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

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.

9 Responses to “Reflecting on Neo-COIN and the Global Insurgency, Part II.”

  1. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "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? "

    You got that right. I haven’t even heard them make a robust defense of liberal, democratic, capitalist, open societies as a morally superior alternative to the structure we have in place today, in America. Whatever that structure is, but please go on. what is your strategy in confronting islamism and its attraction in its call to a dissatisfied "pious middle-class in the Islamic world?

    I’ve long held that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, was the center of a religious movement, but everyone seemed pretty happy when Karsi gave Afghanistan its Islamic constitution. It sounds like you were less satisfied and want to turn COIN into full-blown Modern Warfare.

  2. zen Says:
    Hi Larry,
    At the strategic level, radical Islamism needs to be discredited and marginalized among its intended target audience. Otherwise we can look forward to putting out fires with military expeditions for the next century and a half. The military is not the primary vehicle at the moral and mental level of this war, it is adjunctive and supportive. The problem is that no other USG part of DIME is stepping up to do the work. 
  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Matthew Alexander has a fascinating article titled "Martyrdom, Interrupted" in which he describe the interrogation style of the Indonesian Colonel Tito Karnavian, who "converts detainees to his way of thinking — a modernist interpretation of Islam in which jihad is a nonviolent strugle against evil within oneself" and "rotinely turns former enemies into allies" — I’m leaving out the conjugal visits and other intriguing details — and concludes that "if a man like Karnavian can change the way Americans interrogate detainees" then "we will have another tool with which to win back the Afghans lost to the Taliban, pull back the tide of extremism flowing through our own land and prevcent an uptick in recruits around the world."    

  4. onparkstreet Says:

    From Raman’s strategic analysis:
    "Question: Is the Indian government growing increasingly frustrated over the Obama administration’s policy of reconciliation with the so called good Taliban? And why or how will this impact India and U.S. relations? What position does this put India in?

    Answer:"Frustrated" is not the word. India is increasingly concerned over the US belief that there are good fundamentalists and bad fundamentalists and that it can do business with the good fundamentalists and bring them into the mainstream. India looks upon the "war" against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as directed not only against these organisations, but also against their ideology of religious obscurantism by projecting before the Afghan people the ideas of a secular and liberal democratic society. If it makes a deal with the so-called good Taliban even if they do not give up their medieval ideas, the US will be admitting beforehand that it has lost the ideological battle. It will not be good for Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. And it will not be good for India, which has the second largest Muslim community in the world."
    Okay, American interests are not Indian interests, obviously, but I thought the point made interesting in light of your post.
    You know what I think is weird? In a way, it is a kind of Orientalism to not take ideology seriously, and actively engage with it. Our policy makers are saying, essentially, "you are not grown men and women who know your own hearts and minds. How can you prioritize what you do? That can’t be right." It’s just weird.
    – Madhu

  5. Stephen Pampinella Says:

    The de-emphasis on ideology may be misplaced to a degree, and yes, we should understand the ideas inside our adversaries heads (ideology) as well as the ideas shared between them that define their social situation (what Kilcullen emphasizes from his anthropological background). But I fear that merely defending our own ideas in opposition to theirs will merely reaffirm (in their own minds) the validity of extreme Islamism. The War on Terror itself can be understood as a dichotomous ideological war between liberal democracy and extreme Islam, and everytime we (or they) articulate and defend our own ideology, we do it against its negative opposite. As both sides make these rhetorical/ideological statements, they only reinforce the opposition between the two ideologies and perpetuate ideological war. Ultimately, this will never lead to the defeat of extreme Islam because many Muslim societies see our ideology (and a society modeled on liberal individualistic democracy) as a threat.What is needed is a third way, a new inclusive ideological foundation that doesn’t replicate the liberal democracy/extreme Islam dichotomy. COIN will never be successful if it seeks to replicate liberal democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan. But, if it seeks to empower the people of those states to form new political ideologies that sit comfortably between both poles of Western liberal democracy and extreme Islam, then that might be successful. Hence, Iraq today may be a procedural democracy, but in no way is it a Western liberal democracy with its respect for individual rights (which would triumph all other identities, like tribal ones for example). At the same time, most Iraqis reject extreme Islamic interpretations whether they are Sunni or Shi’a (and, whether they from insurgent groups from both sects). So yes, we need to understand their ideology, but understanding it in the societal context in which it is embedded will only allow us to develop new ideological conceptions of the world with the indigenous people. These ideas will be the foundation of a common worldview between us (the West) and them (Iraqis and Afghanis) that rejects extreme Islam. 

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    I should probably note that Madhu’s comments appear to have been made in response to Zen’s earlier comment, rather than my own immediately preceding Madhu’s, since mine was still "awaiting moderation" (on  account of the inclusion of an HTML link, I think) at the time that Madhu posted.

  7. zen Says:

    I have nothing from you in the the moderation queue. Nor in the spam folder – your comment did not get processed at all

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Heh: it’s up there now at #3, but for a while (after Madhu’s post appeared) it said it was awaiting moderation.  So (a) nothing got lost, and (b) that’s mildly weird.  For your interest, I’ll email you a download I made at the time…

  9. Complex? You bet. « Afghan Outsider Says:

    […] is the problem with a lot of foreign affairs type blogs. It’s a very much an inside baseball conversation. People who understand the situation, its complexities and difficulties, talking to […]

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