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

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Previously, I took a look at an academic paper by David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith that engaged in a critical analysis of COIN theory and found fault with its underlying premises. Now, I would like to examine the rebuttal offered by John Nagl and Brian Burton of CNAS.

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.

The rebuttal of Nagl and Burton, at a mere 15 pages including bibliography, was a more persuasive and focused argument than the COIN opus offered by Jones and Smith. Their tone was less academic and more practitioner-oriented, both in terms of policy shapers and soldiers in the field. Strategist Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett, thought the entire debate was “too inside baseball” but nonetheless, that Nagl and Burton had the better of the exchange:

It is a sadly ghettoized argument–very inside baseball. And I am dismayed to see it happening in a sub-field that should be more inclusive than the usual war-discussed-within-the-context-of-war with the added dimension of the fight for political control in developing/failed economies (the whole national liberation bit, references to Maoism, etc.). So we’re still basically treated to two legs of the stool: security with the addition of politics/culture, but the economics remains a no-go-land that elicits the mention of jobs on occasion (the assumption usually being, public-sector financed with aid), but that’s it.

….I thought Nagl’s closing comment in response was fine: difference in degree but not kind. The first article reminded me of nuclear targeting theory, it was so esoterically wrapped around itself.

The intellectual insularity to which Tom complains arguably stems from COIN, an operational doctrine, being required to “pinch-hit” as a long-term strategy due to the abdication of responsibility by the civilian political elite to come to a strategic consensus among themselves on the war that would frame our global conflict with radicalized Islamist terror groups and insurgencies and enunciate the objectives we hope to achieve.

This unwillingness or inability of deeply divided USG civilian leaders to effectively, coherently and consistently articulate the nature of the war itself and our adversaries deprives our senior military leaders of appropriate policy guidance in designing campaigns and carrying out military operations. It is also a partial explanation for the determined resistance of COIN policy advocates like John Nagl and David Kilcullen to address the religious ideology dimension raised by Jones and Smith.

In “Thinking Globally and Acting Locally: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Modern Wars – A Reply to Jones and Smith”, Burton and Nagl firmly showcase “Neo-COIN’s” formidibile strengths as policy but cannot escape its’ enduring weakness. Here most concisely:

“Insurgencies, like other forms of armed conflict are better defined by methodologies than by ideologies. While causes change regularly, the fundamentals of insurgent strategy remain relatively constant”

A powerful throwing down of the theoretical gauntlet. It’s an appealing argument rooted in pragmatism, and to some degree, empiricism, becoming more true as one moves down to the level of small unit counterinsurgency and outward from jihadism’s core leadership toward insurgency’s marginal adherents of convenience, the “$10 a day Taliban” and Kilcullen’s “accidental guerrillas”. While it is the case that occasionally in COIN we have actions of “strategic corporals”, most of the warfighting concerns of NCO’s and junior officers will be tactical and eminently practical a majority of the time.

Earlier, Burton and Nagl expounded at greater length and specificity:

But this argument [by Jones and Smith] overemphasizes the superficial features of conflict. While specific characteristics of individual insurgencies have changed with local conditions and the technology of the day, the fundamental dynamics of insurgency remain largely the same. The essential competition remains between the existing power and the insurgents for influence and ultimately control over populations. The insurgent ’cause’, of which extremist religion can be a component, is generalized and malleable in order to mobilize the broadest possible base of followers.

….the fundamental dynamic of any insurgency is that, as David Kilcullen aptly describes, it needs the people to act in certain ways.[It] needs their sympathy, acquiescence and silence, or simply their reactions to provocation, in order to further [its] strategy

[Emphasis in original.]

There are pros and cons to this theoretical position. It is always a good idea to consider who an intended doctrine is written for; instrumentally, COIN doctrine is foremost for the soldiers who are expected to wage that kind of battle on the behalf of the rest of us. Only secondarily, is COIN doctrine intended as a kind of policy talisman for the government officials, politicians, journalists, academics and bloggers whom it has entranced or repelled. It is important to remember, it critiquing the evolving panoply that is USG COIN policy that the fundamental criterion of measurement is not theoretical niceties but real world results, which have been produced. Not perfection, not instantly, not everything we want plus a pony too, but progress in operational and tactical success. Even some strategic success if stabilization of an Iraqi government holds That weighs heavily on the pro side of the ledger.

The cons are of a different nature.

First, in terms of the Maoist paradigm, classical COIN theory is problematic because it extrapolates only from a very short period of Mao’s career as a guerrilla leader, mostly 1946 -1949 when the political dynamic in China’s civil war was a bilateral conflict between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and Mao ZeDong Communist Party and Red Army. This was a period when Mao, courtesy of the Soviets, had suddenly inherited a great quantity of Japanese arms and could field divisions of semi-regulars to fight conventional battles in addition to insurgent units. Most of China’s long civil war was actually heterogeneously anarchic and Mao’s Communist armies were usually much inferior not only to those of the Kuomintang, but to those armies fielded by many provincial warlords and certainly inferior to the invading Imperial Japanese Army, which Mao strove to avoid fighting whenever possible. Much of Mao’s legend as a military genius is political myth constructed after the fact, and his ultimate success in China owed at least as much to Chiang, Hirohito, Stalin and Truman as it did to Mao’s real but frequently exaggerated political and military talent for insurgency.

Vietnam, another historical touchstone of COIN, acheived the bilateral conflict dynamic described in COIN theory only because initially the Vietcong, on the orders of Hanoi, tacitly supported Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime by eschewing military activities while Diem and Nhu systematically destroyed or weakened other potential military/political rivals to the Communists in South Vietnam. Namely, General Ba’s Hoa-Hao, the Binh Xuyen gangs and the Buddhist political clergy ( the Vietnamese Nationalist Party had previously been decimated by the French in 1930). Russia after WWI, Lebanon in the 1980’s, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Congo in the 1990’s are others examples of societies devolving into anarchic, social darwinian, violence before some became conflicts that are somewhat recognizable in COIN theory.

The heterodox Iraqi insurgency of the “surge”, where Neo-COIN found its proving ground, is really the recent historical rule and not the exception that classical Maoist COIN theory might lead you to believe. The theory in other words, is based upon flawed premises of a bilateral conflict. John Robb’sopensource insurgency” concept gets closer to the probable reality of future COIN wars.

Secondly, the strong dismissal of religious drivers by Nagl under his “Kilcullen Doctrine” is tailor made for “disaggregating” the accidental guerrillas at the tactical level, but it seriously misleads us in understanding or effectively countering the “professional guerrillas” at the strategic or the moral levels of war. Instead, it blinds us by projecting our own elite culture’s secular assumption of religion as merely a cynical and antiquated facet of politics on to adversaries for whom such thought is both fundamentally alien and entirely blasphemous. Such a position is what ideologists of  jihad  argue that they are taking up arms against in the first place.

Erasing the religious or ideological motivation makes incisive analysis of the adversaries strategic decision-making impossible because it removes the driver for which he left home, comfort, family for the danger and privation of war. How can we walk in our enemies shoes, get inside his head, if we deny what is in his head has any relevance?

This position makes no sense on the strategic level. Ignoring the influence of Islamism is a prescription for errors and missed opportunities. It is a politically comfortable position for COIN theorists because our political elite are deeply enamored of a PC ideology that provides an excuse to punish and destroy the careers of officials who challenge the orthodoxy of multiculturalism with frank discussion of facts. Avoiding the question of Islamism in front of politicians greases the skids for COIN. Have you heard many members of Congress make a robust defense of liberal, democratic, capitalist, open societies as a morally superior alternative to autocratic Islamism lately? No? Well now you understand why the COIN gurus are not doing it either. Powerful people in Washington and the media do not want to hear thart message.

Yet without confronting Islamism and the attraction of its call to a dissatisfied “pious middle class” in the Islamic world, we can hardly hope to bring the war to a satisfactory close, much less victory.

Mao ZeDong and 4GW

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

A part of a comment from Jay@Soob:

“This was likely compounded by the chronological assignment (that Mao was the first to conceptualize 4GW is an assertion that Ethan Allen might have something to swear and swing fists about)”

The frequent and casual association of Chairman Mao with 4GW is something that has always puzzled me as well ( though, if memory serves, William Lind was always careful to explain that 4GW isn’t simply guerilla warfare). I think it can be attributed to the likelihood that most people who are somewhat familiar with 4GW theory tend to think first of guerillas and Mao is regarded as a great innovator there. However, is there merit in placing Mao in the “4GW pantheon” (if there is such a thing)?

In the ” yes” column I’d offer the following observations:

Mao, whose actual positive leadership contribution to Communist victory in the civil war was primarily political and strategic rather than operational and tactical ( his military command decisions were often the cause of disaster, retreat and defeat for Communist armies) had a perfect genius – I think that word would be an accurate description here – for operating at the mental and moral levels of warfare.  Partly this was skillful playing of a weak hand on Mao’s part; the Communists were not a match on the battlefield for the better Nationalist divisions until the last year or so of the long civil war but Mao regularly outclassed Chiang Kai-shek in propaganda and diplomacy – turning military defeats at Chiang’s hands into moral victories and portraying Communist inaction in the face of Japanese invasion as revolutionary heroism. Yenan might have be a weird, totalitarian, nightmare fiefdom but Mao made certain that foreign journalists, emissaries and intelligence liasons reported fairy tales to the rest of the world.

In the “maybe” column:

Regardless of one’s opinion of Mao ZeDong, China’s civil war, running from the collapse of the Q’ing dynasty in 1911 to the proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1949, is a historical laboratory for 4GW and COIN theory.  The complexity of China in this era was akin to that of Lebanon’s worst years in the 1980’s but it lasted for decades. In a given province of China ( many of which were as large or larger than major European nations) then there might have been operating simultaneously: several warlord armies, Communist guerillas,  Nationalist armies, the Green Gang syndicate, White Russian mercenaries, Mongol Bannermen, rival Kuomintang factions, common bandit groups and military forces of European states, Japan and the United States. Disorder and ever-shifting alliances and fighting was the norm and Mao was the ultimate victor in this era.

In the “no ” column:

Mao ZeDong, whatever his contributions to the art of guerilla warfare, intended, quite firmly, to build a strong state in China, albeit a Communist one in his own image. He was never interested in carving out a sphere of influence or an autonomous zone in China except as a stepping stone to final victory. Moreover, the Red Army’s lack of conventional fighting ability for most of the civil war related to a lack of means, not motive on Mao’s part. When material was available, particularly after 1945, when Stalin turned over equipment from the defeated  Kwangtung army and began supplying a more generous amount of Soviet military aid to the Chinese Communists, Mao tried to shift to conventional warfare. When in power, he sent the PLA’s 5-6 crack divisions into the Korean War to face American troops in 2GW-style attrition warfare, not guerilla infiltrators behind MacArthur’s lines. 

Finally, Mao’s personal political philosophy of governance, taken from Marxism-Leninism and Qin dynasty Legalism, are about as radically hierarchical and alien to 4GW thinking as it is possible to be.

In sum, Mao is and should be regarded as a major figure in the  history of the 20th century and that century’s military history but he isn’t the grandfather of fourth generation warfare.


Congratulations to 4GW theorist and blogger Fabius Maximus for being picked up by the BBC.

Reflections on China’s Warlord Era

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

One of my distinguished co-bloggers at Chicago Boyz, John Jay, penned a truly outstanding post on China, incorporating history, culture, economics and linguistics, using the famous  Manchurian warlord and opium addict, ” the Young Marshal ” Chang Hsüeh-liang, as a springboard:

Household Armies

“….China has historically allowed certain social forces to compete with loyalty to the state. Linguistic (and in the cases of the Hui and Uyghur, religious) groups have always retained a large amount of autonomy through the provincial governments, and in some cases provinces such as Guandong can almost be thought of as a separate country within China due to their linguistic (non-Mandarin) identity and economic self sufficiency. But Guandong gets little voice in Beijing relative to the economic might of the Pearl  River Delta. Cantonese don’t care, as long as the kleptocracy in Beijing leaves them alone (after they make their formal obeisance) most of the time, and does not attempt to steal too much wealth. That may change as peasants out West mobilize and force the central government to send more goodies their way. China never hit upon the Anglosphere’s solution of a Republican governmental federation of competing interests akin to either Great Britain or the competing American states – the Imperial authorities always wished to pretend that they were in complete control, while ceding a lot of practical authority to the provinces.  

Conflicts between the linguistic periphery and the Mandarin-speaking center have contributed to the ebb and flow of centralized power in China since even before the Ten kingdoms of the South broke away from the Five Dynasties that succeeded the Tang. The Chinese have historically seen history as cyclical, rather than linear. I think that this at least in part stems from the fact that since the fall of the Tang Dynasty, China has never bitten the bullet to reform itself by completely rethinking its social system. Systems have arisen as kludges to deal with a particular problem, but have never dealt with the fundamental flaws in society, only with their surface manifestations. As James Sheridan wrote in “Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yu-hsiang” :  

Read in full here.

Sunday, March 25th, 2007


Having spent a great deal of time considering creativity and insight, I’m generally convinced that we benefit cognitively and on an emotive-psychological level from novelty, even if that novelty is to a small degree. Sort of like garnering measurable aerobic benefits from modest daily walking, every little bit helps. You don’t have to go from a microbiology lab one day to spelunking the next in order to give your brain some stimulus.

Therefore, I decided to shift my usual reading attention from matters of Western history and military affairs to read in succession, the biographies of three seminal 20th century dictators, all of whom ruled Asian nations but impacted the history of the world. It is a good shifting of gears for me, as the last heavy fare of reading Asian history and politics was back in the early nineties.

First up, is Chiang Kai-Shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost by Jonathan Fenby, who gives a critical reappraisal. While we are all accustomed to the standard scholarly historical criticism of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang which is heavily influenced by the politics of academic Marxism, Fenby, a British journalist who is a longtime writer and editor for The Economist magazine and The Observer, (so far as I have read) gives a hard-eyed, pragmatic, thoroughly detailed, flavor that Alan Schom gave to his masterful deconstruction of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Number two will be the critically acclaimed The Unknown Story of Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, which like the Fenby book is an act of idol-smashing. All the moreso since Mao ZeDong, unlike his rival Chiang, retains an aging cadre of Leftist admirers both at home and in the West.

I intend to finish with the highly regarded Ho Chi Minh: A Life by former diplomat and Penn State historian William J. Duiker.Duiker himself, served in the American embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam war, which adds a poignant edge to his historical research.

Anyone out there who has read any or all of these books, feel free to chime in.

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