Small Wars Journal

Is Counterinsurgency the Graduate Level of War?

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 2:44am
Is Counterinsurgency the Graduate Level of War?

Some Random Thoughts on COIN Today

I have to respectfully disagree with the assertion that "counterinsurgency is the graduate level of war."

Despite being an avid believer in and advocate of COIN (and FID and UW) for most of my nearly 30 year career I still believe that that the graduate level of war has to be full spectrum and those that are practicing the graduate level of war are those that can shift between major combat operations and stability operations and when necessary assist a friend, partner, and ally in the conduct of COIN. Now that everyone is chasing the shiny (but not really) "new" thing (COIN) and calling it the graduate level of war I it think is disparaging to our great general purpose forces out there who are still going to be required to conduct major combat operations in some form or fashion and will have to be able to combine those operations with stability operations once the battle is won.

The graduate level of war is any form of war because war is as complex in major combat operations as it is in stability operations. The real "PhDs of war" are those that are able to recognize that the actions they take in the beginning of conflict (e.g., March-May 2003) are going to have effects on the outcome and the post conflict phases (e.g., May 2003 to the present). All war has to be people oriented -- it is always war among the people (Clausewitz still holds true, war is a duel, it is to impose one's will on another: that is just as true in major combat operations as it is in COIN -- and in the end it is always about influencing human behavior whether it be the behavior of the enemy leadership (political and/or military), soldiers, and the people (whether enemy, friendly, or neutral)). Yes, I have always quoted T.E. Lawrence that "irregular warfare is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge" but I will always believe it is necessary for the US military to operate across the spectrum of conflict. We have always recognized the need to be able to conduct post-conflict operations (stability operations, Phase IV or V or VI operations or whatever we have to decided to call it as we are always sticking new names on old doctrine, e.g. Security Force Assistance for FID, etc) but in the past we have paid lip service to it and have always focused on the "maneuver phases". Instead of letting the pendulum swing too far to one side (as we did post-Vietnam when we discarded everything we learned for the most part) we have to be able to strike the right balance.

One of the problems I continue to observe is I think a carryover from our strong historical emphasis on maneuver warfare, is that we continue to look at COIN from the perspective of the US winning (I know I continue to beat this horse). But this idea of the US winning can have detrimental second and third order effects for the US strategically.

I know the current COIN aficionados will say that when you have to conduct COIN in ungoverned spaces it is not FID because the HN does not govern there so the US has to be the main effort and win the COIN fight there and ultimately pacify the area. But we have to ask ourselves who does that ungoverned space or territory belong too? I can be pretty certain that it does not nor ever did belong to the US. If and when we embark on a COIN fight in an ungoverned space we sure better understand to whom that territory belongs and while we may be the main security force operating there for periods of time, all of our operations need to be focused not on us winning but on getting the rightful "owners" of that ungoverned space to be capable of once again being the legitimate government in that region. The idea of winning the hearts and minds cannot be about winning the hearts and minds for the US, it has to be about helping the legitimate authority win the hearts and minds of its population. That is where I think many of the current "COIN experts" have it wrong and I think this is a carryover of the maneuver mindset that we have to win. It ends up manifesting itself in such things as the SOFA proposals where we want to be able to conduct independent operations without host nation approval (or worse where we say that the Iraqis were wrong to launch the Basra and other operations without our "permission" as some political leaders have said) Our need to always be in charge can be very counter-productive in a COIN operation (think sovereignty!)

Sometimes we have to take the lead in tactical (security) operations we have to remember to practice operational art and understand the end state we are required to achieve (e.g, operational art: "the employment of military forces to attain strategic goals through the design, organization, and execution of campaigns and major operations", thanks to Dr. James Schneider of SAMS.) Operational Art is and will always be the graduate level of war and applies to all forms of conflict from major combat operations to stability operations to COIN. What has become apparent today and what makes all forms of war the graduate level is that so many of our tactical operations and actions have greater potential effect on strategic outcomes and the understanding of strategic effects is required by all our forces down to the very junior levels. I would say that warfare is the graduate level of human interaction because of all its complexities. The real essence of our operational art today is to be able to design the campaign not only to achieve success in battle but to see it through to success in the stability operations, post-conflict phase and ultimately the ability of the legitimate government to govern its people.

On that last point we are also still living in the past in some ways. We have always said that after the battle someone else (e.g. DoS or some ad hoc organization) would have responsibility for the post conflict phase (e.g., an assumption by some in 2003). Today we say that the inter-agency will take care of the post conflict phase -- but we forget that DoD is a full partner in the interagency community as well, i.e., it is part of the "whole of government". It is wrong to say "DoD and the Interagency". We are the interagency. But today we want to establish a stabilization corps or nation building corps as well as an advisory corps and I am afraid that we will paint false expectations and continue to plan in a stovepipe manner because we think someone else will deal with the aftermath. GEN Powell's adage of "you break it you buy it" still holds true and there is always going to always be a large DoD requirement as part of the "interagency or whole of government solution" so we need to plan for it from the beginning. Again the key is to conduct planning (and execute operational art) to ensure that all elements of the campaign are designed/orchestrated to contribute to ultimate success in post-conflict vice just victory in the battles and engagements. Of course ideally we will not need to execute future Afghanistans and Iraqs and we won't have to depose regimes and develop security forces from the ground up. Then we can get back to advising and assisting our friends, partners, and allies, behind the scenes and help them be successful at solving their internal and trans-regional challenges (e.g. Colombia) without large scale US military intervention!!

Colonel David S. Maxwell, U.S. Army, is a Special Forces officer with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College. The opinions he expresses in this paper are his own and represent no U.S. Government or Department of Defense positions.


Discuss here (comments) and at Small Wars Council



Thank you for making the point. I wish I had included that as my conclusion. When I think of full spectrum I think of our ability to be able to do both - conventional fire and manuever and COIN. I fully agree that they should not be mutually exclusive and that we should not favor one over the other.



Tue, 07/22/2008 - 11:07am

With all due respect to the participants why are COIN and conventional warfare exclusive to each other? In other words why can not both sides be right?

Conventional manuever warfare when employed correctly will prevail on an attritionist opponent, while guerillas can out maneuver both if led correctly.

Given the great disparity in strength and technological level it is highly unlikely that a conventional army will try itself against the US armed fores yet it cannot be completely ruled out.

OTOH insurgencies crop out like weed some even in our/your backdoor. We cennot be ignorant about them as well.

It might be superfluous to remind the highly esteemed forum members, that Mao demanded from his illiterate soldiers to be able to fight conventionally and/or in guerilla style, at the same time.

"The doctrine pipeline flows from Kandahar to CALL to JRTC in a matter of hours now"

Thank God, that's what the task requires. Thank God the Military recognized what was happening and got behind its' soldiers and leaders.

Gian Gentile is right to call people on being dogmatic..but doesn't the truth of what's happening on the ground, as opposed to the Hollwoodland marketing that is probably necessary address that concern?

Ken White

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 11:33pm

True -- and that is a good thing.

They can handle it.

MSG Proctor

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 11:19pm

Maybe unleashed is appropriate, Ken, but I believe the expectations, demands and actual deliverables for our small unit leaders are demanding a savvy beyond the old ARTEP standards.

Ken White

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 9:28pm

Good post and all true, John. Though I would question one small thing:<blockquote>"This is an entirely unprecedented environment requiring "garduate level" platoon leaders and NCOs."</blockquote>Unprecedented to a great extent I'll agree but graduate level -- or just unleashed?

MSG Proctor

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 7:53pm

Thanks, SWJED. Allow me to make a clarification, if I may. Most of us can recall the dog-eared paper FMs with cammo smudges on the covers/pages, yellow highlighter over essential passages, red underlines and notes scribbled in the margins. Ah, the good old days, when a field manual had a bona fide shelf life of 5 years and even then the modifications/improvements were incremental and often based on equipment suites more than doctrinal evolution.

Those days are gone. Enter asymmetric warfare against non-state actors in noncontiguous battle space. Enter Information Operations as the unifying function of effects-based operations in a real-time, global media environment. Enter robots, unmanned ISR platforms, google earth and the global positioning system. Enter religion, not political ideology as the driving animus of contemporary belligerents.

Now we can log on to CALL, download TTP/lessons learned from 4-5 different units constituted somewhat (or precisely) like our own, suck out the TTP that worked, download their SOPs, checklists, job aids and slides and meld them into our own unique approach whether it is supported by current doctrine or not. The reality is that leiutenants and sergeants are developing doctrine (with a small 'd') every day in countering a supremely adaptive enemy. Capstone doctrine like 3-0 and 3-24 are eminently necessary but hardly showstoppers when not available.

GEN Petraeus developed a whole new attitude towards doctrine while serving as CAC commander. He made doctrine digital - something that could be edited as easily as a Word document by the stroke of a few keys. That's where we are today, that's what I meant by saying we are in a post-paper FM era. The doctrine pipeline flows from Kandahar to CALL to JRTC in a matter of hours now. This is an entirely unprecedented environment requiring "garduate level" platoon leaders and NCOs.


Ken White

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 3:31pm

Thanks, Dave.

I caught the edit before I hit 'Post' but didn't address the Typhoon as IMO it had no bearing on the issue. Given the state of weather forecasting at the time, a guy who had a war to fight and whose decision it was by the book to make made probably the same decision most anyone else in his shoes would have, even careful Ray Spruance.

Having lived on Guam three years later (<i>after</i> the Fleet Weather Central was established and all the new WX stations had been spotted around the Pacific post '45) and having seen first hand how bad a Typhoon can be and how quickly one can appear, I do not at all blame Halsey for the Typhoon or the loss of life. War forces bad choices.

I will note that all the services are far more cautious in all respects now as opposed to then and that in the eyes of many current beholders risk is not enjoyed -- or even accepted by some if it can be at all avoided. It was a different time...


Sun, 07/20/2008 - 2:38pm

Got it Ken and understand. So others will know - I was editing my comment as Ken was probably posting a reply - I added the bit about <i>Halsey's Typhoon</i> during the cross-posting...

Ken White

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 2:31pm

No, you didn't say that. Nor did I say or imply that you did, I said <i>the thread</i>. Had I targeted a particular item, I'd have had no problem naming names...

You said basically the same thing I said -- most of us need a guide; that book is as good a guide as any; a guide is not the final arbiter of what gets done. I agree with what you said.

<b><i>I'm</i></b> not suggesting an alternative to FM 3-24; I have no problem with it. It was needed and it now exists and that's good, I was simply trying to point out that it is not the final word on the topic ad infinitum and that the debate will continue. I have no quarrel with its thrust or guidance and am not and have not knocked it other than to say I think its too academically oriented and too long -- that's a very minor form and not a functional criticism.

I was also pointing out what I thought was a simple fact; that doctrinal guidance is not the be-all and end-all. Guidance is needed but in the end one has to make decisions that may deviate from the written word [hat's my understatement for the upcoming week. ;)] and that ought to be okay...

As to Halsey, possibly better but none I could quickly recall that fit what I wanted to say. As an aside, One should probably weigh Leyte Gulf against the whole career. I don't know many real senior people who universally achieved great success; <i>everyone</i> makes mistakes. Everyone.


Sun, 07/20/2008 - 2:06pm

<i>The thread then seems to descend into a belief that doctrine is the goal.</i>

Who said that Ken? <b>Not I.</b> I'm Lt. John Doe, I've orders to <i>Afghanaraqappines</i> - I need something to <b>get me in the box on what I might face</b>. I might also not recieve the training warranted my new assignment - do you have a better alternative than FM 3-24? Or should I sit back in the comfort zone - knowing full-well that eventually I'll be doing "full spectrum ops" and my immediate concern is an aberration?

As an aside - <a href=",_Jr.">Admiral Halsey</a> is <b>not a good example</b> of someone who threw off regulations to achieve great success - Leyte Gulf and Typhoon Cobra (<i>Halsey's Typhoon</i>) come to mind here. I think there are better vignettes and combat leaders to support...

Ken White

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 1:37pm

Interesting thread. The original post is germane to the discussion of priorities. A discussion that has been taking place, off and on, for centuries and likely will continue to do so long after we're all gone.

That post also points out that the Army can and does adapt and does that fairly well; I'd even say amazingly well for such a large bureaucracy. The thread then seems to descend into a belief that doctrine is the qoal.

It is not, mission success is the goal. Doctrine is merely a small step in that direction, it is guide, no more and one must adapt to the same old METT-TC problems with which we've all had to cope. I think this quote sums it up:<blockquote>"Regulations were meant to be intelligently disregarded."</blockquote><i>Halsey, W. F. Jr.</i>


Sun, 07/20/2008 - 12:46pm

I wholeheartedly agree with John in that we have seriously by-passed the era of "paper" static doctrine. I have read and reread FM 3-24 and find its usefulness lies in clueing me in on "how to think" - not "what to think." While that may sound like a sound-bite I believe that if you "dont get it" you wont get FM 3-24. If you read Counterinsurgency with an open mind, cross reference and throw back its theories against experience or contemporary COIN literature I believe it is a very useful doctrinal publication. I would hope that the intent is the FM is a living document to be debated and improved upon.

To quote from the Preface - <i>Doctrine by definition is broad in scope and involves principles, tactics, techniques, and procedures applicable worldwide. Thus, this publication is not focused on any region or country and is <b>not intended to be a standalone reference. Users should assess information from other sources to help them decide how to apply the doctrine in this publication to the specific circumstances facing them.</b></i> And from the Introduction - <i> In COIN, the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly--the better learning organization--usually wins. Counterinsurgencies have been called learning competitions. Thus, this publication identifies <b>"Learn and Adapt"</b> as a modern COIN imperative for U.S. forces. However, Soldiers and Marines cannot wait until they are alerted to deploy to prepare for a COIN mission. Learning to conduct complex COIN operations begins with study beforehand. This publication is a good <b>place to start.</b></i>

MSG Proctor

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 11:27am


I am unqualified to comment on your observations being a mere staff NCO, but Galula seems to have been hamstrung by the OBJs of the French colonial suzerainty - and eventually overcome by the indigenous Algerian rejection of empire. In my estimation P4 accurately and circumspectly draws lessons learned from Algeria as the Algerian insurgency was to a great degree the forerunner for today's Islamist global insurgency. In that light, FM 3-24 is a contemporary doctrinal foundation, seeing we are in an age of FMIs, CALL products and "instant TTP development". If you are in some way conflating the current FM 3-24 with the AirLand Battle doctrine of the 1990s, I believe we have moved beyond the paper FM era and into a new era of doctrinal development, employment and criticism.

While I concede that empire and colony are loaded terms, they are germaine to this dioscussion inasmuch as the US foreign policy is unique in the history of COIN in regard to our complete divorcement from empire/colony and our commitment to build self-governing nations with an all-volunteer force.


Gian P Gentile

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 11:15am


No doubt, but the overall approach to it is still Galula. Go to FM 3-24 and note on the "Acknowledgments Page" at the beginning of the manual the three works listed: Galula, Thompson, and a more recent 2005 article in "The New Yorker" on learning and adapting in coin.

Or to playfully quip, call FM 3-24 "Galula-Heavy," or "Trinquier Light."

Galula, Thompson, etc all saw information as critical although they used different terms and language to describe that concept.

The terms "colonizing" and "empire" are historically and contextually loaded terms and are contingent. Galula and the French in Algeria were certainly about maintaining it as a colony. Thompson and the British in Malaya were about gradually ending Malaya as a colony of the empire.


MSG Proctor

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 11:04am


This much IS new:

* Global, religion-inspired insurgency;
* Real time communications and instant, global reach of media;
24 hour news cycles;
* Counterinsurgents NOT interested in colonizing, occupying or erstwhile governing in the host nation;
* The pre-emminent role of IO in today's COIN Ops;
* All-volunteer forces performing COIN in persistent conflict.

IMHO, these variables summon an unprecedented depth of cognitive agility.

Gian P Gentile

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 10:55am

I agree with Dave Maxwells excellent epistle on the fallacy of considering coin "the graduate level of war."

To build on his most excellent epistle, it is interesting to note that the Coin experts of past and present have contained a large amount of hubris in that they have discerned a new and revolutionary form of war, that they then construct a "straw-man" argument of a conventional minded big army not getting it, and that they and only they have the secret code to success in Coin. The French officers of "Guerre Revolutionairre" (French Revolutionary War School of the early 1960s) like Roger Trinquier, David Galula, Sir Robert Thompson (I know he was British but his recommended methods and approach to coin were exactly the same as the French officers) all believed that they held the key to success in countering an insurgency. If you read their writings they also held a subtle but still apparent level of contempt for the "conventional" minded army. David Galula in his extended essay on pacification in Algeria shows noticeable frustration that his own operations were not appreciated by higher command because he was not "killing the enemy." To be fair to these earlier coin experts, what they did as far as highlighting the different nature of coin from other forms of war, the notion that it ultimately is a political affair (but to be honest, when is war not ultimately about the political and the people, as Dave Maxwell so rightly highlights?) and that politics in coin are infused at the tactical level of war where squads, platoons, companies, etc operate was a needed corrective to conventional armies that had just come out of the World War II experience. But please, enough is enough. Who in the American army or marines or air force, or coast gaurd today can not recite the coin dictum that politics is 80% to 20% military.

FM 3-24 is filled with this hubris; the lead quote to Chapter 1 by the famous Special Forces officer states that coin is "the graduate level of war."

FM 3-24 is also narrowly defined and fundamentally premised on the approach to coin established by Galula, Thompson etc over 40 years ago in a galaxy far, far away. Yes, FM 3-24 is at its most basic element a doctrine that shows an army how to learn and adapt in Coin; but that learning and adapting must lead the army to the methods and approaches established on its pages and that is protracted peoples war requiring large amounts of American combat force presence on the ground. There really are no other alternatives (except for one short 5 line paragraph on "limited options in Coin) offered by the manual. It is in this sense that I have argued in many other places that the American Army has become dogmatic in how it approaches problems of insurgencies. The manual, for all of its literary brilliance is teleological in nature; that is to say everything in it points to a certain and prescribed path with a definite and discrete end point. As a hypothetical to highlight this point, if a set of senior army and marine planners were confronted with a problem of insurgency in the world, and they looked to FM 3-24 for options in confronting it, they would only get one: go in and rebuild the nation.

In effect FM 3-24 and Counterinsurgency as a term have become code, simply stated, for nation building. As Dave Maxwell points out we associate success in Coin with "winning." And in our current operational environments "winning" has come to be understood as the rebuilding of nations with Coin doctrine (that is protracted peoples war, population-centric, people oriented coin, whatever flavor you want to use to describe it) as its tactical, operational, and strategic method. See the currently running essay by Kurt Amend on the SWJ Magazine on coin for diplomats. After I read his essay, I was left with the question in my mind of what if the diplomat determines that after careful analysis that coin/nation building is not the answer in a given country. His essay at least, like FM 3-24, does not provide any alternatives. It is nation building or bust.

Why is it that we have constructed a doctrine for counterinsurgency so narrowly prescribed and focused? Why is it that we have based our coin doctrine on the writings of coin experts (Galula, Thompson, etc) who lived and fought in a completely different world than that of ours today? There are other options for conducting a counterinsurgency campaign other than the population-centric method. These other options have historical and theoretical roots too. For example, why do we privilege Galula over CE Callwell in FM 3-24? Why do we think that Galulas world of Coin is closer to ours of today than say Chas. Callwells world of the late 19th Century? In fact if one looks hard there are actually closer similarities to Callwells world to ours of today than that of Galula et al who were trying to counter a discrete set of causes at the end of World War II that brought about many communist and nationalist inspired insurgencies. The point here is not to call for (the critique many coin experts default to whenever the "enemy-centric approach" is offered) a scorched earth approach to coin where we "simply lift off and nuke the entire site from orbit." Instead it is to argue that there are other options for conducting counterinsurgency that can use limited means and in limited ways that might at times focus on killing the enemy rather than winning the peoples hearts and minds. But if we continue to view success in coin with winning, and in winning we then mean the rebuilding of the entire nation, then we truly will become dogmatic and continue to wear down an already severely strained American army.

The importance of Dave Maxwells epistle, as I read it, is to show how the arrogance of considering coin the graduate level of war has so beaten down our Army that we can no longer think creatively about war and conflict and what truly is the "graduate level" of war for the military professional; the operational art.

MSG Proctor

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 5:18am

One extremely important distinction between current COIN Ops and historical examples of insurgency is the central role of religion in the WoT. Wars always involve ideology and frequently contest competing theological visions. Yet this war is being waged against the west by those whose raison detere (sp) is 'God's will'.

In this sense, my humble opinion is not so much that COIN as a theory requires graduate level aptitude, but that COIN involving the complex dynamics of Islam (in the biblical location of the Garden of Eden, Abraham's birthplace, ancient Babylon, no less) requires a cognitive expertise exceeding previous wars because of the possibility of inflaming religious tensions that may/can instigate not only WW III, but perhaps the Apocalypse envisioned by all three Abrahamic Traditions.

See: Rand National Defense research Institute's study: "Heads We Win: Improving Cognitive Effectiveness in Counterinsurgency".

Ken White

Sun, 07/20/2008 - 1:27am

One could add to your last paragraph that allowing others to initiate action is an old American tradition -- but that it need not be so and, in this era, should not be. It is not only possible to preempt without attacking, it's desirable.

I believe the last time you wrote an article here, I commented that it was excellent and agreed wholeheartedly. This one is even better.

We've got to stop meeting like this...