Small Wars Journal

The American Way of War after COIN's Waterloo: An Interview with Fred Kaplan

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Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War., published by Simon & Schuster in January 2013.

Octavian Manea: What is the meaning of “The End of the Age of Petraeus”? Is COIN in danger to be forgotten again as a methodology and technique, know how, skills set and “purged it from our lexicon and put the doctrine we had developed on the shelf“ (in the words of General Jack Keane)? Are we, at this stage, in a some sort of a pivoting away process from the large scale, protracted, expeditionary stability operations?

Fred Kaplan: Afghanistan was COIN's Waterloo. The internal debate over Obama's policy in 2009-10 was so interwoven with a debate over COIN that when Afghanistan failed--at least by the standards that justified the president's surge of 33,000 extra troops--then COIN was seen as having failed too, or at least as having proved itself too limited, too risky, too time-consuming to justify its extraordinary investment in lives and treasure. There are certain generals--Odierno, Dempsey, McMaster, others--who are trying to preserve "the lessons of 11 years of war" (aka the lessons and principles of COIN), but this will be hard to do, given that COIN is no longer a "core mission," ie, given that the president, in his February 2012 strategy review, declared that the Army and Marines will no longer size forces for large-scale, prolonged stability operations.

OM: Does expeditionary COIN (in its version of large scale/protracted stability operations) have any future? Or are we returning to a much more lighter special ops/advising/training COIN brand as the one that Petraeus had in mind when he (shadow) wrote the General Galvin’s piece on “Uncomfortable Wars: Toward a New Paradigm”? It seems that many of the current trends suggest that the COIN brand (in both of its above flavors) has a future, at least in theory: the phenomenon of failed and weak states is here to stay with us; more over, as the latest NIC report (Global trends 2030: Alternative worlds) points out, the hybrid warfare will be a major shaper of the international security environment. And because of these trends, it is not inconceivable to see the US military fighting again wars among people in urban settings.

FK: The US tends to get into these kinds of wars, deliberately or otherwise, once every generation, but the previous instance had proved so dreadful that, immediately afterward, the generals ignore, or toss away, every lesson learned from it - so we spend the first few years of the next war screwing it up. But the "light-footprint" operations (drones, SOF commandos) are very tempting, and, yes, I think does constitute a new spin on "comfortable wars." The comfortable war that Galvin / Petraeus talked about was the firepower-intensive big war that was seen on the horizon between the US and USSR. The light-footprint campaigns we're fighting now are more comfortable still, in that very few Americans get killed in them, and they tend to be conducted under heavy wraps of classification. We can fight wars without very many people even knowing that we are. The danger is that the political leaders and commanders can easily trick themselves into believing that what they're doing isn't fighting wars - isn't without risk or destructiveness.

OM: Can we talk and point to a “Petraeus Generation”? An Accidental Generation? Or by design? I mean most of “the insurgents” (the COINdinistas) shared a common cognitive map or were influenced to some extent by the same “big ideas”: the classic COIN masters (Galula, Thompson, Kitson, Larteguy), classic COIN campaigns (Malaya, Vietnam) or by the “moot-wah” wars of the 1990s.

FK: The key thing is that an entire generation of officers has fought, and trained for, COIN-style wars - and no other kind. This is bound to have some kind of enduring impact. Also the fact that the Soviet Union has since imploded means that, much as some might like to do so, the military can't go back to the firepower-intensive wars ("the American way of war"; there's no logical enemy for them. Hard to say.) Some of these officers were influenced by the "big ideas," but the bigger influence was their experience. As far back as the mid-'80s, when the generals of the day were referring to any conflict smaller than major combat operations as "Military Operations Other Than War" (moot-wah), the junior officers were engaged in precisely those kinds of conflicts (Salvador, Somalia, Bosnia, etc.) - and they sure felt like war to the officers. Iraq and Afghanistan, especially from 2007 on, solidified this sense.

OM: In his 2011 farewell address, General Petraeus sent this message: “we have relearned since 9/11 the timeless lesson that we don't always get to fight the wars for which we are most prepared or most inclined. Given that reality, we will need to maintain the full-spectrum capability that we have developed over this last decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere”. How would you describe the American Way of War before and after the so-called COINdinistas revolution? Was its purpose that of rebalancing (to use a trendy word) the American Way of War in order to create full-spectrum organization, with both conventional and unconventional institutional instincts?

FK: You've hit on the existential crisis that the Army is very much undergoing now: what IS "the new American way of war," and what is the Army's place in it? "Full-spectrum operations" is a nice phrase, but I'm not sure what it means, and I'm not sure the Army's leaders do either. It says, "We don't know what threats we'll be facing, so we have to train a little bit for everything." But you still need to make priorities, which influence training, procurement, recruitment, the criteria for promotion. What are those priorities? 

OM: Should we see the COINdinistas revolution as the RMA equivalent of the post 9/11 decade? Will its legacy endure?

FK: When Robert Gates said in 2006 that Iraq and Afghanistan are the models for future war, and when the 2007 promotion board gave stars to the most COIN-creative colonels, it looked like COIN would be the new thing. When Gates said in 2011, shortly before resigning, that only someone who's out of his mind would recommend sending large-scale forces to the Middle East for another war, and when the Iraq formula failed in Afghanistan, it looked like the COIN revolution was done.

OM: How would you assess the role of West Point’s “Sosh Mafia” in the COINdinistas revolution?

FK: The Sosh Mafia (as its members called themselves) was very important. The Social Science Department of West Point was created right after WWII by Brig Gen George "Abe" Lincoln, a former Rhodes Scholar, who'd served as General Marshall's aide during the War and who saw that, with the US facing global responsibilities, the Army would need to educate a new kind of officer, schooled in politics, economics, and military matters - hence the Sosh department. He also created a network, in which alumnae of the "Lincoln Brigade" (as they also called themselves) would give each other jobs, exchange ideas. When COIN gained currency, this group's knowledge of politics, economics, society and war - and the connections among them - made the idea resonate. The networking they'd picked up on also made it second-nature to form a new kind of network. As I relate in my book, in great detail, every aspect of the revolution that Petraeus led involved - and, in most cases, had its roots in - the Sosh mafia.

OM: You started the interview with a key conclusion. “Afghanistan was COIN's Waterloo.” What was wrong with COIN in Afghanistan? Was that, as an expeditionary counterinsurgent, “you are as performant as the host nation government you support”?

FK: Yes, that's basically it. I'm not the one who makes that argument. As a general principle, it's a core principle of COIN doctrine. A French colonial officer, Col. David Galula, wrote a book in 1962 called Counterinsurgency Warfare. Petraeus, Nagl, Kilcullen - all the leading COIN thinkers read and re-read Galula's book. In it there's a chapter titled "Prerequisites for a Successful Insurgency." He lists the characteristics of a country that make it prime bait for insurgents, that increase the odds an insurgency will win. They included: a corrupt central state, a largely rural and illiterate population, a bordering state that's used as a sanctuary... Add them up, it's a portrait of Afghanistan. David Kilcullen made a point in a 2008-09 COIN manual that he wrote for civilian policymakers: "it is folly," he wrote, to undertake a COIN operation abroad if it's petty clear the regime isn't interested in reforming. He also wrote that, before going with a COIN operation, US policymakers "must" make a calculation of how interested the regime is in reform. This is a calculation the Obama administration didn't know to make during its first year in office - and that the military commanders who advised the president purposefully avoided, or evaded.

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.


I have asked this question at a much earlier thread but it seems worth repeating:

"Minus the financial crisis, would COIN have been so easily and so quickly abandoned?"

Let us also consider that the abandonment of COIN may have (1) much less to do with Afghanistan and (2) much more to do with the overall decline of the West and the corresponding rise of the East.

Given these considerations, we can now frame the central statement and question in a possibly more correct manner, for example:

The financial crisis looks to have signaled the West's Waterloo. In the new world order which will follow, one which is dominated by the East and one in which the West is likely to adopt a foreign policy approach known as "off-shore balancing," what will be the new American Way of War?

(Thus, COIN's demise -- and the new American way of war -- to be considered, not from the perspective of how things went in Afghanistan but, rather, from perspective of [1] the overall and general decline of the West and [2] how this decline was accellerated by the recent financial crisis.)

Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 04/07/2013 - 10:58am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

So I went and read through some of the 1990's Congressional testimony on the Taliban (the stuff that's online, obviously).

Many of the same names from that period resurface, as in the proposed Holbrooke/Clinton diplomatic teams.

There is an amusing New York Times (1992) article about the whole sixties "Big Chill" crew from Cambridge (Rhodes scholars) associated with the Clinton administration.

All the same players, all the same people. Same for the the last Bush administration, as in "The Vulcans."

Curious, the personal networks within the State Department and the military and their durability from decade to decade.

I am not being conspiratorial. It's our system. To our detriment, unfortunately. Revolving door of officials and business lobbyists.

And then Americans wonder how it is that American interests never seem to take the front seat? We might as well let foreign lobbying take place in public, it would be easier to follow.

How can anyone think this would have worked, given that the specific players have a long history in that part of the world and bring a lot of baggage to the table? You would never have got approval to even begin discussing larger regional issues, unless that wasn't the plan.

Unless the real plan was a signal, "we give you this quid pro quo, now help us out."

From Tom Ricks blog:

<blockquote>I just want to throw in the question that [British] Lt. Gen. Sir Graeme Lamb sent. He couldn't be here today. General Lamb said, "My question is, given the direction I had -‘remove the Taliban, mortally wound al Qaeda, and bring its leadership to account' -- who came up with the neat idea of rebuilding Afghanistan?"</blockquote>…

I think I know. Inertia is a very powerful factor and it is all of a piece with that late 90's period and the way in which various people talked about Afghanistan: the way the State Department talked about Afghanistan, and the advisors to the Bush and Gore presidential campaigns talked about Afghanistan, and the way congressionals of the time talked about Afghanistan, and so on and so on and so on....

Intertia, the most powerful human force in the American (and allied) military and diplomatic affairs. Well, inertia and expansion.

Wish I hadn't read the testimony. It's nothing new or different. There are no surprises, it's the same old stuff talked about all the time. It's just that it reminds me, institutionally, we are not up to the mark at times.

Careful with this JSOC/CIA drone "mind meld" thing. Careful you don't spread disorder around, careful "paying people off", even if inadvertently. You can see the perverse incentives, yes? If you pay for something, you will get more of it.

It all hinges on regional understanding and intelligence and how it fits into a strategy of national interests, yet an aggressive focus doesn't always allow for thought.

I don't know. Maybe I am making things up again.

PS: That is why <strong>Col. Gentile</strong> sometimes confuses me. I read the same original testimony and documents and see the word Taliban everywhere.

Anyway, not all things are written down, not all things that animate decision makers. I wish he still commented here, I'd love to ask the question. Am I reading these things incorrectly?

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 03/28/2013 - 12:01am

Talk about digital "insurgencies"! I keep high-jacking threads around here, but that only seems to fit the theme of the Kaplan book, expanding on the various COINTRA/COINDINISTA arguments....

<blockquote>It is not surprising that, in his defense of <strong>Holbrooke, Nasr</strong> focuses on reconciliation - a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. This was the great "what if?" In his defense of <strong>Holbrooke, Nasr</strong> writes that Holbrooke, just before his death, had "found a way out that just might work", but refused to tell his wife "until he told the president first". Then, of course, he died, taking his McGuffin with him. This is amateur movie plotting, not political analysis.</blockquote>


<blockquote>When Nasr describes the "internet start-up" dynamic of Holbrooke's office, with its "constant flow of new ideas, like how to cut corruption and absenteeism among the Afghan police by using mobile banking and cell phones to pay salaries; how to use text messaging to raise money for refugees; or how to stop the Taliban from shutting down mobile-phone networks by putting cell towers on military bases," a reasonable person could be excused for seeing in this frenzied creativity a lack of focus and a dissipation of energy that might be fatal to a complex diplomatic endeavor, rather than the laboratory of the solution to Afghan stability that Nasr implies.</blockquote>…

What has always puzzled me was the initial attempt to employ a "grand regional strategy" in order to stem violence in Afghanistan, based on the idea that the United States had the leverage to square the circle between competing insider and outsider national interests in Afghanistan.

But this has never worked in the past and I don't know how it has become status quo thinking within the American and Western Foreign policy establishment (which the military leadership then absorbs into its own thinking and doctrines).

American envoys were sent packing from the region in the 1950's, when the United States was at its post WWII peak and SA powers at their weakest point.

The United States has even less leverage today and not simply because of troops in Afghanistan with logistical needs, but because of the nature of our trade relationships and the growing military and economic power of various Asian nations. So, if the President stating a withdrawal date prevented leverage in negotiations as Dr. Nasr states, why waste precious time on bargaining in the wrong way with the wrong people?

<blockquote>Despite Karzai’s desire to hold talks with the Taliban, and Qatar’s agreement for them to open an office in Doha, the insurgents have not yet accepted the offer.
The Taliban have long refused to speak directly with Karzai or his government, which they view as a puppet of foreign powers. They have said they will negotiate only with the United States, which has in the past held secret talks with them in Qatar. But at Karzai’s insistence, the U.S. has since sought to have the insurgents speak directly with the Afghan government.</blockquote>…

This back-and-forth is very reminiscent of the 1990's when the then Clinton administration attempted to negotiate with the Taliban. This is not meant as a partisan point; I am not interested in that sort of thing.

It may simply be that we don't have it in our power to square the circle on all the competing interests, either military or diplomatically, at least not in the time periods available to us.

By counterinsurgency and "cutting deals" (my earlier comments), I was referring to the colonial wars of the past and the points made by <strong>Paul Staniland</strong> about South Asian insurgencies: either you flood the field with a counterinsurgency force and lots of troops, or you make timely concessions.

But these are not external powers cutting deals, these are national issues, hence, it's an insurgency and not something else.

All the puzzle pieces have to fit or it doesn't work so I sometimes don't understand the assurances people make when they state that 'if only we had done "X", then we would have "Y" outcome'. It's too complicated for that to be the case, IMO.

Bill M.

Mon, 03/25/2013 - 1:35am

In reply to by Bill C.

You don't start off with the ways, you start off by defining the ends, then determine the most appropriate means and ways.

I can't imagine anything positive coming from a large stability operation in Mexico; however, there are situations in the world where such a course of action may be desired, and in those cases as I stated above you would need the Army to conduct the occupation.

Bill C.

Sun, 03/24/2013 - 11:19pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M:

Changing the focus somewhat:

If an extremely severe crisis were to occur in a country of significant strategic value and importance (Mexico?),

Then could we really afford to (1) limit our footprint (say to such things as SOF and drones) and (2) ultimately leave success or failure to the host-nation/partner-nation?

Or, in such a circumstance, might we need to:

a. Have large footprint forces and

b. Forces having the knowledge, skills, abilities and capabilities needed to ENSURE a proper outcome in this strategically valuable and important state?

(Herein, the flag flying over, for example, Mexico, would stay the Mexican flag throughout our involvement.)

My scenerio above suggesting that the "limited footprint/leave success or failure to the HN/PN" policy might only apply to those cases in which the nation we were assisting (1) was mostly capable of handling its own difficulties, (2) was of little/less strategic value or (3) had only small and/or less-significant problems.

Bill M.

Sun, 03/24/2013 - 1:29pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.

You are presenting foreign policy as it has always been practiced as a conspiracy. Of course we (and others) intervene when we believe it is in our interests to do so, and avoid entanglements when we don't think it is our interests to get involved by supporting the host or partner nation. It is no secret to those we are assisting that we're providing assistance to achieve our ends when we have shared interests.

The "by, with, and through" mantra that some push misrepresents reality, because it incorrectly labels every other nation in the world as "our" proxy instead of partner. It is a cowardly phrase that implies we don't have the will or means to pursue our own security objectives, and more importantly it leaves our partners open to conspiracy theories about being a U.S. proxy. In reality we collaborate and enable partners when we have common interests.

To your points.

a. I can see where people would get that perception, and if we don't shift our language from proxy to partner we are setting ourselves up for strategic narrative defeat.

b. That seems a little over the top to me, but no doubt it will be part of the adversary's narrative to make the HN/PN government appear illegimate. Not sure why we would provide support to one side or the other if we weren't taking sides based on our interests, and I don't think our partners would find that surprising. Off the cuff there appears to be at four options for military involvement: FID (support the HN), UW (support the insurgency), Peace Operations (take no sides), and no involvement. Let's not forget that those we support our playing us too.

c. Only if allow that to happen, but if we limit our footprint and ultimately leave the success or failure of the HN/PN's efforts then we avoid this trap. Yes we make our aid contingent on HN behavior, if they commit major human rights violations we can pull our support and let the government fall. It isn't our loss or win.

SOF and drones are tools, not a strategy, but they are often the best tools to achieve limited ends short of war.

Bill C.

Sun, 03/24/2013 - 12:51am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M:

"... if it isn't our country and we're not an occupying power then we are not doing COIN. We are assisting the host nation with its internal defense and development strategy ..."

But what if we were to look at this in a somewhat different way, for example, through the lense of empire.

If the United States sees itself as the leader -- and head governor -- of much if not all of the world,


a. The leader/ruler of the now improperly called "host nation" is to be seen simply as our agent and our vassel; someone who we hope to use to achieve OUR defensive and development strategy.

b. And the rebellion/insurgency, accordingly, is not actually against this subordinate country and its leader but, in all truth, against the United States and its agenda.

c. And, thus, the counterinsurgency effort, likewise, belongs primarily to us -- the United States. (Herein, as we would use and pay the governor of this subordinate nation to achieve our objectives, likewise we would need to provide him/her with the means to overcome those who would actively resist our direct/indirect rule -- and our initiatives.)

Stated another way:

COL Jones, I believe, often starts by saying that if the flag flying over the country one is in is that of the United States, then one is doing counterinsurgency. But if the flag that is flying over the country one is in is that of a foreign nation, then we are doing foreign internal defense.

In the scenerio I have outlined above, the United States believes, by virtue of it winning the Cold War, that the flag flying over much, if not all, of the world is -- in all reality -- that of the United States.

How does this perspective change our considerations re: COIN's Waterloo, the use of drone strikes and SOF commandos, etc.?

Afghanistan won't be COIN's Waterloo anymore than Vietnam was, but some us hope it will remain a strong reminder on the limits of our military power. Seems Kaplan repeatedly confuses FID and COIN when he refers to our growing preference for easy wars where we use SOF and drones to achieve our ends. It is very simple, if it isn't our country and we're not an occupying power we're not doing COIN. We are assisting the host nation with its internal defense and development strategy against whatever internal threats it may be dealing with (criminal, terrorist, insurgency), and in some cases using SOF and drones are appropriate. We don't need a large footprint to do that, and in fact large footprints in such situations have almost always turned out to be counterproductive. Don't confuse appropriate responses with being uncomfortable with war and occupations.

What lessons does Kaplan actually think we're at risk of losing? To claim we forgot how to do FID and counterguerrilla operations denies the fact that U.S. Special Forces never quit doing these operations after Vietnam and have been doing them quite well in most cases with small footprint operations globally. However, Special Forces can't effectively conduct occupation operations, so in those rare cases when we over throw another government or respond militarily to a failed state we'll need the Army to provide large scale stability, so quite simply strategy drives the appropriates response, not Kaplan's prefered doctrine.

We should all question whether we learned the right lessons for these occupation/stability operations at the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) level (but we did improve). On the other hand I think it is hard to assess our the efficacy of our TTP is we have a flawed strategy. Ultimately more important is whether or not we learnt the right lessons at the policy and strategy level. If we did, then Who learned them and can we be confident they'll be incorporated in future efforts? When American soldiers have good leaders that allow tactical innovation I'm confident they'll adapt at the tactical level, but if the strategy is flawed to what end? In my opinion our narrative focuses too much at the tactical level, which shifts focus from where it needs to be, which is on the strategy level. I suspect if even if we started the war with everyone being educated and trained on our so called "new" COIN doctrine we still would have struggled based on our lack of understanding of all the dynamics at play that ultimately would shape the outcome of the conflict.

The article quotes GEN P,
""General Petraeus sent this message: “we have relearned since 9/11 the timeless lesson that we don't always get to fight the wars for which we are most prepared or most inclined. Given that reality, we will need to maintain the full-spectrum capability that we have developed over this last decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere”.""

That also means we may be called upon to do other than COIN/Stability operations, perhaps a very new type of conflict altogether that we haven't envisioned yet. Instead of our self-proclaimed generation of innovative officers getting locked in on group-think on COIN/Stability Operations, they should strive to become more innovative and consider brand new ideas not tied to historical models. They're very capable of doing so, but they have to know it safe (career wise) to discuss other approaches to war fighting and stability operations.

The era of large scale maneuver warfare may or may not be over (I suspect not), but regardless we have not reached the end of history and there will be other wars, so the question is how should the Army train and organize to fight future wars? It seems we may be clinging to old doctrines (including stability operations) and failing to really transform to face future threats to our nation. I am sure our adversaries would love to see us respond to every failed state with large scale occupations since we would simply defeat ourselves economically, and right now since we're the only force in the world in the world that can defeat us, we have the option of not defeating ourselves by focusing on what is strategically essential. First things first, which is clearly defining national security priorities, then clarifying what are the threats to those interests, and finally developing doctrine that addresses those threats (prevent, deter, disrupt, defeat).

I do not think we're seeing the dying gasps of COIN in the military, but we are seeing the dying gasps of the beltway bandits who made considerable profit pushing large scale COIN interventions through their books and speaking engagements. No doubt these same talking heads will jump on the next security bandwagon with their alledged expertise and shape our future strategic engagements. It is the new American way of war at the strategic level. Generals are marginalized and talking heads drive strategy.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 03/23/2013 - 12:17pm

In reply to by Bill C.

@ Bill C - you might be interested in the following links which are continuation of my previous comments in this thread.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as you do in that I don't think there is some grand conspiratorial plan. We in the US have an expansive and contradictory human muddle of a foreign policy apparatus, civilian and military both, connected to other nations via international institutions and alliances:

<blockquote><strong>Nasr</strong> says he benefited not just from close personal and intellectual bonds with mentors <strong>Lucian Pye and Myron Weiner</strong>, but from the political science department's "new approaches and attitudes," including an openness to interdisciplinary study and multiple methodologies.</blockquote>

I always feel a little funny doing this because I'm afraid it might look like I am intellectually bullying people or making sly insinuations about motivation. I'm not. I just want to understand. That's all.

But on the themes of modernization as a sometime guiding intellectual light within the State Department, and even military doctrine/planning, it's interesting, no?

RAND, Rostow, Galula, Pye at M.I.T, etc.

<blockquote>After a survey of the theory's origins and its role in forming America's postwar sense of global mission, Gilman offers a close analysis of the people who did the most to promote it in the United States and the academic institutions they came to dominate. He first explains how Talcott Parsons at Harvard constructed a social theory that challenged the prevailing economics-centered understanding of the modernization process, then describes the work of Edward Shils and Gabriel Almond in helping Parsonsian ideas triumph over other alternative conceptions of the development process, and finally discusses the role of Walt Rostow and his colleagues at M.I.T. in promoting modernization theory during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.</blockquote>…

My dear COINTRAS, you turned out to be correct about cutting deals and counterinsurgency, but the intellectual vehicles chosen make a similar category error. Hmmm, what do I mean by this weird sentence? Not sure.

For discussion and study, anyway. That's all this is. Because we are careening inward toward Syria due to the same forces, eh?

If war is a continuation of politics by other means and

a. Our goal is to facilitate the westernization of the political, economic and social life -- and the corresponding public and private systems and structures -- of less-western/non-western states and societies.

b. And their goal is to resist -- by all means available -- such westernization.

Then, if not via COIN, then by what "way of war" method (American or other) does the United States:

1. Achieve its objectives (as noted at "a" above) and

2. Overcome/defeat its enemies (as described at "b" above)?

Stated another way:

Will the use of drones and SOF commandos -- as America's new way of war -- best provide that the United States might (1) transform outlier states and societies along modern western lines and (2) defeat those entities who would resist such transformation/westernization?

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 03/22/2013 - 11:32am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

I have some links to add to my point about the COINTRA advice on cutting deals and why I think it didn't, as I say above, "catch fire" with decision makers. If I get a chance, I may add them to threads where appropriate.

Hew Strachan says in one of his YouTube lectures that you have to sort of put yourself mentally in the place of people in the past, a historical empathy if you will. That's what I am trying to do (very imperfectly, obviously).

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 03/22/2013 - 10:54am

To continue my comments on the whole <strong>"COINDINISTA"/ Vali Nasr</strong> article back-and-forth from earlier on in this thread....

<strong>Dr. Nasr</strong> in his Foreign Policy article doesn't explore how former Sec. Clinton wholeheartedly endorsed population-centric counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and the article venerates the Marshall Plan.

Frankly, I don't see much daylight between the two positions because both are rooted in the concept of third party nation building, one in an early twenty-first century American/NATO military way and another the "typical" State department way (which is to hope that properly targeted economic aid will allow a particular type of modern, democratic government to emerge).

Intellectually, both are rooted in the same essential idea of modernization of a "troublesome" state via a third party. This diffuses American and NATO power and misunderstands the true nature of state development, in my opinion.

While I agree with his larger complaints about a meandering policy and its over-reliance on the military, I can't wholly endorse his criticism either because what he offers didn't really work in the 90's under the Clinton administration and may be one reason the COINTRA caution to cut deals with various groups didn't catch fire with the decision-making class. The decision makers had already been burned once, I wager. Well, I'm guessing that is the mental block. I don't know. Just exploring ideas.

But you (who is "you" and why do I keep doing that?) all will not study the history of American and NATO presence within the South Asian region from the 50's onward with any kind of discipline. Why and why and why and, just, WHY?

"You" never do this. Just what are some of you afraid of finding or revealing to the public, I wonder?

From the New Yorker, 2001, on <strong>Marshall Plan</strong> mythologies:

<blockquote>But the Marshall Plan wasn't what we think it was. It did not single-handedly rebuild Western Europe. By the time Marshall aid started to flow, in the spring of 1948, Western Europe was hardly a wasteland. Most of the region's industrial infrastructure—electrical grids, water systems, roadways, and railways—had already been rebuilt. Trains were carrying almost as much freight as they had carried before the war. Industrial production was rebounding.
The real problem facing Europe in 1948 was fear. People were afraid of runaway inflation and political turmoil and skeptical of the free market. Such trepidation made it hard to get down to business. Farmers were reluctant to bring their crops to market. Investors were reluctant to invest. Consumers were reluctant to spend. The Marshall Plan sought to overcome this by letting Europeans know that they would not be allowed to fail. The historian David Reynolds points out, "Marshall's offer was . . . as much about reassurance as recovery."</blockquote>…

I'm sure some will find fault with the specifics of the above but it doesn't matter for the point I am making. My point is that we have a habit of thinking in terms of self-myth and self-history instead of studying a thing as it is, as best we can, even if imperfectly.

As long as I am criticizing others (I greatly respect Dr. Nasr, all of this is only for discussion), I might as well add my own reflection. I am an ignoramus on military matters and military history. As a young adult during the end-of-history 90's, I never thought it mattered, until, one day, it mattered a great deal. I got caught up in a kind of war hysteria because I lacked the knowledge to see my way through it. Any well lived life will have regrets but my regrets here are different. Different category of error. Unforgiveable, really.

Vitesse et Puissance

Thu, 03/14/2013 - 1:12pm

In reply to by semper.analytica

In the book, Kaplan opines that COIN is pretty much dead, due to lack of US public support for such operations in the future. While this may indeed be presumptuous, my problem with his conclusion is that he offers nothing in the way of an alternative future for the US Army...he excludes both combined arms maneuver AND wide area security as useful options. What is there left for the US Army to do ? Nothing, it would appear. This puts us back to the days of the New Look and the Uncertain Trumpet, with nothing at all between unchallenged aggression and Armageddeon. If indeed, America's strategy breaks down to an attempt to induce other nations to fight its battles, in 2017 and beyond, we could well ask, "How's that working out for us ?" Kaplan may be a well-educated and intelligent man, but he is clearly uninterested in probing such questions. And selective engagement should not be, cannot be, an on-off switch.


Wed, 03/13/2013 - 5:35pm

The phrase "COIN's Waterloo" is vastly overstated. I'm not sure if it appears in Kaplan's book; I did not see it in his book-adapted article in the Jan-Feb 2013 <i>Foreign Affairs</i>. At most, as he suggests at the end of the article, the approach needs to be re-envisioned per lessons learned.

The majority of current conflicts around the globe involve irregular or asymmetric warfare, and there is little evidence to suggest this will abate. Many of the COIN tools employed and/or experimented with in Iraq and Afghanistan stress cultural affinity. As Robert R. Greene Sands mentions in another article on this site, Language and Culture in the Department of Defense, "DoD faces a strategic and operational future where promoting our national security will most certainly involve partnering with allies, partner nations and less unstable nation-states, non-state actors and cultural groups (ethnic and tribal associations) to help construct stable governments responsive to their population’s human security needs," quoting the DoD Strategic Guidance. COIN has additionally been enshrined under the more general umbrella of stability operations, now part of US military doctrine, albeit with its latitude of interpretations.

Long-term planners and practitioners should mind recent lessons of COIN but also recall its history, which stretches back centuries. If nation-states are on a long-term trajectory of disintegrating along ethnic and/or religious lines, approaches to 'countering insurgents' will be around for a long time.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 03/09/2013 - 8:15am

Many factors contribute to the failures of modern Western "COIN" - ironically, few of those factors are about the environment or the enemy, they are about ourselves.

- The bias of perspective of the histories our COIN doctrines are derived from.

- The institutional bias of those who prepared such doctrine from those histories.

- The (disturbingly) ideological cant of US national security strategy and foreign policy in the post-Cold War era (though we began down this slippery slope of trading in pragmatic interests and geostrategy for enduring partners/threats and ideology under Ike).

- The obsessive need/desire to "control" the outcome into terms we think will be most favorable to us.

- The degree of violence is a tactical choice, not a strategic framework. Insurgency does not begin and end with violence.

Those are five of the big ones.

When one can step back and not simply parrot back what the manual says, and when one can read those histories from a more neutral position that looks past the war story or the agenda of the side one afiliates with the most closely, one can begin to get closer to "truths" that help to better understand and address such conflicts.

COIN is best thought of as a domestic operation, and only in a post-external conflict resistance movement does it really fit in the framework of "war" or "warfare." If internal in nature it is more civil emergency, and it is the government that is out of step with some segment of the people that needs to be the focus of "fixing."

For external parties coming to help, your actions are addressed by our "FID" doctrine. If you are confused, go to the capital and look to see who's flag flies from the tallest pole. If it is yours, you are doing COIN (enter that captital building and begin fixing the government). If you see the flag of some foreign nation, you are conducting FID. Subjugate your actions to their sovereignty regardless of how ineffective they might be.

COIN mindset seeks to make some other a lesser version of the intervening party. FID mindset seeks to help some partner to become a better version of themself.

We applied the COIN mindset in Iraq and Afghanistan. We applied the FID mindset in the Philippines. Both can be problematic, and one is always a guest, even if uninvited.

Until we can check our ego at the door and learn to accept the risks of uncontrolled outcomes and the sovereignty of smaller hosts, we will continue to suck at these operations.

Vitesse et Puissance

Thu, 03/07/2013 - 1:37pm

After I finished Kaplan's book a few weeks ago, I wrote him a lengthy email trying to explain to him the broader historical context of what he had written. I never received a reply, even a simple courtesy response. Frankly, I don't think the guy has a clue about the nature of modern warfare, or grand strategy, or anything else. He's just a newshound following a story, albeit an interesting story. This would be a good time to go back and reread Maxwell Taylor's "The Uncertain Trumpet", the better to get a handle on the Army's "existential crisis". While Kaplan does reaffirm the Forrestian truth that war means fightin' and fightin' means killin' - he does not really have the moral courage to explain just what that means for the Army's future - or that of the United States of America. If Afghanistan joins Vietnam as a place of lost causes and historical recriminations, that will never address the question of what it takes to win in such situations. People like Kaplan would, it appears, rather lose on the cheap than win dear. Such opinions and attitudes do not help fight and win the next battle, much less the next war. Some day, winning through the application of superior force, however well or poorly used, will matter again.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 03/06/2013 - 11:45am

And another point, it's not just about the regime reforming or not reforming, national motivations of many actors were misjudged because of plain old ignorance. So many scholars, so much money, so many nations, and basic foundational questions ignored (and it was assumed that all nations in the NATO and larger coalition had similar optimal national objectives). This is what happens when an old international order breaks down and a new one is being dreamed.

Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 03/10/2013 - 1:29pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

In the article by Colonel (Ret) John Collins' from 1978, Vietnam Postmortem: A Senseless Strategy (the following SWJ post:, Galula is mentioned.

In the late 70's, as the Army and the military were rethinking things, did this idea that "we didn't study people like Galula" become a kind of tradition among some? Did this idea get passed down from one generation to the next? Rather than the Army forgetting its lessons, was one "dissident" lesson based on this reading of Vietnam? Was there a mythology that existed in some military intellectual corners that got passed down and rediscovered? So, not forgetting lessons but reviving a theory based on an understanding that lay latent in your insitutional memory?

Again, not interested in pointing fingers, just in understanding how things came about.

Also, that paper mentions the 60's Civil Rights movement as an insurgency. Is that where this idea comes from? I've seen it mentioned often here and there on mil sites.

But prior to the Civil Rights movement, there was a lot of violence in American society and the US is a very particular place and that was a very particular time. Lessons from the American Civil Rights movement have to be tailored to the environment and have to be understood correctly. There was a lot of violence that came before to get to a certain point and the US had certain strengths as a society at that time that some other nations don't.

That's why I am as perplexed by the recent <strong>Vali Nasr</strong> article as I am by the claims of the COINDINISTA interpreters. When fear enters the equation, why would anyone trust the advice of people cozying up to those causing fear? Is that not one way conflict becomes intractable? I sort of have the feeling that the (late)Holbrooke/Nasr crowd doesn't really get that.

This is why I wanted a certain group of SA analysts to reflect on their contributions to all of this too.

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 03/08/2013 - 10:42am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

<blockquote>More than a decade of Western involvement has created an enormous industry of alleged experts who claim to have studied Afghanistan from top to bottom. But their authority belies a simple truth: these experts often have a surprisingly limited understanding of this complicated country.
This may appear counterintuitive given the reams of literature prompted by this war. Since 2001, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, economists, historians, and even retired civil servants have made the trek to Afghanistan in large numbers to work and write. Hundreds of books and countless reports have emerged on a myriad of topics intended to benefit reconstruction, along with reprints of every text ever written by any military that has engaged Afghanistan, going all the way back to Alexander the Great.</blockquote>…

It's not just Afghanistan, that seems to be the theme throughout our foreign policy apparatus, unfortunately. The better scholars and writers seem to live in obscurity and the strangest academics writing the strangest papers trotted out as experts. Honestly, wouldn't the military do better to just study things properly instead of hiring the less than intellectually competent? An honest non-expert is probably better.

On the military texts, I think I am looking for something else in terms of my comments above, more along the lines of why this-COM or that-COM views the region and how that thinking has evolved since the early days of the cold war to the present. I know some of these "COMS" didn't exist back then. Sort of my point. Again, more of an intellectual history I guess. A "why do 'they' think <em>that</em>?" primer.

What is the role of GONGOS and NGOS in the NATO firmament in terms of stability operations, etc? A way to route or save money? Placate restless publics?

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 03/06/2013 - 11:30am

There may have been a Waterloo of sorts for "COIN" but there was no such Waterloo for the larger subject of countering an insurgency in its various guises (from the "traditional" to contemporary "insurgent archipelagos"). As <strong>Bob Jones</strong> reminds us here frequently, this is not a purely military topic.

COIN did not fail, a particular country at a particular point in time with a particular military leadership rising up out of a particular experience at a particular point during a particular war or its aftermath tried various things in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan, based on knowledge grown out of Iraq and added to a Cold War/post Cold War, post Vietnam military mindset interested in studying the colonial wars of the past as a guide. This mindset represented only one part of the argument and rose to the top. I am a civilian, so I have no idea how it happened. I don't think the above explanation is the whole story.

There are probably as many ways to counter an insurgency as there are ways to skin a cat. This is kind of a gross way to continue my comment, but focusing on ways to skin the cat instead of understanding that the feline family is large is not going to help.

I know I am sarcastic about Design around here but, truth be told, I am sort of intrigued when not being sarcastic.

<strong>I asked on a previous comment thread if there were scholarly articles on the history of military planning toward the South Asian region (thinking about Afghanistan here). There are tons of books on Vietnam and Galula and almost 1950's era thinking about regional motivating behavior (built on stale and poor quality South Asia policy work by a subset of SA scholars, some of whom are busy shaming COINDINISTAS but are completely clueless about their own negative contributions*) but, unfortunately, I found only ONE easily accessible article answering my question - from 1986.</strong> But I might not be searching correctly.

The road to today goes through this lack-of-thought process but for reasons that are not clear to me it is a subject of almost no interest and Afghanistan our longest war. It is also a topic that is useful in thinking about the larger Asian and Eurasian region, especially in the insurgent archipelago sense. And yet, one article from 1986 plus bits and pieces by current scholars interested in other questions about our relationships in that part of the world after we took over from the British, so to speak.


An article summarizing much of the discussion around here over the years:

*To the stale SA policy analysis, you must add the notions of a military generation used to thinking in almost child-like and romantic terms about Afghanistan, insurgency, and military to military relationships. Back to the Future 80's romanticization; not a good idea. Militaries absorb civilian ideas (relax, "Hands" of various types, this is not directed at you), so it matters to know this stuff. Not blaming civilians for the whole thing, this was a team effort and people need to learn to think independently.

Mark Buehner

Tue, 03/05/2013 - 3:18pm

America may not be interested in COIN, but COIN will be interested in America, so to speak. I think you touched on it- what are the alternatives? We KNOW the pentagon isn't going to look to scale back further financially, so the alternatives are limited (money has to be spent somehow). We could go back to a Cold War era conventional stance, but not only is that too expensive but its demonstrably stupid. We cold go to an even lighter footprint, light on personnel and heavy equipment, heavy on robots, but that actually isn't expensive enough. Like it or not, a COINcentric military is the correct temperature porridge.

This is probably healthy because even if that is the focus of the pentagon, there isn't the political will to deploy it in anything short of another 911 (perhaps not even then). At least we'll be prepared for the wars of the 21st century, even if we're not eager to jump into them (sounds like a sound philosophy to me).

That being said, none of it really speaks to America's place in the world going forward. If we don't have the political will to project power then method available isn't extremely relevant. This is a dangerous time for world stability and we better start considering our priorities and what we're willing to do to protect them. There's blood in the water.


Tue, 03/05/2013 - 1:18pm

Bill - You succinctly lay out the problem.

I would like to add two comments. First, going to the idea that Afghanistan was COIN's Waterloo - I think we must identify when and where COIN, in its current manifestation, can work. I agree that pop-centric counterinsurgency as laid out in the 5-34 can work in some situations - Afghanistan just isn't one of them. The will of the people to support the insurgents is still one of the key components that has to be reduced or eliminated to defeat the insurgents, I just don't agree that the methods described in the document will work. The value systems are too divergent.

Second, playing off of your comment, if the Army is not going accomplish these objective on the ground who will? According to Kapan "[t]he US tends to get into these kinds of wars, deliberately or otherwise, once every generation." That is more often than we have been involved in near peer competitor major maneuver warfare. I think maybe the Army needs to work on figuring our what it is not doing right and fixing it. The American public likes the idea of universal human rights, humanitarian intervention, and spreading democracy. I don't think that is going to change any time soon.

The near future will be populated with conflicts that have a light societal footprint - no big (public) budget, no boots-on-the-ground, no guilt on the part of the average American citizen. Drones will be the new weapon of choice. People don't seem to get as upset if we have collateral damage caused by a successful drone attack as they do when their own soldiers are doing the killing. The machine adds another layer of distance from the result.

The CIA, the Air Force, the Navy, and to an extent the Marines, have missions that don't necessarily include occupying a foreign country. Unfortunately for the Army, occupying terrain, and all that goes with it, falls to them.

In these things, I believe, it is always important to look back to our overall goals and objectives, which are:

a. To cause/convince/compel the less-powerful and remaining "outlier" states and societies to (1) abandon their alternative ways of life and alternative ways of governance and (2) adopt ways of life and ways of governance similar to our own.

b. This, so that these lesser and remaining states and socieites might come to (1) better provide for and better benefit from the expanding global economy, (2) better provide for both their own citizenry and that of the rest of the globalizing world and, thereby, come to be (3) less of a problem for/burden on -- and more of an asset to -- the now more-market-based and now more-market-dependent international community.

c. Given these enduring goals, objectives and rational, then it would seem that our enemies today and in the future -- as in the past -- will continue to be those individuals and groups, and those states and societies, who are unwilling and/or unable to make these way of life and way of governance changes.

Understanding this, then the question becomes: In those cases in which war or armed combat is required, then if not via nation-building COIN (possibly enhanced to address corrupt governments, sanctuary problems, etc.), then by what alternative "way of war" method does the United States:

a. Pursue and achieve its goals and objectives (as outlined in paragraph "a" and "b" above)? And

b. Defeat its enemies (as outlined in paragraph "c" above)?

Herein, will "drones and SOF commandos" serve to meet these "American way of war" requirements? If so, how?