Small Wars Journal

The Global Counter Insurgency

Mon, 02/18/2008 - 12:31am
The Global Counter Insurgency

America's New National Security and Foreign Policy Paradigm

by Jonathan Morgenstein & Eric Vickland

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Sixty years ago, George Kennan penned his landmark Foreign Affairs article that defined American foreign policy for the next half century. Seminal security policy decisions such as the creation of NATO, the blockade of Cuba and the Berlin airlift were all components of the policy of Containment. Today, a radical Islamic ideology seeks our destruction, yet we lack a unifying doctrine on which to base our foreign policy. Al Qaida and its ideological compatriots represent a worldwide insurgency based on religious extremism. At its core it is a political struggle with political aims and in order to defeat it, we need adapt our means to the nature of the struggle. We are not fighting a war on terrorism. We are fighting a global insurgency against an extremist brand of Islam.

To achieve victory in this conflict, we require a comprehensive paradigm that will address global asymmetric threats. We propose that doctrine be based upon a Global Counterinsurgency and that it become the guidepost for all major US Foreign Policy, in much the same way that George Kennan's anonymous proposal became the focal point for US foreign policy during the Cold War.

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About the Author(s)


arifJAA (not verified)

Wed, 03/05/2008 - 7:53pm

Col Gentile,

With respect to the "Rule Of Law" I submit the following...from the Thomas Moore Law Center..this regards Haditha.

"Marine Lt. Colonel Chessani Thrown Under the Bus for Political Reasons; Fair Trial an Illusion"

<a href="">http://…;

I would love to rest my case here..but it's not over. If we lose in Iraq or Sir had better get a lawyer. Because then they'll come after the rest of you. Let me know the link for your defense fund, I've already ponied up about 400.00$.

Respectfully, and good luck


arifJAA (not verified)

Wed, 03/05/2008 - 1:47pm

Sadly, we are both right.

Lawyers belong in a courtroom, not a Command Post.
And DOJ Lawyers did indeed create the "wall" between intelligence and law enforcement that prevented us from "connecting the dots" (I really am sick of the phrase, but whatever).

You are right about the money.
And it's worse than you think.

Padre (not verified)

Tue, 03/04/2008 - 7:52pm

To: arifJAA

When I read that:

'The Rule of Law got 3,000 people killed on 9/11.

I am a bit surprised... now why?

First of all, I think that limiting the reasons of the 9/11 attacks to the 'rule of law is a bit to simplistic.

Secondly and accordingly, if you read Gary C. Schroens PBS | Frontline interview (see link below); one thing stands out:

9/11 is the backfiring result of Americas strategy and security being sold out for oil, business, and military contracts in the Arabic Peninsula. In other words, for money... *

My take on this is: dont look for the rule of law regarding the 9/11 attacks, look at the rule of money... in its deepest meaning.

Finally, I think it gives a pretty good idea of whom to target, if it doesnt conflicts too much with U.S. interests...

* Or for short-term energy supplies, being the utmost I am willing to grant on that one.

But I am digressing.

Although I do not agree with you on some issues, I do agree with you that that 'the rule of law on a battlefield can be (or is) HIGHLY problematic.

Now, I think that what could partly explain why we now have lawyers on the battlefield lays in the current context of our society. But again, I am more than pessimistic about it anyway...

Gary C. Schroens PBS | Frontline interview link:

<a href="…;

Search for the following questions, and you will get the picture and what I mean:

1 - Did we ever come close?
2 - But Clinton had signed eight or 10 findings that you could kill him?
3 - Isn't that interesting? Because of course Dick Clarke ... has made himself famous as an anti-Osama bin Laden warrior.

arifJAA (not verified)

Mon, 03/03/2008 - 10:34pm

Col Gentile,

First of all understand you have my respect. Secondly I didn't say equal I said dual, and then compared it to the Commissar system. It might be more accurate to compare to a veto.

On the ground what this translates to is countless instances (I can't remember them all) when we saw the insurgents clearly laying IED's, firing mortars, etc...asked (practically begged) to action it and were either told no...or told nothing while the CP waited for the insurgents to go away. When our officers were pressed they owned up that they were being constantly threatened with jail. I believe them..basically the ROE are a gun at the trigger pullers back.

Now you Sir may have run your roost a certain way but the institution as a whole was undermined by giving lawyers an operational role. Asking the lawyer is it legal to shoot is an operational role (remember Mullah Omar) whether the Army wants to admit it or not.

But let me get to my first principles: absent purely criminal action such as rape, robbery and actual murder the lawyers should have no role whatsoever. The law should remain silent in war. Because it wants to meddle in everything in America now it's in the Command Posts..and we are suffering setbacks because of it in overseas theaters and on the domestic front (wiretapping).

No Sir, I don't recall prior instances in history of lawyers in the Command Post, being asked if it's ok to fire. Have we always acted with moral restraint? It depends on how hard we were pushed and how bad we wanted it, doesn't it? As far as remaining above our I just want to win. As fast as we can, before the Republic falls and the country is fatally weakened.

The law will be dragged into disrepute if it forces us to fail. Further...if you make the Constitution a suicide pact what do you think people will choose?

Gian P Gentile (not verified)

Sun, 03/02/2008 - 10:10pm

arifJAA states in the preceeding post that:

"And the Rule of Law really means the Rule of Lawyers..which has led to JAG de facto sharing a dual Command with our actual field Commanders, not unlike the old Soviet Commissar system."

Well I lived it in 2003 in Tikrit as a BCT XO then again in 2006 as a Squadron commander in Baghdad and the way you describe it aint at all what I experienced. It is a gross overstatement to suggest that lawyers are equal to commanders in decisions that involve life and death on the battlefield. In both of my experiences in Coin lawyers certainly played a key role in advising but i never thought for one minute that they were on an equal footing with me or my brigade commander in terms of command decisions involving the killing of the enemy. Jag advice is a necessary and important aspect of irregular and counterinsurgency warfare; but they are not on equal footings with commanders.

And your last sentence baffles me:

"Finally mixing war and the law will bring defeat in war and drag the law into disgrace and disrepute. Possibly even a wholesale rejection."

Hasnt the American way of war always at least had as its ideal and most of the time in practice the conforming of actions and behaivor on the battlefield with the law of land warfare? Why do you therefore imply that the "mixing" of war and law is a bad thing? I think that that mixing is in fact crucial if we are to remain above our enemies in the way we conduct ourselves on the battlefields of regular and irregular wars.


arifJAA (not verified)

Sun, 03/02/2008 - 9:14pm

Mixed conclusions about the essay:

Pros: It identifies the problem and names the enemy-a global Islamic Salafist insurgency.

It advocates that we utilize our rich mix of ethnicities here in the USA...get people who speak the language and have ties there and recruit them as agents. Honestly though we need spies now and can't wait for Intelligence Officers later. Or put more bluntly...Spooks just get in a cab in Brooklyn or Jersey City and take from there, OK?

Cons: The Rule of Law and Human Rights.
As pointed out above that undermines us with extraordinary rendition,waterboarding etc. Law cuts off effective interrogation that has saved countless lives, and this just on the Intelligence side. On the Legal Side the granting of full Constiutional Rights to Al-Qaeda looms large as the Left's/Islamic Dawa Alliance's next victory. The rule of Law just crippled our Communications Intelligence effort-the crown jewel of our Intelligence community-by requiring a court order to get new phone intercepts.

The Rule of Law got 3,000 people killed on 9/11.

And the Rule of Law really means the Rule of Lawyers..which has led to JAG de facto sharing a dual Command with our actual field Commanders, not unlike the old Soviet Commissar system. If you haven't lived under it (I have) you can refer to the recent NYT Korengal valley series. Or recall we had Mullah Omar in our Predator sights in 2001..and the conversation went something like this...

Franks: JAG..can we kill him? I need a Yes or a No.
JAG: ahhh..Maybe...

Finally mixing war and the law will bring defeat in war and drag the law into disgrace and disrepute. Possibly even a wholesale rejection.

Padre (not verified)

Mon, 02/25/2008 - 8:46am

As an answer to Shawn Brimley's comment:

I do agree that the threats are disaggregated, and that is one of their strengths. Yet, links (e.g. between cells, networks, shared open-source intel/tech) do exists...
So what about keeping the idea of COIN on a bigger scale, yet not as a grand strategy, but rather as a tool among others?

Secondly, when you state that '... America needs to focus on renewing our tools of statecraft ... '; I think America will face a big problem regarding state-building, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Those two countries are not states as the western view suggests (they were mainly two extremely culturally rich regions--especially in the case of Mesopotamia), but were made as such by western powers...
Therefore the U.S. will have to look deep down in those countries' history in order to come up with something like a state... if they can.
The question here is how to build a state out of regions which--in their state form--is (as history testifies) rather problematic... or maybe even a mistake.

Shawn Brimley (not verified)

Sun, 02/24/2008 - 8:19pm

This is a good paper, lots to think about. I would caution though with a few points:

1. One of the massive strategic errors of the Bush administration has been to subordinate America's grand strategy and positive purpose in the world to the "war on terrorism." The struggle against what I would call a system-level feature of the international context can not be the anchor for America's grand strategy. To perpetuate this focus would be a big mistake in my view. Yes, terrorism is a problem, but nowhere near the kind of threat the Soviet Union posed. Thus I would argue against constructing a grand strategy around a "global counterinsurgency" doctrine, which I would view as part of the ways and means part of the equation, not a strategic end. I am a huge fan of the COIN literature, but we should be very cautious when we try to apply this type of thinking to grand strategy - it is simply not meant to substitute for a nation's strategic purpose in the world. America needs what John Ikenberry has called a "millieu-based" grand strategy that is positive and aspirational, not reactive and defensive. This is a debatable point, but I would argue that a global counterinsurgency against asymetric threats should not be "the guidepost to all major U.S. foreign policy." I think that would perpetuate the strategic myopia of the past seven years.

2. The idea that America can defeat a virulent strain of Islam is highly problematic. I would caution against thinking that America can wield its considerably powerful tools of statecraft to defeat a religious idea. The very attempt breeds reaction and simply perpetuates the Salafist narrative. We need to think in terms of system management, resilience, and non-linearity when we think about transnational threats like AQAM, not offense, defense, defeating, or "winning." To do so I think risks strategic fumbling, threat aggregation, and distraction.

3. The essay aggregates "the enemy" to a degree that I don't think reflects reality. It is easy to brand Islamic radicalism from the Mahgreb, to the Middle East, to central, south, and east Asia as part of a broader global insurgency, but I would argue the threat is far more disaggregated than that. This is, in fact, the main argument David Kilcullen made some years ago when arguing in favor of thinking of our efforts as counterinsurgency. At least for me, the point is not that our enemy is a global insurgency and thus we need to employ a global-level counterinsurgency, the point is that our enemies are disaggregated and thus we should employ disaggregated strategies. The real innovation one finds when looking at this threat with a COIN-lens is that what may be effective in Afghanistan should not be applied to Africa, and that an approach against Islamic radicals in the Philippines is perhaps not appropriate in Europe. The threats are different, diffuse, and so like any good COIN strategy, so should the American approach.

4. The essay is strongest on arguing why America needs to focus on renewing our tools of statecraft, the sections on intelligence, law-enforcement, civil affairs, and the like are very good.

Padre (not verified)

Sun, 02/24/2008 - 5:27pm

The essay by Morgenstein and Vickland contains some really interesting developments, and lots of them should definitively be taken into account.

Here are a few personal comments...

First of all, the very notion of fighting a war on terrorism is indeed wrong and I do agree with the notion of counterinsurgency on a bigger scale. Yet, it shouldnt be based on a single COIN strategy.

Secondly, following Nagls quote used in the essay, '... an insurgency cannot survive without the "economic and political foundations" of discontent, suffering and/or oppression, present in the society ... there is here--both in Nagls work and in the essay--an interesting notion of 'social work that has to be done.
I see that kind of work as removing the very frameworks (i.e. discontent, suffering and/or oppression, present in the society) that enables threats to take place in the first instance, and not only '... cultivating intelligence networks to anticipate threats before they arise ... as stated by Morgenstein and Vickland.
Yet, I strongly believe that such actions simply go against U.S. interests, and if I am right, America might found itself in a very difficult position because of this.

Now, I was also quite disturbed by some statements, such as:

'We must train allied militaries in the same advanced counterinsurgency skills--to include respect for human rights and winning the hearts and minds of their own populations--discussed in this article.'

I think that the 'we here is rather pretentious for two reasons. First because the work done in COIN strategy--including the one on which this essay is based on--does not come from the U.S. (although recent COIN work does).
Secondly, regarding the '... respect for human rights and winning the hearts and minds ... , well, in the light of extraordinary rendition and torture, more modesty might be required here.
Taken out of its context, a part of the conclusion states that '... we have spent too much time simply declaring ourselves as leaders ... , and that is exactly what I meant by my two previous points.

Last but not least, the conclusion also states that '... in the end, the al Qaida insurgency is flawed and will fail... '. That kind of bet involves far too much risks, and it has been proven throughout history that underestimating an enemy is never a good idea.

Gian P Gentile (not verified)

Mon, 02/18/2008 - 9:37am

Just some thoughts on this essay by Morgenstein and Vickland. I appreciate the authors call for a reestablishment of good relations with key allies who as the authors rightly point out we have "rubbed the wrong way" over the past 6-7 years. I also agree with their call for maintaining key security alliances that has served the United States so well over many, many years. Too, refining and clarifying the vague term "war against terror" into a more usable framework of "global counterinsurgency" also makes sense.

Morgenstein and Vickland's essay is about policy and not strategy. It uses George Kennans Containment Policy as the model for how to construct a foreign policy. Clearly there was a mind on Kennan and he perceptively saw the world around him in 1947, defined the threat, and then proposed a policy of containment to deal with threat posed by the Soviet Union. Morgenstein and Vickland, ironically, do not highlight what happened to Kennans policy of Containment once it was "militarized" by a security policy constructed initially by Paul Nitze and then put into practice in places like Vietnam. Years after he formulated his policy of Containment Kennan became continuously dismayed on how it had become militarized. The irony is that this essay by Morgenstein and Vickland appears to be pushing the United States and its allies toward a militarized foreign policy of countering the global insurgency. George Kennan would not approve.

The paper is essentially an extrapolation of FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, into American foreign and national security policy writ large. Kennan roles his eyes in his grave as he witnesses the continued militarization of American foreign policy. The rejoinder to this statement would be "no, no, you miss the point that it is just as much about soft power as hard." But because the American approach to counterinsurgency is narrowly premised on a certain "population centric" theory the methods that the essay ultimately calls for push the United States toward large numbers of boots on the ground in order to "protect" people from the insurgents; in this case on a global level wherever the global insurgents threaten American interests and its allies.

Morgenstein and Vicklands essay is emblematic of how American foreign and security policy, and operational methods in Iraq and Afghanistan are built on the "micro tactics" of past attempts at countering insurgencies turned into readily digestible templates for action in the form of historical lessons learned. This essay relies heavily on two specific cases, or lessons learned, from David Galulas experience in North Algeria from 1956 to 1958 and the "Marine Corps Small Wars Manual" (MCSWM). Galula wrote his book, "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice," based primarily on his experience--experience--fighting insurgents in North Algeria. Admittedly Galula also used his reading and knowledge of other counterinsurgencies but primarily the book is based on his experience. The American Armys FM 3-24 is heavily premised on Galula. But David Galula commanded an infantry company in a very small area of a couple of miles in the mountains of north Algeria with a population of about 15,000 people dispersed in a relatively few number of villages and hamlets. The MCSWM aside from some helpful and pithy statements about being nice to people in a counterinsurgency and accepting the political primacy of things is essentially about the tactics of moving small squads of marine infantry around the mountains and jungles of Central America in the 1920s and 1930s.

The point here is that today in Iraq (and potentially Afghanistan) we have built operational method and a military strategy in Iraq on the backs of the micro tactics of David Galula and the MCSWM. This essay does the same thing but on a much greater scale.

Finally, this essay does not reconcile the huge mismatch between its proposed foreign and security policy with that of military strategy. Perhaps the authors never intended to do so. However by defining the threat facing America as a global insurgency and then building a foreign and security policy based on a certain approach built on micro-tactics to countering that insurgency, one wonders how the American Army as a strategic resource can fulfill its role within that overarching policy. How many Iraqs and Afghanistans can the American army conduct at one time without being grinded into nothingness and irrelevance?

The fundamental issue that emerges after reading this essay by Morgenstein and Vickland is one of aligning military strategy to foreign and security policy. Perhaps retired Army General Gordon Sullivan is right in his recent "Army Times" article calling for a one million man American Army to match strategy to policy.

Kennan continues to role his eyes in his grave.