Small Wars Journal

COIN is Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics

Tue, 11/22/2011 - 10:16am

COIN is Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics

by Gian Gentile

World Politics Review

There is perhaps no better measure of the failure of American strategy over the past decade than the fact that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, tactical objectives have been used to define victory. In particular, both wars have been characterized by an all-encompassing obsession with the methods and tactics of counterinsurgency. To be sure, the tactics of counterinsurgency require political and cultural acumen to build host-nation governments and economies. But understanding the political aspects of counterinsurgency tactics is fundamentally different from understanding core American political objectives and then defining a cost-effective strategy to achieve them. If it is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past decade, American strategic thinking must regain the ability to link cost-effective operational campaigns to core policy objectives, while taking into consideration American political and popular will.



Wed, 12/07/2011 - 7:45pm

'COIN is dead' - really? Seems to be going on all over the world and the US will undoubtedly be directly/indirectly involved in several just this year alone. 'US must put strategy over tactics' - Wow, that's really earth shattering! - This seems to be one part false, and one part obvious.

I'm pretty sure Gen(R) P. was quite the strategic thinker, and probably too involved with the national strategy. But lacking strategic guidance from civilian leadership, and being handed two ill-advised endeavors, what choice did he have?

To be sure, many lessons have been learned over the past decade at the tactical and operational level. My concern is that our strategic thinking, and problem solving has not evolved at all. Before taking action, problems and objectives must be more clearly defined and then our strategic planners must do a better job of empathizing with the local population in order to predict their reaction to our tactics.


Wed, 11/23/2011 - 4:48pm

I just returned the questionnaire inviting outside comments on the revision of FM 3-24. I thought the writing committee's decision to open the process to a wider range of civilians deserved a response. I look forward to learning the results and also the findings of Colonel Gentile's current study of counterinsurgency and generalship.

What I would note here is that while a particular grand strategy is for civilian policy makers to choose, the Army and the other services can and should have a great deal to say about what the choices in fact are.

David Billington

What if we were to look at this somewhat differently:

What if our purpose in Afghanistan and Iraq IS/WAS NOT to build host-nation governments and economies but, rather, to provide that Afghanistan and Iraq come to cause the modern world fewer problems and come to offer the modern world, instead, greater utility/usefulness.

If the above is a more accurate description of American core policy objectives re: Afghanstan and Iraq, then might an effective strategy and operational campaign -- designed to meet these core policy objectives (taking into account American political and popular will immediately following 9/11) -- might such a strategy and campaign logically be expected to include a provision for building host-nation governments and economies; this, so as to achieve the core policy objectives noted above?

The problem is that Gian real target audience is the National Command Authority, not with the Theater rank level or lower. Gian's apparent solution is that we should never have engaged ourselves in Afghanistan or Iraq in the first place. That is a valid position to take. However, Gian seems to target his writings towards soldiers; precisely the group who does NOT make decisions about whether to invade foreign countries (and I would argue for good reason).

Bill M.

Wed, 11/23/2011 - 1:25am

In reply to by Dayuhan

I agree, if his comments were not directed against the Army I would pretty much agree with article. What strategy is the Army supposed to develop?

The obvious problem with this formulation is that the Army does not determine the "core American political objectives". The Army doesn't make policy, and policy drives strategy. If the policy and the objectives are nebulous or vacuous, uncertain or impractical or unknown... the strategy can be no better. If the problem is at the policy level, which the Army cannot change, the resort to a focus on tactics is a pretty natural response: one works with what one has, and with what one can control.

Certainly a coherent strategy would be a huge advantage, but until we have a clear, concrete, practical, achievable set of policy goals, a coherent strategy is going to be impossible to develop. If the policy goal is "install a democracy", we can only pity those charged with developing the strategy!


Mon, 11/28/2011 - 12:49am

In reply to by InTheKnow


Let me give you some examples of some things that would be unnecasary (sic). Wise police officers in the US treat everybody with respect. You may have to arrest them but you call them Mr. or Ms. No sense in provoking them with no cause by calling them names or taunting them. You may have to arrest a son in his house in the presence of his mother. Nothing is accomplished by saying something out of line to the mother. She is already going to be mad at you and you will just make it worse. Corrections officers do the same thing even when dealing with some very bad people. They treat them politely and courteously. That doesn't mean they won't take them down hard if that is what is called for. It just means they are grown up enough to treat even the worst people in a mannerly way. That makes the CO's job easier.

In a small war, I figure it is the same thing. You are polite when you can be. You try very hard not to kill the wrong people. You don't let your guys steal chickens or see if they can hit that sheep in the field 300 yards away. You don't let them run people off the road because they can. Those things piss off the locals and those kinds of things don't have to be done. Ever. They are just poor discipline and bad leadership. In the long run those kinds of things will get people killed. Because the guy whose sheep was killed has an ill tempered son who will want to get some back for that.

Does that mean you don't lay night ambushes in an area at hours when the people have been told they shouldn't be out? No, it doesn't, if it has been judged night ambushes will be useful. Does it mean if a guy who has been cheating on his wife takes a chance and tries to go home at the wrong time and gets killed in the nocturnal ambush, does that mean all the night ambushes should be discontinued? No. It does mean you should make great effort to let the locals know that it was an accident that could have been avoided if the guy hadn't been stupid.

I am sure you know that and agree with it. When it comes to supporting one group of power brokers over another, that is a reasoned judgment you have to make. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. I hope whomever makes that judgment has been in the area long enough, years, to make the right call.

That kind of decision, when made, has been determined to be neccasary (sic). If it upsets people, that is the way it goes sometimes. I think we can mostly agree on this. I would say that if your course of action is going to genuinely upset MOST of the people in the area, you might want to think twice about it.

You can cite Sri Lanka and China but it is fruitless. We aren't going to do that. We had better not do that. That kind of action can be quite successful in the short run, but it tends to engender hatreds that last generations, so over the long run the results may not be as good as they first appear.

As far as talking about the details involved in the kill 'em school of small war fighting, that is off base and should be. I see no need in talking about for example, how many people should be killed in neighboring villages if we lose some people to an attack. I see no need in talking about how to inflict torture. Those kind of things should be off limits.


Sun, 11/27/2011 - 11:30pm

In reply to by carl

I don't get the "uneccasarily (sic)" part- but assuming it doesn't mean anything out of the ordinary, I respectfully disagree that "if you can avoid bugging them, you should."

I assert that the only thing you should do is to be effective in getting to your preferred ends. If treating the people kindly gets you there- then fine. I hold that many times supporting a power broker- or group of power brokers, in a given area- although probably pissing most people in that area off- will still be more effective in getting to your preferred ends than avoiding pissing the people off will.

I only agree with you that we are stupid if being unkind to people is less effective in getting to our preferred ends. Unless I'm wrong- you seem to be making a connection between treating people nicely (winning hearts and minds) and being effective in a COIN environment. Excepting the examples FM 3-24 uses in the last 30 years- I think you'd find that being nice to people many times has nothing to do with success in counterinsurgency. In fact- Sri Lanka is probably a contemporary example of that as is China's treatment of its ethnic minorities. I fear this stems from putting a Western frame on things- it makes sense to our Western minds: 'treat us nicely and we'll shut-up and peacefully play our x-boxes'. If only the rest of the world was so uncomplicated.

Your comment about banning people who talk seriously about both examples in the past of inhumane treatment of insurgents and populations and possible current/future incidents is pretty far off-base. I'm not advocating one method or another- but simply stating that methods other than your "avoiding pissing them off" method can be much more effective and backing it up with historical examples. A contemporary example could be Sri Lanka- are you against us talking about that or gleaning possible lessons from it?


Sun, 11/27/2011 - 10:42am

In reply to by InTheKnow


My comment wasn't stated plainly enough. Sometimes I get tangled up in trying to be original, which is a mistake.

It is always true that you should never uneccasarily (sic) piss off civilians. The uneccasarily (sic) part is the part to be stressed. Sometimes things have to be done that are going to irritate the locals. But if you can avoid bugging them, you should.

If we aren't doing that in Afghanistan, that doesn't mean it isn't a wise thing to do. It just means we are stupid. If we can't do something after 10 years of trying and that has proven wise in most all the small wars of the past then we are doubly stupid. If it hasn't manifested itself in our tactics and operations, then there is something dreadfully wrong with our military. Professing the importance of something then not making sure it is done means you are incompetent or lying.

The upshot is, if that is what you see, you're right, we haven't learned.

You are right too about the Mongol "kill 'em all" school of small war fighting. It does work. But, as you said, we won't do it thank God. I think that is an unwritten rule so there is no real sense in talking about it. I know that if we started seriously talking about reprisals and killing everybody in sight on this forum the editors would ban us quick, as they should.


Sun, 11/27/2011 - 9:37am

In reply to by carl

I have to respectfully disagree with your comment to never piss off civilians for two reasons: 1) I don't think it is something we've learned in Afghanistan and, 2) I don't think it is something that always applies.

Surely Ghenghis Khan was successful in the area that is now Afghanistan using certain metrics- and he most certainly did not care about pissing off civilians as he directed the wives of slain generals to oversee women and children stacking the skulls of their slaughtered husbands and fathers in pyramids outside of their city gates. Of course I don't think we'll resort to such barbarity- but that doesn't mean it doesn't work.

But- the more salient point in this argument is that it isn't something we've learned- regardless if it is valid or not- in Afghanistan. Even though we state the basic concept in our Commander's COIN guidance and our doctrine- it hasn't manifested itself in our tactics and operations.


Sat, 11/26/2011 - 11:09pm

In reply to by InTheKnow


Normally this forever a civilian avoids use of words like "tactical", "operational", "strategic" etc. because I have only a hazy idea of how professionals define them and also because people tend to get wrapped around the axle trying to define which thing fits into which category. I try to use instead more general phrases like "things that work." In my comment I foolishly failed to follow my own rule. If you will allow me to take it back and instead say things that work.

Also I foolishly said "always". Since nothing is always, as you have pointed out, allow me to modify and say mostly or almost always.

That being said, because the the military and State are not co-operating as they should doesn't mean the that their doing so isn't important. Nor does it mean that there aren't a lot of people who have learned (or re-learned) the importance of that and aren't tearing their hair out in frustration because it isn't being done. It just means it isn't being done. You are in a far better position to know why it isn't being done than I. My cynical self just assumes that the various bureaucries (sic) don't see anything in it for them and nobody strong enough has shown up to make them do it anyway.

It seemed to be done in Iraq finally at least at the top levels so somebody in the recent past did the thing that worked pretty good in small wars of the past.

I said originally "uneccasarily (sic) pissing off civilians". I'll make an exception to my rule and say that one is always true. Stress on the misspelled word "uneccasarily" (sic). Sometimes irritating the locals can't be helped but when it can be, it should be.

Living amongst the locals may upset them more than it's worth, or it may be the thing that swings the balance locally. It depends on the situation and the leadership. I've read that the Gurkhas have a knack for keeping order AND getting along with people. IIRC in Binh Nghia, the village in Bing West's The Village, the locals erected a monument to the CAP Marines who lived, fought and died with them. So it can be done.

I think we are actually in almost complete agreement on things but are using different words to describe them. You state that you do what works in the place and the time. Most of the accounts I've read of past small wars make the same point. You say micromanaging from the top kills success. Micromanaging is the opposite of doing what works in the place and time because those high up can't know the local conditions at the time. People who do that miss the whole point. That is a command fault. Command faults do not invalidate lessons leaned in the past.

Your point about Surge Iraq and Surge Afghanistan is well taken. You can't exactly transfer what worked in one place to the other place because one place isn't the other place. Advantage was taken of local situations in Iraq and things worked out fairly well. We could see what the local situation was. One reason (among many) for that was, I believe, there was less turbulence in top command in Iraq than in Afghanistan. You didn't have a new big boss every year. How can anything get done if the top commander is changed every year? You can't directly transfer what worked in one place to the other. A guy who'd been around awhile would know that. A guy who showed up 5 months ago doesn't really know anything and doesn't know he doesn't know so he is inclined to swallow anything.

A lot of small wars lessons are just stories about what guys have found worked in the past. Andrew Skeen wrote a book about his experiences fighting "Pathans" in Afghanistan 100 years ago. Hearing what he had to say might be useful.

One last example of how I think we are coming to the same place; in small wars of the past it was found useful to have State and the military cooperate closely. You state "we should be attempting to learn how to tie those operations to political objectives". It seems to me we are pretty close.


Fri, 11/25/2011 - 11:26pm

In reply to by carl

I would argue that there are few examples- if any- in Afghanistan of the importance of civilian authority or of State and military working together as one. In working on ISAF's campaign plan and subordinate plans we rarely- if ever- heard, much less incorporated, State's opinion. You yourself state that unity of command doesn't seem to exist- so not sure anyone has "learned" that. I stand by my assertion that nothing has been "re-learned" above the tactical level, and I disagree with your tactical examples in 3 ways: that they are tactical examples, that we have "re-learned" them, or that they are even things we SHOULD learn...

Is "not pissing off civilians" a tactical lesson? As stated it sounds more like an operational measure than a traditional "tactic." Surely we aren't "living and sleeping in the neighborhoods" of Sangin, Helmand, Gardez, and Kabul- to name just a few places. Even if we are living among them- Rory Stewart has voiced his opinion that he doesn't think Westerners living among local Afghans does much for us as much as it just pisses them off. Isn't it possible that we're actually pissing them off by just being there? I find it hard to understand the concept that living among the people- no matter the context- is something one should always do. And some authors have noted the importance of local defense forces in some areas- and the counterproductiveness of them in others. But- again, I'm not sure that's a tactical lesson anyway.

I think the tragedy is that we keep thinking there is a template to war- and especially to psuedo war- or small wars- or whatever you want to call them. I'm convinced that is the greatest lesson- but it is one we've NEVER learned: that there is no template, and instead we have to figure out what works- and it could be different from town to town, district to district.

In terms of the narrative that we've had to re-learn things- I submit that not only have we not learned or re-learned these lessons- but that we shouldn't re-learn them in the first place- they were invalid lessons to begin with. You don't ALWAYS have to avoid pissing off the people. But, you don't always want to go in with a heavy hand either. You don't always want to live among the people- but a blanket policy never allowing you to do so is just as counterproductive. And local self defense forces work well in certain situations- but are terribly harmful in others.

Unfortunately, this idea that there are tactical lessons to learn and always apply in COIN environments hamstrings lower-level units to be micromanaged from above by headquarters ruled by assumptions about insurgencies and unstable areas that are often invalid and too generalized.

To me your examples are mainly strategic and operational. But- learning lessons or re-learning them at these levels is problematic in my opinion as well. The narrative of Iraq is that in 2007 we surged and in 2009 we "won" because of the surge and the "re-learning" of lessons (a la 3-24). If that is true- why didn't the same happen since we surged in 2009 with the same doctrine and tactics into Afghanistan? It is 2011- is it possible the lessons are not transferable? Is it possible that the surge and doctrine didn't "win" it for us in Iraq? I think we should be careful about the conventional wisdom- and not be blind to the signs in Afghanistan that it isn't holding up.

I hold that there are few, if any, tactical lessons to learn in an assymetrical environment. Sure there are some TTPs that are valid in a theater for a certain amount of time- but learning them to the detriment of learning to be generally adaptive would be a mistake. I hold that there ARE some lessons we should learn at the operational and strategic levels- but I also submit that what those are are probably mostly unknown at this point because of the faulty logic we've used to trace our apparent success in one place and template it for future success. We should be attempting to learn how to synchronize very different tactical efforts into an operational framework that supports an overarching strategy. And we should be attempting to learn how to tie those operations to political objectives through some kind of strategy. I see little evidence we even think we should be learning these things- much less are attempting to learn them.


Fri, 11/25/2011 - 1:00am

In reply to by InTheKnow

This is the opinion of a forever a civilian so evaluate it with that in mind. We have re-learned things that were learned often in the past. Above the tactical level, one example is the importance of civilian authority, State, and the military working together as one. That was in the Small Wars Manual. Unity of command is another. That was stressed in Defeating Communist Insurgency. That these things had to be re-learned is proof that they can be easily forgotten if emphasis is not placed on remembering them. (Unity of command in Afghanistan though doesn't seem to exist.)

At the tactical level certain things always hold true, not just for a fixed time and place. Not unneccasarily (sic) pissing off civilians is one. Small units spread about the area, living and sleeping in the neighborhood is another. The importance of local self defense forces is a third. These things are there in most all small wars. They may be only tactical but lack of tactical proficiency gets people killed. It is a tragedy that they have to be re-learned because it wasn't deemed important that they be remembered.

We probably haven't learned much that is new but we had to re-learn a lot of old things that shouldn't have been forgotten.

A story about not pissing off civilians. A woman I know has a small ranch in Mexico. The Mexican Army run patrols in the area looking for Zetas. They looked over her ranch and broke a gate or fence getting in. She didn't object to them looking the place over but she did object to the damage because the main gate wasn't locked and if they had taken the time and looked they could have gotten in without breaking anything. Their bad practice won't make much difference now but that is the kind of thing is always important in small wars, especially ones conducted by armies on foreign soil.


Fri, 11/25/2011 - 12:09am

In reply to by carl

I'm curious as to what we've learned "at such cost"...? Have we learned anything above the tactical level- and, even if we've learned things at the tactical level- which ones will be forgotten?? I think a few units have learned things at the tactical level that were applicable for a fixed time and place- and may transfer some to a new time and place- but outside that I'm not sure we've learned much of anything.

Just a personal opinion, but this sounds like a return to the past. The big institutional military finds small wars unpleasant and unsatisfying. So when they end, the institution just turns its' back on them and resumes thinking about things it likes better. This shunning is covered by high sounding distracting words like "strategy" and "policy". But the upshot will be the same, all the things learned at such cost over the past decade will be forgotten; not just forgotten, but perhaps actively purged from the institutional memory. This happened once before just a few decades ago.