Reflecting on Neo-COIN and the Global Insurgency, Part I.

Read a very interesting theoretical paper critiquing the merits of “Neo-Classical COIN” contrasted with the concept of “Global Insurgency” by Dr. David Martin Jones and Dr. M.L.R. Smith in The Journal of Strategic Studies, which drew a sharp rebuttal from Dr.John Nagl, the president of CNAS, and Brian M. Burton in defense of a universally applicable COIN paradigm (big hat tip to Steve Pampinella). 

The papers deserve much wider circulation and I encourage you to find yourself a copy. Unfortunately, they are behind an irritating subscription wall, so we have to do this in 20th century, stone-age, fashion….

David Martin Jones* and M.L.R. Smith**. “Whose Hearts and Whose Minds? The Curious Case of Global Counter-Insurgency”. The Journal of Strategic Studies. Vol. 33, No. 1, 81-121, February 2010.

*University of Queensland, Australia. ** King’s College London, UK.

John A. Nagl and Brian M. Burton. “Thinking Globally and Acting Locally: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Modern Wars – A Reply to Jones and Smith.  The Journal of Strategic Studies. Vol. 33, No. 1, 123-138, February 2010.

Center for New American Security (CNAS), Washington, DC, USA.

Jones and Smith are dissecting “the extraordinary renaissance of counter-insurgency thinking within the U.S. military establishment” which they argue has “produced two distinctive schools of thought about counter-insurgency”; the “neo-classical” which constructs a framework for waging COIN from the historical understanding of Maoist guerrilla warfare, and “global counterinsurgency” which is “post-maoist”, conceptual and networked rather than territorial and hierarchical and centered in the ideological turmoil or radical salafist-jihadi Islamism. Together, the two schools comprise “neo-COIN” which yields an “incoherent” and “confused and contradictory understanding” of insurgency which is rooted in a hostility and miscomprehension of Clausewitzian thought.

The breezy summary above was, by the way, a gross simplification of a forty page, heavily footnoted, academic argument, which really needs to be read in its entirety.

Jones and Smith go into considerable depth investigating the intellectual orgins of “neo-COIN” and the leading personalities who shaped the doctrine, including Nagl, Sewall, McFate, Kilcullen, Hoffman and commanding generals like Petraeus and Chiarelli.

Of the two schools, the authors find greater flaws on the neo-classical approach to COIN:

….Ultimately though, excessive deference to Maoist theories of guerrilla warfare led neo-classicism into a strategic, Iraq-centric, cul-de-sac….

….Such crude reductionism, ultimately leads to a cdrude Maoist/Counter-Maoist paradigm that assumes holding on to physical territory, no matter the cost, is the ultimate goal of any combatant. This neo-classical reductionism not only implies that any withdrawal of forces from an occupied territory represents a defeat, it also risks inducing the kind of certainties that influenced the French approach to COIN during the Algerian War with manifestly disastrous consequences

But the global insurgency school, while more accurately conceptualizing the transnational nature of the enemy in the view of Smith and Jones, is not without problems either:

Page 1 of 3 | Next page