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The Fallacy of COIN: One Officer's Frustration

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The Fallacy of COIN: One Officer's Frustration

by Scott Dempsey

Download The Full Article: The Fallacy of COIN: One Officer's Frustration

General Petraeus will be in Washington next week where he will inevitably continue to extol the progress of counterinsurgency (COIN) in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's heartland -- and where our war to achieve sufficient stability to enable us to leave will be either won or lost. COIN doctrine argues that with the right combination of security, governance, and development, there will be transformational impact that can marginalize insurgents' control over local populations. Combined with multiple external factors mostly beyond our ability to influence, COIN was indeed part of the transformational improvement in Iraq -- and provided sufficient stability for American troops to withdraw in favor of Iraqi government forces. The Afghanistan surge seeks to create similar results-- which would ultimately create conditions for transfer of authority and responsibility to the Afghan government and security forces. A key component to GEN Petraeus's COIN talking points cites the Nawa District of restive Helmand Province as a "proof of concept" for counterinsurgency dogma, and that the "Nawa model" is durable. However, during my year in Helmand Province, including nine months as the U.S. development lead in Nawa District, I saw a variety of factors that led to Nawa's success -- none of which pass this test. Furthermore, to secure even the most basic degree of Afghan government-led stability will require a seemingly endless commitment to continue to fight and finance this effort.

Download The Full Article: The Fallacy of COIN: One Officer's Frustration

Until February 2011, Scott Dempsey was a USAID Foreign Service Officer, most recently with the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs in Washington. From July 2009 - August 2010, he served as a development officer in Helmand Province. He also previously deployed as a Marine on a civil affairs team in Fallujah in 2005.

About the Author(s)


Bill C. (not verified)

Thu, 03/17/2011 - 12:28pm


Thus, could my "not colonized" concept help explain "The Fallacy of (Colonial) COIN" problems identified by the author re: Afghanistan?

Bill C. (not verified)

Thu, 03/17/2011 - 12:11pm


As difficult as it is for us to accept, we may wish to take a much closer look at what may be the primary reason why Afghanistan is such a unique, difficult and different challenge for the United States today, this being that:

Afghanistan was/is an anomoly, in that it was never colonized.

Accordingly and therefore, Afghanistan did not receive:

a. The up front, personal and long-term commitment from one or more of the Western great powers (in other nations, such a commitment often last for a century or more).

b. And, therefore, did not receive the exposure to Western ideas, beliefs, methods and institutions which ultimately made the "modernization" of other colonialized nations -- and their incorporation into the international community/global economy (and our goal re: Afghanistan) -- easier to achieve.

Thus, in Afghanistan, unlike in the colonized nations, we are having to start at "square one."

The proposition and idea that Afghanistan can be brought into the modern world minus such a long term commitment by Western powers -- and minus such a significant and long-term exposure to Western ideas, methods, institutions and beliefs (achieved by whatever means) -- needs to be better explained and addressed.

In that Afghanistan is such a historical anomoly, this may help explain why our current counterinsurgency-cum-modernization (or vise-versa) concepts -- significantly relating to, derived from and designed to deal with problems in colonized nations) -- seem to be such a poor fit for Afghanistan; a country that was never colonized.


It's called cognitive dissonance...

G Martin

Wed, 03/16/2011 - 10:36am

I don't think anyone is really that malicious (having the most to gain, etc.) over there. What IS behind their motivations, however, are flawed assumptions and political reality:

1) Assumption that if we pull out of Afghanistan the Taliban will come back, AQ will be offered sanctuary, and 9/11 will happen again.
2) Assumption that security, governance, and development (i.e. FM 3-24) is the solution to avoiding Assumption #1.
3) Assumption that Security will be gained by training as many ANSF as possible while fighting a fight in the South and Southwest (this is tied to the assumptions that we will lose political will back home if we don't show some success really quick- and that the only way to do that is to train lots of forces really quick, and that the fight will buy us space and time to build these forces).
4) Assumption that we can actually DO governance and development that will be sustainable.

I would argue that ALL of those assumptions are wrong- except for maybe the one about losing political will if we don't reach short-term objectives, but that is only because our populace ALREADY has lost the will and backs leaving. If our government wasn't afraid of looking weak on security by pulling us out and if our military wasn't so wedded to 3-24 then we'd probably have withdrawn most troops last year...

Jed (not verified)

Wed, 03/16/2011 - 9:44am

Sorry for the late entry, but I'd like to go back to Dave Maxwell's point about the practioners' increasingly negative outlook on COIN as practiced in Afghanistan.

From the outside, it appears to me that the ones claiming success, or at least increased "momentum," in Afghanistan are the ones with the most to gain personally if we are successful. A lot of reputations are at stake and that just might be clouding assessments.

As Dave alludes, it's time to employ some critical thinking and closely evaluate who has the most to gain by perpetuating COIN's "successes." I'd bet it's not the Soldiers and Marines who are tasked to shoulder extreme risk for little significant gain every day.


First I liked your article because it was short, sharp and succinct.

With what you have set out from your time in Helmand what do we expect! Sometimes we create complexity when really the motivations and human factors are just as they are in any socio-ecoystem. I think Robert C Jones mentione Maslow earlier.

In Afghanistan, the human factors are as they have always been. I saw the same (for want of a better word) recidivism Two weeks after a project finishing two young guys in Wardak blew themselves up laying an IED. I take street kids up the Kokoda Track in PNG. A famous WWII battle ground where Australians fought the Japanese. The big question I get asked by donors to the program is "do these kids go back to crime and drugs when they finish the program?"

We need to lower our expectations of what we can acheive and focus on the basic motivations that determine the choice of survival in Afghanistan - not what we think is needed from a Western / colonial perspective.

Local Taliban or those who join the fight, could easily be picking up an AK-47 one day and a shovel to clean a karez the next. Yet, and this is the key both actions are in direct support and protection of their local interests. Neither action is intended to be part of a global jihad or to install a new government in Kabul.

In Sri Lanka, where I spent along time in the civil war area, the GOSL was doing the opposite to us in Afghanistan(yes some will say there are many differences - true) but they were squeezing the economic life out of the LTTE areas as well as killing as many cadres as possible. The average Tamil civilian didnt like the GOSL but they didnt care much for the LTTE either who could be just as harsh on the Tamil people if they were seen to be equivocal in their support.

Perhaps the COIN we should be implementing is simply security - killing bad guys and not interfering in local politics and not building things that simply cannot be maintained by local people or even GiROA once we have left.

At the risk of sounding like I am advocating another version of "colonial interventionism", perhaps we could reshape our efforts in Afghanistan in the following way:

- Get rid of the office of president. Probably viewed as "too western", not to mention ineffective. Decentralize the Afghan government.

- Use the Afghan model of a loya jirga, which is a recognized method among Afghans (Tajiks, Hazaras, Pashtuns, etc) for making decisions/ policies/ edicts, & help them create a standing "national jirga" made up of the major ethics groups in the country.....this will empower the major players in Afghan society: the ethic groups and their leaders and, being viewed as more legitimate, may help reduce the insurgency.

- Be prepared to live with a Afghanistan that is more of a confederation of various tribal groups VS one with a "strong" centralized government. This would be more in keeping with traditional Afghan society, keep the Pakistanis happy because they'll stop worrying about a strong Afghanistan on their northern border, and help stabilize the region enough so that real assistance - economic, legal, political, etc - can get in there to get Afghanistan integrated into the global economy albeit slowly.

Is this too idealistic?

JackC (not verified)

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 3:04pm

"I would've liked it if the author had expounded more on the failure to create conditions for transition with specific examples of how programs that succeeded under us could not be or were not made compatible with Afghan institutions."

I don't think it's that unclear. He said that of 20,000 working class males, 11,000 or so are being employed by U.S. government money in what is essentially an elaborate patronage scheme.

In other words, we've created a new welfare population dependent on the U.S. taxpayer to sustain itself.

G Martin

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 2:17pm

Bob- no issue with those comments- I think we were talking a little past each other!

Bob's World

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 1:37pm


Let me try another tact. Think of a Coffee Press (flawed analogy coming up). In a free and open society, such as the US the press is all the way at the top of the container. Anything done at the bottom can and will gravitate up to the top and every where inbetween.

In Afghanistan under the current contstituion and ISAF strategy, ISAF is like the coffee grounds and and GIRoA is like the press; except that GIRoA has replaced the permeable filter with one that does not let any of the goodness of the coffee filter upwards. They have then pressed it all the way down to the village level, leaving everything as district and above unbothered and unaffected by the efforts of ISAF.

All of that ISAF engagement avoids GIRoA that really needs to change, and instead overwhelms people down at the local level who have no say or no way to affect what goes on above that oppressive cap made by the constitutional press of GIRoA.

Until GIRoA modifies the constitution to allow the people the right and ability to shape their own governance and security forces; until ISAF shifts from hammering at the populace with both velvet glove and iron fist; and instead shifts to focusing on the systemic flaws of GIRoA and the exclusion of the entire segment of populace and governance once represented by the Taliban all the compressed efforts at the bottom are extremely unlikely to have any type of enduring positive effect. Worse yet, much of the goodness that is brought in is then syponed off by the guys at the top for their own personal gain.

We enable this flawed system to continue function by our very presence and our dedication to protecting and funding it. What happens if we stop either or both of those artifical life support systems? I think we all know.

G Martin

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 1:19pm

I don't know- I would submit that this "universal human nature" concept drives much of our ops and either the concept is flawed or we misunderstand/misuse it.

Regardless- I think the result is the same: we craft "solutions" that ignore what the Afghans will most likely use/take ownership of and that affects transition.

I know your point was more strategic oriented- and I'm not disagreeing with you on the point of failed strategy- but I do think it is germane: we have to take into account a realistic assumption of what Afghans are most likely going to do rather than simply assume that inside every Afghan "is an American waiting to get out"- which is how I think many interpret that concept.

Bob's World

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 12:25pm


You misunderstand humanistic psychology. Human nature is pretty universal. What you argue is that what creates a sense of security or fulfilment in an Afghan living in rural Afghanistan is different than in an American living in rural America. No kidding. It's different between me and my next door neighbor as well, and equally immaterial to the strategic design of an effective intervention campaign.

Standing on the ground is great, been there, done that. But it is not being an expert on the 100 yard bubble around that guy on the ground that will shape the framework of an effective strategy, rather his expertise must be limited to shaping the tactical implementation of said strategy within that bubble.

The flaws in our approach to Afghanistan are strategic in nature. Tactical success and failure stories abound in every conflict; but if we want to achieve any type of enduring success in Afghanistan we need to stop agonizing over the tactics, and reframe the strategic structure from the very top. From our understanding of the nature of the problem and our perceived interests there; to the setting of appropriate and attainable Ends; to then shaping the appropriate Means to achieve those ends and Ways to best apply those Means to those Ends.

The fact that what makes an Afghan Farmer happy differs from what makes an American Farmer happy is largely moot to the strategic questions that are most problematic.

G Martin

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 11:22am

Jason Lemieux:

I agree- failing to create the conditions for transition in my opinion stems from our concentration on short-term metrics. This concentration came from a belief that if we did anything that resulted in short-term set-backs we would lose political support and go home. Pulling out was deemed unacceptable due to the belief that if we pulled out our national security would most likely be threatened by the aftermath conditions.

I did not see a willingness to question the assumption that us pulling out would most likely lead to a threat to our security. I did not see a willingness to address the long-term issues of concentrating on short-term metrics. And I did not see an honest assessment of our short-term concentration on transition objectives: in my opinion we just ignored the obvious (that we were delaying transition).

This ignored the issues of building processes and systems that the Afghans would most likely not sustain themselves. I would argue that it isn't a question of culture in as much as it is a question of "propensity". In every country I've been to to conduct FID there is a propensity that is nearly impossible- if not 100% impossible- to overcome with respect to how "they do things".

We would train and educate officers and soldiers on MDMP, Troop Leading Procedures, human rights, training processes, etc.- and inevitably they would accept the training so long as we were giving them things (money, ammo, equipment)- but as soon as we left they went back to their normal way of doing business. I liken it to these "business fad" briefings and classes we get in our Army HQs that lead to little- if any- change once the seminar/briefing/class is over: unless people are punished/rewarded differently things won't change.

The bottom line to me is that we need to let the Afghans "do things" for a little while and then help them "do things" "better"- using the metric of "Afghan sustainable" as #1 and not claiming success until we see them doing things at an acceptable level without us assisting. But, this risks short-term set-backs and that, in my opinion, is politically unacceptable.

And I don't agree with the statement that "Afghans are just like people everywhere". They may need the same things that Maslow describes- but the way they (and every family/tribe/sub-tribe can be different) define those things and their logic of how to get there are very different than the way we see things (and it is like that in most any country). So, for instance, a certain family may feel like they can achieve security by forcing their daughter to marry her rapist. That doesn't jive with how the average American family will feel they can achieve security in the same situation. So to state that Afghans are just like us- which is something a lot of people in ISAF believe- is counterproductive when approaching the propensity that everyone on the ground knows is there.

Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

The above comments are the author's own and do not constitute the position of the US Army or DoD.

Bob's World

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 10:48am

I had to chuckle at "the benefit of a colonial experience" for a couple reasons.

1. Many colonial powers have sought to exert their will over Afghanistan. None ever found that the "juice was worth the squeeze," and staggered away with humbled remnants of their colonial armies.

2. The "benefits of a colonial experience" is much like the benefits of being a slave or a prisoner or a draftee. One does gets their room and board provided, but has to do what the master wants.

So it is not because they do not appreciate how all of this is good for them if they would only submit and take it (hmm, more prison analogies come to mind...). It is because they are treated as servants in their own home.

Bill C. (not verified)

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 10:24am

Its not that Afghan people are "broken" or "radicalized by some ideology."

Rather, it is more as if they were Rip Van Winkle -- or The Land That Time Forgot -- to wit, an anachronism, due to the fact that they missed the colonial environment and experience of their contemporary nations, which provided for these brother nations (1) the long-term commitment of one or more of the Western great powers and (2) the corresponding exposure to the Western ideas, methods, institutions and beliefs that such a long-term colonization effort normally provided for.

Thus, the error today in trying to do colonial-derived COIN in a country that has never had the benefit of a colonial experience:

a. The left shoe, to wit: the long-term, up front and personal commitment of one or more Western great powers and

b. The right shoe: The exposure to the Western ways that such a commitment would have brought.

Neither of these shoes fit.

And so, accordingly, nor does a counterinsurgency method based on the colonial model.

Bob's World

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 8:12am

What we need to remember is that the Afghan people are not "broken." The Afgahan people are not "radicalized" by some ideology.

In the broadest sense the poeple of Afghanistan are like people everywhere and have the same humanist needs as described by Dr. Maslow as people everywhere.

In a narrower sense, the people of the areas that are most rebellious of the current situation are very much like Americans from our heartland as well. The are connected to the land, to their family and to their faith. They do not expect much from their government, nor do they want to be much bothered by their government either.

They don't think much about Kabul, but they do know that it is Kabul who picks their Provincial and District governance with no input by them or their local shuras.

They also know that the government sent to govern them by Kabul is protected by a nationally controlled security force recruited from regions far away and from ethnic groups other than their own. Behind this they see a large foreign military presence sustaining all of this in power and leading operations to attempt to force those who are excluded from participation in governance or economic opportunity under the current government to submit to that situation.

These are people who are not good at submission; and they are historically famous at being particularly not good at submission to foreign military powers.

So, what is a "colonial" perspective in COIN? For Americans perhaps a rule of law example will help. Under that law, there is a well founded legal concept of "Master and Servant" law. It states simply that:

"The relation of master and servant exists where one person, for pay or other valuable consideration, enters into the service of another and devote to him his personal labor for an agreed period. The relation exists where the employer has the right to select the employee, the power to remove and discharge him and the right to direct both what work shall be done and the manner in which it shall be done."

In the United States we see the people in the role of "master" and the government in the role of "servant." In a colonial approach to COIN those roles reverse, and we come to see our intervening presence in the role of master, and in desending order the government and the people of that land in the role of servant.

It is this inversion that is at the core of our current COIN doctrine as it is derived from the experiences of colonial operations. We should not be focused on establishing our mastery over Afghanistan as a whole, or the mastery ("control") of the Government of Afghanistan over the Afghan people. What we should be focused on in an effective non-colonial approach to COIN is on elevating the mastery of the Afghan people and in coaching the Afghan government selected by that master on how to act as a proper servant.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 03/13/2011 - 11:45pm

"b." above:

... that these great powers wished to impart.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 03/13/2011 - 11:24pm

Along these same lines, the problem would also seem to be one of the Afghan people lacking long-term exposure to, understanding of and, thus, potential fielty for the ideas, beliefs, institutions and methods that we wish the Afghans to embrace (in the past, this was often provided by a colonial setting).

Accordingly, we cannot expect these people to put all this foreign way-of-life stuff on their back -- and walk off with it -- until such a long-term exposure (which requires a correspondingly significant and long-term commitment by us) has been achieved.

Lacking this, we would seem to just be wasting everyone's blood, treasure and time in thinking that we could transform such a different people -- virtually overnight -- minus the significant "our way-of-life" education and exposure that the colonial experience normally required.

Thus, a two-fold problem related to "lack of colonialism" in Afghanistan:

a. As noted at my 8:23 PM comment above, the lack of a sense of ownership, responsibility and strategic interest (which would provide for the necessary long-term and extensive commitment by the interested great powers [the US, et al]).

b. And, as I have described immediately above, a corresponding lack of significant exposure to the ideas, beliefs, institutions and methods that these great powers.

Together, these deficiencies provide that colonial-COIN -- minus the colonial part -- would seem to be (1) a very poor fit for Afghanistan and, accordingly, (2) have very little chance for success.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 03/13/2011 - 9:23pm

My question above stated another way:

Is the colonial aspect/element so-to-speak (to wit: [1] the concept of something akin to ownership and/or perceived strategic importance and [2] the corresponding willingness to to make an extensive, consistent and long-term commitment (numerous decades); is this what makes trying to do colonial-COIN -- minus the colonial aspect/element -- so difficult to do?

Is this what the author is describing, to wit: the lack of a colonial-like interest and commitment to our mission in Afghanistan?

Bob's World

Sun, 03/13/2011 - 6:20pm

what primarily makes an intervention "colonial" in nature is when the intervening power:

1. Is the primary source of legitimacy of the host nation government;

2. Perceives the insurgent element of the populace that dares to challenge the goveernent they have provided to the people as "wrong" and the government as "right."

3. Puts the pursuit of its own interests in the region above the interests of the people as a whole of that region. This includes supporting a government no matter how far out of touch with thier own populace, or with the values of the intervening government, so long as they are seen as the best option for addressing the interests of the intervening power.

Its not about making a country a colony, its about treating it like a colony.

Jason Lemieux (not verified)

Sun, 03/13/2011 - 3:10pm

I would've liked it if the author had expounded more on the failure to create conditions for transition with specific examples of how programs that succeeded under us could not be or were not made compatible with Afghan institutions.

Is it that we take for granted a level of funding that the Afghan economy can't sustain? And if so, how much could we boost that economy if the civilian "surge" had proceeded as called for? How much of the limitation is material and how much is cultural?

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 03/13/2011 - 12:55pm

Maybe I shoUld have said ... heavily staffed, SUPERVISED and supported ...

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 03/13/2011 - 12:53pm

Is the author actually making an argument that only a colonial-like effort (one which is heavily staffed and supported by the foreign intervening entities -- for numerous decades) is likely to achieve the desired ends?

RH (not verified)

Sat, 03/12/2011 - 5:23pm

Gardez PRT/Feb-2003 with USAID

Alot has changed since my time in Gardez "standing up" the first PRT initiative outside Gardez..the city.

The time between 2003 and 2008 was mostly taken up by funding and the emphasis in Iraq. In short, I saw the as less than supportinve....and was told directly from the USAID Head of Mission that Afghanistan was in a "holding pattern" because of Iraq. During my time at Gardez..the implementing partner for USAID (USAID is not a direct project funder) was IOM (International Organization of Migration). Needless to say, the 6 weeks on with 2 weeks off for IOM personnel made any type or coordination effort more challenging.

The CERP program within the CA contingent was able to provide some infrastructure support in the local area. But, as most may concur, time is now not on our side...decades more will be required to bring economic stabilization to a country near Somalia in terms structure any type of long term enduring stability.

Having worked in Sudan (two tours), Uganda... Iraq and nearly 38 months in the Balkans, I never felt ever close to "winning the hearts and minds", but rather our initiative during my time was "the promise buying the hearts and minds"..hardly a redeeming objective in the early days.

And for the USAID folks who wondered what life was like in the early days..Gardez, in particular...try search within YouTube ..jrhamp..


Bob's World

Sat, 03/12/2011 - 4:23pm

Bill C.

"Perhaps not "illegitimate," but rather, out of touch with the people. So long as they recognize the right of the government to govern, it is perceived as "legitimate." The follow-on question then is always going to be:

"Does the populace have a trusted, certain, and legal means to affect government" to give them the means to keep government 'in touch.'

The mid-term elections are a great example here in the US. The Tea Party has been raising hell since President Obama took office. What they do is legal in America, so is not insurgency. In many other countries the leaders would be spirited away in the night, and it would absolutely be insurgency. But not only to American citizens have legal means to stay informed, and to express their discontent; the also have trusted, certain and legal means to affect government as well, carrying a large number of Tea Party candidates into office.

In many countries in the Middle East, the current government may well be perceived as legitimate, but having drifted out of touch with the people. This is the chord that Bin Laden plays so well with his rhetoric. He says they have become "apostate" due to the corrupting influence of the West. The populace having no legal, trusted or certain means to make changes has only one option beyond enduring the unendurable: support insurgency in some way; and where necessary some sign up to go overseas to attempt the break the will of the corrupting foreign powers as well.

This is why the US constitution is such a masterpiece of COIN. It was written by a bunch of former oppressed citizens, turned insurgent, turned counterinsurgent. They had total empathy for all sides of the equation, and crafted a document designed specifically to keep government from ever becoming too effective, to remain legitimate, to protect key rights of the people, and to give the people trusted certain and legal means to affect change. When all else failed, they ensured the people had the right to keep and bear arms and recognized the right and duty of a populace to rise in insurgency when every legal means had been effectively denied.



Bill C. (not verified)

Sat, 03/12/2011 - 12:57pm

Let me clean up that last paragraph a little bit:

Thus, if a population did not wish to be, for example, "modernized," then would not efforts made by the local government along these lines (to wit: to modernize the state and society) be cause for the population to see this local government as illegitimate? (COIN/WOG, in this scenerio, being seen by the local population as methods used to [1] bring about such an unwanted state/societal change and [2] deal with any resistance mounted against this effort?)

Bill C. (not verified)

Sat, 03/12/2011 - 12:47pm

a. A local government (insert country name) would only seem to be able to meet the criteria of "legitimacy" if it were (1) ordered, organized and configured to meet the wants, needs and desires of the indigenous population (as viewed by this population -- and not by others) and (2) acted in a manner that was consistent with this population's fundamental ideas, convictions and beliefs.

b. By this same logic, a local government (installed by a foreign power or not) would not seem to be able to meet the criteria of "legitimacy" if it were (1) ordered, organized and configured more to meet the wants, needs and desires of a foreign society and (2) acted in a manner that was more consistent with alien principles, ideas and beliefs.

Thus, if a population not wish to be, for example, become "modernized," then would not efforts made by the local government along these lines (to modernize the state and society) cause for the population to see this local government illegitimate? (COIN/WOG, in this scenerio, being seen by the local population as methods used to [1] bring about such an unwanted state/societal change and [2] deal with any resistance mounted against this effort?)

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 03/12/2011 - 8:40am

Commenter <strong>Bill M.</strong>, I believe, linked the following article in a separate thread some time back. It applies to this discussion very nicely, IMO:

<em>The disturbing truth that modern Western COIN theory is built on a handful of books based upon practitioner experiences in a handful of 20th-century conflicts is not mitigated by the less famous but broader COIN works. Country studies by lesser known writers are similarly restricted. The core texts cover Vietnam (French Indochina), Algeria, Northern Ireland, the Philippines, and Malaya. The less-well-known writers will go on to discuss Mozambique, Angola, El Salvador, or Afghanistan under the Soviets. Only the most adventurous writers and theorists braved traveling as far as Kashmir or India to look at what could be learned there. Subsequently, the modern study of counterinsurgency and the doctrine it gave birth to are limited to less than two dozen conflicts in a century that witnessed more than 150 wars and lesser conflicts, domestic and interstate (see table 1).</em>

<em>I think it would be interesting to do a study - perhaps on Small Wars Journal alone - to compare the pro and con COIN articles and then cross check the pros and cons with those who have been practitioners and those who have not. Seems like there is in increase in negative COIN articles from those who have returned from the field, and often from those with multiple tours.</em> - <strong>Dave Maxwell</strong>

That would be interesting. Periodically, commenters here at SWJ have compared their Iraq and Afghanistan experiences with pop-COIN (sometimes negatively, sometimes positively.) Such an article would be interesting, too.

Bob's World

Sat, 03/12/2011 - 6:52am


Simply put, COIN is the efforts of a government of some country or place to prevent or resolve an insurgency internal to that country or place. National government, national problem. GIRoA can conduct COIN in Afghanistan, but ISAF cannot.

Colonial interventions are what current US COIN doctrine is based upon. Years of European and US TTPs gained while managing a system of colonies around the world. Such external powers would establish colonial governments made up of local citizens to manage their interests, but those governments invariably drew their "legitimacy" from the colonial power, and the colonial power always held the ulitimate power of veto. What we call COIN today is based on the lessons learned from such colonial powers to aid the colonial governments they established in defeating or suppressing violent challenges rising from the colonized populace.

Colonial intervention is therefore premised in sustaining in power the government of some foreign country in the face of challenges by its own populace due to a believe that one has interests in said country and that the current government there will support those interests in exchange for one's efforts to keep them in power. That is not true COIN, yet that is what is captured in FM 3-24 and that is what we do in Afghanistan.

We got out of the Colony business, but are still an empire. Containment strategies demand exerting strong control measures around the problem to be contained. During the Cold War the US established an extensive network of such control measures around the Sino-Soviet problem we sought to contain. Following the end of the Cold War we opted to leave many of those control measures in place, and had also come to see our Colonial-like Cold War form of foreign policy as normal or "regular." As frictions to such control measures began to grow in intensity once the Soviet threat no longer existed we came to see such friction as "irregular."

What we are doing in Afghanistan is more aptly categorized as Foreign Internal Defense, but that isn't as sexy, and the conventional force sees FID as the realm of Special Forces, so began calling it COIN and digging up old colonial perspectives (Galula, Tranquier, Kitson, Fall, etc)on the mission to write the current doctrine. Good stuff in all those, but it really needs to be translated to our current national realities and "de-colonized" to have maximum validity and effectiveness.



What exactly is the "colonial intervention approach"? I really don't know.

I think it would be interesting to do a study - perhaps on Small Wars Journal alone - to compare the pro and con COIN articles and then cross check the pros and cons with those who have been practitioners and those who have not. Seems like there is in increase in negative COIN articles from those who have returned from the field, and often from those with multiple tours.

Bob's World

Fri, 03/11/2011 - 1:28pm

I will only offer a defense of GEN McChrystal for the "Government in a Box" deployed to Marjah. Yes he coined, or at least adopted and used that term, but almost immediately came to regret the decision. So many aspects of our engagement are "___in a box" so it just naturally flowed.

The sad fact is, that ALL Province and District government in Afghanistan under the current constitution are "Government in a Box." But they are boxes built by the constitution, and boxes filled with cronnies by Mr. Karzai personally. Yes there was Government in a Box in Marjah, but that part was pure GIRoA.

Then there is GIRoA itself. Another box, built and filled by guys like LTGs Barno and Eikenberry. That is the one that Western observers should be putting the hard eye toward.

I hate to see the art of counterinsurgency drug through the mud by our current approaches that are so heavily based in past colonial interventions and colored so clearly by a few short years of engagement in Iraq. None of that is really COIN. Be frustrated with our current approach to Afghanistan, but it is not due to a fallacy of COIN, but rather to the fallacy of the colonial intervention approaches that we have naievly dressed up in COIN's clothing.