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.