Two years ago, the COINdinistas seemed on top of the world. That is, until the Surge in Afghanistan.
Since then, the COINdinistas’ lead detractors, the COINtras, have grown more numerous and more vociferous. Leading COINtras, such as US Army Colonel Gian Gentile, have become more critical of what they call the Iraq War’s “popular narrative“: that US troops, armed with a new “counterinsurgency strategy”, pulled Iraq’s warring factions back from the abyss of ever-increasing violence. Rather, assert the COINtras, a myriad of factors, such as the stand-down of the Mahdi Army, ethnic segregation in Baghdad, and the payoff of Sunni insurgents, contributed more to the decline in violence than the Surge itself.
The past year has done little to bolster the COINdinistas’ cause. General David Petraeus, the lead architect of counterinsurgency theory, has ramped up airstrikes and night raids, and has even begun to re-institute body counts as a measure of effectiveness. Last week, a UN report undercut US claims of success, pointing out that civilian deaths in Afghanistan increased twenty percent in the last year alone, with the ten-year campaign displacing over 400,000 Afghans. And let’s not forget a recent scandal involving a beloved counterinsurgency text, “Three Cups of Tea“, which, to this day, still features in some military organizations’ recommended reading lists.
All this has led some to proclaim the “death of COIN“, and others to muse how to save the COIN baby from the bathwater. In light of all the COIN resentment, noted COINtra Carl Prine has even quipped, “Everyone is Gian Gentile now“.
But is all the criticism deserved? Let’s take a look.
Counter-insurgency? Stability ops? Civil war?
We often categorize the war in Iraq as a counterinsurgency campaign, though the moniker is grossly oversimplified. Even the most ardent COINdinistas wouldn’t categorize the Iraq War as such. FM 3-24, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and Joint Publication 1-02 define insurgency as an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict. But though insurgent groups in Iraq may have directed attacks against the Iraqi government and US forces, few groups, not even al-Qaeda in Iraq, had any serious desire or capacity to actually govern.
Instead, COINdinistas, such as former Australian Army officer Dr. David Kilcullen, have described the conflicts as “hybrid”: a stability operation aimed at combating insurgency, terrorism, and civil war. In fact, there was no one insurgent “group”. Even before the vaunted Surge, most knew that the US was at odds with multiple insurgencies.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the nature of the Iraq War varied by province. Areas such as Anbar and Tal’Afar generally fit what has been termed the “popular narrative”: counterinsurgency tactics, and partnership with local power brokers, gradually turned the tide against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Baghdad, however, fits the COINtra’s narrative. Around the same time as the “Anbar Awakening”, Motaqua al-Sadr stood down his Mahdi Army, a Shia militia responsible for massive ethnic cleansing in Baghdad. Moreover, by mid-2007, when the US-led Surge was underway, a campaign of ethnic cleansing in areas of Baghdad had generally run its course, with Shia and Sunni neighborhoods generally segregating.
In fairness, many–such as Washington Post correspondent Robert Woodward, author of an extensive book on the Surge–credit all these developments to the precipitous drop in violence in mid-2007. Most serious critics only disagree on the degree to which these elements contributed to improved security.
Counterinsurgency was never a strategy.
Though the phrase “counterinsurgency strategy” is often banded about, it’s a misnomer. Counterinsurgency, as practiced in Iraq, was a bottom-up tactical innovation which arose in the midst of strategic ineptitude. But it was never a strategy. Or so we thought.
Dr. John Nagl, a retired US Army officer and President of the Center for a New American Security, explained in his doctoral thesis that the US Army failed in Vietnam because it applied conventional warfighting techniques to an insurgency. Nagl claimed that the US Army, trained and equipped for fighting major conventional battles, viewed the war in Vietnam in conventional terms. To paraphrase Nagl’s oft-quoted analogy, when all you have is a hammer, all the world’s problems look like nails.
But by early 2009, COIN had become the hammer; Afghanistan was a suitable nail.
But while counterinsurgency has its merits at the tactical level, it fell short in Afghanistan: FM 3-24 never accounted for, say, Pakistani mendacity, egregious mission creep, and a host nation government best described as a “kleptocracy“.
COIN isn’t about loving your enemy.
Counterinsurgency is about winning hearts and minds, right? Of course, it’s in the field manual!
Look through the counterinsurgency field manual and try to find the term “hearts and minds“. Give up? It’s used twice: flip to Appendix A, paragraph A-26:
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.
Wait, you mean COINdinistas believe that people are motivated by self-interest?
The “Hearts and Minds” is a little more Machiavellian than you might think. Even FM 3-24 admits, “Achieving [long-term success] requires the government to elimitate as many causes of insurgency as feasible. This can include eliminating those extremists whose beliefs prevent them from ever reconciling with the government“. Even those who claim to refute the central tenets of FM 3-24 seem to agree with the claim that, “over time, counterinsurgents aim to enable a country or regime to provide the security and rule of law that allow establishment of social services and growth of economic activity“. (By the way, all these quotes come from the first page and a half of FM 3-24. God only knows what you might learn from reading the whole book)
The Machiavellian approach, as opposed to the stereotypical “hearts and minds” approach, can be best summarized by a quote from Alex Horton, author of the blog “Army of Dude“:
The only thing more impressive than the Shiite IA’s ability to beat the hell out of Sunni civilians is their inability to do anything on their own accord. They simply cannot conduct patrols without us, but 1920 reigns freely in the neighborhoods they operate in. In a few months they are confident in their ability to combat Al Qaeda with minimal help from us, and the IA refuses to do a thirty minute patrol alone. And we still refuse to take off the training wheels.
For now, our relationship with 1920 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.”
The world’s leading COINdinista, General David Petraeus, the man who oversaw the composition of FM 3-24, would agree. From a 2007 interview with Noah Shachtman of Wired Magazine:
What about all the cultural understanding, I [Noah Shachtman] ask him. What about nation-building? What about your counterinsurgency manual?
“Well,” Petraeus says, “it doesn’t say that the best weapons don’t shoot. It says sometimes the best weapons don’t shoot. Sometimes the best weapons do shoot.” A war like Iraq is a mix, he adds: In one part of the country, the military is reinforcing the society, building things; in another, it’s breaking them — waging “major combat operations” that aren’t all that different from what might have gone down in 2003.
US forces rarely understand their own doctrine.
Just because something’s in a doctrine manual doesn’t mean that US forces are bound by it. Just witness the Army Capstone Concept’s emphasis on empowering subordinates and encouraging risk-taking, and contrast it with the the Army’s reflector belt fetish, and refusal to allow soldiers to travel 100 miles without a risk assessment.
Commanders, in an attempt to placate their bosses, often place restrictions on orders passed down the chain of command. Though General Stanley McChrystal might have been reluctant to accept civilian casualties, commanders warped his guidance beyond belief, ordering troops to patrol in areas they didn’t expect to encounter the enemy.
This wasn’t a failure of counterinsurgency; it was a failure in leadership.
You can’t expect troops to understand a complex and nuanced topic without reading the entire source. As such, troops pick and choose the occasional line from FM 3-24 as judiciously as the German General Staff cherry-picked lines from Clausewitz, or as the Westboro Baptist Church selects lines from the Bible.
Think I’m exaggerating? At a US Army Combat Training Center, an informal poll of Observer-Controllers, many of whom had just returned from counterinsurgency conflicts and had advised units of counterinsurgency tactics, only twenty percent admitted to reading FM 3-24.
Perhaps the problem with counterinsurgency lies with us, not with the doctrine?
The debate’s become too personal.
According to a series of recent blog posts, relying on primary sources, President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger seriously considered relieving MAC-V Commander General Creighton Abrams due to his drinking habits.
We’re right to be suspicious of hagiographies, and Abrams has been the subject of many. But revealing his drinking problem adds about as much to the discourse as revalations that General MacArthur assigned then-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower to hide his 16-year old Filipino mistress from the press. (I can only imagine the Google hits I’ll get from this)
Certainly we’re not forgetting that one of the greatest rebellion-crushers of all time had a penchant for the bottle; or that President Nixon was quite the boozer himself. (And let’s not forget that President Nixon was nearly relieved of his presidency by the American people)
(But please, while you’re busy discussing General Abrams’ drinking habits, I’ll be getting totally crunk over at the Great Satan’s Girlfriend)