions and words more than a romanticized view of counterinsurgency theory.

Fourth, I disagree that counterinsurgency theory is built around the cliché “winning hearts and minds.” U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine (FM3-24) does not say that, although some people have said that overall, the doctrine implies that it does. One excerpt from FM 3-24 is notable: “COIN requires Soldiers and Marines to be ready both to fight and to build -- depending on the security situation and a variety of other factors” (para 1-105). It also says that “COIN is a combination of offensive, defensive, and stability operations” (fig 1-1). One significant lesson we have seen in the Counterinsurgency Center is that counterinsurgency operations should not be “centric” anything. Some leaders and theorists have written and espoused “population centric,” “enemy-centric,” “leader-centric,” and so forth. But the counterinsurgent must consider and apply the best strategies and tactics to win – we should not want to hamstring a commander by limiting or focusing his actions to winning hearts and minds, or any other cliché.

Finally, I think an overarching question that is a beyond or outside Jason’s thesis is this: Is there ever a time when it will be in the strategic interest of the United States to assist other nations in countering insurgencies? I certainly believe the answer is yes and because I work at the US Army Counterinsurgency Center, my focus is on counterinsurgency as a tactical and operational method. So if counterinsurgency theory has merit as a tactical and operational method, and if it is very likely the United States Government will direct our military to assist these nations, what should we teach and train our soldiers about counterinsurgency? Since our military doctrine is what drives training and education, we had better get that right. The Counterinsurgency Center, along with the US Marine Corps, is now revising FM3-24, Counterinsurgency. If you would like to contribute your thoughts and ideas, please let the writing team know what you think. Go to the FM3-24 Revision website (http:\\ and comment on the questionnaire or the three issue papers found there. You can also send any other comment to the team by email to

Sanford Sheaks, Booz Allen Hamilton, Analyst, US Army Counterinsurgency Center. This statement is my own and does not constitute an endorsement by or opinion of the Department of Defense.

First, about GEN Petraeus and GEN McChrystal and others. Jason says that their judgment is romantically clouded by previous revolutionary wars and they want “to demonstrate their ability to implement blindingly complex tactical and activity-based nation building.” I don’t think Jason has made the case for that.

I know the above isn't directed at my comments on this thread but on re-reading the various comments, including my own, I can't help but think I should be careful when talking about cultural mythologies and rumor. Let me show you all something, though (from 2005):

"The US vision for Musharraf
By Praveen Swami
[Turkey] had lost her leadership of Islam and Islam might now look to leadership to the Muslims of Russia. This would be a most dangerous attraction. There was therefore much to be said for the introduction of a new Muslim power supported by the science of Britain ... It seemed to some of us very necessary to place Islam between Russian communism and Hindustan.
- Sir Francis Tucker, General Officer-Commanding of the British Indian Eastern Command.

I ask--as an American, now--are we simply repeating patterns of behavior that we "inherited" from the British, even if well-meaning? Building armies and helping to create buffer nations is what we Americans do in South Asia and have since the Cold War. The United States is not a small European nation. We are large, complicated, historically dynamic and are surrounded by two oceans, a neighbor to north that is as well-run as can be, and a neighbor to the south which struggles, in part, due to our own drug policies.

Do you all get what I am saying when I talk about "romanticizing" other parts of the world, now? Can you see why the cultural myths continue? Maybe they are wrong, but do you understand what I am saying? I think we are repeating patterns, even as the second and third-order effects led to something even the Soviets never managed, the deaths of large numbers of Americans on American soil.

Both the American Right and Left do this, but they don't "see it." Be it military or developmental aid, we are building our buffer states. And it doesn't work. It often hurts them, and it hurts us.

Unfair? Maybe.

Sanford Sheaks:

Well written defense of the current wisdom (in some quarters...).

You write:

"Finally, I think an overarching question that is a beyond or outside Jason’s thesis is this: Is there ever a time when it will be in the strategic interest of the United States to assist other nations in countering insurgencies? I certainly believe the answer is yes..."

I certainly agree. I suspect we differ on how that is best accomplished.

"...and because I work at the US Army Counterinsurgency Center, my focus is on counterinsurgency as a tactical and operational method. So if counterinsurgency theory has merit as a tactical and operational method..."

That is arguable but accepting it as a valid premise, is not the issue then the effectiveness of the implementation of the method? I submit that is the issue that all the theorists do not have to -- and cannot -- address. Implementation is the fatal flaw in the concept. The General purpose forces of the US have never been and likely will never be properly selected, constituted, trained or equipped (psychologically and otherwise) to effectively perform the COIN assistance effort in other nations. Nor, really, should they be so capable.

"...and if it is very likely the United States Government will direct our military to assist these nations, what should we teach and train our soldiers about counterinsurgency?

Why does it have to be likely? Should not the fact that our last few attempts in several nations over the previous 50 years have been very flawed be an indicator that there should be better ways to do this?

"Since our military doctrine is what drives training and education...You can also send any other comment to the team by email to"

The doctrine is necessary as is training so this is a valid and worthwhile request. Thank you for providing it.

What any input can do is better prepare the force to cope with the worst case scenario where we again commit to provide assistance in foreign internal defense or counterinsurgency efforts. What is more important is to convince the various policy makers that Counterinsurgency as a tactical and operational method is applicable to the nation with the nominal insurgency and not to a third party assistor whose presence will generally be unwelcome but will be accepted because it is forced -- and brings money. Scads of money...

We do not do that well. Never have and never will. Train the force -- but convince the policy makers it is always a poor choice and to be avoided. Theory is great. Actuality rarely is.

Carl and Bill C

Thanks for the feedback. I sincerely respect the frank and robust challenge. If the article comes across as if to make out I know many things then I have got the tone completely wrong as I would never make such a claim. That would be a pointless contribution to make on SWJ - which could be done on any comment section on anyone else's paper.
It is certainly not an argument to do nothing.

That is a baseless rebuttal. It would be more effective if our approach in Afghanistan had been a focus on what the US and its allies are good at doing - even if that were only one or two things instead of trying to fix everything. One thing is for sure political decision makers, regardless of the doctrine they adopt for war are pretty poor at seeing it through. How many times is it the amount of money that is spent is recorded as success compared to how effective it was spent. Time and time again in Afghanistan, despite the highly dangerous environment for some to get out into the remote villages and find out what is actually needed with no MRAP, body armour, no PSD, living in the community 24/7 were we told "dont care we just need to spend the money and get the project started." How many reports did we get of the number missions back and forth to the governors compound recorded as the success factor than what was actually achieved. I remember asking, "since we have removed 200 fighting aged men from the fight, put them to work, got some recruited into ANSAF, how has violence reduced in this area year on year," (including attacks on US forces which I felt strongly about trying to reduce) only to be told "we dont measure that, just on how much money is spent."
For so long COIN has been implemented so poorly by many contributing nations it would actually be better if they packed up and went home - but we know that their presence is more to do with bilateral and multilateral political alliances than actually defeating the Taliban or rebuilding a nation.

I concede that I could have put forward an action plan - and perhaps you have spurred me onto write that piece next. Alternatively we could do a joint paper as Im sure you have a solid set suggestions as to what we should be doing instead / better / not doing as the case may be. If we can force these debates to drive better reform an application of doctrine then that is a positive contribution.



Jason T: I apologize for coming on strong, That is a bad habit of mine that I try to control but I don't always succeed.

As far as your comment above, yes, yes, yes, yes. I don't use "COIN" because it such a loaded word, but use small war. And since we are conducting a small war in Afghanistan, and since small war is a combination of things military and diplomatic and a little economic what you describe is military, diplomatic and economic incompetence. Small war conducted by a military and diplomatic establishment that doesn't know what the hell it is doing.

That goes beyond small war into fundamental incompetence. If in a big war the artillery commander reported that he fired off X number of shells, twice what was fired last month but couldn't answer when asked how many of those shells hit anything, he would be gone. Same thing if a huge diplomatic mission to an ally had twice as many meetings last month as the month before but could only shrug their shoulders when asked what that ally was thinking. But in our current small war, as you say, lack of results is ignored and people get promoted anyway.

The problem with us and our allies focusing on what we are good at it is... what are we good at? There was an article in SWJ last year called Career Centric COIN (I think that was the name). That is what it seems we are good at and I don't think that will help anyplace anywhere. What you describe is an organization that will not change no matter the circumstances. That won't work in big war either.

Carl - strong is good.

Forces us to think harder. Anyone who puts up an argument should be challenged, twisted and turned from every direction so that we can improve on what we are doing. Especially if as I would like to do in my tiny way, is make a tangible contribution.

Thanks for the reply.

Jason T: I forgot something. I feel your belief that night raids should continue is an example of measuring input, the number of night raids, and superficial output, the number of people snatched and calling it successful without measuring the important. Number of raids and people snatched are easy to measure. But what is ignored is: is it actually affecting the situation for the better? That is the important question. Despite all the night raiding, the situation isn't improving. Things are as bad or worse then ever and yet the value of night raids isn't questioned. In my view that is as bad as equating success with the amount of money spent and results in us persisting in doing something that we don't know actually works but we do know the Afghans absolutely hate.

If one believes that the central problem -- in Afghanistan and in other "outlier" states and societies -- is that the political, economic and social systems of these places are so outdated and so obsolete as to be completely and utterly incompatible with the needs of the population of these states and societies themselves and with the needs of the more-modern/modernizing world,

And if one believes that this is proven by the fact that various ills (to wit: insurgency, terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes against women, etc., etc., etc.) manifest themselves almost exclusively in such outlier states and societies today.

Then one can come to believe, quite honestly, that one must, finally and once and for all, come to really deal with these "root cause" issues.

Herein, and within this context, "revenge," "management" and/or "maintenance," per se, being thought to serve no intelligent or meaningful purpose and only tending to (1) "kick the can down the road" and (2) invite further, more extreme, more detrimental and more devastating consequences.

If this thinking is correct -- as 9/11, etc., may suggest that it is -- then what should be our proper course of action?

(This argument, to wit: "The Error of Doing Too Little," being presented for consideration alongside other arguments made here, such as: "The Error of Trying to Do Too Much."

Bill C.:

If is the contingent word in your comment. If one believes all that then one can honestly believe that 'something' must be done about it. The real issue is not what one or another may believe but is simply "what is to be done?" You seem to avoid that.

Your continuing comments to the effect that "outlier societies" must join the "more-modern/modernizing world" are I'm sure noted by all, it's a recurring theme in your posts, posed as a question or an effort at using the Socratic method. The answer of course is that some, perhaps many, do in fact believe that. That answer doesn't address the broader question of how such situations should be handled and efforts by many to provide some thoughts on that score tend to result in you yet again stating your premises. Those are premises with which few can or will disagree but they, again, do not address the 'how.'

This time you do provide more than usual:

"Herein, and within this context, "revenge" per se is thought to serve no intelligent or meaningful purpose and only "kicks the can down the road" and invites further and more extreme difficulties."

Thought by whom? Those who object for whatever reason to outlier societies, whatever those are? Who gets to determine what constitutes such a society? On what basis is it thought and by whom that 'revenge' serves no useful purpose -- and along that line, who is certain that revenge was or is indeed a motive? Is kicking "the can down the road" invariably bad? On what basis is an effort effectively determined to be doing that, postponing -- what? What further and "extreme difficulties?"

The broad question stated in Jason Thomas' article recognizes that many have beliefs that accord with your 'ifs.' He contends that so-called COIN theory is not a good response. Do you agree? If not, do you have ideas to improve the poor results that theory tends to produce?

Note the above queries are not rhetorical or Socratic but are a request for you to take and elucidate a position...

My position:

Efforts made by the United States and its allies -- to modernize outlier states and societies along western lines -- regardless of how such efforts are made (diplomacy, soft power, hard power, money, other "carrots and sticks" incentives) can be an extremely disruptive, dangerous and potentially counterproductive undertaking, in that such efforts can tend to:

a. Divide (or heighten the division of) populations within countries into two opposing camps (pro-modernization and anti-modernization) and pit these camps against each other and

b. Divide (or heighten the division of) states and societies of the world into two opposing camps (modern/western and "outliers") and, likewise, pit these different country-groups against one another.

Such a divisive and dividing foreign policy direction is not likely to lead to peace, prosperity or stability; just the opposite. This, requiring the United States to have to deal with a divided world that it has, on its own initiative, created or greatly contributed to.

In consideration of our position noted in the first paragraph above, we should understand that our opponents may feel that we have, for all intensive purposes, declared war on them and their way of life.

(When I look for a cause for 9/11, etc., I wonder if we should look more closely at an explanation along these lines.)

Thus, I tend to question the idea that the "root cause" of terrorism, insurgency, crimes against humanity, etc., is the lack of political, economic and social systems similar to ours; this as evidenced by the fact that there have been, throughout history, other coherent and cohesive societies that were not based on western institutions, western practices and/or western beliefs.

Rather, I am concerned that the assault by the more-western/more-modern world on the less-modern/less-western world (via, as I have noted diplomacy, soft power, hard power, etc., etc., etc.) may be a/the cause of many of these difficulties.

What to do:

Now with 20/20 hindsight, take a step back and look at things along the lines I have outlined above and ask the question: Is the idea of American leadership, and the belief that the United States must "shape" the international environment, is this really the way that we should proceed? Or has this type of thinking -- when combined with the idea that everyone must have our political, economic and social system -- have these ideas caused us -- and the world at large -- more harm than good?


Not feasible in situations where the vast majority of the population is not already inclinded to -- and in fact, ready, willing and, most importantly, able to -- rapidly abandon its time-honored way of life and quickly adopt the western way of life in its place. In other instances (much of the population unwilling and/or unable to rapidly abandon their way of life and quickly adopt our way of life in its place), then approaches requiring the "hard hand," occupation for many decades and other enormous expenditures of time and other resources must be considered before embarking on this type of project.

Bill C: What if modernization of other states along western lines is just a natural result of commerce and human interaction and doesn't have much to do with "(diplomacy, soft power, hard power, money, other "carrots and sticks" incentives)"? If that were the case, which I think it is, disruption and division is going to happen anyway along with the danger associated. That being so, we are going to have to deal with the consequences no matter what.


"...we are going to have to deal with the consequences no matter what."

Very true. However, we should endeavor to not make those consequences worse. Dealing with foreseen or unintended consequences is necessary, exacerbating the problem is optional...

Bill C.:

Thank you for the response. It confirms what I thought you had earlier stated as your position on the issues. Forgive my confusion over your Socratic approach. There are many good things about our ability to communicate in this medium but it still has some minor disconnects.

I think you and I are basically in agreement on the causes and the effects of the current situation and our approaches to dealing with other nations and on the issue of so-called COIN. Now, if we can just convince those that take a, er -- more active approach -- to use the proper tools to address the problem as opposed to attacking it with a sledge hammer... :>

Diana West article regarding COIN is on the money.

The problem with Diane West's article is that it essentially re-enforces the old Cold War American ideas about that part of the world that got us into this mess in the first place, the secular generals against the jihadists. This led to our funneling money through the generals, who funneled it to the jihadists, which then, some years later and with Saudi connivance, led to the events of 9-11. In addition, the relationships developed during the years and years of Washington-Islamabad-Riyadh closeness led to Americans at the highest level prioritizing grand strategic designs over their first duties to the American people.

But perhaps this is not the best time. Pragmatically and for the time being, we need to work with who we need to work with. And so it goes.

So, while her criticisms of "pop-COIN" are reasonable, her focus gets us back to the very mental space that resulted in Operation Evil Airlift, Abbottabad, and our funding the weapons systems of Pakistan, and, in a way, Iran too (including nuclear weapons, because aid is fungible. An almost impossible concept for the State Department and DOD to grasp, apparently).

COIN is a failure, it has never worked. You get the silly liberals that wish it would work.

@ Rondo,

I guess maybe we are talking past each other. I never said it worked. And I am familiar with what I jokingly refer to as "National Review's Musharraf Corner," which is probably hugely unfair.

The jihad lives on
By Amir Mir
KARACHI - Contrary to the much-touted claims of the government of President General Pervez Musharraf having taken concrete measures to uproot the extremist jihadi mafia and its terror network in Pakistan, a cursory glance over the activities of four "banned" militant organizations in the country shows they are once again back in business, with changed names and identities, operating freely and advocating jihad against infidels to defend Islam.
While banning six leading jihadi and sectarian groups in two phases - on January 12, 2002, and November 15, 2003 - Musharraf had declared that no organization or person would be allowed to indulge in terrorism to further its cause. However, after the initial crackdown, the four major jihadi outfits operating from Pakistan - Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), resurfaced and regrouped effectively to run their respective networks as openly as before, though under different names."

Large parts of both the American Right and Left policy and pundit communities got it wrong, I guess. So did I, initially. Happens sometimes. We had to change about forty-odd years of thinking overnight and we are still in the process.

Diana West article regarding COIN is on the money.

An excellent description why large scale COIN / pacification style, nation building campaigns relying on the commitment of main line military units into a foreign country fails to produces positive long term results. When the effort is finally terminated the withdrawing nation is left with an exhausted military, a civilian population which has withdrawn its support from the conflict regardless of its underlying cause, and due to massive amounts of defense funding spent on building another nation's infrastructure finds itself with a technically deficient military. A military that has been unable to make the necessary investments in critical high tech warfare needs such as improved aircraft, modern ships, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) systems, anti-missile systems and the like; thereby placing it into a weakened position versus countries whose forces posing that level of threat to one's national strategic interests--just as occurred after our forces withdrawal from South Vietnam.

Contrarily America's military assistance programs of a counter insurgency nature have been successful and produced lasting positive effect supporting our strategic objectives when they have been conducted on a smaller scale using Army Special Forces units (or their predecessors) such as in Greece, Bolivia, El Salvador, etc.--with technical warfare capabilities provided by the Air Force or Navy on an as needed basis.

The US political / military objective in Afghanistan was (originally) to deprive Al Qaeda of a protected base area; to kill or capture Al Qaeda operatives; to punish the Taliban for harboring Bin Laden and Company; and somewhere in that geographical area have a secure base of operations from which to launch Special Operations attacks, Ranger type raids, or drone or manned aircraft type attacks on Al Qaeda operatives remaining in that area. Those operating bases should have been placed in the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance controlled area--near the neighboring countries populated by their ethnic groups.

It matters not to our strategic interests whether the Taliban would have returned to control the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, only that we prevent them from long term harboring of Al Qaeda operations in their area. In fact it simplifies matters if we allow the Taliban to wander about and control the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan —especially if they permit Al Qaeda to return into the area It enable us to turn Afghanistan into a killing ground where we can carry out anti-terrorist attacks without interfering with a third nation’s sovereignty.

This approach would have relieved Pakistan of the need to have engaged in a costly internal conflict in their Pashtun populated Northwest Territories as those areas would not have suffered from a long term presence of Taliban forces driven out of Afghanistan. Let the Taliban return to Afghanistan. If we have a problem with them, vis-à-vis their support of Al Qaeda they will be much easier to locate for bombing purposes. The US could have made it clear as we originally did that if necessary our bombers would overfly Pakistan whenever necessary to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan and that we would be conducting anti-Al Qaeda raids wherever we located them—as we have been doing.

Using this approach our relationship with the Pakistan military would have been much approved and sustained by our funding of many of their military programs. They would not have had the need to station so many troops, if any, in their lawless Northwestern territories. The Afghan Taliban would be able to romp through their area of Afghanistan, but under the watchful eye of our electronic surveillance systems.

This a far less costly approach to anti-terrorist activities then occupying another country, stripping away all technical weapons systems advantage from the occupying military, requiring our forces fight on the rifle to rifle level of the enemy, and de facto turning our ground forces into police like activities.

Retired Marine Corps General Krulak had proposed the correct approach. An approach that numerous officers and NCO’s in the military support—realizing the fallacy of the Patraeaus COIN tactics, but limit their opposition due to the political costs of expressing such opinions. Lt. General Krulak USMC found that out when as I Corps Commander he was willing face to face to inform President Johnson that his military policies would not succeed. Also, let us not forget what happened to Army General Eric Shinseki when he accurately advised the Congress how many troops would be required to occupy / pacify Iraq.

This almost decade long U.S. foray into large scale nation building (now popularly entitled COIN) efforts by the US military will end / is ending strategically, budget wise, and politically in a manner no different than that of Vietnam that so many of us witnessed firsthand. The logic of this author (Jason Thomas) should be required reading for the US military officers and NCO’s and glued on top of permanently shelved / archived copies of the COIN manual with the remainder distributed as gifts to foreign military officers attempting to initiate their own counter insurgency operations.

I don't understand when you say this "This approach would have relieved Pakistan of the need to have engaged in a costly internal conflict in their Pashtun populated Northwest Territories as those areas would not have suffered from a long term presence of Taliban forces driven out of Afghanistan."

Pakistan doesn't suffer from the long term presence of Taiban driven out of Afghanistan. In fact they sponsor and support the Afghans Taliban and have for many years. Nor does the Pak Army/ISI fight the Afghan Taliban. They give them sanctuary and have for many years. If the Afghan Taliban & Co. went back to Afghanistan it would make not much difference at all to the fighting the Pak Army/ISI is doing since the Taliban they are fighting is the Pakistani Taliban and they wouldn't be going anywhere at all. What you say doesn't make any sense.

@ carl -

The COIN-FOIN paradox: Haider Mullick suggests that Fomenting Insurgency (FOIN) along with Countering Insurgency (COIN) are both part of Pakistan’s national security calculus.[7] FOIN in the 1980s was directed against the Soviet occupation and was a creation of U.S. and Pakistani intelligence and security assets to bolster the Afghan mujahedeen. Over a period of time in the late 1990s, as Pakistan’s proxy, the Taliban had control over Afghanistan and the FOIN operations extended to Kashmir and Punjab in India. This support has engulfed the region in constant conflict and given rise to radical non-state actors which Pakistan admits have been responsible for the 2008 Mumbai and 2001 Parliament attacks in India.

It's a funny thing that we spend so much time discussing COIN when it was FOIN that led to the events to which NATO eventually responded in Afghanistan (I suppose some might say we responded to that which we began with our meddling in the first place. In part I think that's true, but only in part. Others have agency, drive, and will.)

What's also funny is that many that focus on the FOIN part of it come up with strange ideas like the United States brockering (?sp) a grand peace in South Asia, as if the nations that have traditionally funded one side of the conflict via arms (and even carved out countries as a way to have a stake in the region post 1947) have the "moral authority" to do so and would be accepted in that role.

I tell you, carl, at this point I've reached a Ken White-like acceptance of much of this. He's right, isn't he? For a variety of reasons, our institutions don't do these things well because our system is not set up to do so. It was set up that way because we are supposed to be a self-governing republic and non-stop foreign adventures were never a part of the original plan....

Madhu: We were a self-governing republic and we used to do those things well. I don't think that status has anything to do with it. I don't like saying the institutions or the system can't do it and leaving it go at that as if it were some sort of immutable characteristic. The system and the institutions are created and maintained by people who make decisions that make them that way. To say essentially "that is just the way it is" is to let a lot of people in those institutions off the hook for the consequences of the decisions made. Individuals and groups of people decided that the Pak Army/ISI weren't the enemy and persist in that judgment to this day. Night raids go on and on. People do these stupid things and they shouldn't be let off the hook for being stupid.

Several things about this article seem facile to me.

First about this statement " In Afghanistan we should have determined that as long as the Taliban do not let al Qaeda or a new form of non-state actor use Afghanistan as a base to train and launch terrorist attacks on our national interests then we will leave them alone."

That sounds great, very realistic and wise. Yes things would have worked out great if we had done that. But what if Taliban didn't play along, which they didn't. Then what? We said give 'em up. They said no. Then what?

Then there is this statement "This is one of the reasons night raids should continue despite the call at the November 2011 Loya Jirga in Kabul. Even in loosely controlled insurgent or guerrilla movements leadership is symbolises the raison d’être of the cause."

So we should continue night raids even though the Afghans hate them above all things and have asked us repeatedly over years and years to stop them. And the reason we should do this is because getting the leadership is really important. Except the leadership that symbolizes the raison d'etre of the cause is in Pakistan and we won't go after them there. We pick up oodles and boodles of underlings in Afghanistan all of whom are replaced without too much trouble. And we have been night raiding more through the years and the situation is worse than ever. Taliban is stronger than ever. I don't see the case for night raids as being well made.

And finally there is this statement "In Afghanistan a hedgehog would determine the end state he wants and be unrelenting in the pursuit of that strategic objective, employing only the most efficient and effective means to get there." Which is fine but sort of anodyne. That statement is followed up by this one " hedgehog in Afghanistan would have determined that as long as the Taliban do not let al Qaeda or a new form or non-state actor use Afghanistan as a base to train and launch terrorist attacks on our national interests then we will leave them alone." That is great, incisive and decisive. Except the Taliban didn't play the part scripted for them.

Bill C. is right when he says this article is mostly argument for doing nothing. I would go a step further and say the author is guilty of what he accuses many of the "COIN" theorititians (sic) of, using it to demonstrate that he knows many things.


"That sounds great, very realistic and wise."

I'm unsure about the great and wise aspects but I certainly disagree it's realistic. As you point out later in that paragraph from which I extracted your thoughts, we essentially tried that with quite predictable results.

You then go on to suggest the the night raids are broadly ineffective -- I agree, it's playing whack a mole -- but you also say of those raids

"...even though the Afghans hate them above all things and have asked us repeatedly over years and years to stop them."

Of course they hate them and want them to stop. So would anyone so subjected -- but that really has little bearing on anything. Aside from the almost certain facts that much Afghan objection is predicated on interruption of business as usual and is in part an effort to raise solatium payments, the real issue is simply that the raids are of marginal effectiveness. So we can agree that the night raids are not worthwhile if we disagree on the population concern or effect aspects.

That does not negate Jason Thomas' article or it's basic contention that COIN is a deeply flawed theory that needs to disappear before it damages more nations in a quest for unattainable utopian bliss. As the author John D. MacDonald once wrote, "There's not enough oil in all the world to provide everyone a pair of water skis." Marginal metaphor but the principle is good; never will everyone be able to live in contented, well behaved urban comfort. We've waste a tremendous amount of money and too many lives in quite futile attempts to better people who'd just as soon we didn't come around but just sent money.

We are not ever going to 'win the battle for the population.' We need to stop wasting so much effort trying. There are better ways.

You write

"Bill C. is right when he says this article is mostly argument for doing nothing..."

One way to look at it. I suggest that doing nothing -- with respect to 'rebuilding' Afghanistan (among other places...) -- would have been a far better answer for everyone.

As every Cop knows, domestics are a supreme pain and little good rarely comes of them.

Ken: The "great, wise, realistic" thing was was more smart aleck than well considered. I yield to temptation too easily.

I'll go with "night raids are not worthwhile" no matter how we get there.

As far as COIN theory goes I don't like that phrase at all. It implies prescription. I like small war. I figure if a small war needs to be fought, people should be familiar enough with small wars of the past to have an idea of what generally works, what generally doesn't and realize that they have to adapt what they do to the situation they find themselves in, and in order to do that they have to be open minded enough to actually appreciate the situation as it really is. I wouldn't want to get more theoretical than that.

If all that is done, and it's a lot, I still think you can win "the battle for the population" in that you will be able to control the population and the opponent won't.

I don't know if doing nothing was practicable in Afghanistan but the something we did was so fubar'd that anything might have been better.

Possibly less an argument for doing nothing than an argument against trying to do too much.

My hedgehog would have gone into Afghanistan after 9/11 with a simple message: Osama sent men to our country to kill our people, and we are here for revenge. We are going to kill Osama and all who helped him, and then we are going home. We don't want to rule you, we don't want your country, we want revenge and then we are gone. You can help us and be rewarded, hinder us and be killed, or ignore us and be ignored.

My hedgehog would have pursued that goal and no other. It also would have left while we were still feared, still the big dog on the block, before anyone had a chance to mount attacks that could have been claimed as driving us out. It would have left with a simple message: if we have to come back, it will be worse.

What happened after that would be up tho the Afghans. If the Taliban regained power, they'd have a very clear reason not to attack us again.

Once we start with holding and building, nation-building, etc we become static targets pursuing goals we can't possibly achieve. That's pointless. We can't "fix" Afghanistan. We can give whoever rules Afghanistan some very good reasons not to attack us or shelter those who do.

Leaving the Taliban alone has been tried and did not work.

If we were to leave the Taliban alone again it is likely that this approach, again, would not work.

Considering this, what would be your new/next course of action?

Thus today, it would seem, we have moved from "romancing the COIN" to "romancing the idea of doing nothing."

@ Bill C -

"Leaving the Taliban alone" occurred in a specific context. How much of that specific context remains? I mean that as an honest and open ended question. Some of it does, and some of it doesn't. The petrodollars funding "educational activities continues" (and we seem to have no good way to deal with that other than to keep an eye on the movement of money), but other things are different from the pre-9-11 world, aren't they? Or maybe not?

However imperfectly, haven't our home defenses been "hardened" a bit since then, or is this a chimera? Have our intelligence relationships improved with other countries? Would warnings be acted on this time, assuming public reporting about such warnings are correct? I imagine we might actually listen to some other people this time. I'd hope, anyway.

Why are there only two options? Even with the Taliban hosting Al Q, we knew where bin Laden was and didn't make the move for complicated reasons. Would we hesitate today? Our drone program says no, doesn't it?

I really don't know. We have more options than just COIN. What about the CIA and its Islamabad and Kabul missions? What about something like this:

And if we have to go back, then maybe we have to go back. Maybe there are no other realistic options given that our foreign policy apparatus (I love that phrase) wants what it wants: staying power in the Middle East, pivoting to Asia, expanding NATO, and each desire impacting our ability to do the next thing, like a million little nets cast and holding us down, a "giant" unable to move freely. I don't think such a thing as a perfect solution exists and maybe we civilians (talking about people like me) need to accept that we can't have perfect security in such a rapidly changing and dynamic world.

Madhu: Things may be changing for AQ. In The State of the Taliban report that was leaked a few months ago Taliban detainees state that AQ is falling apart and they are not as well liked by Taliban & Co as before.

We may have known where Osama was prior to 2001 but he wasn't hiding. After 2001 we hadn't a clue for 10 years. Don't fall for the drone hype. They crash a lot, need detailed intel, need bases nearby, can't survive when there is any kind of aerial opposition and if you really want to be sure probably require human eyes on the target when the missile is launched.

Once we leave Afghanistan, we will never go back. If thinking about the future make that front and center. We will never go back.


I wouldn't bet the Farm on that last paragraph. ;)

Good points, carl. I know nothing about drones and precious little about anything else military and can be easily confused.

I responded differently to this piece than most of you. I am always interested in human motivations and "blind spots." By now, you all know my hobby horses around here. The following is amusing--if a bit unfair-- because Stewart proved to be correct about many things, when viewed in retrospect. I remember his testimony in DC some years ago....

Rory Stewart: Gentleman scholar or snooty gap-yah tragedy?

Of course, this eccentric, Lawrence of Arabia stuff tends to go down well with Americans, who seem to regard him as a sort of young "Lord John Marbury". The US fascination with British eccentricity may explain why The New Yorker decided to publish a profile of the relatively unknown Tory candidate last year, and even why Harvard asked him to teach undergraduates. (No doubt his friendship with Prince Charles – and his OBE – go down rather well Stateside, too.)

And by now you all well know that I had heard rumors about a sort of romanticization by the American Army of that part of the world stemming from our "work" in Pakistan over the years. I am sure I go too far with my diaspora suspicions, but why shouldn't I be honest about it around here? I imagine it makes a difference for the sort of work many around here do. Suspicions are hard to overcome. To be fair, our politicos do precious little to allay such feeling.

Times change, though. What a change from my childhood to see high approval ratings of the US when Indians are surveyed. Nothing stays the same. Washington was correct. No permanent allies, no permanent enemies.


Your points are well made.

It's funny. I posted the following at Rick's Best Defense blog:

Oh, who am I kidding? My American sensibilities recoil at the post-1947 attitudes toward that part of the world on our part and how romanticizing the British raj is a part of how we Americans "got here." That part of the world jokes about the Kipling-love of a certain type of Dulles/whichever American Cold War General. We always get fooled, goes the joke. Our own romantic notions are part of the way we get conned. We oughta cut it out. I also think the British raj romanticists forget that, early on, they were only one "warlord" among many, their men married into the population and we Americans didn't much like their attitudes when directed toward us. You know, a sort of KONY2012 White Man's Burden that both the American Right and Left feel, but only recognize in the other partisan side, not their own.

I'll leave all the errors in place to remind myself to do better when commenting in future. (Yeah, like that will happen.)

Perhaps the issue isn't COIN, it's the way we put ourselves at the center of the drama? I am probably being unfair....

Good assessment, accurate comments. Unrequited love is indeed a beach...

We have unfailingly drawn the wrong lessons from our overseas adventures and we foolishly try to emulate European models. We aren't Europeans. I missed Forrestal but then served under the next 13 Secretaries of Defense, Worked as a Civilian employee under another six and have watched the remaining four very closely. Gates is one of the better ones, no question. Yet this statement of Mister Gates quoted by Jason Thomas in his article:

""We are in Afghanistan because we were attacked from Afghanistan, not because we want to try and build a better society in Afghanistan. But doing things to improve governance, to improve development in Afghanistan, to the degree it contributes to our security mission and to the effectiveness of the Afghan government in the security area, that's what we're going to do.""

That is a politically appropriate but realistically rather inane excuse for a rationale. I really believe -- or would like to believe -- that the then SecDef knew better.

Jason Thomas has one thing wrong -- there is no romance in the COIN mantra; it is pure foolishness and we have proven that in several nations in my lifetime. Yet, we continue to believe that it works if one would just do it correctly. Amazing leap of faith as no one has been able to show that is remotely possible much less probable...