Small Wars Journal

COIN is Alive: Know When to Use it!

Wed, 11/23/2011 - 7:54am

In his opinion piece, COIN is Dead:  U.S. Army must put Strategy Over Tactics published November 22 in World Politics Review, Colonel Gian Gentile appears to base his argument on the premise that COIN is not a strategy, but rather a collection of methods and tactics. Given his extensive combat experience and his impressive academic accomplishments, it is clear why his analyses of recent operations carry significant weight with leaders at all levels of our Army. However, I am unconvinced that his desire to reduce COIN from doctrine to a collection of methods and tactics is prudent at a time when we appear to be on the cusp of a scientific understanding of what fuels violent group behavior and the establishment of a strategic framework to determine when and where COIN may be best applied.

The scientific approach to the study of war has resided in the backwaters of military theory since the years immediately following the First World War. However, recent advances in evolutionary biology led by Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson are providing insights to what generates warlike behavior within, between, and among groups of the social species, including our species Homo sapiens. Today, evolutionary behavior can be rudimentarily characterized by adaptations that are considered either beneficial toward the individual and their kin, or to a larger group or even a species.

These forces of natural selection, individualistic and altruistic, are in a continual “tug of war” for primacy and may correspond to individualistic adaptations of governments and altruistic adaptations of populations respectively (think the Arab Spring uprisings). To visualize this relationship, it is instructive to array the dual forces of natural selection along the axes of a Cartesian coordinate system. Given individualistic behaviors as positive values and altruistic behaviors as negative values on both axes, the resulting graph produces a “quad chart” that serves well to characterize the four different, and surprisingly recognizable, types of war. The two symmetric (or regular) forms of war erupt under the combinations of two positive or two negative values. They are individualistic v. individualistic wars (wars of choice) and altruistic v. altruistic wars (just wars), which are both traditionally characterized using classic theories and doctrines. The asymmetric or irregular forms of war erupt under combinations of a positive and a negative value and appear when individualistic adaptations have primacy over the altruistic adaptations, and vice versa. With regard to these latter types of war, referred to as counterinsurgencies and insurgencies respectively, I believe regular doctrine must be replaced with irregular doctrine such as COIN and guerrilla warfare.

If we as a nation desire to avoid conflict in the irregular quadrants this does not equate to discarding the doctrine developed over the past ten years, which appears to have been the case following the Vietnam War. And to say that counterinsurgency does not have a doctrine is to imply that insurgency does not have a doctrine as well. Rather than separate into camps, it would be better to recognize the doctrinal differences of the four quadrants and recognize that because a nation chooses to no longer operate in the counterinsurgency or insurgency quadrant of war, this does not mean the doctrinal tenants no longer exist.

Indeed, as we develop and implement national-level strategy it makes sense to scientifically investigate the relationship between the individualistic and altruistic forces of natural selection to recognize the type of conflict in which our nation is to engage or deter and then apply the appropriate doctrine and strategy. In a paper I wrote during my year at the Army War College, I described this over-arching framework in what I deemed The Nature of War Theory and would welcome to opportunity to develop these concepts in congress with military leaders and thinkers who are willing to consider war’s biological underpinning.

The views expressed here are those of Colonel Olsen and do not reflect the official views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.


Scott Kinner

Sat, 11/26/2011 - 11:21am

I'm sorry, how many centuries and eons has Mankind existed on the "cusp of scientific understanding" of human nature? For as long as we have existed each generation has tended to do two things; first, assumed it had figured things out or was on the "cusp" of doing so (every day and in every way we are getting better and better); second, indulged in the hubris naturally associated with that assumption (what we see and think is unique and better than what has come before). And, over the centuries and eons human nature has been understood and misunderstood, and technology has both improved and degraded our lives, with no appreciable change to how we conduct business with ourselves and each other - just in the manner, speed, and efficiency with which we both heal and harm.

So I continue to take exception with those who lead their arguments with "science now tells us" instead of "science now informs us." The first seems to possess the nature of a dictate, to harken back to the debunked Enlightenment notion that there is "one grand, objective reality" which if we could all just grasp would lead to a new era of utopian peace. In modern terms, it is evolutionary ideology and scientific determinism versus evolutionary theory and scientific pursuit.

It is the desire to find The Answer without acknowledging the falliability of human reason. Who gets to know The Answer, who gets to interpret it, who gets to enforce it? The history of the world is rife with the ill fruit of those questions - the 20th Century especially.

Can science and "modern" biology inform us regarding cause and effect of conflict? Certainly. Can they be wielded as infalliable swords of justice? Certainly not.


Fri, 11/25/2011 - 12:12am

In reply to by Bill M.


I would prefer to limit the discussion of what is a threat to the existence of the nation to a military one, that is, as you say, the continental US is occupied fully or partially by an enemy. And I think you could also include in that a situation whereby the Navy is completely defeated. The enemy would then be in a position to dictate to the US what it could and couldn't do. In that case our existence as a soveriegn (sic) nation would have come to an end.

Some of the things you mentioned could also be a threat to the existence of the nation but it would not be the place of the American military to fight those threats.

Nuclear war is a special case. Emotion would preclude its' being limited and in that case, winning or losing wouldn't matter. All the nation states participating would be destroyed. Everybody so far has known that so we limit our fights. The prime function of the things is as a last resort to keep the enemy from threatening the ultimate existence of the state. If we were to let the enemy get close by not fighting and winning wars far away where they don't immediately matter, we would be making it more likely that we would have to use the things to preserve our state.

You are right that the Japanese and Germans could have consolidated their conquests and gained enough power to actually threaten North America. But it would have taken time to do so, time we would have been using also.

The practice we have adopted is a little bit of a paradox. We fight small, medium and large fights that don't immediately matter so we won't have to fight a fight that does matter. That is a concept with which it is difficult to motivate people but we have managed it for a long time. You are right that the concept can be abused and it is a constant struggle to get it right but the fundamental idea is a sound one.

Bill M.

Thu, 11/24/2011 - 8:39pm

In reply to by carl

You make some interesting observations regarding existential threats, but I think your arguments should be challenged, which may open up an interesting debate we will want to transition to the council. Based on your definition of existential threat it appears it would require another nation to occupy us, and I agree neither the Japanese nor Germans had the ability to do so, but is it really too farfetched to believe they could have once they consolidated their victories in Asia and Europe? Still looking at existential threats from a conventional view point, the Soviets (and perhaps China) had/have the ability with their weapons of mass destruction that could be launched from half way around the world to destroy much of our country. No occupation required.

However, I think existential threats can be (and perhaps should be) defined or viewed in a number of ways. We may be missing the real existential threats to our nation if we only view them from the optic of conventional war. What exactly do we mean we say existential threat? What defines our nation? What is threatened to be destroyed? It isn’t just geography and the populace within the borders; it is a political system, an economic system, a value system that defines what it means to be American, etc., so if any of those are threatened, then it is an existential threat to our country. The 9/11 attacks actually threatened all three that I just mentioned (our more accurately our reaction to them did).

First we’ll address the physical, nuclear weapons (not just one) delivered in mass or repeatedly over time against strategic targets (Washington D.C. for political, NYC for the financial, etc.) are a very real existential threat, and several nations have the ability to do so, other nations want to develop the capability and there remains the remote chance that non-state actors could acquire these weapons. Biological weapons are another potential existential threat, as are diseases that have nothing to do with weapons (black plague episode), as are some natural disasters.

Other threats to our political system include State capture (via corruption), subversion by state actors (think of the KGB efforts and their influences on our universities and unions, or our CIA’s efforts and impact against numerous countries where we facilitated the downfall of a particular government), key assassinations, etc.

Existential threats against our economic system are too numerous to list, but economic warfare is a reality and we have vulnerabilities. It is doubtful they’ll result in the “death” of America, but it could result in the death of America as we know it. Securing markets overseas could actually be a critical national interest.

Walking the dog a little further down my fantasy examples we get to COIN and IW. Maintaining a particular government in a region may be tied to our ability to secure markets or other “critical” resources, so again while failure may not result in a direct existential threat, it very well (especially if cumulative) over time could result in a significant change to our nation as we know it now.

I’m not entirely in agreement with my own post, but I think it is a topic that needs to be explored. The great danger is politicians and other activists can then make a case to tie every little problem overseas to a critical national interest and that clearly isn’t the case, but in some cases there may be valid arguments.


Fri, 11/25/2011 - 9:03pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Mr. Jones:

Not so dangerous since I will not be appointed regent. Also not so dangerous since it is mostly a description of what we have done and an observation that it has worked.

I didn't say meaningless conflicts. I said fights that might not immediately affect our existence right now. And our geographical position makes most fights away from our shores fights that won't matter much right now. We are an island nation, a maritime nation. Anybody who wants to really threaten our existence has to be able to get to the edge of the far ocean and securely hold it before they can start to build a force to genuinely threaten our existence. Therefore, fights to keep potential enemies from securely holding that far shore will of course not matter so much right now. But we have to fight those fights and win most of them. If we do that we won't have to have to fight the big fight, the one we can't afford to lose. We can afford to lose some of the little fights. I don't think that is a stretch at all.

The current fights may or may not help deter a big fight. I suspect they will. You suspect the opposite. Our individual opinions vitiate each other. Besides, my main point isn't about individual fights so much as it is about the big practice that we have been engaging in for the past century or so.

Your right about the argument that the current fights prevented other attacks as bad as 9-11. You can't prove a negative. But when it comes to deciding what to do in the face of an attack, you don't have the luxury of being able to test things in a lab beforehand. You have to figure what probably will work, do it, and modify things as events unfold. But it stands to reason that going after those who attacked us where they are rather than waiting for them to come to us is the better course of action, especially if one of your primary objectives is to prevent deaths of American civilians in the US. I don't think that is such a dangerous assumption to make. Perhaps it would be more dangerous not to make that assumption. Anyways, it is consistent with our practice of the last century.

I don't see where Gian's argument as you state it conflicts with my primary point. We should be ready to fight all types of conflicts. That is what us civilians expect. My point is about where those fights are fought, not about their size.

Your second and third last paragraphs are beside the point. I would note that the USSR was severely strained by their attempts to match us militarily. That may have had some small affect on the collapse of the hellish system.

You are right, We can't contain the changes taking place around the world. We can do our best to hold that far, outer perimeter with small fights we can afford to lose occasionally, as we have been doing. That will allow us to take best advantage of our unmatched geo-strategic position.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 11/25/2011 - 8:57am

In reply to by carl

This is a dangerous mix of cause and effect. To assume that getting sucked into meaningless conflicts is what prevents us from having to fight meaningful conflicts is a MAJOR stretch.

So, what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is somehow serving to make us stronger, or is working to deter conflicts with nuclear powers such as Russia or China?? I suspect the opposite is very much the case.

We draw similar conclusions when (as the Republicans did in the past election) proclaim that the reason there were no major terrorist attacks on the US following 9/11 was directly because of our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps, but it is an unprovable argument, and a dangerous assumption to make.

I believe Gian makes a far better argument when he states that a military that is ready, trained, manned and equipped to fight major conflicts (with the agility to deal with small matters appropriately and as necessary, which is why we have SOF and a USMC, BTW), we best deter all manner of threats to the US and our interests.

Thankfully the people of the greater Middle East are taking matters into their own hands, to vent the tremendous potential energy that lies within all oppressed and suppressed populaces, by directly challenging the regimes over them. Arab Spring is doing far more to disempower AQ than any actions the US has conducted in that region over the past 10 years. This was true in the late 1980s as well, when it was the people of Eastern Europe who took matters into their own hands as well to vent the tremendous potential energy there. It was average citizens of the USSR, not the government of the USA that forced Russian control back to their traditional borders.

The US needs to stop acting so fearfully, and focus on what is truly important. We have the very best geostrategic situation of any nation on the planet. We have a populace and government that have been evolving for effective operations in the type of populace-empowering environment that the current information age is forcing onto nations around the world, ready or not. And most are not ready. I predict that rising powers such as China and India will face powerful internal struggles as they attempt to catch up with the evolving environment. We'd be wise to stay clear of such messes as they occur. We won't be able to stop every attack against us, but we can stop most and adjust our actions to motivate fewer members of nationalist movements to feel they must first break our dedication to the status quo in order to achieve any degree of advancement at home.

We cannot "contain" the changes taking place around the planet. We cannot preserve the status quo in an era rapidly evolving economic and political situations around the globe. But we can rest in our geostrategic reality, and we can apply our own advanced evolution of governance and culture to be more flexible and agile in dealing with change, rather than squandering it in the pursuit of stasis.


Fri, 11/25/2011 - 12:08am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell


The Soviets were a mortal threat but we never did get involved in a mortal fight with them. That is sort of a quibble but we did make a lot of our efforts against them far away which helped to ultimately remove the threat.

You are right that the difficult question is when, how and why to fight the fights that don't matter much right now. My primary point is that those fights are the things that keep us from having to fight a fight that does matter right now. Willingness to engage in those fights is the practice that has worked.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 11/24/2011 - 8:05pm

In reply to by carl


I believe the existential threat we faced post -WWII was the Soviet Union and I do not think there has been another. I apologize for being unclear so that you think I said not to intervene against non- existential threats. I said that that we have to answer the question of when, how, and why to intervene against non-existential threats and then have the correct policy and strategy to do so (and then resource the force to be able to both deter and defend against existential threats and support whatever policy and strategy is established to deal with those non-existential threats that we determine it is in our national interests to do so.


Thu, 11/24/2011 - 5:51pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

I don't believe any opponent in WWII posed an existential threat to the US. They were too far away and too weak. I think we have only seen active combat against opponents who could actually threaten the existence of the nation twice, the first time was the Revolution and the second was the Civil War. This is mostly because of favorable geography, big oceans between us and the rest of the world can't be beat, but also because of something all seem to agree that we don't have, a grand strategy.

The de-facto grand strategy as I see it has been in place since the beginning of the 20th century. We have fought all our battles far away, far enough away that the outcome could not threaten our existence. Victory in those conflicts kept trouble far away. Loss in those conflicts may allow the threat a little closer but not so much because it was so far away to begin with. And even a loss gave us time and cost enemies time. It is sort of a defense in depth on a global scale.

I get a little concerned when I hear thoughts about not using military force against non-existential threats because doing so would be to turn our backs on a practice (I like that word better, to avoid getting bogged down in the meaning of the word strategy) that has served us quite well over the last 110 years and has kept our country from being wrecked by war as almost all the others have been. If we were to use military force only to combat existential threats, we would have to give up command of the far oceans and allow the threat to close with the Americas. We would give up a practice that has allowed us the luxury of losing and replace it with one that require us to win every time. I don't think that is wise.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 11/24/2011 - 3:13pm

In reply to by Bill M.

To follow up on Bill's point and to reinforce Gian's point on Strategy over tactics I offer these thoughts:

The question I think we need to focus on is when, how, and why we employ the military instrument of power against non-existential threats to the US. I think it is pretty clear how, when and why we would employ the military instrument of power against existential threats but we have rarely been faced with such a threat and since WWII there was arguably only one existential threat then. The other related question might be is whether the military instrument should be the main effort or the lead element (or in charge) when dealing with non-existential threats.

I think we need to seek the answers to those questions rather than argue about COIN and IW and Major Combat Operations or AirSea Battle or Full Spectrum Operations and from the answers to those questions determine the resources we need to be able to ensure deterrence and defense against existential threats and have the right policy and strategy for dealing with non-existential threats (which then should theoretically or in my case, naively, drive the resourcing process).

Specifically for Gian,

You wrote, "The perceived better war master of Coin, General Creighton Abrams, was the one who directed this shift from Coin and Vietnam to the Soviet Union in 1974."

This mindset in the Army and perhaps DOD wide has frustrated me for years. To my knowledge we didn't leave the USSR uncovered while fighting in Vietnam, and generally what a shift means in the Army is a focus, and that means the "entire" Army will focus on the Fulda Gap scenario at the expense of everything else. Why does a large and capable organization feel compelled to be so myopic?

In SOF we have seen a myopic focus on CT since 9/11, yet all the security challenges we had before 9/11 remain and new ones have emerged.

Our former SECDEF directed balanced capabilities and that just what we need, yet there seems to be some management guru influence on the Army that is mentoring our senior officers that you can only have one focus area, which in effect puts our nation at risk. The argument shouldn't be whether or not we focus on COIN, but how do we maintain this capability while preparing to respond to other contingencies. It does seem you want to throw the baby out with the bathwater sometimes.

I couldn't follow his model the way he described it, or more accurately I don't see the value of it based on this article. As for military strategists disregarding the scientific method, I think effects based operations which was an attempt to develop a scientific model of war with predictable causes and effects, and of course that process rapidly failed and actually distracted us from thinking effectively and developing an effective strategy.

Assuming all forms of war can be reduced to four quadrants, the next question is what does that get us? What does it change? I think COL Olsen needs to post another article or a link to his study so we can actually see his effort to link the scientific method to the study of war.

However, I'm hard pressed to see why the author claims the development of COIN doctrine over the past 10 years is tied to any scientific method? In fact, Bob Jones got it right when he said we basically copied colonial doctrine. This wasn't based on "learning" or experimentation, it was based on mimicking and drawing false parallels to historical examples completely void of strategy to achieve some rather lofty policy goals.

The one point I think most will agree with the COL on is that COIN isn't dead, so in my view it is imperative we continue to study it, regardless of how undesirable it is to practice, but then again I rather be in a COIN fight than a front line soldier on the Russian front during WWII, so regardless of how messy it may be, we need to put it in perspective. Yes COIN is hard, so are all wars, and yes it hard to demonstrate progress, especially when we set unrealistic expectations. Anything short of those expectations will be viewed as defeat, when that isn't necessarily the case.

Gian's point was largely about strategy, and strategy follows policy, and while it would nice if we could base policy on a more scientific process the fact is it isn't, and regardless of whether or doctrine is based on science or simply best practices won't matter if we don't get the policy and cooresponding strategy straight. So perhaps both the COLs are correct and are simply talking past each other?

gian gentile

Wed, 11/23/2011 - 11:42am

I think Bob and I see Coin differently because I still view it as war, albeit a discrete type and form of it, and it seems to me that Bob sees insurgency and counterinsurgency as a set of competing forces all bound up in a social movement. Although even though Bob and I disagree on lots of things, I always pay careful attention to what he has to say.

I think Colonel Olsen misses the point of my essay completely since my piece was about strategy, and strategy's use of coin as an operational method over the last ten years or so in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is in that sense that I say coin is dead because from the angle of strategy coin as an operational method has not achieved any appreciable strategic and policy gains.

His interesting arguments about biology and evolutionary theory as applied to war are still burried in the tactical application of population centric coin and the promise that it can be mastered if only we understand how to do it better.

After Vietnam the american army did not discard coin, it simply focused on what was the more pressing threat which was the Soviet Union. The perceived better war master of Coin, General Creighton Abrams, was the one who directed this shift from Coin and Vietnam to the Soviet Union in 1974. Alas it has become a stock staple of the coin narrative, however, to constantly lay out the trope that the Army ditched coin after Vietnam. It did not, it simply had more pressing concerns.

Moreover by way of a hypothetical even if the American Army had been armed with a sophisticated understanding of the Way Olsen understands war in 2002 prior to Iraq, things still would have turned out largely the same way since the war from 2003 to today was not really about failure then success at coin operations, but about failure at strategy from the start.

Colonel Olsen is trapped like some others in the army in the comfortable world of tactics and operations, as his post above shows. And as a light hearted aside on this Thanksgiving eve, in his war college essay, anybody who puts David Galula on the same level of Clausewitz loses a lot of cool points with me.:) If he is in search of what his bio says a "multi disciplinary and unifying theory of war," well St Carl still offers it. Dont need to jam Darwin and a batch of Progressive era thinkers into it.

no worries

happy thanksgiving

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 11/23/2011 - 9:39am

Whoa! Someone issue Colonel Olsen a time machine, because Secretary McNamara is looking for men who can think like this!

Seriously, this is a rather frightening comment on Gian's post. I don't agree with everything Gian says (I really think he has a perspective on insurgency and COIN that is horribly twisted by his expertise in military history and his own experiences on the topic); but his message is sound.

As to this slide-rule approach to insurgency, I caution, beware the parameters one sets and the metrics one feeds into such a computer... IMO this well-intended approach is headed in the wrong direction.