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The Post-COIN Era is Here

Monday, January 25th, 2010

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……

COIN in the Land of Light

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Nuristan, “The land of Light” (formerly Kafirstan), was the last pagan region of Afghanistan to accept Islam, only in 1895 after a long struggle with “the Iron Emir” Abdur Rahman Khan. It was also one of the first provinces to rebel against the Soviet invasion. The Taliban fared no better there than did the Russians. More or less, Nuristan and the Korengal valley in Kunar province are “Afghanistan’s Afghanistan”.

The Institute for the Study of War has a recent PDF on American COIN operations in this difficult region. They pick up on Frank Hoffman’shybrid war” concept:

Kunar and Nuristan Report: Rethinking U.S. Counterinsurgency Operations (PDF) by Michael Moore and Maj. James Fussell

Excerpted findngs:

In the Korengal, the presence of U.S. forces exacerbates tensions resulting in hostility and facilitates violence in the region, negating the U.S. efforts to bring stability and security.

A type of hybrid warfare should be implemented in Kunar and Nuristan; a combination of counterinsurgency warfare, with its focus on the populations, and mountain warfare, whereby the U.S. forces seize and hold the high ground.

Additional emphasis must be placed on U.S. forces demonstrating the immediate and tangible benefits of their presence in the region. Short term humanitarian assistance such as medical and dental aid, radios, and blankets must be paired with long term economic development projects.

  • Although counterinsurgency doctrine was successfully implemented in urban Iraq, it has proved more difficult to apply in the sparsely-populated mountains of Kunar and Nuristan.
  • U.S. forces are disproportionately committed to defending marginally significant areas in these remote provinces.
  • U.S missions in eastern Afghanistan, specifically places like the Korengal and Pech River Valley, must be re-examined and forces must be re-deployed to areas where they will have greater effect.
  • The Korengal Valley in Kunar province is the deadliest place in Afghanistan. The population is historically hostile to any outside influence, including any Afghans from outside the valley.
    • The Korengalis have successfully fought off every attempt to subdue their valley, including the Soviets in the 80s, the Taliban rule in the 90s, and currently, the U.S. military. 
  • The presence of U.S. forces in the Korengal generates violence and undermines U.S. efforts to bring stability and security.   
    • The current U.S. force disposition in the inhospitable valleys, like the Korengal, relies too heavily on isolated outposts that require massive amounts of artillery and airpower to defend
    • U.S. forces are not denying the enemy the high ground, allowing insurgents to attack and terrorize the population.  
    • Artillery and airpower are counterproductive in dealing with the insurgency in this part of the country because their use alienates the very population the U.S. is trying to secure.
    • Committing additional forces in order to hold this remote terrain would be tactically and operationally imprudent. The resistance in this area is confined to locals in the valley.  It does not accelerate the insurgency beyond the valley.
  • Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan requires less interdiction on the borders and greater security in the population centers.  Resources must flow to areas that are strategic priorities in order to allow force densities high enough to practice counterinsurgency effectively.      
    • Rather than maintaining positions in the Korengal and many of the small, ineffective posts that dot the Pech river valley, U.S. forces should conduct active patrols in the populated areas of the lower Kunar River Valley.
    • U.S. forces must protect the specific populations that oppose the enemy and support the government, rather than fighting populations that historically resist the government.  U.S. forces in Kunar should concentrate efforts in places like Mara Wara, Sarkani and Khas Konar Districts where the population actually desires U.S. support and presence, unlike the Korengalis. 
  • Counterinsurgency requires short-term economic support, as well as a dense and mobile force presence.  U.S. forces must pair long-term development projects, such as building roads, with short-term, immediate humanitarian assistance and quick-impact projects.

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