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Archive for February, 2010

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

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

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:

However, when it comews to identifying the drivers of jihadism, global COIN theorists are surprisingly coy. Significantly, global neo-COIN writing goes to great lengths to dismiss the religious and ideological motivation for Islamist activism. Instead, it focuses upon organizational characteristics, social networks, psychological profiling, and patterns of recruitment to understand the new global threat….Like the notion of a War on Terrorism, global counter-insurgency denotes an amorphous threat, conceals hidden assumptions and obfuscates the object of the war, namely militant, ideologized Islam or Islamism.

This “negation of ideological motivation” identified by Jones and Smith in global counter-insurgency, is blamed on two sources. First, Dr. David Kilcullen, the deeply influential Australian Army officer and anthropologist who has been the COIN adviser to the Departments of State and Defense and CENTCOM, who argues for the primacy of “sociological characteristics” as drivers to jihadism; secondly, on a fear of the implications of Clausewitzian theory that causes neo-COIN advocates to purposefully “misunderstand” On War:

From a political perspective, however such neo-COIN misunderstanding is not so strange at all. McFate evidently recognizes Clausewitz’s central premise that  ‘War is a continuation of political intercourse, carried on by other means’. It is this recognition though, that unsettles COIN theorists. The reluctance to attribute religious motives to jihadist action, the emphasis on post-Maoism and the dismissal of Clausewitz, all evince a profound neo-COIN discomfort with the political dimension of war. It is the politics of modern jihadi resistance that contemporary counter-insurgency theorists wish to avoid: for politics denotes complexity, particularity, ambiguity, controversy and the need to challenge or defend specific value systems.


Smith and Jones have identified some real weaknesses in COIN theory, a useful service. However, either they commit the same error in diagnosing the inability of COIN theorists to wrestle frankly with Islamism as they accuse Kilcullen, Nagl, McFate etc. of having made and do so for the same reason, or they evince a childish understanding of politics. I lean toward the former.

The ignorance of irhabi-salafist radical religious ideas and internal debates is a very serious analytical problem for the United States. Few scholars or analysts can boast of simultaneously having fluency in critical langues, a deep understanding of Islamist theology and expertise/experience in terrorism/counter-terrorism studies. And really, to make astute judgments, you need to have a grasp on all three. Avoiding the religious ideology dimension is a serious error on the part of COIN thinkers and Smith and Jones are right to call them out on it.  It would be very helpful, if COIN theorists in crafting doctrine, would avail themselves of the deep understanding of Islamism offered by a Gilles Kepel or an Olivier Roy.

That said, the religious ferment of Islamism applies more to the “professional” and not the “accidental” guerrilla. To the recruiter, ideologists, operational planner and other senior leaders of al Qaida and the Taliban and far less to the rootless cannon fodder, idle adventurers, middle-class losers, itinerant tribals and other flotsam and jetsam who compose the foot soldiers of modern jihad. Applying social network analysis or organizational theory adds a useful perspective to understanding to the mass-movement characteristics of violent Islamist groups.

That is not why Kilcullen or Nagl de-emphasize religious motivations though. It is not that COIN gurus at CNAS do not understand or are uncomfortable with political dimensions or are mystified about Islam and Islamism. That’s an absurd assessment. To the contrary, they understand politics exceptionally well. COIN advocates downplay the religious motivations of Islamist terrorists and insurgents because emphasizing them will cost COIN strategy the political support of many liberal-left Democrats in Congress whose PC ideology cannot tolerate such arguments to be heard, the facts be damned. To make such an analysis, before a group that is not overly supportive of the war to begin with, is to be tagged an “Islamophobe” or a “racist” (even though the latter insult makes no sense whatsoever).

For the same reason, academia having its own PC fetishes to an even greater degree than politicians, Smith and Jones do not specifically identify the domestic political incentives COIN advocates have for ignoring religious ideology.

Arquilla on the New Rules of War

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

John Arqilla, along with David Ronfeldt, was the pioneering military and security theorist who forseaw the rise of networked non-state adversaries, which they detailed in their now classic book, Networks and Netwars. Below, in a Foreign Policy mag article, Arquilla expounds on the failure of the Pentagon to adapt sufficiently to leverage the power of networks or counter those opponents who have done so.

The New Rules of War

When militaries don’t keep up with the pace of change, countries suffer. In World War I, the failure to grasp the implications of mass production led not only to senseless slaughter, but also to the end of great empires and the bankruptcy of others. The inability to comprehend the meaning of mechanization at the outset of World War II handed vast tracts of territory to the Axis powers and very nearly gave them victory. The failure to grasp the true meaning of nuclear weapons led to a suicidal arms race and a barely averted apocalypse during the Cuban missile crisis.
Today, the signs of misunderstanding still abound. For example, in an age of supersonic anti-ship missiles, the U.S. Navy has spent countless billions of dollars on “surface warfare ships” whose aluminum superstructures will likely burn to the waterline if hit by a single missile. Yet Navy doctrine calls for them to engage missile-armed enemies at eyeball range in coastal waters.
The U.S. Army, meanwhile, has spent tens of billions of dollars on its “Future Combat Systems,” a grab bag of new weapons, vehicles, and communications gadgets now seen by its own proponents as almost completely unworkable for the kind of military operations that land forces will be undertaking in the years ahead. The oceans of information the systems would generate each day would clog the command circuits so that carrying out even the simplest operation would be a terrible slog.
And the U.S. Air Force, beyond its well-known devotion to massive bombing, remains in love with extremely advanced and extremely expensive fighter aircraft — despite losing only one fighter plane to an enemy fighter in nearly 40 years. Although the hugely costly F-22 turned out to function poorly and is being canceled after enormous investment in its production, the Air Force has by no means given up. Instead, the more advanced F-35 will be produced, at a cost running in the hundreds of billions of dollars. All this in an era in which what the United States already has is far better than anything else in the world and will remain so for many decades.
These developments suggest that the United States is spending huge amounts of money in ways that are actually making Americans less secure, not only against irregular insurgents, but also against smart countries building different sorts of militaries. And the problem goes well beyond weapons and other high-tech items. What’s missing most of all from the U.S. military’s arsenal is a deep understanding of networking, the loose but lively interconnection between people that creates and brings a new kind of collective intelligence, power, and purpose to bear — for good and ill…..”

Read the rest here.

It was nice to see Arquilla give some props to VADM Art Cebrowski, who is underappreciated these days as a strategic thinker and is much critricized by people who seldom bothered to read anything he actually wrote. Or who like to pretend that he had said a highly networked Naval task force is a good way to tackle an insurgency in an arid, mostly landlocked, semi-urban, middle-eastern nation.

It also occurs to me that one of the reasons that the USAF resisted drones tooth and nail is that robotics combined with swarming points to en end ( or serious diminishment) of piloted warplanes. Eliminating the design requirements implicit in human pilots makes for a smaller, faster, more maneuverable, more lethal aircraft that will probably be infinitely cheaper to make, more easily risked in combat and usable for “swarming”. Ditto attack helicopters.

Of course, nuclear bombers will probably stay in human hands. Probably.


Contentious Small Wars Council thread on Arquilla begun by “student of war” and defense consultant Wilf Owen. I have weighed in as has Shlok Vaidya.

Some of the Best News We’ve Heard Lately

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Napping is educational.

Guest Post: Deichman Reviews Senator’s Son

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

My friend and sometime co-author Shane Deichman reviews Senator’s Son: An Iraq War Novel  by Luke S. Larson ( my review will be coming later this month).  For those readers unfamiliar with Shane, he is a former USMC Science Adviser at JFCOM. Physicist. Former Managing Director of Operations for IATGR. Former Managing Director of EnterraSolutions, LLC. ORCAS (Oak Ridge). Currently with the National Missile Defense Agency, Shane blogs at Wizards of OzDreaming 5GW and Antilibrary:

Review: Senator’s Son

by Shane Deichman

Nearly 25 years ago, as a freshman college student balancing a science major with the obligatory credits in the Humanities, my English 101 professor introduced me to the concept of “verisimilitude“: the likeness or resemblance of a creative writing effort to reality. While this was a difficult feat for me in my writing assignments, it is something that Luke Larson has effortlessly achieved in his first novel, Senator’s Son.

Luke was a journalism major at a rival PAC-10 school, courtesy of an NROTC scholarship to the University of Arizona, and as a junior officer in the U.S. Marine Corps served two tours in Iraq (both in al Anbar province – first in 2005 during the election of the Iraqi Transitional Government that was to draft a permanent constitution, and again in 2007 during the Iraqi national referendum and the start of General Petraeus’s “Surge”).

Senator’s Son wastes no time hurling the reader into the breech. Written in a tempo prestissimo style, this rapid-fire novel gives you a no-holds-barred perspective of modern counterinsurgency from multiple perspectives: the families at home with a dissociated populace; the wounded warriors battling the demons of recovery, opiate pain-killer addictions and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the careerist bureaucrats that infiltrate every large organization; and most importantly the junior officers and non-commissioned officers who must make up for “higher’s” planning inadequacies and strategic myopia. Larson’s use of a 2047 scenario in the southwest Pacific, with a lone Senator holding the deciding vote on whether or not to commit U.S. military power abroad, helps to reinforce the strategic consequences our actions today can have on future generations.

Set in 2007 Ar Ramadi, a city of nearly a half-million that serves as the provincial capital of al Anbar province just west of Baghdad, Senator’s Son is the story of the platoons of GOLF Company. GOLF is a Marine company (part of a Marine battalion tied to an Army brigade) responsible for sweeping missions in south Ramadi in the days prior to the 2007 Iraqi national referendum (and a few months prior to “The Surge”). Their early ventures from the “Snake Pit” (a heavily fortified Marine firm base) poignantly demonstrate the complexities of contemporary warfare.

The force protection concerns are palpable – one can almost smell the raw sewage flowing through the ruined streets of a dying city, and feel the peering eyes of snipers tracking you in their sights. Every piece of litter is a potential Improvised Explosive Device, and every sound a threat. And like Mayor Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” theory in late 1990s New York City, the reluctant shift from a hardened, up-armored patrol mindset to one of cooperative engagement with a foreign culture underscores the essence of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine now codified in FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5: Counterinsurgency.

Like real life, there are few “happy endings” in this book. Each platoon commander in GOLF has his own strengths and fallibilities: from steadfast Bama’s bravery and bigotries to the maverick Greg’s ingenuity and independence. And each must face his own demons in the prose that Larson deftly weaves.

At a minimum, Senator’s Son is a brilliant primer on leadership: how to learn which rules are worth breaking, the importance of adaptability when there are no black-or-white situations but only gray, and the primacy of relationships.

But it is also a tribute to those who answer a call to serve – whether they serve in their own communities as volunteers, or have the privilege of wearing the Eagle-Globe-and-Anchor of a Marine (like my grandfather, a mortarman with CHARLIE-1-6 in Guadalcanal and Tarawa, and my grandmother, a clerk-typist at Hunters Point-San Francisco who met my grandfather after his malaria washed him out of the Fleet Marine Force). Senator’s Son is a testament to the resilience of those who carry the burden of personal sacrifice with such humility that we can take our own freedom for granted.

This book is a “must read” for anyone who cares about the greater world beyond our neighborhood – and the role that power (be it the “hard” power of weaponry and kinetic energy, or the “soft” power of relationships) can play in shaping the world for better or for worse.

(cross-posted at Antilibrary, Wizards of Oz and Zenpundit)

Recommended Reading

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Top Billing! Instapundit & Fabius Maximus – First, Glenn Reynolds 

 SO HERE’S A QUESTION: Would a default on Treasuries accomplish what the Balanced Budget Amendment was supposed to achieve, by forcing the government to spend no more than it takes in? With more collateral damage, of course. . . .

Then Fabius Maximus responds with this very important post:

Would a default by the US government help America?

….There are no easy or certain solutions.  We have to work our problems carefully,  in the correct sequence, aware of trade-offs.   I believe a default – in any form – is not necessary at this time.  Nor will it be if we act quickly and wisely.  The costs of default would be large and avoidable if feasible.

The chief problem we face today is a weak economy, and the risk of a double-dip recession (historically quite common).  In the third year of this recession the reserves at all levels are drained – households, businesses, and governments.  We are weak, as was the world in a physical sense after WWI – vulnerable to the 1918  influenza.   Another downturn might be worse than the first.   Should the economy weaken from here, failure to promptly enact another stimulus program might have cataclysmic – even historic – consequences

Too often, discussions of foreign policy and military strategy are divorced from economic realities. Debt financing deternines the current outlier of using American power. This could change if we change our fiscal and monetary policies, but right now, operations are largely debt-financed, like government spending in general.

ShlokyLara M. Dadkhah On CAS = FAIL

Lara M. Dadkhah, a graduate student in Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, has written the most brain-dead op-ed I’ve read on the war in Afghanistan in years. It’s an infantile perspective on a complex dynamic. Lots of cheerleading, no insight.

An epic slam, and quite deserved. There was a lot of online speculation as to who the author was, given the minimal available info online about “Lara M. Dadkah”, but I have seen a highly credible person vouch for her as his former student, so she was not a “sock puppet” or a character with a hidden agenda. It was simply a mediocre op-ed by an employee of Booz Allen.

WSJ (Evgeny Morozov)- The Digital Dictatorship (hat tip Adam Elkus)

….It’s easy to see why a world in which young Iranians embrace the latest technology funded by venture capitalists from Silicon Valley, while American diplomats sit back, sip tea and shovel the winter snow on a break from work, sounds so appealing. But is such a world achievable? Will Twitter and Facebook come to the rescue and fill in the void left by more conventional tools of diplomacy? Will the oppressed masses in authoritarian states join the barricades once they get unfettered access to Wikipedia and Twitter?

This seems quite unlikely. In fact, our debate about the Internet’s role in democratization-increasingly dominated by techno-utopianism-is in dire need of moderation, for there are at least as many reasons to be skeptical. Ironically, the role that the Internet played in the recent events in Iran shows us why: Revolutionary change that can topple strong authoritarian regimes requires a high degree of centralization among their opponents. The Internet does not always help here. One can have “organizing without organizations”-the phrase is in the subtitle of “Here Comes Everybody,” Clay Shirky’s best-selling 2008 book about the power of social media-but one can’t have revolutions without revolutionaries.

FuturejackedSocionomic Trendspotting 2010 – The Gritty Reboot

….Rest assured, the mob, whether led by NY Attorney General Cuomo, some upstart in Congress that we have not yet heard much of or some Federal DA, will get back to the bankers. The end result will not be pretty. People will want scalps and these jokers are the most blind scions of privilege seen strutting and preening on the world stage since the French Revolution.

SWJ Blog (William McCallister)The Men Who Would Govern Marjah

….While simple cause and effect narratives make for good reading, cultural complexity is inseparable from the study of cause and effect, especially in a place like Marjah. We continually espouse what we believe ought to happen but rarely how a given political or economic initiative might actually play itself out within a given cultural context. What might the Afghan approach to gaining a foothold in Marjah look like? How might the landowners, merchants and farmers, civil administrators, leaders of the Afghan National Army (ANA), local police, local fighters, and allies of the Taliban interact with one another? How might the imposition of government authority in Marjah play itself out? How might elements of the ANA and police support government administrators in imposing a central authority?

Chicago Boyz (Joseph Fouche) –  Razzia III: The Finel Solution ( also see Razzia II: The Finel Countdown and Razzia)

New Atlanticist (Dr. James Joyner) – The (New) German Question

Steven Pressfield – Writing Wednesdays #27: “Help!”

Metamodern Chemists deserve more credit: Atoms, Einstein, and the Matthew Effect

Don VandergriffSun Tzu and America’s Way of War

Scholar’s StageMusings – How We Ought To Think About History

That’s it!

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