No, COIN is Not a Proven Failure
Tom Ordeman, Jr.
The once-praised concept known as population-centric counterinsurgency, typically abbreviated simply as "COIN", has fallen on hard times. On December 1st, 2014, The American Conservative published an op-ed by U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis entitled "COIN Is a Proven Failure". A month earlier, retired Lieutenant General Daniel P. Bolger published Why We Lost, in which he claims that "by the time [Field Manual 3-24] came out, the techniques had already been tried and found wanting." With the Taliban still intransigent nearly fourteen years after the 2001 invasion, and owing to ongoing conflict in Iraq, COIN's reputation for calming the chaos has taken a substantial hit.
Popular perception states that in late 2006, with stability in both Afghanistan and Iraq in sharp decline, a combined Army and Marine Corps team led by then-Lieutenant General David Petraeus drafted a new COIN field manual, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency. In early 2007, President George W. Bush announced a controversial surge of additional combat troops to Iraq. Petraeus, subsequently promoted to General, took command of Multinational Forces in Iraq (MNF-I), which employed the new COIN doctrine codified in FM 3-24 to exploit opportunities offered by the mid-2006 Anbar Awakening movement, and from a ceasefire by the Jaish al Mahdi militia. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) adopted a similar approach in Afghanistan, bolstered by a comparable 2010 troop surge ordered by President Barack Obama in late 2009. The COIN initiative in Iraq produced a temporary settlement that eventually deteriorated after American troops withdrew in late 2011; meanwhile, Afghanistan's COIN initiative largely failed to produce even a comparable temporary settlement.
While the preceding narrative contains nuggets of truth, it fails to accurately appraise the history of either Afghanistan or Iraq. Instead, an accurate analysis could be characterized in terms of accepted COIN theory and best practices; the concepts codified in FM 3-24; and what the Department of Defense, and particularly the U.S. Army, actually did in Afghanistan and Iraq both before and after FM 3-24’s release. To paraphrase the classic line from an 1897 edition of The Sun: "No, Virginia, COIN is not a proven failure."
The Father of Strategy, Carl von Clausewitz, speaks of both the overwhelming value of historical examples for understanding and formulating strategy and, conversely, the danger of historical misinterpretation. According to Clausewitz:
"Misuse[d] historical examples... generally distract and bewilder the judgment and understanding without demonstrating anything; for when exposed to the light they turn out to be only trumpery rubbish, made use of to show off the author's learning."
Planning for both the Afghan and Iraq Wars was informed in large part by the misinterpretation of two recent wars: the Vietnam War, and the 1991 Gulf War.
The narrative surrounding the Vietnam War has led to an oversimplification of the conflict as a failure of COIN, rather than a failure of conventional warfare to counter unconventional threats. (In addition, the role that American disengagement from Vietnam played in aggravating the Sino-Soviet Split remains absent from the conflict's narrative.) Thus, since 1973, American military operations have been specifically planned to avoid prolonged, manpower-intensive COIN engagements.
Conversely, the coalition victory in the 1991 Gulf War inspired a false confidence in the dominance of precision air strikes and combined arms maneuver. The United States and its allies secured an important strategic victory, but did so under extremely specific circumstances, with limited objectives, against a quantitatively and qualitatively inferior enemy. In early 1991, the Iraqi military was already exhausted following a bloody, nine-year stalemate, and over-extended even before major combat began. In the wake of the post-Cold War "Peace Dividend" drawdown, political and military leaders fixated upon this limited victory as the model for how future wars should be planned and fought. This misinterpretation of the alleged decisiveness of the Gulf War continues today. The aforementioned retired Lieutenant General, Daniel Bolger, interviewed in late 2014, said:
"What is the U.S. military trained to do? The U.S. military is trained to carry out short, and decisive conventional operations against a uniformed foreign enemy... Given what I knew then, I would have recommended to do like we did in 1991."
Thus, both the Afghan and Iraq Wars were initially planned and executed to avoid a prolonged engagement, and to capitalize upon the same capabilities that proved effective in 1991. Operation Enduring Freedom began as a combined air and unconventional warfare campaign, with a full scale conventional campaign and reconstruction effort executed later. Operation Iraqi Freedom was planned as a repeat of Operation Desert Storm, with a combined precision air and conventional maneuver campaign. Both operations, and particularly the Iraq War, showcased operational concepts such as Rapid Decisive Operations/"Shock and Awe" and Effects-Based Operations (EBO), which derived from the "Revolution in Military Affairs"/"Military Transformation". The RMA/Transformation initiative began after the Vietnam War as a method of balancing the Soviet Union's quantitative conventional superiority with American qualitative technological superiority. The initiative gained new prominence in the 1990's, partly because of its success during the Gulf War, and partly because it offered efficiencies for the post-Cold War “Peace Dividend” drawdown. As a result, strategic leaders were slow to acknowledge that violence perpetrated by the Taliban or a variety of Iraqi groups constituted an insurgency, and were similarly slow to change their approach in either theater.
Established COIN Theory and the COIN Field Manual
Insurgencies, like counterinsurgency campaigns, have taken a variety of names and been couched in a variety of terms in recent history. However, whether a nation's troops engaged in colonial pacification, fought small wars, mounted counter-rebellion operations, or undercut communist revolutionaries, theories and best practices remain similar. Prior to the Afghan and Iraq Wars, a variety of noteworthy authors discussed the topic. These included Sir Charles Edward Callwell in 1896, Roger Trinquier in 1961, David Galula in 1963 and 1964, and Sir Robert Thompson in 1966, as well as recent theorists such as David Kilcullen and David Petraeus. Meanwhile, the U.S. Marine Corps published Small Wars Operations in 1935 and the revised Small Wars Manual in 1940 to codify lessons learned in the "Banana Wars" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Conversely, counterinsurgency theory has traditionally focused on the writings of such successful insurgent leaders as T.E. Lawrence and Mao Tse-tung, and to a lesser degree Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Thus, a corpus of knowledge exists to describe how insurgencies, guerrilla campaigns, and small wars are both waged and countered.
FM 3-24 omits most of that corpus. At nearly three hundred pages in length, mention of the aforementioned authors is sparse. Mao, perhaps the most influential guerrilla warfare theorist in modern history, receives a mere pair of sections, while Lawrence is quoted sparingly, and Guevara is mentioned only once. Only one of Galula's publications is mentioned, and this is cited only twice; his account of COIN operations in Algeria from 1956 to 1958 is omitted entirely. Thompson is quoted twice in the manual's body, Trinquier is mentioned only in the annotated bibliography, and Callwell is omitted entirely.
The field manual is similarly selective about which COIN campaigns it highlights. Alistair Horne's authoritative history of the Algerian War, A Savage War of Peace, was read by President Bush and other senior leaders early in the Iraq War, leading to its 2006 reprinting and a mid-2007 meeting between Horne and President Bush. However, FM 3-24 mentions the Algerian War only thrice, and Horne's book is cited only in the annotated bibliography. The successful Anglo-Omani counterinsurgency campaigns in the Jebel Akhdar and Dhofar are omitted, save for the citation of Major General Tony Jeapes' account of the latter conflict in the annotated bibliography. The successful British campaign in Malaya is mentioned only twice. Other significant counterinsurgency successes and failures are mentioned either in passing, or not at all. Conversely, FM 3-24 mentions Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq a total of sixty, ten, and eighty times, respectively, despite the fact that Vietnam is widely considered to be the only war America ever lost, and the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were both ongoing in 2006 (and the Iraq War was generally considered to be failing).
FM 3-24 diluted or omitted most of the lessons from recent history's COIN campaigns. The 2006 edition of FM 3-24 was, at best, an abridged sampling of a handful of America-centric COIN case studies. (The 2010 British Army COIN field manual is similarly sparse.) At worst, its authors selected a narrow range of examples, of varying relevance, from past and ongoing campaigns that did not accurately present best practices for successful COIN operations.
The COIN Field Manual and Recent Operations
As the Soviet military infamously noted, "One of the serious problems in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligations to follow their doctrine." American forces, and particularly the U.S. Army, upheld this trend in Afghanistan and Iraq: although FM 3-24 was published in late 2006, its operational adoption was limited. While examples are manifold, several examples are noted below.
On the topic of force strength, paragraph 1-67 of FM 3-24 states:
"A better force requirement gauge is troop density, the ratio of security forces (including the host nation’s military and police forces as well as foreign counterinsurgents) to inhabitants. Most density recommendations fall within a range of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1000 residents in an AO. Twenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective COIN operations; however as with any fixed ratio, such calculations remain very dependent upon the situation."
Twenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents equates to a ratio of 1:50. The current population of Iraq is approximately 36 million, and the current population of Afghanistan is nearly 39 million. The high water marks of coalition troops in Iraq were just over 180,000 personnel in late 2005 (pre-surge) and again in late 2007 (surge). For Afghanistan, this was approximately 150,000 in mid-2011. This means that at the high water mark point for Iraq, the troop density was approximately 1:200; and at the high water mark point for Afghanistan, this density fell to approximately 1:260. While these ratios omit host nation forces, both Afghan and Iraqi security forces continue to struggle to achieve operational competence. This density erodes further once one accounts for the legions of support troops and general staffs who contribute only indirectly to the provision of security. (By 2009, so few American troops were engaged in active security assistance that the Army ramped up morale events such as Salsa dance classes to break the tedium, and media outlets ran headlines such as "U.S. troops in Iraq have time on hands".)
Paragraph 8-13 states:
"Bases must be set up so that they do not project an image of undue permanency or a posture suggesting a long-term foreign occupation. Similarly, logistic postures that project an image of unduly luxurious living by foreign forces while HN civilians suffer in poverty should be avoided. Such postures undermine the COIN message and mission. Insurgent propaganda can twist such images into evidence of bad intentions by counterinsurgents."
While many troops deployed to both theaters lived in austere conditions, most personnel serving in support billets have enjoyed the sort of concessions that are taken for granted in the States. These conditions contrast directly with the austere lifestyle led by most Afghans and many Iraqis. In addition to provisions such as air conditioning and Internet access, other luxuries included regularly scheduled steak and lobster nights at some posts in Iraq, Kyrgyz-run massage parlors in Afghanistan, the Canadian donut chain Tim Horton's in Afghanistan, T.G.I. Friday's, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, KFC, and Burger King. Prior to his 2010 dismissal, General Stanley McChrystal banned such concessions in Afghanistan in order to improve military discipline and fitness, reduce the campaign's logistical footprint, and provide opportunities to support the local economy. However, upon McChrystal's ouster, General Petraeus cancelled the ban.
Paragraph 8-31 states:
"In many cases 'good enough to meet standards' equipment that is indigenously sustainable is preferable to 'high-technology, best available' equipment that requires substantial foreign assistance for long-term maintenance."
Both ISAF and MNF-I supplied relatively sophisticated equipment to the Afghan and Iraqi security forces. In addition to legacy Soviet/Russian equipment, ISAF and MNF-I have equipped and indoctrinated the Afghan and Iraqi armies with M113A2, M1117, and MRAP armored personnel carriers, in addition to thousands of HMMWVs. Both forces field American artillery (M114 155mm howitzers in Afghanistan, and M198 155mm howitzers in Iraq), and both Afghan and Iraqi soldiers have either adopted or intend to transition to notoriously maintenance-intensive M16 rifles and M4 carbines. The Iraqi Army has lost dozens of its M1A1M Abrams tanks to ISIS and Hezbollah in recent months.
Following from this, in Appendix E, paragraph E-31 states:
"Planners should consider HN economic and technological resources when selecting equipment. In most cases, the host nation acquires, or the U.S. and multinational partners provide, a small air force. Although this air force often has limited resources, the host nation still should effectively operate and maintain its aircraft and supporting systems. Multinational support in training and equipping the HN air force can be very important. U.S. aircraft have tremendous capabilities, but they can be too expensive and too complex for some developing nations to operate and maintain. Multinational partners with capable, but less expensive and less sophisticated, aircraft can often help equip the host nation."
Among other advanced aircraft, the DoD purchased a number of Alenia C-27A Spartan cargo aircraft for the Afghan Air Force, only to scrap them when maintenance and logistics for the aircraft proved untenable for both ISAF and Afghan forces. The United States is in the process of supplying a variety of advanced aircraft, including F-16 fighters, to the Iraqi Air Force.
Once FM 3-24 was published, few troops actually read it. As U.S. Army officer Crispin Burke noted in 2011:
"At a US Army Combat Training Center, an informal poll of Observer-Controllers, many of whom had just returned from counterinsurgency conflicts and had advised units of counterinsurgency tactics, only twenty percent admitted to reading FM 3-24. Perhaps the problem with counterinsurgency lies with us, not with the doctrine?"
In fairness to DoD personnel, policy-makers do not appear to have taken FM 3-24's guidance to heart, either. As paragraph 1-134 states:
"Insurgencies are protracted by nature. Thus, COIN operations always demand considerable expenditures of time and resources. The populace may prefer the [host nation] government to the insurgents; however, people do not actively support a government unless they are convinced that the counterinsurgents have the means, ability, stamina, and will to win."
Political pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq arose almost instantaneously, and calls for an "exit strategy" dominated headlines (and even satire) as early as 2004. While the Bush Administration made a point of dismissing opposition calls for a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, President Obama's 2008 election victory was based in part on a promise to enact an abbreviated withdrawal from Iraq in order to focus on bringing the Afghan War to a close; his 2012 re-election campaign emphasized the fact that "I ended the war in Iraq as I promised". When President Obama announced the Afghan troop surge in late 2009, the 30,000 American reinforcements were deployed on an eighteen month timeline, leading some of the President's critics to joke that the surge forces were being dropped in with parachutes attached to bungee cords. For both campaigns, both American and allied nations have sent the signal to their electorates, host nation citizens, and insurgents that their nations' commitment was as temporary as possible.
These observations should not be misconstrued as a judgment as to the wisdom or folly of the choices made by Presidents Bush or Obama, or their foreign allies, at the strategic level. Rather, they should serve merely as an observation that FM 3-24 says one thing, and America and its allies did another. Indeed, the purpose of each of these observations is to demonstrate a single point: established COIN theory is different from the doctrine codified in FM 3-24, and neither reflect the approach adopted by ISAF in Afghanistan or MNF-I in Iraq.
In early 2012, after the last troops left Iraq, and with Afghan-deployed forces staging for a gradual drawdown, the White House released Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (colloquially known as the "Defense Strategic Guidance"), which called for a drawdown of American ground forces and a "pivot"/”rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region - all of it a tacit indication that the Obama Administration rejected COIN and intended to reduce its security commitments in the region from whence fresh calls for American intervention were most likely to arise. Noted COIN expert Andrew Exum said of the guidance:
"If the United States has to fight another resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign (and I pray that we do not), it is easier to design and build new brigades than to design and build new aircraft or ships. I am more concerned the U.S. Army and Marine Corps will abandon the doctrine, training and education wrapped up in preparing for counterinsurgency and stability operations."
Unfortunately, the very sentiment that Exum feared appears to be popular in the active duty and veteran community. A recent commenter at War on the Rocks, writing under the pseudonym "Pave Low John", summarized the opinion of many veterans:
"We’ve been fighting small wars so long that we think Iraq and Afghanistan were real wars."
However, as noted strategist Colin S. Gray wrote in 1999:
"There are two principal errors to avoid. The first is to regard the realm of real war and 'real soldiering' as coterminous with symmetrical conflict, at least as roughly identical to the experience of regular forces fighting regular forces. This error can promote the idea that 'small wars', in Callwell's meaning, are irrelevant, perhaps dangerously irrelevant, diversions from the mainstream requirement to prepare for real war (i.e. grande guerre). Armed forces that decline to take small wars seriously as a military art form with their own tactical, operational, and political - though not strategic - rules invite defeat. The second error is to regard small wars and other forms of savage violence as the wars of the future that will largely supplant the allegedly old-fashioned state-centric 'regular' wars of a Westphalian world."
As Gray rightly notes, both "small wars" and conventional conflicts shall continue to occupy positions of prominence on the strategic spectrum. America’s ability to secure its strategic interests shall continue to require a significant capacity to prevent or respond to guerrilla, irregular, and asymmetric threats. Indeed, such methods shall remain attractive to America’s adversaries, as they have proved particularly effective against the conventional warfighting styles preferred by America and its allies.
Population-centric COIN was not “tried and found wanting” in Afghanistan or Iraq, nor is COIN “a proven failure”. At best, COIN is misunderstood; at worst, it remains untested. Established COIN theory has both failed and prevailed in a variety of historic conflicts, but did not significantly impact the formulation of the DoD’s COIN doctrine in 2006, nor was it applied in any coordinated or comprehensive fashion in either conflict. As such, COIN should not be blamed for the failure to achieve American strategic goals in either theater. Dismissing COIN’s potential utility based on false notions to the contrary will do nothing to improve the future ability of America and its allies to defeat irregular enemies in the pursuit of critical strategic goals.
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