Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgency: A New Doctrine's Fading Allure

Sun, 02/05/2012 - 9:14am

Bing West argues that COIN as nation-building should not be a military mission at World Politics Review.

The manual’s Rousseauian outlook had its roots more in political theory than actual experience. Because 40 years had passed since the American infantry had last engaged in serious firefights in Vietnam, the generals who commanded in Iraq and Afghanistan had no combat experience at the grunt level. By Sept. 11, 2001, they had already risen to the rank of colonel or above.

So when faced with guerrilla wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they hastily read a few history books and searched their memories for scraps of knowledge faintly recalled from long-ago lectures. They distilled these lessons learned into operational orders and field manuals to be implemented on the platoon level.

The new counterinsurgency theory was based on the mission of winning hearts and minds, so that the local population would reject the insurgents and support the government. Since the people were the center of gravity, to use an overworked military expression, our tactics were conceived so as to cause them no harm.

The emphasis reflects the vast changes in contemporary U.S. culture and ideology, compared to 1941 or even 1961. 

Categories: FM 3-24 - COIN


Should we simply say that in the case of both COIN and conventional operations we made serious mistakes deciding how we would do things based on our (erroneous) beliefs re: the universal and overwelming appeal of democracy and the market economy (to wit: our way of life)? This such thinking causing us to:

a. "Go in light" re: our conventional operations (no follow-up was thought would be necessary due to the offer/appeal of our way of life). And

b. Choose "nation building" (democracy/market-economy promotion) as our mode of operation re: COIN.

Is this line-of-thinking (to wit: that the universal appeal of democracy/the market economy will overcome all obstacles); is this still the central central flaw residing in our foreign policy and defense planning concepts today?


Sun, 02/05/2012 - 11:38pm

I feel as though I am alone in a time warp. Extremely knowledgeable people as old as I am seem to be willing to discuss COIN as though it was a recent invention which has been demonstrated to be either bankrupt or our forces are incapable of implementing it. Since I pretty much agree with most everything Bing West writes, this leaves me even more disoriented. I have to assume that Mr. West read the same books that I did prior to deploying to RVN(1965.) Those books used the word counterinsurgency. The books created for AID used the words development and counterinsurgency. So it is difficult for me to view COIN as something new or as a concept proven to be invalid. The sad thing is that the authors of new manuals and books seemed to introduce them as being something new and suddenly insightful. so what did David Galula and Bernard Fall write about? What did Sir Robert Thompson describe in his book? What did Sir Robert discuss with me while sitting on a curbside in Pearl Harbor? It was COIN.

And, Sir Robert told me that our efforts were destined to fail for at least two reasons. The same reasons why we will fail in Afghanistan regardless of the strategy we employ. The first reason is that no counterinsurgency or counter-guerrilla war has ever been won where a neighboring country gave sanctuary to the insurgents, supplied them, allowed them to train, and freely transit a porous border. The clearest example would be when Tito closed the Yugoslav border to Greek Communists. The second reason we have failed and will again is that success has never been achieved in a country where there is a corrupt and ineffectual government.

These conditions can readily be contrasted with the relatively ideal COIN environment for the Malaysian Emergency. Why aren't these two conditions blatantly obvious to anyone responsible for our continuing presence in Afghanistan? Also, I am unaware of any relevant training be given to conventional officers going to Afghanistan. At least for Vietnam we had the MATA Course for advisors which gave everybody a common frame of reference.

Lastly, Bing West spent time alongside what may have been the ideal ANA advisory team. It was a team of advisors and enablers. The advisors were an SF Team. They were augmented by Marine Combat Engineers and an AF CCT. It appeared to work very well. But, it just doesn't matter when we have the porous Pakistan border and the Karzai government.

It is hard to believe that even our well-insulated general and flag officers don't know this. And if they do know this; then they are morally challenged.

The recent article in the NY Times concerning a switch to SF advisory teams still won't remove the two liabilities discussed above. And, as a SEAL friend of this old SF soldier keeps telling me; since we do not have adequate numbers of appropriate SF personnel; the Services will lower their standards to achieve the necessary manning levels.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 02/07/2012 - 7:48am

In reply to by gian gentile


We won the war in Iraq. Winning wars is easy when one is the most powerful nation in the world taking on weak, poorly trianed and equipped military forces in open desert warfare. President Bush called it correctly when he declared "mission complete." At least as to winning the war. Managing peace in a manner so as to best serve our vital national interests? Now that is another matter altogether, and one at which we repeatedly prove ourselves to be bumbling, fumbling ametuers.

Perhaps it is because we insist on employing our military to plan, lead and execute such peace operations? Perhaps it is because we cannot seem to distinguish between a military in combat and a nation at peace and see that the sum total is "peace" and not "war." Or just as importantly is the matter of strategy of ENDs- WAYs- MEANs, and our inability to keep that equation in balance and recognize that when one must pour every increasing MEANs into the pot in order to achieve the same ENDs, there is probably something deeply wrong with the WAYs one is applying. This is the metric we ignore.

I suggested to a very accomplished foreign policy expert that rather than pouring more military force agaist the problem that we needed to assess what aspects of the "what" and "how" of our foreign policy we should adjust so as to produce less friction. He stared at me in shock, with a "your a freaking disloyal idiot" look on his face, and proclaimed "that would be admitting that terrorism works!!" Well, frankly, violence does work, just ask Clausewitz. It is our foreign policy that isn't working. It's time to rebalance the equation, because frankly we can't afford to keep reinforcing failure, and that failure is not of "intelligence" or military action; it is, and has been, a failure of policy. Americans are good at war. Not so good at peace.

gian gentile

Sun, 02/05/2012 - 8:11pm

So according to my friend Bing West:

Coin FM 3-24 style has not worked in Iraq and Afghanistan,

FM 3-24 was a flawed military doctrine from the start,

And we have not achieved any apprciable strategic and policy gains in Iraq and seemingly in Afghanistan.

What do the founding fathers and mothers (and promoters) of Coin like Dave Kilcullen, David Ucko, John Nagl, Janine Davidson, Tom Ricks, Paula Broadwell, Andrew Exum, Linda Robinson and many others have to say about that? I dont even know why I ask because their answers will assuredly be some form of Clinton-esque triangulation that makes it seem like they were never fully behind it at the start, were skeptical of it when it was all the rage, and now have become its most strident critics.

Beyond that, I ask the question that Bing seems to poke at: Did we lose the war in Iraq?


Ken White

Sun, 02/05/2012 - 4:44pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward:

Metrics mislead. Neither West's numbers or yours prove much of anything about what will transpire in the area when we leave -- and that we will leave was always a given, only when was at issue.

As for protecting airfields and providing support, if we weren't there, no such elements would be necessary. Without those 55 Battalions (a questionable number...) there would be no need for SOF to have intel on which to base operations. As for the 1,000 COPs or FOBs, that's a very flawed and wasteful strategy -- those things accomplish little to nothing in the provision of stability or removal of the Talibs. Use of SF in such a mode would be a terrible misuse of them; even worse than the current Direct Action misuse.

Nor should they be contemplated for training or mentoring the ANA. Not their job -- in fact, it's not really our job...<blockquote>"Osama bin Laden escaped at Tora Bora due to lack of GPF on the ground..."</blockquote>Not so, more correctly, he escaped due to the fact that there was <u>no</u> GPF on the ground -- though the probability is that had there been plenty of GPF there he would still have escaped. The same risk avoidance syndrome that pervades everything we do these days, that leads to the flawed COP / FOB foolishness meant there was no US GPF involved at Tora Bora and had it been there, it likely would not have been well employed and Ol' OBL coulda woulda just walked away as he did. Believe me, I derive absolutely no pleasure in saying that, in fact, it makes me rather angry...

All those persons "silenced" -- whatever happened to 'killed' -- were wreaking havoc (fanciful, that...) just where? The bearing of that location on US national interests and security is just what?

Note that in the 1970s and 80s when the handwriting was on the wall -- and the US Army was well aware -- for the types of forces and training that would be needed in the early 21st Century, the US Army elected to do precisely nothing to prepare or change from business as usual. Too risky, too much chance of error. Thus we are now encumbered with Forces of poor utility, marginally trained and with old, debilitated equipment they cannot afford to maintain properly or replace. Note also that had we not wasted time, effort and resources in Afghanistan and Iraq for a net accomplishment of very little, we might have not been distracted by poorly designed and conducted wars and likely could have killed Bin Laden and the AQ heirarchy far earlier than we did. Focus is a wonderful thing.<blockquote>Will Pakistan and the northern stans still allow airspace overflight and supply land passage after 2014?"</blockquote>Obviously, I doubt that should even be an issue. It is or may be one <i>only</i> because we made it so...<blockquote>"...That is part of what you lose when you no longer are all in...or never were from the get go. Then you rely on cruise missiles of questionable effectiveness like we did prior to 9/11."</blockquote>The effectiveness of that technique is not in question; it was totally pointless, completely ineffective and actually did far more harm and no good. Interventions at least bring some good. They also bring a considerable amount of harm to everyone involved. All such efforts should have realistic goals and expectations, a reasonable chance of an acceptable outcome and be undertaken only after a thorough cost : benefit analysis. None of those parameters were applied to Viet Nam or to Iraq. They were applied to Afghanistan but then discarded for an unsatisfactory plan (which IMO is worse than not doing the prep work at all...). Whether the end result will be more harm than good for the latter two is to be determined. We can start that assessment about 2033 or a little later...

In the meantime, we <u>really</u> need to get smarter, train harder, fire incompetents, make sensible equipment buys (Congress. Yo, Congress. You listening?), develop ability to make strategic raids with non-SOF troops and get DoD out of the Foreign Affairs business among other things. That entails losing the risk averse and excessive control mentalities that affect the Services (all) today. Good luck with that...

Move Forward

Sun, 02/05/2012 - 3:32pm

In reply to by Ken White

Ken, also from his article: <i>In terms of actually combating the insurgents, too, our COIN forces have been less effective than our counterterrorist forces. From January through August 2011, Special Operations Forces and helicopter gunships in Afghanistan accounted for an estimated 2,500 Taliban fatalities, while the 55 conventional battalions dedicated to counterinsurgency accounted for another 1,600. Put another way, 10 percent of the force contributed 60 percent of the lethality.</i>

Helicopter gunships have certainly pulled their weight in these conflicts. But they are not all-weather, any threat assets. They also require an extensive logistics tail as do the SOF forces. Who protects the major airfields where AC-130s, and fast movers originate? Who gets the fuel there for them?

More importantly, without the 55 conventional battalions providing security for local populations, the information will not reach the SOF, and a weapons release authority is not on hand to clear gunship fires in more than a few AOs at a time. Show me the SF force that wants to occupy 1000 COPs/FOBs with 8-man A teams. As Dave Maxwell points out, how effective will SF teams be at training/mentoring hundreds of thousands of ANA forces?

Osama bin Laden escaped at Tora Bora due to lack of GPF on the ground. If we had pulled out early, he would still be alive and financing al Qaeda. All the other Taliban and al Qaeda leaders silenced by drone strikes and night raids would still be wreaking havoc in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Will Pakistan and the northern stans still allow airspace overflight and supply land passage after 2014? That is part of what you lose when you no longer are all in...or never were from the get go. Then you rely on cruise missiles of questionable effectiveness like we did prior to 9/11.

Ken White

Sun, 02/05/2012 - 2:11pm

Mr. West's summation:<blockquote>"COIN as nation-building should not be a military mission. It is too overwhelming, and our soldiers don’t know how to do it. The missions that have defined the past decade of military operations are now coming to an end, and the commander-in-chief has determined that nation-building will not be a priority skill set for the future military. If the essence of rebuilding a nation is the imposition of our democratic processes and values, then it is a mission on which the State Department should have the lead."</blockquote>I totally agree and our recent history certainly supports the contention.

I do have quibbles with two points. The 'mission' isn't "too overwhelming," it simply is inappropriate for an armed military force. Wrongful application of a tool insures poor results. Since we don't have a Colonial Political Service or a large Paramilitary Police Force available to deploy, we should probably avoid the idea of nation building totally.

I'm also unsure that "<i> the imposition of our democratic processes and values..."</i> is in keeping with our alleged values, that "imposition" bit doesn't sound too democratic to me...