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Ucko on Counterinsurgency and its Discontents

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

At Kings of War, Dr. David Ucko has a must-read post on the kulturkampf of COIN (hat tip SWJ Blog):

Counterinsurgency and Its Discontents

….It might be interesting to trace how an idea so welcome less than four years ago has since fallen from grace. Was it the perceived confidence with which the concept was rolled out? Was it the perceived automacity of its widespread acceptance? Is it anger at the arguably simplistic explanation that counterinsurgency, and counterinsurgency alone, won the day in Iraq? Or is it due to a perception of counterinsurgency experts gaining power and prestige in DC by peddling a theory that is not working so well in Afghanistan?

I strongly suggest reading Ucko’s post in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

Attempts to disaggregate theory and practice has in turn engendered the accusation that counterinsurgency is like Marxism, in that its supporters insist on the doctrine’s infallibility and claim it simply hasn’t been implemented properly. It is a powerful analogy: a concept that survives only on paper has very limited worth.

But counterinsurgency principles have shown practical value, not just in ‘counterinsurgency campaigns’, but also in other campaigns concerned with stabilisation, pacification, peacebuilding – call it what you want. This is not wholly surprising, as many of these principles are quite banal, even commonsensical:

Agree with Ucko here. If COIN’s promise has at times been oversold by its advocates, its critics have occasionally swung in the opposite direction, penning highly ideological jeremiads equating the American use of COIN in Afghanistan and Iraq with the history of 19th century  European colonialism, capitalist-imperialism a la Lenin and Hobson, as a Democratic trojan horse for GOP neoconservatism and as Ucko mentioned, even Soviet Communism. This is dressing up the less exciting valid criticisms that can be made about COIN, in theory and execution, with highly polemical nonsense typical of cable TV news shoutfests.

A powerful reason why counterinsurgency today is so unpopular is because its principles are looked upon as strategy in their own right. As should be clear, the principles and theory of counterinsurgency are only relevant as a means toward a strategic end, which itself may be more or less realistic: to help a country recover from protracted conflict; to bolster the legitimacy and reach of a government, etc. Even then, the theory is not a silver bullet but mere guidance – a collection of lessons learned – that may help in the design and implementation of an effective campaign plan, a plan that must, as counterinsurgency theory clearly stipulates, be adapted for specific environments.

Strong agreement. I have written much the same in the past as have many others. Hopefully, if it is repeated often enough the ongoing COIN debate can begin to generate more light and less heat.

But if counterinsurgency theory is just ‘useful guidance’ or ‘some ideas’, what good is it? I think our own Faceless Bureaucrat hit the nail on the head in a previous post: ‘I have suspected for a long time that COIN itself is merely the knee-jerk answer to a previous question, “Do kinetic/conventional/body-count campaigns work?”‘. I’m currently reading Keith L. Shimko‘s The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution, which provides a bitter reminder of the muddy RMA-type thinking on war within the Pentagon as it invaded Iraq. The discovery of counterinsurgency as a body of theory and lessons was definitely a step forward, but today it is no longer the antithesis, but itself the thesis. Its function as a reaction to muddy thinking is still being served, but it is also being held up in its own right and subjected to critical scrutiny.

….So there is definitely a need for criticism, but the aim of such a debate should be to improve on rather than kill the scholarship. There seems to be a desire to resign the whole ‘counterinsurgency’ concept to the intellectual wastebasket, which risks sacrificing what the concept has provided: a useful starting point to understand and discuss armed conflict and political violence, issues that today need to be discussed, whether in terms of ‘counterinsurgency’ or not.

Some of this desire to “resign the whole counterinsurgency concept to the intellectual wastebasket” is actually an indirect political campaign for other things. Namely, a more isolationist/non-interventionist foreign policy and secondly, a Weinberger-Powell military posture where the US is geared up to fight the Soviet Union’s closest facsimile of the moment, is buying a half-dozen aircraft carriers and F-35’s by the hundreds and the military “doesn’t do windows” – i.e. the 95 % of security threats since the end of the Cold War. Well this is policy for a world COIN critics wished we inhabited and not the one in which we have to live.

I’m not excerpting Ucko’s conclusions, to better incentivize your reading them for yourself.

What I would add to Ucko’s list of the reasons COIN is currently under harsh scrutiny are the variables I sugggested in The Post-COIN Era is Here – economics and the tie-in to domestic politics. States like California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey are in varying degrees of financial meltdown, as are some EU/NATO nation-states, which has brought belt-tightening back into vogue, whether it is coming from tea party rallies or pious lectures by the German Chancellor. Increased competition for scarcer dollars (or euros) is already impacting defense budgets which have to be weighed with other societal needs.  COIN, which is intensive in terms of both time and personnel, begins to look less attractive to politicians than does FID, CT, drone and cruise missile strikes or the huge contracts going to shipyards and defense companies which employ their constituents back home.

Islamist insurgency may be global but all politics remain local.


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