Small Wars Journal

COIN Doctrine Under Fire

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 6:33am

COIN Doctrine Under Fire by Richard Sisk, DoD Buzz.

The vaunted counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy promoted by retired Gen. David Petraeus that guided the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has come under renewed and caustic criticism from one of its reluctant practitioners, both as a general and diplomat.

“In short, COIN failed in Afghanistan,” said Karl Eikenberry, the retired Army lieutenant general and former chief of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan who was later U.S. Ambassador to Kabul.

Eikenberry dissected and dismissed the COIN doctrine as applied in Afghanistan in a recent article for Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan.” …

Read on.


Bill M.

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 6:37pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Those adversary networks look good on PowerPoint, and if you just remove a couple of key nodes then the entire network just collapses and we win! Unfortunately it doesn't usually work that way in reality as you pointed out. Very frustrating that our so called lessons learned, when it comes to COIN, promote myths instead of critical analysis of what worked and what didn't. Making mistakes is to be expected, failing to learn from the mistakes is unacceptable.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 10:52am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill--here is the problem--the Army believes still in COIN as it gives a breath of life to organizations that should have died two years ago in order to save the taxpayer money.

In their current DATE training scenarios they are still pumping in COIN events and using the methodology called Attack the Network (AtN) that has been proven to never have worked as promised by the organization created to push it for millions of dollars and tens of defense contractor jobs plus the creation of a great paying SES position.

AND COIN has no answer of the new Russian UW strategy nor answers events driven by political warfare.

Bill M.

Mon, 11/03/2014 - 6:12am

In reply to by davidbfpo

My criticisms are directed at the doctrine and it's proponents. Insurgency will remain a viable and common means of warfare, which makes it all the more important we learn the right lessons. Instead we promote a failed doctrine, so people can sell themselves and their books.

We call those smaller efforts you referred to as FID. if you're doing FID to help them counter an insurgency you need to understand the insurgency, the host nation, and develop a tailored approach that is sustainable, and most importantly effective. There will be many cases where we can't be effective, and we need to be honest about that and cut our losses.


Mon, 11/03/2014 - 5:33am


I too read the cited American Conservative article, which was not unexpected in its content and tone.

As you are aware from the recent BBC documentary on Afghanistan much is better being in the UK of words similar to "COIN, no we are not doing that again - this has been too costly etc". I have a recollection that after the fall of South Vietnam (post-COIN admittedly) the USA appeared to think in the same terms.

COIN is not dead, it maybe in decline, but it is hard to imagine circumstances where SMALL COIN does not appear. Going back in history for examples Dhofar (Oman), El Salvador and the southern Phillipines come readily to mind. Plus those smaller places where the French notably and SOF have worked.

SMALL COIN could be good, notably in working WITH local partners and for domestic political purposes being kept small.

Of course all will be fine and dandy until a local insurgency strikes hard and viciously at a domestic Western target or even a nearby mass of Western tourists, say a cruise ship - then we can expect 'liberal intervention' (just revenge) and CT to be cited in support of an expedition.

We - the USA, the Uk and allies - are NOT the primary users of COIN. There are many nations with ample experience and continuing insurgencies that use their own COIN, for example India.

Nagel is attempting to resurrect his image by beating the COIN drum again. If you buy the author's claim in this book review, the self appointed COIN guru is more interested in personal gain than saving the military from itself. The entire evolution of the old COIN doctrine being rewritten and claimed to be new is shameful, but more than that it demonstrates how self-interested individuals seeking influence in political circles create a narrative regardless of the facts that refute it.

It is a short and pointed review, well worth your time and consideration.…

"Thus, the knife depicted on the cover of the book, which was released this month, is no table utensil, but a hunting knife. That might be fitting, considering the many ducks, blinds, and decoys he presents throughout. But like everything else Nagl has promoted over the years, it’s all just a bit difficult to swallow.

Simply put, Nagl, once called the “Johnny Appleseed of COIN,” uses his memoir to a) paper over the huge failures of counterinsurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan by saying the best we can hope for now are “unsatisfying but not catastrophic outcomes”; b) to distance himself—and COIN—from defeat by blaming everything but the strategy for why it didn’t work as promised in the field; and c) burnish his own resume—which takes up much of the book—for a possible return to a Democratic administration in 2016."

Outlaw 09

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 9:51am

Bill C---regardless of the lack of money ---- I really doubt there will ever be future large scale budgets equal to the past ten years.

This particular section of the key sentence tells it all---it indicates to me---the future is being envisioned in a different and not in a COIN way.

"debates on COIN and how it was used were intellectual exercises with little value as the military prepares for future challenges."

Outlaw 09

Thu, 11/21/2013 - 12:57pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C---first of a couple of comments;

If one looks as you do at the three scenarios currently out there Syria---even the JCoS has stated no boots on the ground, Iran---even the better think tanks have waved on getting any boots on the ground there due to the global implications of a major ground war with Iran impacting both the ME and the global supply of oil and lastly Korea---even if ground forces are used---the current COIN techniques would not go far against the surging NK SOF.

So if these are the three current possibilities then where does COIN come into the picture.

If on the other hand we look at the reality of say 100 SF and African Union troops chasing a war criminal and his insurgents again does COIN fit in?

If on the other hand we are looking at say the transnational criminal organizations in Mexico right now as a serious threat to the US-then some aspect of COIN might fit but I seriously doubt it.

If we look at the "stans" then I am not sure that COIN fits in there as well.

Libya ---no boots on the ground, no COIN and now rumors of a potential FID for their security forces.

So there might in fact be something to the thoughts that COIN is an intellectual exercise that will not be repeated anywhere soon---a kind of nice thing to have on the shelf if needed sometime in the "future".

Bill C.

Thu, 11/21/2013 - 12:33pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

First: Let me apologize for improperly noting GEN Cone's rank first as LTG and then as LTC.


a. Can and should leaders, units, etc., as per GEN Cone, be trained on the core challenges and responsibilities (his/my "a" - "c" above) that they are most likely to face (1) in combat and (2) where the major battles are most likely to be fought; this necessary training to be accomplished with significantly fewer funds?

(This question being asked because one realizes that the enemy may get a vote.)

b. Or should we understand that GEN Cone, the CG of TRADOC, is simply out of touch, in that he does not yet realize that we WILL NOT, regardless of the circumstances or need (and due to budget constraints) employ significant land power assets in such places as Syria, Iran and N. Korea? Such missions (and any and all others missions requiring significant and well-trained land power assets) now being "off the table" and GEN Cone simply not realizing that this is his new reality?

Outlaw 09

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 1:36pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C---the last three items will only occur if there is funding for them---really do not think they funding will actually be there since Gen. O is indicating that he has only one BCT available that is fully trained at the current budget levels which is actually strange as the Force's current budget has to be at least three times was it was in 2003 and the Force had more trained units than Gen. O is indicating is possible on the current budget.

The Force will be lucky to maintain B and a tad of A at the levels that are being talked about.

Tom Ricks over on Foreign Policy is actually correct in his estimate that the Force needs to get to the level of training that pushes thinking and that does not cost a lot of money.

In the interim war years the Force always pulled back into a thinking/training mode and did not maintain the ability to trigger out four BCTs on the ground that LTG Cone envisions especially since Syria is off the table and the public would not support an Iranian venture.

It was lucky to at least maintain two standby ready alert Bdes in the non war years.

Bill C.

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 1:28pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Perhaps I have gotten it completely wrong in my comment above; herein, suggesting that we were (1) "mothballing" COIN due to (2) lack of funds.

Consider this from LTG Cone:

"We’re going to focus on the skills to put steel on target, and maneuver, but the challenge, I think, is the sophistication to understand the environment which we’re going to operate in. Just because you take away one set of capabilities from an enemy doesn’t mean that they’re going to capitulate. We’ve achieved a level of [cultural and historical] understanding in two areas of the world in which we’ve been fighting for the last 12 years, but we have to capture the methodologies by which we did that, and then prepare a force that if you were to go to Syria, if you were to go to Iran, if you were to go to Korea, [they could operate effectively]. It’s really about regional alignment. It’s about lining units up against parts of the world that we have to study."

"You’re never going to get it all right, but if I can get the first four brigades on the ground in any of these places who have an understanding of language and culture, we’re not going to make the mistakes that we perhaps made in Iraq and Afghanistan in the opening phases of those wars. We have probably the most proficient counterinsurgency force that we’ve had in decades, and the first thing I think most of these youngsters would tell you — particularly those who have been through some of our Combat Training Center rotations — [is] that we are creating environments they would face in some of these countries that would require combined-arms maneuver. We’ve sort of specialized in a very narrow skill set these last 12 years and [we’re] broadening that focus and those competencies and exercising those full range of problems that a leader is likely to see on future battlefields."…-

These comments by LTG Cone seem to suggest that TRADOC sees future conflict and combat preparation as something of a three-part process:

a. Have some regional, historical, cultural and language understanding of where you will fight.

b. Be able to put steel on target/combined arms maneuver to deal with the conventional threat.

c. Thereafter, be able to revert to COIN/nation-westernizing to deal with the subsequent unconventional challenges and corresponding transformational requirements/responsibilities.

Thus, LTC Cone would seem to suggest that COIN/nation-westernizing is not being overly emphasized today only because we, due to our recent/current experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, already have these skills. Where we are weak, he seems to suggest, is on (1) regional, historical, cultural and language capabilities as to other places we might fight and (2) putting steel on target/combined arms maneuver; proficiency being required for our forces and soldiers in all three of the skill sets ("a" - "c") noted above.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 10:14am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C---the comment from TRADOC is important as it matches to a large degree the following points that are the TRADOC CGs guidance for the future of TRADOC---so goes TRADCO so goes the Army---notice point 2---design the future---same tone as reflected in the TRADOC comment---no mention of COIN.

One might squeeze it into point 5 but the Force is finished with COIN for good as the NCA is no longer interested in nation building/rebuilding--nor for that matter is the American public up for another round of COIN somewhere in the world.

TRADOC CG Long Term Priorities

1. Leader Development
2. Design the Future Force
3. Adapt TRADOC
4. Training and Education for the Future
5. Concepts and Doctrine
6. Army and Joint Training
7. Plans and Operations
8. Capabilities Development Process and Synch

Bill C.

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 10:08am

What appears to be the current thinking:

a. COIN costs a lot of money.

b. We don't have a lot of money right now.

c. Therefore we cannot do COIN right now.

d. But since we believe that we will, in the not too distant future, be back in the money again, we should only mothball COIN.

e. That way, when we get back in the money, we can again look to COIN to help us achieve our goals and objectives.

f. These goals and objectives are:

" ... to compel other peoples, races or religions to conform to Western views and governing structures" ... "to transform their cultures into something palatable to Western tastes."

( See paragraphs 4 and 5 of this article by authors Fitzgerald, Deptula and Gentile: )

g. In mothballing COIN, we have not abandoned our enduring goals and objectives stated immediately above, but only determined to pursue these goals and objectives -- in the present period of austerity -- via other ways and other means.

h. Bottom Line:

1. We realize that we still may need to use military power to compel other peoples, other races or other religions to conform to Western views and Western governing structures.

2. Likewise, we realize that we may again have to carry out lengthy military occupations of foreign lands to transform their cultures into something more palatable to Western needs.

3. Thus, we must plan and prepare (and retain present-day COIN knowledge, skills and abilities accordingly) with this reality in mind.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 7:03am

Retired Gen P. should take notice---even TRADOC is burying COIN---so are his comments about the surge just "intellectual exercises with little value". Sounds like TRADOC is burying COIN so deep it will never return.

Begs the question as to whether all the military organizations that deal with IW/COIN will now finally disappear as well.

"The deputy commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command indicated last week that the debates on COIN and how it was used were intellectual exercises with little value as the military prepares for future challenges."