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The Post-COIN Era is Here

Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon Again……

There has been, for years, an ongoing debate in the defense and national security community over the proper place of COIN doctrine in the repertoire of the United States military and in our national strategy. While a sizable number of serious scholars, strategists, journalists and officers have been deeply involved, the bitter discussion characterized as “COINdinista vs. Big War crowd” debate  is epitomized by the exchanges between two antagonists, both lieutenant colonels with PhD’s, John Nagl, a leading figure behind the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual and now president of the powerhouse think tank CNAS , and Gian Gentile, professor of history at West Point and COIN’s most infamous arch-critic.

In terms of policy and influence, the COINdinistas ultimately carried the day. COIN advocates moved from a marginalized mafia of military intellectuals who in 2004 were just trying to get a hearing from an  indifferent Rumsfeld Pentagon, to policy conquerors as the public’s perceptions of the “Surge” in Iraq (masterminded by General David Petraeus, Dr. Frederick Kagan, General Jack Keane and a small number of collaborators) allowed the evolution of a COIN-centric, operationally oriented, “Kilcullen Doctrine” to emerge across two very different administrations.

Critics like Colonel Gentile and Andrew Bacevich began to warn, along with dovish liberal pundits – and with some exaggeration – that COIN theory was acheiving a “cult” status that was usurping the time, money, talent and attention that the military should be devoting to traditional near peer rival threats. And furthermore, ominously, COIN fixation was threatening to cause the U.S. political class (especially Democrats) to be inclined to embark upon a host of half-baked, interventionist “crusades“in Third world quagmires.

Informed readers who follow defense community issues knew that many COIN expert-advocates such as Nagl, Col. David Kilcullen, Andrew Exum and others had painstakingly framed the future application of COIN by the United States in both minimalist and “population-centric” terms, averse to all but the most restrictive uses of “hard” counterterrorism tactics like the use of predator drones for the “targeted assassinations” of al Qaida figures hiding in Pakistan.

Unfortunately for the COINdinistas, as George Kennan discovered to his dismay, to father a doctrine does not mean that you can control how others interpret and make use of it. As the new Obama administration and its new commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal conducted its internally contentious review of “AfPak” policy in 2009 on what seemed a geological time scale, the administration’s most restless foreign policy bigwig, the Talleyrand of Dayton, proposed using COIN as nation-building on steroids to re-create Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan as the secure, centralized, state that it has never been.  Public reaction to this trial balloon was poor and the administration ultimately pared down General McChrystal’s troop request to 30,000 men, hedging a COIN based strategy toward policy suggestions made by Vice-President Biden.

So, COIN still reigns supreme, albeit with trimmed sails?


We are forgetting something important about the ascendancy of COIN. It was not accepted by a reluctant Pentagon and the Bush administration because COIN is a very effective operational tool in the right strategic context – although that is certainly true. Nor was it because the advocates of COIN were brilliant policy architects and advocates – though most of them are. COIN became the order of the day for three reasons:

1) The  “Big Army, fire the artillery, fly B-52’s and Search & Destroy=counterinsurgency” approach proved to be tactically and strategically bankrupt in Iraq. It failed in Mesopotamia as it failed in the Mekong Delta under Westmoreland – except worse and faster. Period.

2) The loudest other alternative to COIN at the time, the antiwar demand, mostly from Leftwing extremists, of immediately bugging-out of Iraq, damn the consequences, was not politically palatable even for moderately liberal Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans.

3) The 2006 election results were a political earthquake that forced the Bush administration to change policy in Iraq for its’ own sheer political survival. COIN was accepted only because it represented a life preserver for the Bush administration.

We have just had another such political earthquake. The administration is now but one more electoral debacle away from having the president be chased in Benny Hill fashion all over the White House lawn by enraged Democratic officeholders scared out of their wits of losing their seats next November.

Republican Scott Brown, the winner in a stunning upset in Massachusett’s special election for Senator, certainly had no intention of undermining President Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan. To the contrary, he is for it in a far more muscular manner than was his hapless Democratic opponent. But that’s irrelevant. What matters is that in all the recent elections, Democrats have been clobbered by a “Revolt of the Moderates” – socially liberal, fiscally conservative, independent voters who came out in 2008 for Obama and are now shifting radically away from him. For the next year, politicians of both parties will be  competing hard for this bloc which means “deficit hawks” will soar higher than defense hawks.

America’s nine year drunken sailor spending spree is officially over.

Defense experts have long known that the post-9/11, record DoD budget expenditures were not going to be politically sustainable forever and that either a drawdown of combat operations or cancellation of very big, very complicated and supremely expensive weapons platforms or some combination of both would eventually be needed. That eventuality is here and will increase in intensity over the next five years, barring an unexpected economic boom. Spending $60 billion annually on Afghanistan, a nation with a GDP of roughly $ 20 billion, for the next 7 years, is not going to be in the cards. Not at a time of 10 % unemployment, when the Congress will be forced to cut Medicare, education, veteran’s benefits, eliminate COLA’s on Social Security or raise the retirement age and income taxes. Who is going to want to “own” an ambitious “nation-building” program at election time?

There is a silver lining here. Really.

COIN is an excellent operational tool, brought back by John Nagl & co. from the dark oblivion that Big Army partisans consigned it to cover up their own strategic failures in Vietnam. As good as COIN is though, it is not something akin to magic with which to work policy miracles or to substitute for America not having a cohesive and realistic grand strategy. Remaking Afghanistan into France or Japan on the Hindu Kush is beyond the scope of what COIN can accomplish. Or any policy. Or any president. Never mind Obama, Superman, Winston Churchill and Abe Lincoln rolled into one could not make that happen.

Association with grandiosely maximalist goals would only serve to politically discredit COIN when the benchmarks to paradise ultimately proved unreachable. Austerity will scale them back to the bounds of reality and perhaps a more modest, decentralized, emphasis. COIN will then become a normal component of military capabilities and training instead of alternating between pariah and rock star status inside the DoD.

Austerity may also force – finally – the USG to get serious about thinking in terms of comprehensive and coherent DIME-integrated national strategy (Ok – this is more of a hope on my part). Instead of having every agency and service going off in its own direction with strategic nuclear arms reductions being proposed out of context from our conventional military obligations and urgent security threats we might stop and look at how the two fit together. And how these should be in sync with our fiscal and monetary policies and our need to deeply invest in and improve our unsteady economic position in a very competitive, globalized world. The latter is of much greater strategic importance to national security than Afghanistan or whether or not Israel and Hezbollah fight another mini-war.

We are all COINdinistas now. Instead of being controversial, COIN having a secure place in our operational arsenal of ideas has become the new “conventional” wisdom; it is past time to look at some of the other serious challenges America has ahead.


First, I wanted to thank everyone for their lively responses, both comments as well as email. The critiques are very helpful, as are the large number of PDFs and links to related material. I am trying to catch up on my replies but first, I wanted to feature a link to Andrew Exum ‘s related but inside baseball article up at Boston Review:

The Conflict in Central Asia will likely mark the end of the current era of Counterinsurgency 

 ….Whether or not the United States and its allies are successful in Afghanistan, the conflict in Central Asia will likely mark the end of the Third Counterinsurgency Era. Counterinsurgency warfare has its roots in the colonial experiences of France and the United Kingdom as well as the pseudo-colonial experiences of the United States in the Philippines and Latin America. In the First Counterinsurgency Era, nineteenth-century French colonial military commanders such as Hubert Lyautey, Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, and Joseph Gallieni devised rudimentary “hearts and minds” campaigns that were—though often just as brutal as the conventional warfare of the time—at odds with then-contemporary thought on the employment of military force. 

….Michael Semple —with two decades experience working in Afghanistan and Pakistan—believes that it is, and that the Taliban and its allies cannot win. The balance of power, he argues, has shifted toward the Taliban’s natural enemies, and the Taliban hides this reality by dressing their civil war in the clothes of an insurgency being fought against Western powers. If this assessment is right, there may yet be hope for U.S. and allied efforts in Afghanistan. Because President Obama has pledged to begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan in eighteen months, time may be too short to execute a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign. But there may be sufficient time to build up key Afghan institutions and allow Afghans to fight a civil war that will no doubt continue after the United States and its allies begin to withdraw.


Most of these bloggers have extended the discussion into new dimensions or aspects. I will put a short, explanatory tag next to each where warranted.

RBO (Pundita)The cavalry has arrived: Mark Safranski takes on COIN; Pundita takes on Pakistan  Extensive examination of Pakistan

In Harmonium (Dr. Marc Tyrell)Is the post-COIN era here?  The conceptual-perceptual-cognitive implications of this debate

Shlok VaidyaZen is right  Constraints and innovation….and a great post title!

Newshoggers (Dave Anderson)COIN’s coins; political constraints on COIN  COIN = Clausewitzian disconnect

Wings Over IraqLink of the morning is here…  And the bonus Nagl/Gentile mash-up graphic!

SWJ BlogThe Post-COIN Era is Here  Comments on link excerpt have begun……

48 Responses to “The Post-COIN Era is Here”

  1. onparkstreet Says:

    There is so much to this post I’m going to have to read it a couple times over… .
    Funny, because I just put up a post at Chicago Boyz consisting of a bunch of – sort of – disjointed links at articles about Afghanistan. Building dams, and refurbishing old dams from the 50s that allowed a little "pomegranate breadbasket" to grow up around a key river which provides not only a livelihood for local people but a perfect place for Taliban to hide. And Secretary Gates in Pakistan saying the same thing every American official always says, "we must work with our Pakistani partners," and our Pakistani partners saying, "no, no, no, we can’t go on into Waziristan, not now. No."
    COIN isn’t the problem is it? Just started Mansoor’s Baghdad at Sunrise book which you all likely have read already and the prologue haunts me a little: you go in thinking you are going to fight one type of war but you end up fighting a different war. I don’t think we know – still, despite the "hamlet like agonizing" – know what kind of war we want to wage. Or, if we do, it hasn’t been communicated very well to a layperson like me who pays more attention than most, but not as much as the crowd that hangs here.
    As usual, the above is all impressionistic talky-talk that’s just rambling, but it’s weird to think I used to hang out so much in the comments section at Abu M while some of the COINtras and COINdinistas argued and I had no idea just what I had wandered into… .
    – Madhu

  2. onparkstreet Says:

    Oh, and didn’t cranky-mercurial-genius smart serial Abu M commenter SNLII come up with the COINtra vs. COINdinista terminology? Can’t remember, now.

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Madhu,
    I think that’s right re: SNLII. I liked his moniker a lot better than "Coin mafia".
    Are the dams from the Eisenhower-Dulles outreach? We were in Afghanistan then and built, if I recall (dimly) Afghanistan’s first paved highway in the 1950’s.
    No, COIN is definitely not the problem. Our problem is at the strategic and diplomatic level, dealing with Pakistan as a regional opponent and also facilitating transnational terrorism against Afghanistan, the US, India and Iran. Maybe China as well, I am not versed on the ISI connections to radical Uighurs, if any.

  4. Joseph Fouche Says:

    I agree with the thrust of your post. Marshal Petain commented that "fire destroys, infantry occupies". For too long, America’s military was all about the "fire destroys" part but not about the "infantry occupies" part. Restoring COIN to its place is merely reasserting the fundamental role infantry has served since the beginning of time: occupying territory. The High on RMA crowd of the nineties and the early Oughts were mesmerized by the anomaly of Desert Storm when a strategically inept adversary parked his military out in the desert so we could destroy it by fire and then, by political diktat, avoid the messy occupation part for 13 years. In truth there is a need for fire destroying and infantry occupying. Infantry is not merely an armored column that walks on foot occasionally between panzer thrusts. It gets out and walks around, asserting control over territory and population.

    The most useful result of Iraq will be reminding us about this proper balance between fire and infantry. Our adventures in Eurasia will recede but this lesson, despite the best efforts of a procurement driven Pentagon, will endure. The most important application of this hard won balance will be close to home, probably in the streets of America.

  5. Smitten Eagle Says:

    A fine post–if only as a starting point.  But that’s fine–it’s what makes the weblog such a great medium.
    I was hoping you delve into COIN as Strategy/Grand Strategy, which, in it’s current form, is most certainly not.  COIN, as we understand it, is one of many methods of stringing a series of tactical victories in a given military/security context into a campaign.  Nothing more, nothing less.  COIN only works in a given political/military milieu, and in it’s highest, yet moderately pure form, is a type of Operational Art (or, to use less-weird terminology–is a type of Campaigning, or Grand Tactics).
    It is possible to extrapolate COIN into Strategy and Grand Strategy, but only in the context that we are conserving a given order in the face of insurgency.  For the US, that given order would only come about in the form of a type of aggressive imperialism (possibly under the rubric of extending "Rule Sets"–although I think the jury is still out on whether Barnett’s quasi-imperialist concepts are the least bit palatable given the state of the electorate and the fiscal shape of America, the EU, and much of the world.)  In other words, I’m not sure there’s the stomach out there for much of that, not to mention that there is a lot about imperialism which runs against American ideals.
    You did hit the nail on the head with regard to the need for a strategic dialog on Grand Strategy, Ends, and Means.  We’re going to need one of those shortly, because there will be a scarcity of resources on which to pursue our policies.  That implies prioritizing, which implies making choices, which implies that some interests must be ignored for the sake of the greater strategic good.  Figuring that out coherently requires a Grand Strategy.  Hopefully it’ll occur.
    Fellow Citizen Fouche-I’m a fellow ChicagoBoy and also occasionally follow your work on your own blog.  It’s a pleasure to read!
    One quibble, though.  The fundamental role of infantry is to assault.  There is no sense in occupying, or "walking around" if you’re not doing so to put the enemy at some sort of positional disadvantage.  I’m not bringing this up to split hairs.  Much of what the Surge was about in Iraq not the increase in ground troops (which was rather modest), but rather what those troops were doing.  And much of those troops were assaulting (causing the steep rise in American casualties at the beginning of the Surge counteroffensive.)  In the course of the infantry assaults, new fighting positions would be set up (known in today’s parlance as Combat Outposts, or occasionally as Joint Security Stations if indigenous forces also occupied the fort.)  Only in the context of such maneuver does the infantry assault make any sense.
    In terms of Firepower destroying, that’s fine, conceptually.  However, infantry and firepower aren’t mutually exclusive, and often the infantry’s ability to pour fire (even employing shaped charges) is rather impressive.  That’s part of the reason why it’s often folly to employ armor against infantry in so-called "complex" terrain.
    Treating infantry and firepower as mutually exclusive concepts is folly.  There is historical precedent for such thought, but in American circles, citing the French won’t support your case.  🙂
    If you care to talk about this a bit more, feel free to contact me by email.
    Semper Fidelis,

  6. T. Greer Says:

    Nope Zen, you were right, this one is going to fire up the comment threads.


    And it was pretty dang brilliant if I may say so.  Undoubtedly a link will come your way from my place soon.


    Good luck handling all the SE-sized comments. ^_~

  7. Fred Leland Says:

    This is  a thought provoking post Zen…COIN should be about evolution and adaptation, to the situation on the ground, not a 1 method fits all "canned response! It seems whenever we come up with something new we lock in on it, to the pint we forget, other methods may work to help us reach our end goals. Learn, unlearn and relearn!!! Which is the main point I take from this well thought out piece.

  8. Ski Says:

    Gentile is a full Colonel now.

    Counter-Insurgency is a method of warfare.  It is not a strategy, and it is not even a tactic. The tactics used in counter-insurgency by infantry are going to look very similiar to the tactics used in a conventional war, but it’s usually on a smaller scale.  Platoons instead of battalions.  There are differences in tactics between the two forms of warfare as well. You usually don’t need a tank company providing overwatch for dismounted infantry who are assaulting an objective, but it can happen. You usually aren’t going to see a Fires BDE fire a time-on-target mission in counter-insurgency.

    The biggest issue with the Army right now is a massive disconnect between the political objectives, as Clausewitz said, which are the original reasons why you go to war, and the military objectives. Counter-insurgency tries to address those concerns to a very limited extent, but at the end of the day, the people who live there are going to choose how to act, what style of government they prefer (or sit back and watch the strong emerge) and generally do what they want. The Army isn’t going to be able to heal a religious divide between Sunni and Shi’i, and it’s madness to even think they can.

    Counter-insurgency must not be shunted to the side like it was in Vietnam. It’s a valuable experience for an Army – although painful and generally resulting in a perceived if not actual defeat.  With declining defense budgets coming soon – probably after the 2012 election – the days of gee-whiz, high tech stuff are going to be limited. I think the politicians realize that the post-Cold War/Desert Storm drawdown of the Army was a strategic error mainly because the politicians foreign policy aims continued to be interventionist, and will continue to be interventionist. You won’t see OIF’s much, but large scale deployments (Division+) to peacekeeping, disaster relief and foreign internal defense missions will continue.

    Perhaps a new article on the War College curriculum (all of them) is required in light of the last 65 years of military operations.  The lack of decisive victory, at the operational, strategic and political levels, should really be troubling and requires an examination into why this has not occured.

    The quote of Mansoor reminds me of Clausewitz’s "The most far reaching act of judgement that the statesmen and commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature." Book One, Chapter One

  9. Sean Says:

    Zen:Interesting post.  I am an active duty SF officer following the COIN debate from the sidelines and it appears to me that we in the U.S. (as evidenced by the post and some of the comments here) have a big mental block when it comes to COIN.The U.S. has not conducted a COIN campaign since the Civil War and reconstruction, when the we faced an insurgency on our own soil.  Our efforts since then have been assisting other nations with countering their own insurgencies.   As such, we don’t really understand the lengths to which nations must go to be successful at COIN.  Sure, micro level efforts at security and development are fine, but ultimately it’s about the relationship between a government and its people that is the crux of the issue.  If we do decide to shore up a poor regime, we have to remember that it is their fight, we are there to assist their efforts, not do the work for them.  We should really use the term FID (Foreign Internal Defense), not COIN.  Using COIN ignores the local aspects, especially when you’ve got battalion commanders in the 82nd saying "We are doing COIN," but does every operation unilaterally.  It should be "We’re doing FID…"That being said, I think the issue at hand is not one of "To COIN or not to COIN…" but rather to decide whether the interests of the U.S. lie with bolstering an existing regime or not.  Answer this question and you will be able to create a strategy on a firm political ground.  But as you point out, nation-building is expensive…..As to the comments on grand strategy, we don’t really have one.  We tend to treat the country or issue in isolation, creating a one off solution (but as of late, it appears that we use a "one-size-fits-all" solution  with the repeated use of "surging" as a strategic method).My $0.02.

  10. Rams Fan Says:

    One of the problems with US COIN theory is that it sees everything through the eyes of the military.  Soft power seems to be hard power with slightly less force.  Look at the UK experience in Northern Ireland.  Clearly the PIRA were a very different enemy to the Taliban, but the point is that it was primarily seen as a political issue and steps were taken to deal with the problems and concerns of the local nationalist population.  It often feels like the US just keeps changing its military tactics, hoping for some sort of "win", when surely any meaningful victory will have to come through a political settlement.  Mountain Runner is good on all this, but few people see COIN as being the highly political issue that it is.  This is a separate issue, but clearly the fact that it is so political means that it requires extreme decentralisation to local tribes etc.

  11. Shlok Vaidya’s Thinking » Military Minus $$$$ Says:

    […] Zen is right. The entire debate is predicated on a perpetual excessive budget. A culture that has, for a generation, had the resources to debate whether to spend billions on fighter jets or reconstruction will quickly find itself unable to cope when it can afford neither. […]

  12. Tom Barnett Says:

    Mark,I believe you have duly slain a straw man of epic proportions, to wit:"And furthermore, ominously, COIN fixation was threatening to cause the U.S. political class (especially Democrats) to be inclined to embark upon a host of half-baked, interventionist ‘crusades’ in Third world quagmires."I’ve got to tell you, that line is a whopper that just jumps off the page.  When I read it, I said to myself, "What the hell is Mark talking about?"  Since we bumped into the strategic lock-down that’s been Iraq and Afghanistan, there hasn’t been a single serious debate about going anywhere or doing anything, unless you want to suggest drone strikes over the border into Pakistan represents a major expansion, but I think you’d find few takers on that one because it’s clearly a strategy of limited regret.Where is this host that you speak of?  I am not aware of any serious advocates concerning U.S. interventions anywhere right now.  As far as I can tell, the COIN debate remains fixated on Af-Pak, as it should be, and we’re dialing down on Iraq, as we should be.  Outside of that, and some minimal stuff in Yemen that would hardly count as a "crusade" on anybody’s ledger, there’s basically nothing (or do we now count Colombia as a "crusade"?).  Stating that this crusade mentality is especially strong among Dems strikes me as downright weird.  I see anything but.For evidence, you cite Bacevich, but how does that work exactly?  Citing a name-caller and repeating his names strikes me as weak.  Furthermore, Bacevich’s argument is beyond weak:  developing the COIN capability compels us to invade every failing state?  Please, that’s just silly.  We have a nuclear war capability and we’ve never used it.  We have a great-power war capability and we’ve never used it.  So why should regenerating a COIN capacity drive us strategically insane all of a sudden?  Seriously, this is a straw man unworthy of serious treatment.I think you’re battling media hype and little else.  I see no evidence in my continuing travels among the military that it’s gone oddly overboard on COIN, or that any great anti-COIN correction is coming.  I simply see a military that’s exhausted from several years of overuse trying to readjust itself sensibly to various institutional pressures.The budget pressure has been in the works for several years now.  It crests with a renewed focus on the deficit.  That’s hardly a shocker and hardly signals a post-COIN anything.  Yes, advocates on all sides will sharpen their rhetoric for the pitched budget fights ahead, but that’s the bureaucratic norm.A tool was missing in our toolkit.  Thanks to some unmistakable pain, it’s been restored.  No one suggests that it works in all realms or that it triggers our invasion of every failed state.  The crusade language of Bush-Cheney died, as you and many of us have pointed out, with the 2006 election.  Don’t mistake the rhetorical efforts of COIN advocates, necessary to carve out a decent position for it within a stubborn bureaucracy, for some push to make COIN the center of all strategy.  That’s just not a credible description of any process or debate that I’ve come across in my travels to various commands, schools, offices, etc.Furthermore, extrapolating from the Mass. special election some sort of popular referendum on COIN strikes me as awfully strained.  That issue didn’t play there whatsoever.  After major government interventions into the economy, people are naturally eager to side with a retrenchment, not exactly a shocker in American history.  But I wouldn’t draw any straight lines to military debates or budget priorities inside the Pentagon, which are slowly shifting in the direction of more COIN capacity but hardly in any landslide fashion, and most definitely not in any manner that creates some compelling monster of a machinery that’s hell bent on invading the planet.  Really, echoing Bacevich’s hysteria on that score seems out of character for you.In sum, I guess I just don’t understand the presumed urgency of your post.  I see a rather calm consensus right now within the Pentagon (despite whatever flare-ups rage in the blogosphere), embodied by Gates.  I spot a similarly calm consensus on the Af-Pak effort.  There’s some friction brewing on China, and the usual on Iran, but that’s about it.So I see Obama changing some course domestically, ala Clinton mid first term, but I don’t spot your projected sea change in military affairs.  Again, I see things as fairly calm right now, with political attention most definitely turned elsewhere and with foreign policy largely taking a back seat (with military interventions, such as they remain, taking a back seat to foreign policy).  Thus, this post strikes me as making a mountain out of a molehill.I’d actually be more interested in a post from you explaining why you felt the need to write something like this.

  13. In Harmonium » Is the post-COIN era here? Says:

    […] friend and fellow SWC denizen Mark Safranski (aka Zenpundit) has an excellent post today entitled The post-COIN Era is Here.  It is, IMHO, an excellent post on the (supposed) “COINdinista vs. Big War” debate; a […]

  14. Pundita Says:

    Zen — Everything you said in your essay desperately needed to be said.  Okay, so maybe I went a little over the top by calling it "close to epochal" in my riff on it 🙂   http://pundita.blogspot.com/2010/01/cavalry-has-arrived-mark-safranski.htmlBut it’s past time for the military and Obama administration to acknowledge what has been obvious for many months, which is that COIN has been misapplied in Afghanistan; in my view this is chiefly because there’s not a classic insurgency in the country. Many of the insurgents are Pakistani soldiers in tribal drag.And yet the U.S. "Afpakia" approach has amounted to jollying along Pakistan’s military. That hasn’t worked.  As I point out in my essay there is another way to deal with Pakistan, and without starting a shooting war with them. The sorrow here is that by trying to keep fitting a square peg into a round hole, COIN stands to be unfairly discredited; one of the contributions of your essay is to make this clear. COIN is a very valuable tool, and it still has uses in Afghanistan, but not without a restructuring of US-Pak relations and acknowledging key differences between Iraq and Afghanistan that make a viable national army in Afghanistan unrealistic in the near term.  Ditto for trying to build up a central governing authority, which depends on a literate class of civil servants that does not exist in Afghanistan. Yet the country has something that Iraq does not, which is vast untapped natural resources that can make it a Cinderella country.  The U.S. military needs to start thinking from that vantage point in order to create a workable way forward in the country, but first a new chapter in U.S.-Pakistan relations has to be written. Without that, no amount of clever tactical approaches will work.     Well, I could go on for pages so I will close here with many thanks.

  15. Stephen Pampinella Says:

    Agreed with Dr. Barnett regarding that particular line. But it’s important to acknowledge that people like Bacevich are wary about the development of COIN as an operational tool. I feel Andrew Exum was responding to this audience when he recently said that the Third Era of Counterinsurgency is probably over. However, I don’t believe this means that, in the future, COIN will have no utility for American grand strategy. To borrow again from Barnett (and Fukuyama), I consider American grand strategy to be the completion of globalization and the development of strong, legitimate states that address popular grievances and provide essential services. Given the current int’l context, war between states is still far less likely than war within states, fought by non-state actors like insurgencies or criminal syndicates. If this is an accurate observation, counterinsurgency is still relevant. However, because of our hegemonic decline, the United States will not assume the same level of responsibility in deploying counterinsurgency, nor will it be the sole source of int’l authority in deciding when counterinsurgency is the appropriate means to deal with int’l stability.So, we can expect that COIN in ‘the post-COIN era’ will be conducted by new actors that can legitimate intervention and spread the costs of intervention among many states of the world. I would speculate that a ‘Fourth Era of Counterinsurgency’ may be possible, except this time the main coordinating agency would be int’l institutions like the United Nations. Yes, the United States would have an important role in such interventions, but our troop and resource commitments will likely be smaller, and more sustainable, than those of our current wars. The term counterinsurgency would likely decline and be replaced by ‘peace enforcement’ or ‘peace building’. This isn’t some kind of rationale for invading every country around the world that may have a problem. Instead, the United States should ensure that other militaries adopt COIN as an operational tool, consistent with FID (as mentioned above). However, when a threat to int’l stability emerges that cannot be solved by the state in which it occurs (because it is too weak, corrupt, non-existent), intervention may be appropriate. COIN/peace enforcement would be the mode of such intervention, and it would only be legitimate if carried out by the UN with the consent of int’l society and the participation of all the great powers or relevant regional powers. So, in the future (and I’m thinking 20-30 years), I think we will still see counterinsurgency, but the authority to determine when it is appropriate/necessary will be outsourced to the United Nations as a means of spreading its costs.

  16. JV Says:

    Very good post!Many of the comments are correct in asking "where’s the strategy/policy from Washington to make COIN a tool not a pointless exercise.The comments about COIN and US Civil War are also interesting and gets to the point of COIN in the first place.COIN as a tool only functions if there is a "government in the wings" that will step in when the COIN operations tamp down the insurgency for them.  That has almost never existed in any US COIN action overseas.  Most of the time the "government in the wings" has been the group behind the insurgents rather that a European democracy post WWII that needed the Marshall Plan to get going again.The American defense budget is about to be reshaped.  The nation cannot afford operational budgets like the wars.  But I would expect to see the Democrats go back to big "technological welfare" programs to build complex systems again to put jobs in their districts.  Building ships and taking them out and sinking them again.The big hardware components to COIN are drones and cyberwar – those will get big money I bet in this game.

  17. Dave Schuler Says:

    America’s nine year drunken sailor spending spree is officially over..Wanna bet?

  18. Tom Barnett Says:

    Stephen,Agree with the thrust but would submit that the UN is a poor choice to sit one’s hopes.  There’s no good reason to assume that COIN will be primary a military-run affair in the future.  I see plenty of COIN done all over the developing world by the private sector, the Chinese, the Indians, Arab SWFs, etc.  Globalization has advanced to the point where nobody in particular needs to wait on just the U.S. to show up for the dynamics of IN-v-COIN to unfold.  In short, the vast majority of globalization’s integrating dynamics will be private-sector driven, not public sector and certainly not held hostage to whether America musters the will or not.  You add 3 billion capitalists to the mix and a global middle class that now encompasses 60% of the world’s population (i.e., above $10 per capita per day) and the whole question of COIN’s ascendancy or alleged fall within the U.S. system is truly a hill of beans.

  19. JV Says:

    Tom,I agree that the military approach is quiet and to some extent discredited.  The US also is no longer the only super power that calls the shots.  A global economy does supersede the UN which is its own kind of failed state that exists at the discretion of the large members. Globalization will continue, but corporations are sometimes the tools of nation states and it will be interesting to see what they really do in the future.  Witness China freezing out Google and Google running to Obama to ask for redress for the past campaign contributions. What happens when the China economic bubble breaks will also spin things another way also.

  20. Stephen Pampinella Says:

    Tom, I agree that not all future military operations will be from the ‘public sector’ and that ‘private sector’ ops (hiring mercenaries to do one’s bidding and create stability) will continue and grow. However, if international institutions like the UN adopt COIN doctrine on their own and define it within an ethic of warfare that builds upon norms/values like human rights and cosmopolitanism (values championed by the UN crowd), then the UN will have greater discursive influence/soft power to influence how private actors can employ COIN or some other use of coercion. In fact, the UN’s ability to regulate intrastate warfare already exists to some degree with the International Criminal Court. The use of private military force will have to reckon with the existence of that institution.OK, upon reading your comment again I realized you may have also meant ‘COIN’ as being non-military development, hence China, India, the SWFs. I agree that these actions are ‘COIN’ to the degree that they provide new economic resources to local actors that turns them into a global middle-class. Ultimately, this middle-class wants stability and prosperity within global capitalism, so therefore it will need (or create, or reform on its own) political organizations like states to create the stability needed for capital to continuously prosper in-country. However, there may still be some pockets within globalization that resist the self-organization of local societies into hierarchical states that create political stability. And, these pockets of instability may themselves be caused by material relationships within the global structure of capitalism that emerge out of its own historical contradictions (the last 30 years of Afghan history are one indication of this). If stability cannot emerge from the bottom-up, some outside intervention may be needed to change local incentives and empower the people to self-organize and create their own political order. This is when military-COIN (as opposed to development-COIN) may be strategically useful. Again, this is not a call to intervene wherever such a pocket exists. Intervention is costly, and can only be ‘just’ when it conforms to int’l custom about what is a ‘just’ intervention (like to prevent genocide/war crimes or eliminate global insurgencies that seek to the destroy the entire int’l states system). Given those constraints, I would not rule out future applications of counterinsurgency, although the actors and institutions that practice it will definitely change.

  21. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "…Since we bumped into the strategic lock-down that’s been Iraq and Afghanistan, there hasn’t been a single serious debate about going anywhere or doing anything,…" –TPMB


    Maybe no debate, but plenty of discussion, you just got to know where to look. Apparently there is a front building to the south of us, and is geologically located approximately in Honduras. In the discussion I had, it was stated to me that we need to get our SOFs out of Afghanistan to meet this threat. It is not seven years, but three. Three years is really not enough time to do much COIN.

    If I understand the threat correctly, it is mostly communistic, totalitarian, and with an Asia flavor. I personally feel the front will soon be very transparent in the after-math of the Haitian earthquake. Despite the appeals for strigent building codes, I think you will see new construction in Haiti become very fast and dirty. This new front may require more of the Blue than Green platforms.

  22. phalanx Says:

    Scott Brown’s election was very much a part of this picture.  Terrorism policy was on the minds of Mass. voters, in addition to economic fears.  I think the administration and the military have underestimated the degree to which the American electorate disapproves of current policies pertaining to interrogation, detention, trying, and detecting terrorists.  Brown has a military background, though he didn’t emphasize it.  He was clear and unambiguous about his rejection of the current terrorism and security policies.   The voters took a flying leap right into his lap.I also don’t think our greatest strategic thinkers should be so quick to accept the idea that America is in decline, that others now call the shots, or that the military approach is discredited.  The notion that globalization has somehow diminished U.S. power should be constantly and relentlessly questioned.  I just don’t see it.  Neither do I see the vast American populace willing to unilaterally give up it’s military advantage or superpower status in service to some abstract transnational collective.  While the prevailing ideological school of thought prizes this notion, most Americans find it abhorrent, and will vote against it.  Gov. McDonnell of VA hit on this, and so did Christie of NJ.   There’s every reason to believe the next class of decision-makers over U.S. grand strategy, the military and government will as well.

  23. Tom Barnett Says:

    Whoa dog!When I say "private sector" will do most of the COIN, I am NOT referring to private security corporations.  The best counterinsurgent technique remains a formal sector paycheck.  It’s also the best route to achieve birth control.I’m talking jobs, not bodyguards and mercs.

  24. Eric Says:

    Ski: "Perhaps a new article on the War College curriculum (all of them) is required in light of the last 65 years of military operations.  The lack of decisive victory, at the operational, strategic and political levels, should really be troubling and requires an examination into why this has not occured."

    Korea. Truman. MacArthur. China.

  25. Stephen Pampinella Says:

    Aha, my mistake, I was reading John Robb into that. 

  26. democratic core Says:

    Re other US "interventions" – there is this Haiti thing going on.  Not the typical military operation, but quite possibly a prototype for a common use of the US military in the years ahead.  Have to get rid of this "rip off" mentality.  If things go right in Haiti (a big if) then the US military operations will be generating profits for non-US businesses.  In all likelihood, the companies that would build garment factories in Haiti after some order is returned to the place ("sweatshops" to some) will not be US companies, but more likely businesses from the New Core, like Mexico, Brazil, even China.  Of course, you can imagine the multi-level freak-out that would kick in if Chinese businesses started setting up shop in Haiti, all while getting security protection from US troops.  But that’s the way it ought to be.  Just like the Chinese mining operations going on in Afghanistan – most effective sys-admin operation going on in Afghanistan today.

  27. onparkstreet Says:

    @ Zen: yes, those are the projects I was referring to. It’s kind of surreal to think about the development projects going on right now and how they are to be placed within the current Afghanistan context. It seems, well, a bit like folly, although I don’t like saying it. It’s like being too negative or something.
    @Phalanx:" The voters took a flying leap right into his lap.I also don’t think our greatest strategic thinkers should be so quick to accept the idea that America is in decline, that others now call the shots, or that the military approach is discredited.  The notion that globalization has somehow diminished U.S. power should be constantly and relentlessly questioned.  I just don’t see it." I completely agree.
    @ Pundita: your post is just great. I don’t know about "holding on to Pakistan" as a hedge against a greater Russia, though. Am I getting your point correctly? I think it’s the constant threats of "we are unstable, we have nukes, give us money," personally, that keeps the American Foreign Policy establishment in thrall, so to speak. Or, I don’t know. I don’t get it either. It’s weird. We have leverage: we write the checks!
    @ Thomas Barnett: I like your points about the private sphere and globalization.
    Awesome thread.

  28. Smitten Eagle Says:

    It seems that for Dr. Barnett, FDI = COIN.
    That’s quite a leap.  It’s a leap that makes a little bit of sense if you’re an economic determinist, and such theory means a great deal to you as a strategist.  Unfortunately, there are other forms of viable determinisms out there: religious, anthropological, ethnic, tribal, etc.  As far as FDI’s ability to "rectify" these other determinisms, that’s a question that remains unanswered.
    Here’s another question.  If FDI/jobs = COIN, and the consequent new economic relationships are introduced into a foreign country as the result of a "COIN" campaign, and those new economic relationships detract from the legitimate government’s legitimacy, how can that be construed as COIN in any way but an Orwellian sense?  It seems to me that, if you’re rigorous about definitions, those economic relationships cannot be construed as COIN.  (This is not an idle question–there are many economic relationships that are introduced into countries that are detrimental to the host nation’s government’s legitimacy.  Doing that, and then claiming  you’re conducting a COIN campaign is rather disingenuous.)
    On the other hand, if one goes and actually reads any form of real COIN doctrine, you find that it has more to do with the creation of legitimacy for the government through the provision of local physical security.  Using the US military to prod foreign powers along these lines, combined with occasionally taking on the fight against foreign insurgency ourselves, is where actual COIN doctrine lies.  Whether it should continue to be an Operational Art within America’s rucksack, that’s a military question that ought to descend from a coherent grand strategy. 
    It seems to me that the form of COIN I just described is the type referred to by Zenpundit.  I don’t think he’s incorrect by any means.
    Semper Fidelis,

  29. onparkstreet Says:

    Did you all see this?
    "John Nagl, COIN rockstar, Visiting Professor in War Studies, and currently President of the Center for a New American Security, is back for his fourth lecture at King’s War Studies. The topic: “Afghanistan and Its Lessons for the Future of Conflict.” " Kings of War.
    So, I mean, aren’t the lessons still being learned? I guess I’m not familiar with this area of academics so I might not understand how the studies and talks – and how they are communicated – are typically done. Well, it’s interesting anyway.
    – Madhu

  30. Bill Says:

    Either way, are we saying that now there will be a Pentagon’s New Map but with no or very little Pentagon?

  31. zen Says:

    Hi everyone – again, fantastic discussion!
    I will try to respond to the critical comments first:
    You are correct that  I did not deal with the strategic/grand strategic levels here – Fabius Maximus also made that observation to me in an email. My focus was more on our internal policy making and the implications of politics imposing fiscal restraints on our choices. I agree with how you characterized it – "COIN, as we understand it, is one of many methods of stringing a series of tactical victories in a given military/security context into a campaign.  Nothing more, nothing less.  COIN only works in a given political/military milieu, and in it’s highest, yet moderately pure form, is a type of Operational Art ". While I am uncertain if we can successfully "extrapolate COIN upwards" to strategy/grand strategy as you suggested, I will say that we are not doing so at present. We are using COIN as a strategic placeholder of sorts.
    Re: Straw Man
    First, I think I should probably clarify that I do not personally agree with Andrew Bacevich’s strategic assessment or his polemical descriptions. Nor am I "Anti-COIN". To an extent, as this is a blog post, I have simplified things by using Nagl, Gentile and Bacevich as representative figures of general positions that have a number of voices and a fair number of people supporting them. Look at discussions on the Small Wars Council forum which involve a lot of active duty personnel with considerable field experience expressing a range of criticisms or support for our current policies in AfPak.
    You mentioned "serious" as your key variable to measure the importance of the debaters. I would say that critics of COIN ( and I think I have been pretty supportive over the years, ask Dave Dilegge) probably fall into four camps:
    1. Professional security/strategy/military: types like Col. Gentile from the "Big War" or "Clausewitzian" or "Navy/Air Power" camp. However they care to identify themselves, I think you would regard them as "serious", even if their views are out of favor.
    2. Antiwar Conservative – Isolationists/Non-interventionists: Much of the opposition here is political, not strategic in nature and I tend to ignore that too. OTOH – many Boydian and 4GW theorists such as William Lind and Chet Richards are also here and I think you would agree they merit a hearing. I am not sure about John Robb’s political views but his strategic ideas are influenced by Boyd so I would place him here also.
    3.  Antiwar Liberals and Progressives: Their opposition is primarily political, not strategic and as I do not agree with their worldview, I generally do not find their commentary persuasive. They also tend to be antiglobalization. However, they do represent the feelings of at least 15-20 % of the electorate. That’s not a small group. They are also the most paranoid about COIN and the DoD-IC and I have seen quite a bit of "COIN= Colonialism" arguments on their blogs, magazines and listservs.
    4. Jacksonian Interventionists/Extreme NeoconservativesRalph Peters is the poster boy for this group. Michael Scheuer, Michael Ledeen, Daniel Pipes, Elliot Abrams and many of McCain’s advisers during the campaign fit the bill. Again, a primarily political group though some of them can can muster professional arguments and they have influence in the GOP far beyond their numbers.
    To try and cut to the chase, my read is that the political atmosphere in the US has changed for the next year (at least) in a way that will indirectly give the critics of COIN more traction. It is a recurrent phase we have seen before back in the days of Gramm-Rudman, the "Peace Dividend" and Ross Perot.  The consensus among strategic-diplo professionals on COIN is probably undisturbed as you say – and I tried to make clear in my post that I see COIN as useful in the right context. However, I have a hard time believing that the budget axe will spare the scope of Pentagon operations as the population becomes more politicized in an economically recessed election year.

  32. "COIN, Meet Democracy (And Your Doom)" | T. Greer -- The Scholar's Stage Says:

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  33. The Real Vietnam Syndrome « American Footprints Says:

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  36. Seerov Says:

    "COIN will then become a normal component of military capabilities and training instead of alternating between pariah and rock star status inside the DoD." (Zen)
    But how do we balance COIN capabilities with our "big war" needs?  What exactly do you mean by "normal."  I assume what you’re saying is that COIN will be like peacekeeping operations or humanitarian operations?  In that case you should realize that peacekeeping and humanitarian operations see little emphasis as far as training is concerned in the Army.  When I went to Kosovo we trained for six months prior becuase we knew we were deploying there.  I suppose this is how COIN can be handled?  All Army units will train for "big war" unless these get orders for Iraq or Afpak which will require COIN training. 
    I agree that noone will be looking for new "crusades" in the Gap any time soon.  If anything,  we may see COIN operations in Mexico or even in America’s many "Mini-Gaps."  As the country continues its current-forced-demographic transition into a North American Balkans, many situations will arise where COIN capabilities will be necessary.

  37. Bookworm Room » This week’s Watcher’s Council submissions Says:

    […] Submitted By: The Glittering Eye – Zenpundit – The Post-COIN Era is Here […]

  38. Watcher of Weasels » Rethinking the Says:

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  39. The Economics of COIN « The Western Experience Says:

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  40. The Council Has Spoken! Says:

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  45. Elkus and Burke on Design « The Committee of Public Safety Says:

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  46. The Razor » Blog Archive » The Council Has Spoken: January 29, 2010 Says:

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  47. Project White Horse Forum » EEI#27 “What kind of War?” – First Addendum – The Post-COIN Era is Here Says:

    […] a new think piece, one of the best writer/thinkers on line, Mark Safranski at Zenpundit in “The Post-COIN Era is Here; Learning to eat Soup with a Spoon Again” -provides not only more detail on the COIN (“or not”) debate and its significance (real or […]

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