Small Wars Journal

Do We Need a Proponent for COIN?

Sat, 05/31/2008 - 5:23pm
Just to play a little devil's advocate here as people debate proponency. Why do we need a proponent for Counterinsurgency (COIN)? Why does it have to "compete" with Infantry, Armor, etc? Is there a proponent for Major Combat Operations (MCO)? Is there a proponent for offense or defense? Obviously, the answer to my rhetorical questions is no. Why is that?

Because every service and every component, and every branch contributes to those operations. COIN is the same way. I think this is counter-intuitive but if we want COIN to be equal to Major Combat Operations then we should NOT have a single proponent because once we do that we allow abdication of responsibility for it to studied and practiced by all the organizations that are not the proponent.

One of the problems I think we have with Foreign Internal Defense (FID) (and we should acknowledge that COIN is a part of FID but that is another discussion) has been that the Nunn-Cohen act established FID as a SOF Core mission in the law. Because of that there is a perception that FID is a SOF exclusive mission when in fact all services have always participated in FID in a variety of ways. But because FID is perceived as a SOF core mission few outside of SOF have given it much thought. And the same will be true (and has been true) of COIN. No one really gave it much thought until post 2003 (except those of us who have been practicing it and studying it for many years before) Now COIN has become the new popular "shiny toy" to chase after and there are many that want to jump on the band wagon and as we have seen recreate the wheel. Let's be frank, there is very little in the COIN realm that we are doing or trying that hasn't been done or tried before. It is a question of understanding the tools and organizations, and tactics, techniques, and procedures available combined with the proper assessment of conditions and then the correct application of those tools (and an understanding that we may not get it right the first time or achieve the effects we thought we wanted to achieve and we have to have the strength and confidence to get over such "failure" and adapt to complex and changing situations). We have people who think they are discovering something new when in fact as JFK said in 1961 it is "ancient in its origins"... but requiring ..."whole new kind of strategy".

We have to find the right balance of capabilities to conduct the full spectrum of operations. That is the hard task. If you want COIN to be on the same level with MCO (or perhaps not even on the same level, but on the right level with MCO) then it is going to require OSD, JCS, and Service direction and putting the right emphasis on it in our education and training systems and in our doctrine and force structure development and personnel assignment systems. No one proponent can achieve that across the services. Too often we equate COIN and FID with simply train, advise, and assist and we want to establish a school for training advisers and we think that that will answer the mail on COIN, FID, etc. But as we all know COIN is so much more than just training and advising indigenous forces. But by giving proponency to one service or agency we will never get buy in from all the services and agencies that need to conduct it. The feeling will be I am glad that service or agency had the rose pinned on them, now I don't have to worry about it. But COIN (and FID) is too important to leave it to a single proponent.

And then I would take issue with the people we are fighting the COIN fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and that we have to win. We should not be fighting two active insurgencies as if we are the main effort. We have to be the supporting effort or the country in which we are conducting those supporting operations will never achieve success. We have to get out of the mindset of achieving US success. Our interests will be not achieved unless our friend, partner, or ally is successful in defeating its threats or eradicating the conditions that cause those threats to emerge. The Afghans and Iraqis have to win (it remains our responsibility to help them win but it is no longer our fight to win -- we did that in 2001 in Afghanistan and in 2003 in Iraq).

It would be better stated that we are supporting COIN operations of friends, partner, and allies by conducting Combat FID in 2 countries of one theater (Iraq and Afghanistan) and we are conducting Direct FID in multiple other countries/regions (e.g., Colombia, Philippines, Trans-Sahel, Horn of Africa, etc) and we are conducting Indirect FID (security assistance, IMET, training or MTTs, small unit exchanges or partner to partner/military to military engagement all to help build capacity of friends partners and allies) ideally to help prevent an insurgency, or terrorism, or internal instability, or trans-regional threats, or ungoverned spaces. We have the doctrine, we have the tools and organizations, we have the people and even the expertise. What I think is really lacking is not a proponent but a real strategy that will determine the end(s) or at least the objectives we are trying to achieve globally, regionally, and even on a country by country basis (a Theater Security Cooperation Plan??) then application of our resources in ways to achieve those ends. A strategy is the key to bringing all this together in my humble opinion.


Ken White

Tue, 06/03/2008 - 12:57pm

I've gotten way off thread here. Sorry.

To get back on it; I think Dave is essentially correct, there's no real need for a 'proponent.'

BUT the system wants one so someone can be tabbed with the task of writing the doctrine. FID is a SOCOM core task, COIN is indeed inherent, however, it can also be a separate operational requirement with no FID involvement. SOCOM is never likely to be large enough (I hope, for their sake...) to completely cover the COIN requirement in all scenarios.

Back in the day, USASOC was the proponent, ran by far the best Advisor course in prep for Viet Nam service and generally did the proponent job well. They had cross service reach with it and all the other services accepted them as purveyors of the gospel -- even the big army...

But I guess we can reinvent a wheel. Hopefully, not a square one...

Ken White

Tue, 06/03/2008 - 12:41pm


All true, though I'd suggest that only some in DoD are in denial. Maybe denial is a bad word; it's that they're more concerned about the fact that we can afford to lose a few small wars but we cannot afford to lose a major war. At the Grunt or Operator level, it's easy -- and literally vital -- to focus on the here and now; the higher up the chain, the broader the outlook has to be. Anyway you look at it, somebody, somewhere has to look at that annoying big picture that is a cloudy future.

Armies by nature are conservative; get too far out in front of the pack, and your experiment with change can turn into a disaster and too many people get killed; so Armies tend to stick with the tried and true, stuff that works even if they know it doesn't work as well as they'd like. You and I got to worry about the guy next to us or ten or 50 or even a few hundred folks -- the Gen-gen has several thousand to worry about in Theater and the Chief of Staff of the Army has about a million to worry about and they're all over the world. We can worry about today and next year; he's gotta worry about 2030.

He doesn't get much help in that from a Congress which insists on an arcane and 'fair' promotion system, Officer and Enlisted, that forces all the service to accept some mediocrity rather than promoting the best. A Congress that also like to spend money on big ticket items that provide jobs in the Districts rather than funding better training which has little payback in votes. Or from a society which has grown sort of spoiled and lazy from good living and doesn't, on the part of many, like to be bothered with something as messy as a war. Nor will that society accept the casualties that would occur if we truly trained really hard. A world in transition and with rapidly expanding global communication and travel just makes his job that much harder.

The fact that folks in the Services can be independent and have minds of their own and can -- and do -- offer fifty different ways to solve a problem is an effect that requires some tough decisions (and often one where Congress or the media is happy to 'help') and that can be a pain as well.

That 20 year open window is, of course, a maybe. No way to tell. What appears probable is that there'll be no major war in that time; what is a fact is that irregular warfare has coexisted with conventional war for hundreds if not thousands of years and it -- irregular warfare -- is not going away in our lifetime or our great Grandkids lifetime. Unfortunately, neither is conventional war. We <i><b>have</b></i> to be able to do both. Massive pain in the tail, that...

Rob Thornton

Tue, 06/03/2008 - 11:40am

"but where has proponency been a positive thing for multi-service and interagency level roles and missions"

The difference between the term "proponent" and the term "lead" is probably worth discussing. While proponent solidifies some authorities and responsibilities, the word lead expresses more of a cooperative feel.

The problem with "lead" is it requires partners who are willing to cooperate on a number of levels, and are more concerned with the success of the mission and partnership then the loss of authority, credit, etc. It also requires the "lead" be of sufficient capability and capacity to lead, but balanced with an understanding that the partners have real interests at stake in the partnership - even if the partners don't always admit to it.

Its interesting that in NSPD-44 S/CRS is named as the lead for Inter-Agency Stability & Reconstruction but in DoD we direct proponency. There may be enough difference in agency cultures that the authorities and responsibilities we associate with a proponent may be unattractive to the broader IA. In something like COIN where a significant part of tool set is outside of military power, we really need a full partnership with the rest of the USG (and for that matter the broader IO, NGO, MN, and IGO community). DoD may assume the duties of the more appropriate agencies IAW 3000.05, but we'd like to see that capacity developed where it has the most legitimacy and best chance of success. It also allows DoD to spend more time doing some of the things that only DoD can do well - that is not exclusive to door kicking and breaking things; it is really abut full spectrum ops and the recognition that time is the hardest resource to put reclaim.

Best, Rob

Although I was playing the devil's advocate here with this little think piece and I think there is some merit to proponency in some cases, one thing I have been wrestling with is trying to find postive examples of proponency. What are some of the examples of positive effects that have been achieved by proponency? Yes, it makes sense for standardization in such things as airborne operations and certain special skills but where has propnency been a positive thing for multi-service and interagency level roles and missions?


Ken White,

I know, I think I was perhaps being a tad subconsciously sly; my point is the DOD institution seems to not want to acknowledge what you so succinctly point out.

I think Wars of the Flea or small wars will continue for the foreseeable future, the memory of WWII and the potential apocalypse of the Cold War make it seem too expensive for all out war between great or even medium powers. At the same time humanitarian and moral constraints on the Great powers (at least in the West) make it possible for these small movements to attack and survive, although not with impunity.

So I think the window will stay open longer than 20 years

Rob Thornton

Tue, 06/03/2008 - 12:22am

arifJAA commented: "I agree we all need to be prepared to fight COIN. A possible answer would be to make SOCOM the lead proponent and let them take as many assets as they need to win. It's a global fight, they are a (essentially) global command."

While SOCOM is as well led & well staffed command as any, every organization has its limits. The moment a command gets tagged beyond its capacity, the other things it was stood up to do begin to suffer in quality. Too often we push organizations beyond their limits without really knowing what those limits are, or what the effects are. Its not just a matter of resources, its matter of focus.

I think the GCCs have what the tools they need. If required they can designate a JTF, CJTF or these days even a CJIATF to meet the demands of a particular problem set. If we do this right, the GCCs will set the right demand signal in terms of quality and quantity through their integrated theater campaign plans which will drive the force development and provision pieces.

After that it comes back to:

-developing good descriptive doctrine

-making organization changes only where required

-resourcing and conducting realistic & challenging training

-making good materiel choices that meet both today's needs and some of tomorrows

-investing in leader development

-establishing good personnel practices that recruit, retain and advance the right folks at the right times

-investing in our facilities in a way that makes sense and reflect the choices listed above.

Kha commented, - "A proponent, however imperfect, will at least instutionalize the COIN aspect of warfighting for future conflicts."

while I agree with you (that is after all the security of establishing a proponent), the act itself still signals a failure on the part of the other participants to grasp the issue as a requirement, and lead their organizations in the way they've been charged to do.

While proponency is often a requirement to get to institutionalization, it has an ugly side too - at the heart of proponency are organizations and people that all too often get married to their definition of the truth alone, and guard it with jealous suspicion. It takes real leadership at all levels to overcome that kind of bias, and since leaders change out fairly often, there is no guarantee you can sustain good attitudes. My guess is that we'll play it safe and est. a proponent.

Best, Rob

Ken White

Mon, 06/02/2008 - 10:17pm

It's called irregular because some or all the people on at least one side of the fight are not 'Regulars.' Regulars as in uniformed Soldiers, Marines or paramilitary types in the service of a nation or state. 'Irregulars' as a term has long been used to describe loosely organized and often un-uniformed forces organized on area or tribal lines. The term has been used since the 18th century. Here's a <url=; <u>LINK</u></url>.

It is not "the rule," it has <i><b>always</b></i> existed alongside conventional warfare and probably always will. We happen to be going through a period of global social and economic readjustment and conventional warfare is not desired by anyone at this time. Those who have a cause and a complaint and who wish to wage war are constrained to the irregular variety now. How long that constraint will will continue is anyone's guess. Most analysts figure 10 to 20 years. Maybe, maybe not. People are pretty unpredictable...

'Special' warfare is a different thing and that term can generally can be applied to operations other than the norm in both conventional and irregular warfare. It has typically been used to describe clandestine operations and irregular or partisan activity in an enemy's rear area or homeland. That line is blurring for many reasons.

Good article, but I take issue with the point that we won in Afghanistan or Iraq, or that we don't have to win.

Let's remember the stakes here - the USA homeland. I think it's great (probably) that the Iraqi's seem to be taking the lead, and understand COIN doctrine dictates the locals have to do the fighting. I am more interested in results than validating doctrine. We are letting the locals take the lead in Pakistan, and are one unlucky miss away from another attack being staged against us or the UK from New AQ core/Talibanistan.

I agree we all need to be prepared to fight COIN. A possible answer would be to make SOCOM the lead proponent and let them take as many assets as they need to win. It's a global fight, they are a (essentially) global command.

Chris Cline is right on the potential impact of a MTT tasking on a NG unit, although it's not all that catastrophic.

Let me pose the question - why is it still considered "Special" or "Irregular" warfare when it is in fact the rule?

Kha Nguyen

Mon, 06/02/2008 - 11:58am

I will agree with Chris in saying that the military needs to build some sort of proponent that focuses on the core of task of US COIN operations in foreign states.

I agree that building a proponent for something everyone should know may create some egregious buck-passing. However, based on the historical evidence of the US military: who is to say the military may not once again turn away from COIN after Iraq and Afghanistan? A proponent, however imperfect, will at least instutionalize the COIN aspect of warfighting for future conflicts.


Mon, 06/02/2008 - 11:31am

Although a proponent is not necessary (I agree with that), we do need to look at some form of structure for Advisors (i.e. ANA-ETT, MTT's, NPT's, etc).

The structure needed for forces such as TF Phoenix in Afghanistan completely destroy the BCT or other BDE sized structure for future deployments in the National Guard. Even deploying something as small as a 16 pax ETT can destroy the senior leadership of a battalion sized element due to the ranks deployed. I know this issue has been presented by LTC Nagl. It's a good plan but I'm not sure the military has changed its mindset enough to make it happen. If nothing else, it would be easily implemented in the National Guard.

Rob Thornton

Sat, 05/31/2008 - 11:27pm

I certainly think its a point worth considering. Assigning proponency for something everyone should be accounting for can lead to some misplaced expectations.

I can also understand the frustration when something comes up that deserves more attention but DoD can't get those with clear equities to act on their own behalf in commensurate manner (number of reasons why I suppose).

Ref. the TSCP - my understanding is it won't be submitted as a separate plan anymore. Its all part of the integrated Theater Campaign Plan to be put forward under the GCCs that will also account for the major plans put forward by DoD (e.g. the various national plans such as the Global War on Terror, combating WMD, pandemiics, etc.). This is good I think for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it will cause us to look holistically at problems and help us get away from some of the ad-hockery.

I'd also mention COIN is not the only thing up for proponency, I understand IW is as well. To those hoping someone will pick up the proponency for a particular thing I'd caution to beware, you might get exactly what you ask for while still having to meet the requirements of the mission - just with the less say that abdicated responsibility brings.

Best, Rob