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Thinking and Writing About COIN: A Review Essay of Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War
John T. Fishel and Ambassador Edwin G. Corr
Fred Kaplan has a good story to tell and he tells it well. Unfortunately, his account, although adding a great deal to the story, is both incomplete and, in a significant number of assertions, inaccurate. As participants in many of the events Kaplan partly covers and as scholars of those and other related events, we seek here to both fill out the story as well as correct the record.
Although Kaplan shows that the protagonist of his story, General David Petraeus, along with his followers Con Crane and John Nagl, were well acquainted with the classic literature of counterinsurgency (COIN), he fails to demonstrate the full scope of knowledge that was incorporated in both the academic and military doctrinal worlds. Part of the reason is that Kaplan clearly does not understand that COIN is a synonym for many other words that are used to describe the phenomenon that British Colonel C. E. Callwell dubbed “Small Wars” in 1896 and the U.S. Marine Corps adopted in its Small Wars Manual of 1940. Former DOD Director of LIC in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD-SO/LIC), Dr. William J. Olson, built a slide called “The 100 names of LIC.” Although the current version shows only some thirty odd synonyms, the point is that these names are interchangeable, no matter how poorly descriptive they seem to the conventional military and COINdinistas alike. Kaplan’s lack of understanding of this is indicated by his story about former CJCS, General John Shalikashvili, saying, “Real men don’t do MOOTW.” This is especially ironic because the General made his name as commander of Operation Provide Comfort on the Turkey/Iraq border – a classic MOOTW designed to protect Kurdish refugees from the ravages of Saddam Hussein at the end of the Gulf War.
We define the literature on COIN as falling into three periods which we identify as the classic – the principal exemplars of which are Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – the semi-classic, and the modern.
Although Kaplan mentions both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu in his book he fails to address their real impact on the study of COIN. In writing about Clausewitz, he focuses largely on Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czega who was the founding director of the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth’s Army Command and General Staff College. Wass de Czega’s impact on doctrine was the SAMS rewrite of General Dupuy’s 1976 FM 100-5 Operations which abandoned the Active Defense for the concept of AirLand Battle. This was carried over into the 1986 edition directed by Colonel L. Don Holder who was then the Director of SAMS. The only relevance that this development of big war doctrine had for COIN – other than the contention that the army was not really interested in the subject – was that AirLand Battle signified the multi-service interest of the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and the Air Force. In terms of COIN, this bore fruit in the publication in 1990 of FM 100-20 AFP 3-20, Military Operations in Low Intensity Conflict.
It is apparent from Kaplan’s treatment of Clausewitz that he is familiar with the concept that war is an extension of politics and policy with the addition of other means. But Clausewitz had other ideas that were equally relevant to the analysis of COIN but which Kaplan fails to mention and which apparently did not influence Kaplan’s insurgents. One of those notions, resurrected by our colleague Max Manwaring in a number of his works is, “The first, the supreme, the most far reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor turning it into something that is alien to its nature.” This particular Clausewitzian insight has serious implications for the current debate on the future of COIN touched on by Kaplan in his final chapter. More on this later.
With respect to Sun Tzu, Kaplan gives him only a single mention, on page 57in connection with Wass de Czega’s reading. Of course, Kaplan’s insurgents were all familiar with Sun Tzu, especially his admonition, “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” This quote, among many others, sets a large part of the pattern of COIN thinking of men like David Petraeus and John Nagl. Subduing the enemy without fighting is a COIN ideal but one that is not often possible.
The semi-classical COIN thinkers and writers begin with Colonel Charles E. Callwell’s 1896 British study entitled Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice. Callwell merits two brief mentions from Kaplan, one in conjunction with John Nagl’s reading and understanding of the advantages of the guerrilla. Other semi-classical writers/thinkers/practitioners include T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), the U.S. Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual (1940), Mao Tse-tung, Sir Frank Kitson, Sir Gerald Templer, Sir Robert Thompson, Bernard Fall, David Galula, Roger Tranquier, “Bruno” Bigeard, Wendell Fertig, Edward Lansdale, Rufus Phillips, and Russell Volckmann.
One semi-classical writer that Kaplan devotes reasonable extensive mention to is Mao Tse-tung. However, nowhere does he address how Mao’s theories specifically influenced COIN thinking either among his insurgents or the semi-classical writers who followed. The most explicit is his assertion of the impact of Mao on the thinking of David Galula but not what that impact was.
Kaplan does cite a 1962 Rand Corporation symposium on guerrilla warfare where a number of these semi-classical thinkers participated, including, Kitson, Galula, Lansdale, Phillips, and Fertig. However, he fails to point out the debt owed by his protagonists to the various and sundry members of this semi-classical group, other than Galula. This may well be a reflection of the way Nagl and Petraeus see their own debt but we would argue that the antecedents of modern COIN doctrine are of a significantly more diverse lineage than Kaplan makes out.
What we are calling “modern” COIN theory really begins with the 1981 publication of Army Field Manual FM 100-20, Low Intensity Conflict. This manual was really nothing more than a rehash of Vietnam era COIN doctrine. Nevertheless, it was a start and was prompted by the burgeoning wars in Central America. The 1980s were characterized by a number of symposia, projects, and organizations that were devoted to what was then called Low Intensity Conflict (LIC), a term drawn from the 1970s writings of Frank Kitson. Among these projects were General Paul Gorman’s Discriminate Deterrence, and General Maxwell Thurman’s charge to the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College to identify the correlates of success in COIN. The latter study was led by Max Manwaring and included, among its participants, Colonel John Waghelstein who had been the first commander of the large MilGroup in El Salvador. Two organizations created out of this ferment were the Army-Air Force Center for Low Intensity Conflict (CLIC) at Langley Air Force Base and the Small Wars Operations Research Directorate (SWORD) in U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Both were formed in 1986 and the latter coincided with David Petraeus’ stint in SOUTHCOM when he drafted General Galvin’s “Uncomfortable Wars” article based on Galvin’s notes from his well-received Kermit Roosevelt Lecture in the United Kingdom that same year. In addition to the CLIC and SWORD, the Doctrine Directorate at the Army Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth was charged with developing a new version of FM 100-20 in coordination with the Air Force. This team was led by LTC Jerry Thompson, a Mideast Foreign Area Officer. Jerry coordinated closely with both SWORD and the CLIC, producing a final draft in 1987. The draft would not be released until 1990 as FM 100-20/AFP 3-20, Military Operations in Low Intensity Conflict, due to opposition from the commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command. One more organization was the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict established by the Cohen-Nunn Amendment to the 1986 Defense Appropriations Act along with U.S. Special Operations Command. This set of developments – except for Petraeus’s involvement in the crafting of Galvin’s article – is simply ignored by Kaplan.
The 1990s saw a significant development of a number of the themes that first surfaced in the 1980s at Leavenworth, SOUTHCOM, the CLIC, and in the doctrine manuals as these made their way into a number of professional journal articles and books. Early on was the publication of Manwaring’s multi-authored UnconfortableWars which led off with Galvin’s article. This was followed in 1992 by Corr and Stephen Sloan’s Low Intensity Conflict: Old Threats in a New World which brought together academics and practitioners (many of them diplomats) to address insurgencies. 1992 also saw the publication of the quantitative analysis of COIN success in Manwaring and Fishel’s article, “Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency: Toward a New Analytical Approach” in the journal, Small Wars & Insurgencies. These were followed by a number of other books and articles written and edited by Manwaring, Fishel, and their colleagues. In addition, a number of new academic journals – mostly published by Frank Cass – were inaugurated including Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement and Civil Wars, among others.
Military doctrine in the 1990s was not quiescent on these subjects. The Army incorporated its approach from FM 100-20 into its 1993 capstone manual, FM 100-5, Operations, and in 1995 produced FM 100-23, Peacekeeping. FM 100-5 also changed the name of LIC to Operations Other Than War (OOTW). Joint doctrine came into its own in the 1990s and produced a manual, JP 3-07, Military Operations Other Than War, (MOOTW) – adding “military” to the Army’s OOTW. Kaplan, it should be noted, addresses none of these developments.
At this point, with all this intellectual ferment, and with a significant block of instruction on MOOTW at the Command & General Staff officers’course at Fort Leavenworth, one might ask how the perception that no thought was being given to COIN arose. Part of the answer lies in Desert Storm. This was the war the Army had always wanted to fight. It was the war for which the doctrine of AirLand Battle had been designed. Panama, which had preceded Desert Shield by a mere nine months, although a smaller scale contingency operation, was still very much a conventional war in both concept and execution. Thus, the Majors who arrived at Leavenworth for the Command & General Staff officers’ course were veterans of those two wars as were most of their instructors. This was equally true at the other mid-level service and joint schools as well as at the War Colleges. President George H. W. Bush’s “New World Order” had arrived as the Soviet Union had fallen. But then the Balkans appeared on the scene along with Somalia and Haiti.
In 1995 Captain John Nagl was researching his doctoral thesis which was later published as Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife. John, studying at Oxford, had been given access to the papers of Sir Gerald Templer who was the prime architect of the British victory in the Malayan Emergency. John, however, was not merely writing a historical work but rather was interested in comparing the British learning of how to conduct COIN with the American failure to learn in Vietnam. To that end he conducted a number of interviews with experts including Fishel and others who were at Leavenworth at the time. Among those interviewed was retired LTC John Hunt who was the officer briefly mentioned by Kaplan as retiring with a new draft COIN manual unfinished. Others John interviewed at Leavenworth were Tom Adams and Murray Swan both of whom wrote chapters in the book on peace operations that Fishel and Corr were both co-authors along with Manwaring , and which Fishel edited. That book explicitly linked COIN and peace operations theory.
After Nagl, the most important of the recent theorist/practitioners of COIN is David Kilcullen who does get extensive treatment from Kaplan. Kilcullen is a retired Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel with combat experience in East Timor but equally important is his training as a cultural anthropologist. Both are reflected in his writing on COIN. Particularly compelling are his 2004 article on Al Qaeda as a global insurgency, his “28 Articles” (a play on T. E. Lawrence’s “27 Articles”), and his superb book, The Accidental Guerrilla (2009). Especially influential is his 2007 blog post in Small Wars Journal, “Two Schools of Counterinsurgency” where he differentiates between enemy-centric and population-centric COIN.
Kaplan does quite well in identifying most of the recent modern theorists of COIN although his focus on Petraeus and the development of FM 3-24 skews the picture significantly away from the work that had gone before and simultaneously. Yet, despite the fact that Kaplan interviewed COL Gian Gentile there is no reference to Gentile in the index. This is too bad because it relates to an underlying theme, the lack of U.S. Army interest in COIN. Gentile, now a permanent professor of History at West Point, is the most articulate advocate of the Army’s preference for the “big war” and disdain for population-centric COIN. Gentile has engaged John Nagl in public debates and participated in discussions in the forums of the Small Wars Journal. Not addressed in the book, but relevant to its sub-theme of the role of West Point’s Department of Social Sciences (SOSH) in the development of COIN theory and practice, is the fact that COL Mike Meese (an important player on Petraeus’s group of military advisors but a minor actor in the book) heads SOSH while Gentile is a stalwart in the History Department. This raises the question of whether part of the debate in the Army is built around academic disciplinary divides. In any case, the political argument seems to be returning to the Army’s “big war” default position – not merely in the Army but in the larger political world as well.
The Changing and Unchanging Nature of War
Kaplan raises a number of questions, none of which he addresses directly, on the very nature of armed conflict. As Max Boot’s new book, Invisible Armies, points out COIN (or Small Wars) have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. These wars tend to be continuous, punctuated from time to time, by major wars between peer enemies. Those major wars, however, are the exception rather than the rule even though they are the kinds of wars that armies, navies, and air forces want to fight. The small, the dirty, the uncomfortable wars are persistent and ubiquitous and challenge the self conception of soldiers. And, even though they require the active participation (perhaps the direction) of diplomats, these too are challenged by the thought of “having to do windows.”
Historically, there are several different broad types of Small Wars. The first of these is what is sometimes called Imperial Policing. It was well described by Callwell and, as he noted, included America’s 300 year war with the Indians. Other cases were the U.S. counterinsurgencies in the Philippines against the nationalists and the Moros. Both the British and French fought numerous similar Imperial Police actions in Africa and Asia. And Britain’s Canadian Dominion made Imperial Policing a police function of the Northwest Mounted Police which became the RCMP – the Mounties. Clearly, this was a paramilitary constabulary force.
Similar to Imperial Policing but with some key differences were the Banana Wars of the early twentieth century in Central America and the Caribbean. What differentiated them was their temporary nature (even if temporary was nearly 20 years as in the case of Haiti) characterized by efforts to establish democratic governments with constabulary forces to maintain order and defend the nation. None of these efforts succeeded in the end in terms of the desired political outcome. The constabularies all became the tools of dictators either drawn from their ranks who overthrew elected governments or were used by the elected leaders to establish dictatorships. The lessons of this era were recorded by the Marines in their 1940 Small Wars Manual.
Another type of small war is Partisan Warfare which differs from COIN in terms of the role of what Manwaring has called the Intervening Power (IP). Here, the IP supports indigenous guerrilla forces (partisans) against an occupying army as part of a larger military effort. Classic historical cases include the Peninsular Campaign in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars and allied support to various partisan resistance forces during World War II. Army Special Forces (SF) doctrine supports partisan warfare by distinguishing its support as Unconventional Warfare (UW). This differentiates it from COIN in which the SF supports the regular forces of the host government in their battle with insurgents, calling that mission Foreign Internal Defense (FID). In UW, the SF teams support partisan units by organizing them, training them, and sometimes leading them as well as seeing to their logistical support from the U.S. and allied forces.
These different kinds of Small Wars are seen in the French and American experiences in Indochina and the subsequent Vietnam War. The French war in Indochina was a case of Imperial Policing as France tried to retain her overseas empire in Southeast Asia. The American experience was a mix of FID until 1965, and UW in Laos supporting Montagnard tribal fighters against the North Vietnamese regular army. It also was an attempt to fight a conventional war against North Vietnam’s effort to conquer South Vietnam with U.S. forces doing much of the fighting. Thus, Vietnam was very much a hybrid war.
By contrast, the wars in Central America were largely cases where the U.S. as the IP engaged in FID, especially in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to a lesser extent. In Nicaragua the CIA conducted a UW effort. In all of these cases the American involvement was with a very small footprint.
The 1990s saw the rise of peace operations – mostly under United Nations (UN) auspices. Three of these so-called MOOTW wars were in Somalia, the Balkans, and Haiti. Similar to the Banana Wars in their scope and objectives, they differed in the fact that they were multi-national and mainly UN authorized and legitimized. It is worth noting that the 1990 FM 100-20 identified peace operations as one of its four operational categories of LIC.
This brings us to the wars of the twenty-first century that Kaplan has focused on. Yet, his book leaves out the initial U.S. response to the 9/11 terrorist raid which was a classic case of UW that overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Carried out by the CIA’s Special Action Division and Army SF teams, mainly from the 5th SFG (A), it was followed by a NATO national assistance mission designed to help establish a new and free Afghan government. This mission devolved into COIN (of the Imperial Policing/Banana Wars variety) as the Taliban came back from their sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, in 2003 the U.S. led a coalition effort to topple the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. This was followed by the incredibly mismanaged occupation which spawned a mainly Iraqi Sunni insurgency and, ultimately, sectarian conflict with the Shi’a majority and the Shi’a led government. It is at this point that Kaplan’s story takes over. Nevertheless, Kaplan fails to see the Iraq insurgency as taking place in the context of an occupation. In one sense this is understandable given that Generals Abizaid at CENTCOM and Casey at MNFI in Iraq failed to note its importance. Standard COIN thinking, as articulated in most studies, argues for a small footprint on the part of the IP. The Manwaring quantitative study supports this point of view as well, but with a caveat. The caveat is not explicitly supported by any quantitative measure but was suggested by many of the interviews in the original research. The caveat is that if the IP must intervene in force, it needs to do so overwhelmingly and not introduce forces piecemeal. This is reminiscent of the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force and is an essential feature where the IP is, in fact, the governing authority as in an occupation.
Both Iraq and Afghanistan were occupations. Occupations de facto but occupations nonetheless. As such, they were engaged in the conduct of COIN in the form of Imperial Policing and the Banana Wars and not in support of legitimate and moderately effective governments that simply needed help to defeat a serious internal threat. In the case of El Salvador, for example, American support could involve only about 125 soldiers at the peak, some contractors, USAID workers, and CIA case officers – the total numbering in the hundreds, not thousands. Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of El Salvador totaled 56,000 at their peak against maybe 15,000 insurgents at the apex of their strength. In addition, El Salvador had a full strength and moderately effective government. By contrast, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the IP (U.S. and its allies) had to provide the entire government and all the security forces working toward a transition to host government lead in both governing and fighting.
The strategies called “The Surge” in both Iraq and Afghanistan implicitly recognized that for a period of time COIN could only be conducted effectively by the IP as the lawful occupying power. As a result, the IP had to introduce forces overwhelmingly to have the resources needed to provide security for the population. Transition to the host government would involve nation building at the same time as security was being achieved. Kaplan never quite recognizes the difference between COIN in El Salvador and COIN in Iraq for the Americans. Unfortunately, his insurgents also fail to make the distinction explicit. Thus, it is found nowhere in the doctrine and FM 3-24 tries to apply lessons to different roles for the soldiers and diplomats of the IP from two very different kinds of COIN. Therein lies an inherent tension that Kaplan fails to capture. It is also a tension that Kaplan’s insurgents, other COINdinistas, and their opponents generally have failed to address effectively.
John T. Fishel is a retired Army LTC and Latin America Foreign Area Officer who served in Panama, El Salvador, and other Latin American insurgencies. He has taught at the Army Command & General Staff College, the National Defense University, and currently at the University of Oklahoma. He is s frequent contributor to the Small Wars Journal.
Ambassador Edwin G. Corr is a retired career Foreign Service Officer. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Peru, Bolivia, and El Salvador. He also served in Thailand, Ecuador, and Mexico, as well as in Colombia as a regional director for the Peace Corps. He has written extensively on insurgency and counterinsurgency, served as the first Director if the Energy Institute of the Americas at the University of Oklahoma and as the Associate Director of International Programs at the University.
 Personal communication from Olson to Fishel. Olson was also Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Legal Matters during the Bush 41 Administration and collaborated with retired Army Special Forces Colonel Bill Flavin on the slide.
 Quoted in John T. Fishel & Max G. Manwaring, Uncomfortable Wars Revisited, Norman: (2006) Univerity of Oklahoma Press, p. 9 from Carl von Clausewitz, On War, translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton: (1976) Princeton University Press, pp. 88-89.
 Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Samuel B. Griffith, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1971), p. 77.
 Nagl does cite Sir Robert Thompson multiple times in his book, thus acknowledging this debt.
 Fishel was a civilian professor at Leavenworth arriving at the same time and witnessed the impact of these operations on his students. Note, that he was also a veteran of Panama, but of El Salvador as well, and other COINs in Latin America.
 LTC Thomas K. Adams with a PhD from Syracuse University was a member of the SOSH faculty at West Point and served as a Special Forces medic and as a Military Intelligence Officer. Lt. Colonel Murray Swan, Canadian Forces, commanded the Canadian Peacekeeping battalion in Cyprus.
 See John T. Fishel (ed.), “The Savage Wars of Peace:” Toward a New Paradigm of Peace Operations, Boulder: 1997. Westview Press.
 See Max G. Manwaring and John T. Fishel, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: Toward a New Analytical Approach,” in Small Wars & Insurgencies, Winter, 1992 and John T. Fishel and Max G. Manwaring, “The SWORD Model of Counteinsurgency,” in Small Wars Journal, December 2008.
 The other three operational categories were: Insurgency/counterinsurgency, Terrorism/counterterrorism, and contingency operations. See FM 100-20, 1990.