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Ucko on Counterinsurgency and its Discontents

At Kings of War, Dr. David Ucko has a must-read post on the kulturkampf of COIN (hat tip SWJ Blog):

Counterinsurgency and Its Discontents

….It might be interesting to trace how an idea so welcome less than four years ago has since fallen from grace. Was it the perceived confidence with which the concept was rolled out? Was it the perceived automacity of its widespread acceptance? Is it anger at the arguably simplistic explanation that counterinsurgency, and counterinsurgency alone, won the day in Iraq? Or is it due to a perception of counterinsurgency experts gaining power and prestige in DC by peddling a theory that is not working so well in Afghanistan?

I strongly suggest reading Ucko’s post in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

Attempts to disaggregate theory and practice has in turn engendered the accusation that counterinsurgency is like Marxism, in that its supporters insist on the doctrine’s infallibility and claim it simply hasn’t been implemented properly. It is a powerful analogy: a concept that survives only on paper has very limited worth.

But counterinsurgency principles have shown practical value, not just in ‘counterinsurgency campaigns’, but also in other campaigns concerned with stabilisation, pacification, peacebuilding – call it what you want. This is not wholly surprising, as many of these principles are quite banal, even commonsensical:

Agree with Ucko here. If COIN’s promise has at times been oversold by its advocates, its critics have occasionally swung in the opposite direction, penning highly ideological jeremiads equating the American use of COIN in Afghanistan and Iraq with the history of 19th century  European colonialism, capitalist-imperialism a la Lenin and Hobson, as a Democratic trojan horse for GOP neoconservatism and as Ucko mentioned, even Soviet Communism. This is dressing up the less exciting valid criticisms that can be made about COIN, in theory and execution, with highly polemical nonsense typical of cable TV news shoutfests.

A powerful reason why counterinsurgency today is so unpopular is because its principles are looked upon as strategy in their own right. As should be clear, the principles and theory of counterinsurgency are only relevant as a means toward a strategic end, which itself may be more or less realistic: to help a country recover from protracted conflict; to bolster the legitimacy and reach of a government, etc. Even then, the theory is not a silver bullet but mere guidance – a collection of lessons learned – that may help in the design and implementation of an effective campaign plan, a plan that must, as counterinsurgency theory clearly stipulates, be adapted for specific environments.

Strong agreement. I have written much the same in the past as have many others. Hopefully, if it is repeated often enough the ongoing COIN debate can begin to generate more light and less heat.

But if counterinsurgency theory is just ‘useful guidance’ or ‘some ideas’, what good is it? I think our own Faceless Bureaucrat hit the nail on the head in a previous post: ‘I have suspected for a long time that COIN itself is merely the knee-jerk answer to a previous question, “Do kinetic/conventional/body-count campaigns work?”‘. I’m currently reading Keith L. Shimko‘s The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution, which provides a bitter reminder of the muddy RMA-type thinking on war within the Pentagon as it invaded Iraq. The discovery of counterinsurgency as a body of theory and lessons was definitely a step forward, but today it is no longer the antithesis, but itself the thesis. Its function as a reaction to muddy thinking is still being served, but it is also being held up in its own right and subjected to critical scrutiny.

….So there is definitely a need for criticism, but the aim of such a debate should be to improve on rather than kill the scholarship. There seems to be a desire to resign the whole ‘counterinsurgency’ concept to the intellectual wastebasket, which risks sacrificing what the concept has provided: a useful starting point to understand and discuss armed conflict and political violence, issues that today need to be discussed, whether in terms of ‘counterinsurgency’ or not.

Some of this desire to “resign the whole counterinsurgency concept to the intellectual wastebasket” is actually an indirect political campaign for other things. Namely, a more isolationist/non-interventionist foreign policy and secondly, a Weinberger-Powell military posture where the US is geared up to fight the Soviet Union’s closest facsimile of the moment, is buying a half-dozen aircraft carriers and F-35’s by the hundreds and the military “doesn’t do windows” – i.e. the 95 % of security threats since the end of the Cold War. Well this is policy for a world COIN critics wished we inhabited and not the one in which we have to live.

I’m not excerpting Ucko’s conclusions, to better incentivize your reading them for yourself.

What I would add to Ucko’s list of the reasons COIN is currently under harsh scrutiny are the variables I sugggested in The Post-COIN Era is Here – economics and the tie-in to domestic politics. States like California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey are in varying degrees of financial meltdown, as are some EU/NATO nation-states, which has brought belt-tightening back into vogue, whether it is coming from tea party rallies or pious lectures by the German Chancellor. Increased competition for scarcer dollars (or euros) is already impacting defense budgets which have to be weighed with other societal needs.  COIN, which is intensive in terms of both time and personnel, begins to look less attractive to politicians than does FID, CT, drone and cruise missile strikes or the huge contracts going to shipyards and defense companies which employ their constituents back home.

Islamist insurgency may be global but all politics remain local.

9 Responses to “Ucko on Counterinsurgency and its Discontents”

  1. Steve Hynd Says:

    Hi Zen,

    I don’t think my piece noting that COIN was like Soviet Communism only in the respect that its most avid advocates have become purity-testers – saying that "real" COIN hasn’t been tried yet and anyone who doesn’t see the advantages of "real" COIN is "unserious" – was an "ideological jeremiad".

    If you don’t like the Communism analogy, try this one: COIN, A Modern Mystery Religion

    There’s no denying that COIN principles have shown "practical value" in many areas.  I’d argue that they’re even more valuable as principles for civilian-led efforts in places where things haven’t gotten bad enough for a military response, as a preventative rather than a cure.

    But while those who have written and backed COIN theory are often careful to say that such operations are always difficult, expensive and time-consuming, the overall tone of is too often "Can we invade it? Yes we can!" The most egregious example was the January 2009 white paper entitled the "United States Interagency Counterinsurgency Initiative". This official COIN guide was a multi-department affair but led by the Bureau of Political/Military Affairs at the State Dept. Gates, Condi Rice and USAID’s Henrietta Fore signed off on the document, which was described as a COIN guide for civilian lawmakers. It gave an over-rosy impression of the ability of the U.S. government and U.S. military to turn COIN-on-paper into COIN-in-reality, an impression that was bound to lead to overreach.

    Regards, Steve

  2. Joseph Fouche Says:

    The attack on COIN is an even more perplexing problem than a indirect tactical expression of a political agenda. To butcher Keynes:

    The ideas of economists and political philosophers [and dead military thinkers], both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist [or military thinker]. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.

    The seemingly consistent ideas people carry around in their heads probably have as much innate compatibility with one another as cats and dogs living together. In reality, their worldview and arguments are a randomized grab bag of pseudo-science, disjointed bits of trivia, base superstitions, elite propaganda, folk memory, illusions of marketing departments, and bad advice from passersby. Often times such a collection of miscellany happens to glom onto a political agenda and helps advance it. Such are the mysterious workings of unnatural selection. There are deep contradictions between American culture and American ambitions and the COIN debate is merely one theater in a larger overall struggle to close that society wide cognitive dissonance.

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Steve,
    I am going to have to amend the post to add in the mystery religion bit.
    Agree with you that the ‘real COIN’ defense is intellectually lame ( except in such cases as when Big Army is shelling neighborhoods blindly with artillery – that’s not COIN, it’s what the IDF does, a conventional counterattack). Every COIN situation is different because local political dynamics are different and failing at COIN is not "fake COIN", it’s failure. We don’t say that France in 1940 wasn’t waging "real war", we say France was defeated. COIN is simply harder to do well than conventional war ( though the latter is often far worse. I’d rather be in Afghanistan or in Vietnam than at Antietam, the Somme or Stalingrad).
    That the complexities of COIN are glossed over in an IA guide is unsurprising. The American IA process in general is broken and tends to gravitate to simplified common denominators, which when passed to decision makers who are basically politicos, engenders complacency.
    Hi JF,
    "The seemingly consistent ideas people carry around in their heads probably have as much innate compatibility with one another as cats and dogs living together. In reality, their worldview and arguments are a randomized grab bag of pseudo-science, disjointed bits of trivia, base superstitions, elite propaganda, folk memory, illusions of marketing departments, and bad advice from passersby. "
    Strongly agree. The demise of classical liberal education as a common core educational experience for a college degree has increased this effect. Formerly, exposure to a canon at least caused students to recognize where major cultural concepts stemmed from and habitual use of inquiry and socratic method inculcated critical reasoning and skepticism. Currently, too often universities are instilling credulity (where students are even paying attention, given that most who graduate do so with A’s and B’s so long as they show up). Ok, will stop now as I am already ramping toward a testosterone-driven, professional rant. Breathe…..paper bag….breathe….paper bag…….

  4. Pundita Says:

    Mark, Thank you for bringing order to debates about COIN.  Speaking of order, and while it’s about ten years too late to make this suggestion, it might help limit confusion if each type of COIN was given its own acronym.

    To get the ball rolling, how about POPCOIN for population-centric counterinsurgency tactics?  This would distinguish such tactics from what might be called the Death Star or DARTHCOIN type of scorched-earth tactics; e.g., shelling a town out of existence to put down an uprising.

    One could make even finer distinctions — an acronym to indicate COIN that represents a foreign occupying force jollying along the natives enough to create order (F-POPCOIN), or a local force (L-COIN) quashing a local uprising through largely military means (L-DARTHCOIN) or through the use of policing actions combined with economic carrots, bribes, etc. (L-ECONCOIN).  

    In short, one might eat the elephant of counterinsurgency theories by reducing them to instantly recognizable and precise conceptual categories. 

    Or do you think I’ve been in Washington too long?              

  5. zen Says:

    Hi Miss P.
    Interesting that you mentioned that. There’s some opposition in the military community to such taxonomic  parsing. For example, defense consultant Wilf Owen sometimes graces this comment section and Wilf would tell you, as a good orthodox Clausewitzian, that there is only "war" and while warfare evolves, the nature of war itself does not  and all the aspects that get special labels and adjectives – irregular, COIN, complex, 4GW, blitzkrieg, limited, low-intensity etc. etc. – are usually present to some degree throughout military history. To Clausewitzians, all of these terms ( or at least most of them) mislead more than they help clarify.
    My response to Wilf’s argument is, that while he is accurate in a certain sense, that position is not overly helpful in a society where non-military, non-veteran and possibly poorly informed politicians must make the major, high-level, decisions regarding strategy and war policy. These civilians could use a helpful taxonomy to organize their thinking and make clear what they intend to have the military to do or not do, as the civilians generally lack most of the implcit knowledge about war, strategy and military affairs that general officers bring to the table. While using Frank Hoffman’s term "Hybrid War" might add nothing to the discussion from the perspective of an expert like Wilf or Colin Gray, it adds a hell of a lot to the understanding of an NSC deputy who needs to know that troops going to Assbackwardistan are likely to face tribal militias, transnational criminal gangs and possibly terrorists in addition to a primary threat from a conventional military opponent. The descriptors, adjectives, theories, while taken too far sometimes, highlight the non-obvious aspects of conflict for the civilian policy maker. So, yes, distinguishing between POP-centric COIN and what Hafez Assad did at Hama  in the 1980’s IS important..

  6. Schmedlap Says:

    I am neither a "Clausewitzian" nor any of the alternatives to it because I know squat about strategy. But, even as someone who is not a strategy geek, I have found myself siding with Wilf from the start. When we start classifying war as generational, asymetric, or various other labels, we only make it more confusing for decision makers and practitioners by introducing misconceptions in pursuit of simplifying. This reminds me of the propensity for economists to "assume" things that are not true for the purpose of creating a model. It has utility when learning. In practice, that utility diminishes exponentially as the complexity of the problem increases. Is there any evidence at all that our civilian decision makers (or even military advisors) have a better understanding of the nature of today’s conflicts thanks to concepts such as 4GW, 5GW, and the spread of the pop-COIN religion? If anything, I’d say they have a less sophisticated understanding and are less capable of making sound decisions because of these buzzwords and false prophets.
    Such classifications have led to, among other evils, the rampant misconception of a need to teach Soldiers "COIN skills." There is no such thing as a set of COIN skills, as the label is applied. It doesn’t matter if you are conducting COIN, HIC, SASO, or other operations – you still need to positively identify targets, make shoot/don’t shoot decisions, gather intelligence, protect the force, avoid creating new enemies, etc, etc.

  7. zen Says:

    Hi Schmedlap,
    "Is there any evidence at all that our civilian decision makers (or even military advisors) have a better understanding of the nature of today’s conflicts thanks to concepts such as 4GW, 5GW, and the spread of the pop-COIN religion?"

    My data-free analysis, though based extensive observation, is that most key decision-makers in any administration, unless they personally have a prior military career or experience working in the DoD, have little or no experience in military subjects or strategy, be it "traditional" or more alternative theories, They are lawyers, poli sci majors, ex-State Dept, and figures from corporate America and are more at home with political and/or economic thinking, but especially the political.

  8. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Angelo Codevilla, in one of those brief moments of lucidity where he’s wiping the foam off his mouth, argued for a return to the dictionary meanings of elements of statecraft like war, peace, diplomacy, etc. He argues 20th century American statecraft (back to Elihu Root!) has forgotten how to read the dictionary. Codevilla’s War: Ends and Means (reviewed here by the mighty NerveAgent) and Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course on Statecraft (reviewed here by the less than mighty Joseph Fouche) make good work towards proving this case but Codevilla spends too much time speaking with his mouth full since he’s too busy chewing on the corpse of Elihu Root’s leg. Like many of his other works, Codevilla could use a strong editor armed with an industrial strength chainsaw and a Codevilla-proof armored exo-skeleton. That being said, the use of terms like "irregular, COIN, complex, 4GW, blitzkrieg, limited, low-intensity" (5GW is exempt because I’m planning to retire on my illicit 5GW gains) is most dangerous when they’re used by those inside the defense-intelligence-strategy community. If the inside denizens don’t know what war is, and it’s all war, than we’re truly screwed. 

  9. Counterinsurgency and its Discontents: Part 2 | Kings of War Says:

    […] on the debate prompted by the initial post (here, here, here, here and here), I decided to take the topic further, which prompted me to write a longer piece on […]

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