Is COIN Dead?

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By that, I mean contemporary, mid-2000’s “pop-centric” COIN theory as expressed in FM 3-24  – is it de facto dead as USG policy or is COIN theory formally evolved to officially embrace strong elements of CT, targeted assassinations, FID, “open-source counterinsurgency” and even bare-knuckled conventional warfare tactics?

Mind you, I have nothing against pragmatic flexibility and think that, for example, moves to arm more Afghan villagers for self-defense are realistic efforts to deal with the Taliban insurgency, and I prefer USG officials speaking frankly about military conditions as they actually exist. Doctrinal concepts should not be used to create a “paint-by-numbers” military strategy – it is a starting point that should be expected to evolve to fit conditions.

But having evolved operations and policy as far as the USG military and USG national security agencies have, with the current draconian budgetary restraints looming – are we still “doing COIN”? Or is it dead?

Thoughts?

10 comments on this post.
  1. Ski:

    Look at the levels of airstrikes in Afghanistan over the last 6-12-18 months, and you’ll get a good indicator of where 3-24 has gone.

    Also, 3-24 was way too focused on Iraq, a point made repeatedly by many observers. No surprise to me that it is being seen as obsolete at this point – it was always too narrow and bounded in my opinion. It was one of my main criticisms of the manual when I had a chance to officially comment on it. Nothing was done of course.

  2. Joe Dixon:

    This post came at a perfect time for me. I’m trying to crystallize my thoughts on just this topic. I’m assessing the compatibility of FM 3-24, and Barack Obama’s "Terms Sheet," with the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. I tend to agree with David Kilcullen and Sebastian L. v. Gorka’s assessment, that "COIN, as the U.S. Armed Forces and policy elites currently understand it, is an intellectual fad, a way to think about irregular warfare." The notion in the remainder of their article is that counterinsurgency theory is ill-suited to the situation in Afghanistan. In answer to your question "Are we still ‘doing COIN’ or is it dead?" I am reminded of theology lecture I attended, the title of which was "Did Darwin Kill God?" The speaker’s conclusion was that Darwin killed one version of God—the notion of the creator God—but that God, writ large, not only remained an important part of Darwin’s life, but was, and is, still highly relevant. (I am personally a spiritually aware atheist, I don’t believe in a creator-God, but I do have spiritual tendencies. I enjoy Zen and Taoist teachings.) Based on this framework, I think that COIN might have been killed as a concept, but the wider issues surrounding counterinsurgency are still very important and relevant. Insurgency, and thus counterinsurgency, is the norm in warfare, and has been for centuries. It is likely to continue to be so. In the context of COIN and counterinsurgency doctrine, I am trying to formulate an argument that says that it is different from the guidelines in FM 3-24, but still relevant as a discipline. The ideas still stand (population focused, highly civilian/government/institution/security-centred approach) but as a ‘word’ I think you might be right.

  3. zen:

    Hi Gents,
    .
    Ski wrote:
    .
    Hey….USAF COIN!
    .
    "Also, 3-24 was way too focused on Iraq, a point made repeatedly by many observers. No surprise to me that it is being seen as obsolete at this point – it was always too narrow and bounded in my opinion. It was one of my main criticisms of the manual when I had a chance to officially comment on it. Nothing was done of course."
    .
    Ski is to Military doctrine as Zen is to Education policy. Know the feeling!!! 🙂
    .
    Joe Dixon wrote:
    .
    "I’m trying to crystallize my thoughts on just this topic. I’m assessing the compatibility of FM 3-24, and Barack Obama’s "Terms Sheet," with the situation on the ground in Afghanistan."
    .
    Want to cross-post that here when you are finished? That’s something that really ought to be more widely  discussed.
    .
    "I tend to agree with David Kilcullen and Sebastian L. v. Gorka’s assessment, that "COIN, as the U.S. Armed Forces and policy elites currently understand it, is an intellectual fad, a way to think about irregular warfare."
    .
    Going to have to read that tonight. I might have caught some of it from Dr. v. Gorka in comments he made on the Warlord Loop or at SWJ or somewhere else. Or maybe I am confusing that with another entirely different article.
    .
    That said, attempting to frame your thinking toward a concept or problem is a very good not a bad thing, provide you don’t become wedded to the frame or confuse it with truth or reality. The latter might be the real issue.
    .
    "The speaker’s conclusion was that Darwin killed one version of God—the notion of the creator God—but that God, writ large, not only remained an important part of Darwin’s life, but was, and is, still highly relevant. "
    .
    Good analogy.
    "

  4. Brent Grace:

    Maybe an equally important question is "was COIN ever alive", or, what impact did COIN tactics as described in FM 3-24 really have on the war in Iraq?

    I don’t imagine it’ll be five years before we start to see dissertations from major military history and poli sci departments (and who knows, one of them could be mine) that argue that population centric COIN played at best a minor role in tamping down the violence in Iraq when compared to other factors, such as Al Qaeda over playing its hand in a  kill-crazy-rampage and an increase in U.S. SOF/CIA killing or capturing insurgent leaders.

    I’d imagine similar questions will emerge from Afghanistan as the situation unfolds: did drone strikes and CIA/SOF actions in Pakistan do more to tamp down the insurgency vs. population based COIN? I think Afghanistan also presents a special challenge when it comes to localized defense forces, given their recent history with regional war lords.

    And of course technological improvements and budgetary and political realities will soon make drones/spec ops/ light footprint look very tempting as a cure for whatever ales us over the next decade. So I fully expect a reevaluation of COIN in the near future.

    I think the other key question is: can the Sys-Admin survive the death of COIN?   

  5. Insa:

    heya, wonderful article, and a fairly good understand! definitely one for my bookmarking.

  6. intheknow:

    I like to think nothing is ever "dead"- especially in today’s society of ignorant masses in the West.  Someone will repeat what we’ve tried again some day…

    "COIN" to me is counterinsurgency, so no- it isn’t dead.  Someone, somewhere will do it- probably horribly- but they’ll do it again or continue to do it.

    3-24 should be dead.  It advocates nationbuilding and nationbuilding isn’t something the U.S. can fund today.  Maybe if China, India, and others pitched in- but the U.S. can’t afford what it did after WWII (assuming that could even be done- or that we have the savvy to pull it off).  I guess I’d argue we don’t have the ability to do nationbuilding outside of Japan and Germany-type countries (and even to do that I’m thinking is a Bridge Too Far today for us).

    Counterinsurgency, I’d also argue- is impossible for the West to do.  Our people are so cut-off from what the rest of the world experiences that we can’t begin to understand effective means and ways- and I haven’t seen us define our ends smartly lately either.  We are for the most part fat, happy, dumb, and lazy.  "That’s no way to go through life"- and it doesn’t set one up to have the empathy required to do effective COIN either.

  7. Joe Dixon:

    Want to cross-post that here when you are finished? That’s something that really ought to be more widely discussed.

    Absolutely! It’s part of my MPhil research, looking into the impact of the occupation of Afghanistan on the opium trade. I’ll let you know when I have something worth posting! Thanks.

  8. zen:

    Excellent. Drop me an email at zenpundit@hotmail.com when you are good to go.

  9. slapout9:

    FM 3-24.2 Tactics in COIN is a much better manual then FM 3-24 by itself. IMO if you have 3-24.2 you don’t even need 3-24.

  10. Joe Dixon:

    Thanks for the heads up to FM 3-24.2, slapout. I just downloaded it. Will check it out soon.

    Zen, my COIN assessment is still in the mixing bowl, the wider Afghan history is taking way longer to develop than I would have liked/anticipated. Likely be mid-to-end of April.