Thinking and Writing About COIN

Thinking and Writing About COIN: A Review Essay of Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War

John T. Fishel and Ambassador Edwin G. Corr

Fred Kaplan has a good story to tell and he tells it well. Unfortunately, his account, although adding a great deal to the story, is both incomplete and, in a significant number of assertions, inaccurate. As participants in many of the events Kaplan partly covers and as scholars of those and other related events, we seek here to both fill out the story as well as correct the record.

Although Kaplan shows that the protagonist of his story, General David Petraeus, along with his followers Con Crane and John Nagl, were well acquainted with the classic literature of counterinsurgency (COIN), he fails to demonstrate the full scope of knowledge that was incorporated in both the academic and military doctrinal worlds. Part of the reason is that Kaplan clearly does not understand that COIN is a synonym for many other words that are used to describe the phenomenon that British Colonel C. E. Callwell dubbed “Small Wars” in 1896 and the U.S. Marine Corps adopted in its Small Wars Manual of 1940. Former DOD Director of LIC in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD-SO/LIC), Dr. William J. Olson, built a slide called “The 100 names of LIC.”[1] Although the current version shows only some thirty odd synonyms, the point is that these names are interchangeable, no matter how poorly descriptive they seem to the conventional military and COINdinistas alike. Kaplan’s lack of understanding of this is indicated by his story about former CJCS, General John Shalikashvili, saying, “Real men don’t do MOOTW.” This is especially ironic because the General made his name as commander of Operation Provide Comfort on the Turkey/Iraq border – a classic MOOTW  designed to protect Kurdish refugees from the ravages of Saddam Hussein at the end of the Gulf War.

The Literature

We define the literature on COIN as falling into three periods which we identify as the classic – the principal exemplars of which are Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – the semi-classic, and the modern.


Although Kaplan mentions both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu in his book he fails to address their real impact on the study of COIN. In writing about Clausewitz, he focuses largely on Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czega who was the founding director of the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth’s Army Command and General Staff College. Wass de Czega’s impact on doctrine was the SAMS rewrite of General Dupuy’s 1976 FM 100-5 Operations which abandoned the Active Defense for the concept of AirLand Battle. This was carried over into the 1986 edition directed by Colonel L. Don Holder who was then the Director of SAMS. The only relevance that this development of big war doctrine had for COIN – other than the contention that the army was not really interested in the subject – was that AirLand Battle signified the multi-service interest of the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and the Air Force. In terms of COIN, this bore fruit in the publication in 1990 of FM 100-20 AFP 3-20, Military Operations in Low Intensity Conflict.

It is apparent from Kaplan’s treatment of Clausewitz that he is familiar with the concept that war is an extension of politics and policy with the addition of other means. But Clausewitz had other ideas that were equally relevant to the analysis of COIN but which Kaplan fails to mention and which apparently did not influence Kaplan’s insurgents. One of those notions, resurrected by our colleague Max Manwaring in a number of his works is, “The first, the supreme, the most far reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor turning it into something that is alien to its nature.”[2] This particular Clausewitzian insight has serious implications for the current debate on the future of COIN touched on by Kaplan in his final chapter. More on this later.  

With respect to Sun Tzu, Kaplan gives him only a single mention, on page 57in connection with Wass de Czega’s reading. Of course, Kaplan’s insurgents were all familiar with Sun Tzu, especially his admonition, “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”[3] This quote, among many others, sets a large part of the pattern of COIN thinking of men like David Petraeus and John Nagl. Subduing the enemy without fighting is a COIN ideal but one that is not often possible.


The semi-classical COIN thinkers and writers begin with Colonel Charles E. Callwell’s 1896 British study entitled Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice. Callwell merits two brief mentions from Kaplan, one in conjunction with John Nagl’s reading and understanding of the advantages of the guerrilla. Other semi-classical writers/thinkers/practitioners include T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), the U.S. Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual (1940), Mao Tse-tung, Sir Frank Kitson, Sir Gerald Templer, Sir Robert Thompson, Bernard Fall, David Galula, Roger Tranquier, “Bruno” Bigeard, Wendell Fertig, Edward Lansdale, Rufus Phillips, and  Russell Volckmann.

One semi-classical writer that Kaplan devotes reasonable extensive mention to is Mao Tse-tung. However, nowhere does he address how Mao’s theories specifically influenced COIN thinking either among his insurgents or the semi-classical writers who followed. The most explicit is his assertion of the impact of Mao on the thinking of David Galula but not what that impact was.

Kaplan does cite a 1962 Rand Corporation symposium on guerrilla warfare where a number of these semi-classical thinkers participated, including, Kitson, Galula, Lansdale, Phillips, and Fertig. However, he fails to point out the debt owed by his protagonists to the various and sundry members of this semi-classical group, other than Galula. This may well be a reflection of the way Nagl and Petraeus see their own debt but we would argue that the antecedents of modern COIN doctrine are of a significantly more diverse lineage than Kaplan makes out.[4]


What we are calling “modern” COIN theory really begins with the 1981 publication of Army Field Manual FM 100-20, Low Intensity Conflict. This manual was really nothing more than a rehash of Vietnam era COIN doctrine. Nevertheless, it was a start and was prompted by the burgeoning wars in Central America. The 1980s were characterized by a number of symposia, projects, and organizations that were devoted to what was then called Low Intensity Conflict (LIC), a term drawn from the 1970s writings of Frank Kitson. Among these projects were General Paul Gorman’s Discriminate Deterrence, and General Maxwell Thurman’s charge to the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College to identify the correlates of success in COIN. The latter study was led by Max Manwaring and included, among its participants, Colonel John Waghelstein who had been the first commander of the large MilGroup in El Salvador. Two organizations created out of this ferment were the Army-Air Force Center for Low Intensity Conflict (CLIC) at Langley Air Force Base and the Small Wars Operations Research Directorate (SWORD) in U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Both were formed in 1986 and the latter coincided with David Petraeus’ stint in SOUTHCOM when he drafted General Galvin’s “Uncomfortable Wars” article based on Galvin’s notes from his well-received Kermit Roosevelt Lecture in the United Kingdom that same year. In addition to the CLIC and SWORD, the Doctrine Directorate at the Army Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth was charged with developing a new version of FM 100-20 in coordination with the Air Force. This team was led by LTC Jerry Thompson, a Mideast Foreign Area Officer. Jerry coordinated closely with both SWORD and the CLIC, producing a final draft in 1987.  The draft would not be released until 1990 as FM 100-20/AFP 3-20, Military Operations in Low Intensity Conflict, due to opposition from the commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command.  One more organization was the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict established by the Cohen-Nunn Amendment to the 1986 Defense Appropriations Act along with U.S. Special Operations Command. This set of developments – except for Petraeus’s involvement in the crafting of Galvin’s article – is simply ignored by Kaplan.

The 1990s saw a significant development of a number of the themes that first surfaced in the 1980s at Leavenworth, SOUTHCOM, the CLIC, and in the doctrine manuals as these made their way into a number of professional journal articles and books. Early on was the publication of  Manwaring’s multi-authored UnconfortableWars which led off with Galvin’s article. This was followed in 1992 by Corr and Stephen Sloan’s Low Intensity Conflict: Old Threats in a New World which brought together academics and practitioners (many of them diplomats) to address insurgencies. 1992 also saw the publication of the quantitative analysis of COIN success in Manwaring and Fishel’s article, “Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency: Toward a New Analytical Approach” in the journal, Small Wars & Insurgencies. These were followed by a number of other books and articles written and edited by Manwaring, Fishel, and their colleagues. In addition, a number of new academic journals – mostly published by Frank Cass – were inaugurated including Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement and Civil Wars, among others.

Military doctrine in the 1990s was not quiescent on these subjects. The Army incorporated its approach from FM 100-20 into its 1993 capstone manual, FM 100-5,  Operations, and in 1995 produced FM 100-23, Peacekeeping. FM 100-5 also changed the name of LIC to Operations Other Than War (OOTW). Joint doctrine came into its own in the 1990s and produced a manual, JP 3-07, Military Operations Other Than War, (MOOTW) – adding “military” to the Army’s OOTW. Kaplan, it should be noted, addresses none of these developments.

At this point, with all this intellectual ferment, and with a significant block of instruction on MOOTW at the Command & General Staff officers’course at Fort Leavenworth, one might ask how the perception that no thought was being given to COIN arose. Part of the answer lies in Desert Storm.  This was the war the Army had always wanted to fight. It was the war for which the doctrine of AirLand Battle had been designed. Panama, which had preceded Desert Shield by a mere nine months, although a smaller scale contingency operation, was still very much a conventional war in both concept and execution. Thus, the Majors who arrived at Leavenworth for the Command & General Staff officers’ course were veterans of those two wars as were most of their instructors.[5] This was equally true at the other mid-level service and joint schools as well as at the War Colleges. President George H. W. Bush’s “New World Order” had arrived as the Soviet Union had fallen. But then the Balkans appeared on the scene along with Somalia and Haiti.

In 1995 Captain John Nagl was researching his doctoral thesis which was later published as Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife. John, studying at Oxford, had been given access to the papers of Sir Gerald Templer who was the prime architect of the British victory in the Malayan Emergency. John, however, was not merely writing a historical work but rather was interested in comparing the British learning of how to conduct COIN with the American failure to learn in Vietnam. To that end he conducted a number of interviews with experts including Fishel and others who were at Leavenworth at the time. Among those interviewed was retired LTC John Hunt who was the officer briefly mentioned by Kaplan as retiring with a new draft COIN manual unfinished. Others John interviewed at Leavenworth were Tom Adams and Murray Swan[6] both of whom wrote chapters in the book on peace operations that Fishel and Corr were both co-authors along with Manwaring , and which Fishel edited. That book explicitly linked COIN and peace operations theory.[7]

After Nagl, the most important of the recent theorist/practitioners of COIN is David Kilcullen who does get extensive treatment from Kaplan. Kilcullen is a retired Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel with combat experience in East Timor but equally important is his training as a cultural anthropologist. Both are reflected in his writing on COIN. Particularly compelling are his 2004 article on Al Qaeda as a global insurgency, his “28 Articles” (a play on T. E. Lawrence’s “27 Articles”), and his superb book, The Accidental Guerrilla (2009). Especially influential is his 2007 blog post in Small Wars Journal, “Two Schools of Counterinsurgency” where he differentiates between enemy-centric and population-centric COIN.

Kaplan does quite well in identifying most of the recent modern theorists of COIN although his focus on Petraeus and the development of FM 3-24 skews the picture significantly away from the work that had gone before and simultaneously. Yet, despite the fact that Kaplan interviewed COL Gian Gentile there is no reference to Gentile in the index. This is too bad because it relates to an underlying theme, the lack of U.S. Army interest in COIN. Gentile, now a permanent professor of History at West Point, is the most articulate advocate of the Army’s preference for the “big war” and disdain for population-centric COIN. Gentile has engaged John Nagl in public debates and participated in discussions in the forums of the Small Wars Journal. Not addressed in the book, but relevant to its sub-theme of the role of West Point’s  Department of Social Sciences (SOSH) in the development of COIN theory and practice, is the fact that COL Mike Meese (an important player on Petraeus’s group of military advisors but a minor actor in the book) heads SOSH while Gentile is a stalwart in the History Department. This raises the question of whether part of the debate in the Army is built around academic disciplinary divides. In any case, the political argument seems to be returning to the Army’s “big war” default position – not merely in the Army but in the larger political world as well.

The Changing and Unchanging Nature of War

Kaplan raises a number of questions, none of which he addresses directly, on the very nature of armed conflict. As Max Boot’s new book, Invisible Armies, points out COIN (or Small Wars) have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. These wars tend to be continuous, punctuated from time to time, by major wars between peer enemies. Those major wars, however, are the exception rather than the rule even though they are the kinds of wars that armies, navies, and air forces want to fight. The small, the dirty, the uncomfortable wars are persistent and ubiquitous and challenge the self conception of soldiers. And, even though they require the active participation (perhaps the direction) of diplomats, these too are challenged by the thought of “having to do windows.”

Historically, there are several different broad types of Small Wars. The first of these is what is sometimes called Imperial Policing. It was well described by Callwell and, as he noted, included America’s 300 year war with the Indians. Other cases were the U.S. counterinsurgencies in the Philippines against the nationalists and the Moros. Both the British and French fought numerous similar Imperial Police actions in Africa and Asia. And Britain’s Canadian Dominion made Imperial Policing a police function of the Northwest Mounted Police which became the RCMP – the Mounties. Clearly, this was a paramilitary constabulary force.

Similar to Imperial Policing but with some key differences were the Banana Wars of the early twentieth century in Central America and the Caribbean. What differentiated them was their temporary nature (even if temporary was nearly 20 years as in the case of Haiti) characterized by efforts to establish democratic governments with constabulary forces to maintain order and defend the nation. None of these efforts succeeded in the end in terms of the desired political outcome. The constabularies all became the tools of dictators either drawn from their ranks who overthrew elected governments or were used by the elected leaders to establish dictatorships. The lessons of this era were recorded by the Marines in their 1940 Small Wars Manual.

Another type of small war is Partisan Warfare which differs from COIN in terms of the role of what Manwaring has called the Intervening Power (IP).[8] Here, the IP supports indigenous guerrilla forces (partisans) against an occupying army as part of a larger military effort. Classic historical cases include the Peninsular Campaign in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars and allied support to various partisan resistance forces during World War II. Army Special Forces (SF) doctrine supports partisan warfare by distinguishing  its support as Unconventional Warfare (UW). This differentiates it from COIN in which the SF supports the regular forces of the host government in their battle with insurgents, calling that mission Foreign Internal Defense (FID). In UW, the SF teams support partisan units by organizing them, training them, and sometimes leading them as well as seeing to their logistical support from the U.S. and allied forces.

These different kinds of Small Wars are seen in the French and American experiences in Indochina and the subsequent Vietnam War. The French war in Indochina was a case of Imperial Policing as France tried to retain her overseas empire in Southeast Asia. The American experience was a mix of FID until 1965, and UW in Laos supporting Montagnard tribal fighters against the North Vietnamese regular army. It also was an attempt to fight a conventional war against North Vietnam’s effort to conquer South Vietnam with U.S. forces doing much of the fighting. Thus, Vietnam was very much a hybrid war.

By contrast, the wars in Central America were largely cases where the U.S. as the IP engaged in FID, especially in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to a lesser extent. In Nicaragua the CIA conducted a UW effort.  In all of these cases the American involvement was with a very small footprint.

The 1990s saw the rise of peace operations – mostly under United Nations (UN) auspices. Three of these so-called MOOTW wars were in Somalia, the Balkans, and Haiti. Similar to the Banana Wars in their scope and objectives, they differed in the fact that they were multi-national and mainly UN authorized and legitimized. It is worth noting that the 1990 FM 100-20 identified peace operations as one of its four operational categories of LIC.[9]

This brings us to the wars of the twenty-first century that Kaplan has focused on. Yet, his book leaves out the initial U.S. response to the 9/11 terrorist raid which was a classic case of UW that overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Carried out by the CIA’s Special Action Division and Army SF teams, mainly from the 5th SFG (A), it was followed by a NATO national assistance mission designed to help establish a new and free Afghan government. This mission devolved into COIN (of the Imperial Policing/Banana Wars variety) as the Taliban came back from their sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in 2003 the U.S. led a coalition effort to topple the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. This was followed by the incredibly mismanaged occupation which spawned a mainly Iraqi Sunni insurgency and, ultimately, sectarian conflict with the Shi’a majority and the Shi’a led government. It is at this point that Kaplan’s story takes over. Nevertheless, Kaplan fails to see the Iraq insurgency as taking place in the context of an occupation. In one sense this is understandable given that Generals Abizaid at CENTCOM and Casey at MNFI in Iraq failed to note its importance. Standard COIN thinking, as articulated in most studies, argues for a small footprint on the part of the IP. The Manwaring quantitative study supports this point of view as well, but with a caveat. The caveat is not explicitly supported by any quantitative measure but was suggested by many of the interviews in the original research. The caveat is that if the IP must intervene in force, it needs to do so overwhelmingly and not introduce forces piecemeal. This is reminiscent of the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force and is an essential feature where the IP is, in fact, the governing authority as in an occupation.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan were occupations. Occupations de facto but occupations nonetheless. As such, they were engaged in the conduct of COIN in the form of Imperial Policing and the Banana Wars and not in support of legitimate and moderately effective governments that simply needed help to defeat a serious internal threat. In the case of El Salvador, for example, American support could involve only about 125 soldiers at the peak, some contractors, USAID workers, and CIA case officers – the total numbering in the hundreds, not thousands. Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of El Salvador totaled 56,000 at their peak against maybe 15,000 insurgents at the apex of their strength. In addition, El Salvador had a full strength and moderately effective government. By contrast, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the IP (U.S. and its allies) had to provide the entire government and all the security forces working toward a transition to host government lead in both governing and fighting.

The strategies called “The Surge” in both Iraq and Afghanistan implicitly recognized that for a period of time COIN could only be conducted effectively by the IP as the lawful occupying power. As a result, the IP had to introduce forces overwhelmingly to have the resources needed to provide security for the population. Transition to the host government would involve nation building at the same time as security was being achieved. Kaplan never quite recognizes the difference between COIN in El Salvador and COIN in Iraq for the Americans. Unfortunately, his insurgents also fail to make the distinction explicit. Thus, it is found nowhere in the doctrine and FM 3-24 tries to apply lessons to different roles for the soldiers and diplomats of the IP from two very different kinds of COIN. Therein lies an inherent tension that Kaplan fails to capture. It is also a tension that Kaplan’s insurgents, other COINdinistas, and their opponents generally have failed to address effectively.

John T. Fishel is a retired Army LTC and Latin America Foreign Area Officer who served in Panama, El Salvador, and other Latin American insurgencies. He has taught at the Army Command & General Staff College, the National Defense University, and currently at the University of Oklahoma. He is s frequent contributor to the Small Wars Journal.

Ambassador Edwin G. Corr is a retired career Foreign Service Officer. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Peru, Bolivia, and El Salvador. He also served in Thailand, Ecuador, and Mexico, as well as in Colombia as a regional director for the Peace Corps. He has written extensively on insurgency and counterinsurgency, served as the first Director if the Energy Institute of the Americas at the University of Oklahoma and as the Associate Director of International Programs at the University.

[1] Personal communication from Olson to Fishel. Olson was also Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Legal Matters during the Bush 41 Administration and collaborated with retired Army Special Forces Colonel Bill Flavin on the slide.

[2]  Quoted in John T. Fishel & Max G. Manwaring, Uncomfortable Wars Revisited, Norman: (2006) Univerity of Oklahoma Press, p. 9 from Carl von Clausewitz, On War, translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton: (1976) Princeton University Press, pp. 88-89.

[3] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Samuel B. Griffith, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1971), p. 77.

[4] Nagl does cite Sir Robert Thompson multiple times in his book, thus acknowledging this debt.

[5] Fishel was a civilian professor at Leavenworth arriving at the same time and witnessed the impact of these operations on his students. Note, that he was also a veteran of Panama, but of El Salvador as well, and other COINs in Latin America.

[6] LTC Thomas K. Adams with a PhD from Syracuse University was a member of the SOSH faculty at West Point and served as a Special Forces medic and as a Military Intelligence Officer. Lt. Colonel Murray Swan, Canadian Forces, commanded the Canadian Peacekeeping battalion in Cyprus.

[7] See John T. Fishel (ed.), “The Savage Wars of Peace:” Toward a New Paradigm of Peace Operations, Boulder: 1997. Westview Press.

[8] See Max G. Manwaring and John T. Fishel, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: Toward a New Analytical Approach,” in Small Wars & Insurgencies, Winter, 1992 and John T. Fishel and Max G. Manwaring, “The SWORD Model of Counteinsurgency,” in Small Wars Journal, December 2008.

[9] The other three operational categories were: Insurgency/counterinsurgency, Terrorism/counterterrorism, and contingency operations. See FM 100-20, 1990.


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Much is said here and elsewhere about academic writers on COIN and military writers on COIN. Sometimes that is read, academic vs. military writers or more condescendingly, theorist vs. practitioners. There is another subset that can have helpful viewpoints, the practitioner who, now gone from the field, has had years, even decades to think about the experience and the experiences of others and to relate them to the present times and present conflicts. FYI, David Donovan has done that in his recently released book, WAR OF A KIND: REFLECTIONS ON COUNTERINSURGENCY AND THOSE WHO DO IT. Those interested can find it at the Kindle, Nook, and iBook stores.

Other semi-classical writers/thinkers/practitioners include T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), the U.S. Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual (1940), Mao Tse-tung, Sir Frank Kitson, Sir Gerald Templer, Sir Robert Thompson, Bernard Fall, David Galula, Roger Tranquier, “Bruno” Bigeard, Wendell Fertig, Edward Lansdale, Rufus Phillips, and Russell Volckmann.

This Rufus Phillips? (Rufus Phillips....Holbrooke....Komer. If that is the case, let me show you all a little something:)

I just have an uneasy feeling that this is too similar to the policy discussions Johnson went through, except those were mainly out of public view and these are not.

- Why Rufus Phillips Matters

Think of that quote as you read the following:

Foreign Minister Bhutto's latest effusion on Pakistan/Chicom relations is a harbinger of the line you'll get from Ayub on 26 April (see attached).2 Bhutto had the gall to say publicly there's no inconsistency in Pakistan being friends with both the US and Chicoms, since both are “peace-loving” states. Nor do we like Bhutto's remark that US aid to India after the 1962 Chicom attack “shattered” the whole concept of alliances with the US (SEATO and CENTO). These alliances were never at any time aimed against India (as the Paks well know, because they've been trying for the last 10 years to get them changed).

In essence, the Paks seem to have arrived at the conclusion they can have their cake and eat it too. Actually, Pakistan is being a lot more friendly to Peiping than to Washington, despite the fact that we still pay all the bills (about $450 million in FY 64).

We're getting back quiet word that this casual equating of the US and Chicoms goes down like a lead balloon here. We're also making known our slight annoyance that when Rusk goes all the way to Tehran for the CENTO ministerial meeting next week Ayub and Bhutto go to Moscow instead of meeting with their allies. This, of course, after Ayub's recent well-publicized trip to Peiping.

I'm still convinced that Ayub knows at heart he can't do without us, but is going to play the Chicoms off against India (and us) so long as he thinks he can get away with it. Our best Pak friend, Finance Minister Shoaib, says flatly that Aziz Ahmed (ex-Ambassador here) keeps telling Ayub that the Pak accommodation with Peiping can be carried much further without jeopardizing the flow of US aid.

So the real problem is how to get across to Ayub that he can't cozy up to our Chicom enemies and pursue an anti-US line on most issues of concern to us (Vietnam, Malaysia), while still getting the second largest chunk of US aid. Unless he pulls back, present trends will carry Pakistan beyond the point of no return, and then Congress may not even allow us to provide $400–500 million per year. At that point we'll lose our crucial intelligence facility at Peshawar to boot.

We've failed so far to get through to Ayub along these lines, partly because he's surrounded by people who tell him we're only bluffing. Thus his visit here provides our best opportunity (and perhaps our last). And only the President of the US can say such things to Ayub in a credible way.

Sound familiar, AfPak strategists, military or civilian? All this makes certain things difficult:

"Transition to the host government would involve nation building at the same time as security was being achieved." - from the article.

Good luck with that, given the history in the region.

I was trying to convince the Pakistanis that we were going to pull this off, so it was in their interest to help us. And I think we convinced them we were moving in the right direction — General Kayani [Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani Army chief] told me face to face, “I think you’ve got the right strategy now.”

The history of the region shows (and the 90's too, when we supposedly cut everyone off or abandoned them, look again at the history, is that the only narrative that works?) that all the attempts at "convincing" often crashes on the rocks of domestic politics and contradictory national interests, whether American or Pakistani (or whatever other nation we are trying to bring into the mix.)

How did such fantastical notions of omnipotence become status quo thinking in the American diplomatic corps or the military? And we are not the only ones, the British in particular are quite fond of the "we must assuage fears" narrative.

How does one adapt the SWORD model or any other Cold War-rooted insurgency model to contemporary circumstances? I am not saying the model is incorrect, only that I am confused once again, likely because I lack a military background.

All for discussion only. Again, fantastic article.

*Actually, one more thing, how did the American military become so enamored (focusing so heavily on, I mean) of British history in Afghanistan and Pakistan and India? They left the region in 1947 and since then have a particular diaspora relationship to the subcontinent (and the US is beginning to develop the opposite diaspora relationship.) American history in the region is incredibly important when it comes to understanding contemporary South Asian insurgencies. Where are all those articles? (This is a question for the crowd, not directed at the authors.)

What a fantastic article.

CATO had a panel with Kaplan and others on the book:

It's quite interesting and the panelists mention that Iraq weighed heavily on Afghanistan for some ("We did it this way in Iraq") and there might have been a misunderstanding by some military that if enough progress was shown with the COIN campaign in Afghanistan, more troops would be forthcoming. (I listened to this some time back so I hope that is the correct interpretation!)

I am often guilty around here of focusing too much on one or two influences on certain military doctrines instead of considering a wider range of influences. This is a good correction to that thinking.

(Note: I have expanded here on my initial comment.)

Counterinsurgency to what strategic end?

For example:

a. In the case of the Cold War conflicts, to contain communism and to contain the reach and influence of the former USSR?

b. In the case of post-Cold War conflicts, to expand capitalism and to expand the reach and influence of the United States?

These differences in strategic goals, then and now, helping to explain why such things as "nation-building" -- which may not have been required for certain of our Cold War engagements -- is seen as necessary for our recent interventions?

(Herein, the requirement for "nation-building" -- which in our eyes specifically includes such "good governance" attributes as "the rule of law" -- these elements being seen as necessary pre-requisites to successful capitalist endeavors, to successful capitalist expansion and to the realization of greater reach and influence for the United States.)

Thus, in thinking and writing about COIN, should we not begin and end our discourse by answering/addressing the question: Counterinsurgency to what end?

Factors affecting ability to get by with small footprint in El Salvador then versus the much larger one required in Afghanistan over the past decade:

* Afghanistan population: about 30 million
* El Salvador population: 6 million now, less back then

* Afghanistan area: 251,827 square miles
* El Salvador area: 8,124 square miles

* Afghanistan about the size and population of Texas
* El Salvador closer to the size and population of New Jersey

* El Salvador closer to the size of Nangarhar, Kunar, and Nuristan provinces alone, and has a primarily Mestizo population united in a single religion

* Afghanistan has multiple ethnicities, no majority ethnicity, and a Sunni and limited Shiite population with some more willing to practice sharia law than others

* El Salvador had an existing government and capable Army for its small territory...not so in Afghanistan. Even New Jersey had 37,700 police officers in 1999. Does anyone believe that many ANSF and coalition forces are in those three provinces listed above, or that the road network and population density is the same?

* Four cities in El Salvador are larger than Jalalabad, which at around 200,000 is by far the largest in those three Afghan provinces. The remaining, admittedly smaller population of those three provinces is more rurally dispersed in smaller villages making it more difficult to protect the population and find embedded Taliban

* Was there an insurgent sanctuary immediately adjacent to El Salvador with a long border with 25 million more there claiming to have ethnic links to El Salvador as a potential source of insurgent recruitment? Were foreign fighters and intelligence services of adjacent countries providing aid to insurgents?

* Afghanistan: Jihadist insurgents willing to conduct suicide attacks and plant multiple IEDs
* El Salvador: Communist insurgents of less suicidal dedication and no (?) IED employment or decades of experience in warfighting

In terms of size and small footprint,Colombia provides a better comparison to Afghanistan. The central point in that case, similar to El Salvador, is that Colombia has a moderately - I think it is more than merely moderately - effective government that the US can support.As to your questions about sanctuary, here the comparison is quite good. The "bolsones" on the Honduran/Salvadoran border provided the FMLN with an untouchable sanctuary due to the UN administration and the FMLN used them for R&R. Moreover, Nicaragua provided both sanctuary and arms resupply and was inhabited by co-religionists although religion played but a small part in the conflict in terms of Liberation theology. Finally, if we see IEDs as simply a type of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmine then it is worth noting that the FMLN killed more Salvadoran soldiers and civilians with them than with any other weapons system. Despite the negative psychological consequences (which the GOES, ESAF, and the US exploited effectively) mines were the most effective weapon the FMLN had.

Thanks for your comments as I knew very little about the El Salvador insurgency. I found your book on line, Uncomfortable Wars Revisited by yourself and Max Manwaring.

A quote from your book:

Somewhat more ambiguous was the effort to interdict FMLN supplies smuggled by land from Nicaragua through Honduras and by sea directly from Nicaragua through the Gulf of Fonseca. U.S. air surveillance using a variety of sensors had some success, as did intelligence monitoring by the United States of traffic in the gulf from the observation post established on Tiger Island. Nevertheless, interdiction proved to be a difficult and thankless task with limited result.

Perhaps you will acknowledge that the sanctuary that existed in Honduras and supplies coming across the Gulf of Fonseca from Nicaragua lacked the scale of AfPak border distances and the 25 million Pashtuns in Pakistan. You correctly cite the larger size of Columbia, however both nations had existing governments and militaries and there was no need to start from scratch. You make this observation in your book:

To begin, the El Salvador Armed Forces (ESAF) faced the problem of an enemy that was capable of conducting regular operations against the economy and the armed forces from external and internal sanctuaries. While most of these operations were small scale, the FMLN (insurgents) retained the capability of mounting occasional large “spectaculars” until the end of the war-assuming the insurgents were willing to pay the price in lives, these operations could be maintained for a number of days.

It took many years before the ANSF (or Iraqis) reached a level of proficiency where they could plan and execute operations or defend in the face of massed attacks. Due to the scale and nature of Afghan terrain and poor road network, the ANSF remains poorly equipped to resupply their own military, or support them from the air or with artillery.

Earlier in the book you discuss the past history of U.S. forces either being introduced too slowly in insufficient numbers to get the job done, or leaving prematurely. I would submit that was a major problem in Afghanistan upfront, and should we exercise the zero option will mimic Somalia on the tail end.

I noted your discussion of strategic issues in the quote below. The scale of the "strategic problem" noted was also present in both Iraq and Afghanistan, except on a far larger scale, with far fewer host nation forces and government police to accomplish either mission. For others benefit in the quote, GOE was the national special operations group and PRALS were long-range recon patrols:

The military strategic problem that the ESAF faced was simultaneously protecting high-value targets (static defense), keeping the FMLN off balance (aggressive small-unit offensive operations-patrolling), and carrying the fight directly to the enemy-all without falling victim to the temptation to treat any civilian found a conflictive zone as an enemy combatant. This meant that the ESAF had to structure forces for each of these different missions. And so it did. As discussed above the GOE and PRALS were organized and employed to carry the fight to the FMLN based on specific intelligence. Regular infantry brigades and “military detachments” (brigade-sized units with areas of responsibility for a part of a department) along with combat units from the three public service forces (national police, national guard, and treasury police) were charged with static defense of high-value targets such as dams. Finally, the ESAF’s five immediate reaction battalions conducted continuous patrolling operations in the various zones to keep the FMLN fighters off balance.

Again this indicates a need for "regular" forces that were already available in both El Salvador and Columbia, but were not in far larger Iraq and Afghanistan.

To give the SF their props you observe this in your book:

The national special operations group (GOE) had the highest degree of success of any ESAF actions at destroying FMLN guerilla concentrations. At the brigade level, the FOE successes were mimicked by units known as long-range recon patrols (PRALS). Supporting them was an intelligence collection and analysis structure that included a national intelligence directorate, regional intelligence centers staffed by both U.S. and Salvadoran personnel, and intelligence support and professionalization at the level of the El Salvadoran brigades and ESAF joint staff.

While some elements sound similar to Iraq and Afghanistan, the level of Spanish-speaking Soldiers available no doubt far surpasses those able to speak Pashto or Dari. The reality is that less effort was required to have sufficient personnel able to speak the lingo to train existing Spanish-speaking troops then was required to train illiterate Afghans in Dari from scratch.

Finally, I noted in excerpts from your book a discussion of centers of gravity and training of local groups that sounded much like the ALP. The cultural uniformity of the Mestizo El Salvadoran population provided more clear cut CoGs than the larger nation of Afghanistan with multiple ethnicities and languages. The ALP approach cannot address CoGs in Afghanistan because the population and issues vary so substantially from valley to valley, town to town, district to district, and province to province.

The central government will never have legitimacy throughout the country due to the Durand Line and rampant corruption. I recently reread portions of Jake Tapper's "The Outpost" where the discussion of the 2009 elections mentioned that U.S. troops observed just 128 voters in Barg-e-Matal, yet some 12000 voters were claimed in a city of 15,000. Thus, COP Keating was kept open too long through the elections due to Karzai, yet the ANSF essentially abandoned their posts when attacked.

Four years later, only the ANSF (as opposed to the ALP) has the marginal capabilities to withstand massed attacks and external threats while keeping some semblance of a single country. Unless we continue to support them with airpower, aerial RSTA, air assault assets, and aerial resupply, even the ANSF will suffer when facing massed attacks. The problem with an SOF-only and ALP approach is that they lack the size and strength to ever defend or attack in mass against CoGs in larger conflicts over larger terrain distances. Even in Afghanistan, the 82nd had to assist SF in training the ALP according to a recent SWJ article. And obviously it took years to get the larger ANSF up to marginal speed which was less a problem in El Salvador and Columbia.

MF, I am flattered by your extensive quotes from Uncomfortable Wars Revisited LOL. Your observations are generally correct as analogies are NEVER the same as the actual conditions on the ground. It clearly makes a difference if one is dealing with a tribal culture made up of multiple groups speaking different languages or a society where all groups (or at least most) speak the same language. Thus, the analogy of El Sal and Colombia is closer than either is to Afghanistan or Iraq, for that matter. Still, when we do not have direct experience we must rely on analogy and often it serves us very well. See Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time, for a superb analysis of the uses and misuses of historical analogy by policy makers.
Another issue that you raise is the use of regular military forces to train host country military. A few years back, retired Major Rob Thornton (who used to write regularly on the pages of the Council) led a study of Security Force Assistance in Mosul which was produced at Leavenworth and published in the Journal. I did one chapter as did Marc Tyrrell who also wrote a lot here - Marc is a Canadian scholar. SFA is essentially regular forces employed in the FID mission but mostly without all the language and cultural skills. Interesting study and worth a look.
Finally, to drop back to a couple of points from Bill M's comment: (1) the US did not impose Karzai on an unwilling Afghanistan. Rather, the government emerged from a UN sponsored conference in Bonn Germany and a Loya Jerga in Afghanistan in which Karzai was the one candidate acceptable to all factions. The Hamid Karzai of 2001-2005 was not the Hamid Karzai of 2009 and beyond. What the US did do was to veto a constitutional monarchy that would have brought back Zahir Shah as the head of state with Karzai as head of government which might have had a positive impact on the 2009 elections. (2) Iraq is a far more complex case. The US was far more dominant in the development (or lack) of a political state than it was in Afghanistan and it took near defeat of our strategic objectives by the sectarian civil war and the political-military leadership of some extraordinary individuals, especially Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus and their teams, to give the Iraqi government a chance to succeed. That it looks to be failing seems to me to be due to our washing our hands of the country at the end of 2011. This is the issue at the strategic level. What is it we wanted to accomplish in each country? How did we plan to get there? And what resources did we need you achieve our goal as we carried out the operations to get there? If we did what we said we were going to do, were we likely to achieve our goal? Could we accomplish this with the resources available or which could have been made available? Were we willing to pay the price in lives and treasure needed to achieve our goals? These questions apply to any intervention actual or contemplated.

Iraq is failing because we washed our hands of it? Iraq is failing for a lot reasons and they washed their hands of us as much as we washed our hands of them. Conducting COIN for another ten years would not have resolved the conflict between the Shia and Sunni, and we all know that conflict extends beyond the borders of Iraq and is influenced by a number of state and non state actors external to Iraq. Continued occupation may have enabled us to suppress some of the violence, but at great costs to us and towards no achievable end. It is this continuing call for more time to execute a failed doctrine and strategy that undermines the credibility of the COINdistas, which in fact may result in such a backlash against COIN that our military and politicians will decide to throw the baby out with the bathwater and for those of us who pushed for the military to appreciate IW more will have no to blame but ourselves because we allowed extremist COINdista voices to represent us. Now we are to the point where we have two opposing tribes that want to redesign the military. One tribe wishes away the potential for war and believes the military should redesign itself to do pop centric COIN and nation building. The other tribe wants a military totally focused on a conventional technological advantage as though that is all we need to achieve our strategic objectives. Where is the balanced middle ground? I have seen few serious options for a balanced force.

An excellent article that once again refutes the tired arguments that COIN and related Small Wars is something new to the U.S. military. I am not sure I agree with all the implications in the article, or to be fair, what I perceive as intended implications. While I agree Mao’s writings were influential, there should be a demand in our community to explore the fact that Mao’s ultimate success wasn’t based on his doctrine, but by the fact the Japanese were distracting his opponents (who were well on their way to soundly defeating Mao’s peasant army prior to that) and let’s not forget his opponent was as corrupt and indifferent to his people as leaders came and he was still making headway. Would Mao have succeeded against an opponent who was just a little better? We’ll never know, but I think an argument can be made that his success was based more on random events in history than his theory on insurgency.
As pointed out we didn’t achieve our objectives during the Banana Wars, and I suspect we won’t achieve our original objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it surprises me that criticism seems to be directed at our successful military operations in both Desert Storm and Just Cause. I’m not sure we achieved our objectives in El Salvador either. We did manage to hold off a communist victory while the USSR still existed, but since then the communists have been elected (no longer a threat since the USSR collapsed), but it is also the most violent country in Central America now. Instead of championing our small footprint approach in El Salvador or our big footprint approach in Iraq, we should examine the strategic impact of our interventions and assess if they were really in our national interests. Then and only then should we look at redesigning our force structure and review the small wars tactics they should be proficient in.
The one error the authors made in my opinion is confusing our population centric COIN doctrine as the only way for U.S. forces to conduct COIN. They argue that because some (specifically COL Gentile) Army officers reject population centric COIN that means they prefer big wars and reject COIN. Few military officers reject the need for us to conduct COIN in very limited cases, but how we conduct it is still open to debate. That shouldn’t be confused with the Army (as though it has a single consciousness) rejecting COIN because they favor big wars. As stated in the article, Kaplan only got it half right when he quoted former CJCS GEN Shalikashvili, “Real men don’t do MOOTW.” The General also said we need maintain our war fighting capabilities, but there are times when MOOTW may be as important to our national interests as war fighting and we must be capable of doing it.
I especially appreciate the authors pointing out that we were occupying powers in both Afghanistan and Iraq. That implies the need for a different approach and different tools. Unfortunately we rushed to install illegitimate governments and then labored for several years afterwards to make them appear legitimate. We created our own nightmare and refused to wake up.

Interesting article.

Personally, I've long believed that small wars associated with regime change deserve a specific category of their own. Removing a government (whether by conquest and occupation or by sponsoring or encouraging a coup d'etat) and installing a new one presents a unique set of challenges and complications that cannot be neatly overlapped with any other situation. We have a somewhat varied toolbox of methods for directly suppressing insurgents and for luring a populace away from insurgency. Our range of methods for conjuring up a government that can actually govern is far more restricted, and we've found rather consistently that the governments we install have an awkward habit of placing their own perceived interests above ours.

I have neither conducted nor read actual research on the outcomes of efforts to "install democracy" in developing nations, but a casual review suggests that the track record is not an appealing one. Still, the conceit that democracy can be installed, like a spare tire or a light bulb, has proven remarkably durable and may well be resurrected.

When we "think about COIN" I believe it is important that we think about it in the context of the era/purpose of today, and not be too blinded by the tactical lessons learned for a far different purpose in the ages of Western Colonialism and Containment operations that dominate so much of our historical references on this topic.

Most insurgency, while often quite violent, is not war or warfare at all. It takes place internal to a system of "Army-Government-People"; not between two such systems as Clausewitz studied and wrote about with such keen insight. Certainly a resistance insurgency, such as Napoleon experienced so famously in Egypt, Spain and Russia is a continuation of warfare (the Army and Government being defeated, but the People remaining doggedly in the fight against such an illegitimate foreign presence); but internal revolution and separatist movements? These are a very different animal all together. Clausewitz is most helpful for defining what insurgency is not, not for helping us understand what it is.

There are, I believe, several key factors we need to take into account as we think about insurgency today. The first and most important is that populations everywhere are more connected and more empowered than ever before. This has shifted in an unprecedented way the balance of power between "the government" and "the people" everywhere. I am not sure what this means exactly, but I suspect a curious mind such as that of CvC would have been fascinated by the prospects.

The second is that the mission of intervening outside states is TOTALLY different today than it was in the colonial and containment eras. We do not need to exert control over these places and these populations to secure our interests as we did (or believed we did) then. We simply need to have effective lines of influence. Such lines can most likely be established in far simpler and far less costly ways than that required to establish control for the missions in times past that so much of our doctrine relies upon.

I also liked this article, but there is much I find about it that should be fodder for broad debate. Iraq and Afghanistan are both cast as "COIN" operations, and equally both are filled with many layers of tactical successes across the Security, Development and Governance fields. Equally both are trending toward strategic failure. The sum of tactics does not equal strategy. I applaud John for taking up this debate, but I believe strongly that this is not a case of two interpretations of old doctrine; rather this is a case of where we need to be thinking about the doctrine we need today and into the future.


Thanks Dave, we really appreciate it. In our writing of this we were struck by the different circumstances in which COIN is undertaken. Ed looks especially to El Salvador where, as the Ambassador, he was deeply involved with the MilGroup which was mainly 7th SFG(A)and the mission was so clearly FID. I saw it both from that perspective and from Panama and other places like Iraq and Afghanistan where we were occupiers (under law, no matter what our political leadership wanted to believe). As a result, it struck us that this might be a way of reconciling the perceived proper role of IP military as well as explaining the apparent discrepancy between the quantitative analysis and some of the interview comments.

Excellent article. This will have continuing value for students for a long time to come. Thanks for writing this.