COIN Fallacies (Volume I)

Photo courtesy US Army on Flickr

We can liken COIN–and really, any military doctrine–to an organized religion (hence quasi-religious term “doctrine”).

The seminal work of COIN, FM 3-24, is loaded with wonderful advice, as are the holy texts of most organized religions.  Of course, few take the time to read such works from cover to cover.  Some might read a select chapter here and there, others pick a few select quotes.  But all too many rely on others to interpret these works for them.  And through oversimplification, obfuscation, or downright chicanery, these interlocutors all too often convey a warped interpretation of such texts.

We’ve all seen what happens when zealots warp organized religion for their own purposes.  However, few recognize that the same has been done with counterinsurgency doctrine.

Among the fallacies:

Failed states incubate terrorism.  Though the “failed states” theory of counter-terrorism is one of the fundamental underpinnings of escalated US involvement in Afghanistan, it’s been called into question in recent months.  If recent events have shown, terrorism thrives in permissive states (i.e., Pakistan)as opposed to failed states.  Yet, FM 3-24 never even made this claim in the first place.  Where did it come from?

“Money is a Weapons System”.  In fairness, there’s is truth to the “money as a weapons system” (MAAWS) metaphor.  Unfortunately, we tend to lob wads of money about the Afghan countryside as if we were Continental soldiers firing ball muskets, rather than as precision-guided munitions.  Not only is the underlying premise dubious; but 97% of Afghanistan’s economy is based on foreign humanitarian and military aid, much of which will surely dry up as NATO forces withdraw.  (To say nothing of those who take advantage of the fountain of humanitarian aid pouring into the region)   Though FM 3-24 does mention that money can be an effective “weapons system”, it takes great care to address the fact that money often breeds corruption.   But of course, lobbing money about is simple advice.

Counterinsurgency is about winning “hearts and minds”.  The phrase “hearts and minds” only appears once in FM 3-24, and even then, it does so with a sense of irony.

Once the unit settles into the AO, its next task is to build trusted networks. This is the true meaning of the phrase “hearts and minds,” which comprises two separate components. “Hearts” means persuading people that their best interests are served by COIN success. “Minds” means convincing them that the force can protect them and that resisting it is pointless. Note that neither concerns whether people like Soldiers and Marines. Calculated self-interest, not emotion, is what counts. Over time, successful trusted networks grow like roots into the populace. They displace enemy networks, which forces enemies into the open, letting military forces seize the initiative and destroy the insurgents.

Like the Monty Python sketch, no matter how much economic development or security the counterinsurgent provides, they may never be loved:  they’re outsiders.  But the counterinsurgent’s job isn’t to win “hearts and minds”–it’s to appeal to the population’s self-interest, convincing them their needs are best served by cooperating (if only temporarily) with the counterinsurgent.

It can best be summed up by a conversation a US soldier reportedly had with a former insurgent, eventually convinced to fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq:

For now, our relationship with [the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade, or by some accounts, Hamas Iraq] is one of mutual distrust and hatred, a sign of the times. A conversation between a member of my platoon and a 1920 source was rife with foreboding on the future of this partnership, and of the war to come.

“Do you want to kill me?” asked the soldier.

“Yes,” replied the source, coldly and without emotion. “But not today.”

Alex Horton

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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One Response to COIN Fallacies (Volume I)

  1. Lauren says:

    Similarly to how the failed states theory has fallen out of favor, development economists have gotten away from poverty as an incubator for terrorism, as well. (Though there’s a politely vocal minority: There seems to be an increasing scramble for magic bullets as the drawdown approaches (like making everyone less poor: from different sects of the COIN debate and I tend to think that as each one fails (even my precious development ones) there is an internal schism on the horizon.

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