Small Wars Journal

Both Sides of the COIN

Sat, 01/07/2012 - 3:33pm

Both Sides of the COIN

by Christopher Sims; Fernando Luján; and Bing West

Foreign Affairs

In his analysis of the shortcomings of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Bing West offers a compelling assessment that, as he writes, "counterinsurgency as nation building became a Sisyphean mission" ("Groundhog War," September/October 2011). But the real problem is not with counterinsurgency doctrine itself but rather with how it is being applied. U.S. military planners and officers should not entirely abandon counterinsurgency, as West predicts they will; instead, they should return to counterinsurgency's guiding principles and make sure they are properly implemented on the ground.

For starters, West argues that Western handouts have led to a culture of entitlement in Afghanistan, which, in turn, has bred opportunism rather than patriotism or a desire for self-improvement. This is a real concern: in 2010, foreign aid was equivalent to approximately 90 percent of Afghanistan's total GDP. To show the granular extent of such a culture of largess, West quotes a Danish soldier in the movie Armadillo encouraging his fellow soldiers to "give [food] to the children as a sign of goodwill." These handouts generate a sense of entitlement, and as West observes, the soldiers are soon "inundated with entreaties for money day after day."

But such actions do not comport with the underlying tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine. For example, engaging children is contrary to the advice given by David Kilcullen in "Twenty-eight Articles," the influential 2006 essay that established many of the fundamental principles of counterinsurgency. Kilcullen writes that to win over local families, foreign military forces should "engage the women, beware the children," because "children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy, and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from."


Bing West's whole case is unstated: we know nothing else but either to shoot or to be shot and break and rebuild, "destroying nations in order to save them" with desperate "surges." The efficacy of the COIN doctrine as "doctrine"-- whatever that means-- is not at issue. The issue is that, once again, this time around, our soldiers are people America doesn't care enough about so as to either bring them home or give them every single thing they think they need to stay alive; they have been ordered to make a mess aboard and their commanders were allowed to cover up; meanwhile, the bodies of our fallen were dumped under the ground-- just like those of the "enemy"-- with so little caring that our most sacred cemetery at Arlington is where they were treated like garbage.

This tells it all: license to kill "towel heads" is treated with the same anonymity as when the "towel heads" kill them or our men commit suicide because our troops are no more the preoccupation of our nation than are the "towel heads." Had the generals prized their troops, foremost above all else, they would not allow America's only volunteers to be wasted just to waste "towel heads." But the truth is that our generals are the lesser elements of our society that seemed in desperate need to command but did not measure up for slots in the corporate establishment. So they need leadership careers in these meat-grinder wars, where our soldiers are merely killing "towel heads" until they themselves are killed, so thecommanders can rise in the command ranks enough to command some artificial corporate exec slot upon retirement after putting in their 20.

In other words, our soldiers are in a murder sandwich between commander and a nation that cares very little about them, irreplaceably reduced as the "towel heads" nibble at them. Where are the Petraeuses, McCrystals, Keanes that should be offering themselves up for judgement for the wars they executed? Where are the Bushes and Obamas that were intimidated by the commanders into continuing a war with no real metrics of failure or success? We see in Iraq that the Petraeus thesis was a total failure. But Obama stuffed him mute into a secure spot at CIA where he neither has to account for the absurdity of his certainty about Iraq/Afghan "surges" but also muted where he cannot challenge Obama for making a mess of "his" Iraq "victory." Neither Obama nor Petraeus, nor McCrystal are speaking much about their responsibilities for the outcome. It is left to plump combat evading Republican presidential candidates to decry this outcome with ahistoric finger pointing.

West may think it too early for anyone to judge his pages upon pages of COIN Doctrine pontification. But the fact is that Vietnam has moved into history and, if there had been anyone left who really cares about the stolen and devastated youths that the last three wars swallowed up, he could easily be shown as one who never learns. In his post-Vietnam analysis he never called for freely allowing "Marines to do what they do best, kill people," as he did before a stunned audience at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As with Vietnam, a few writers will torture each other and themselves over how stupid it all was and why. But no one will ask how it is that we wasted the blood and treasure of an entire nation chasing and killing binLaden in a decade of Crusade against the Islamic World and never once pointed a finger at the airline corporations that irresponsibly violated the rules and ON ALL AIRLINERS never made the pilot's cabin impenetrable, allowing for four jumbo jets full of passengers to be take in ten minutes each. Some survivors of both Vietnam and 9/11 will again spend a sleepless night in sweat wondering how it is that the airlines and the generals got away with COIN baloney because no one really cares.

Imagine that you go with cancer to an oncologist trained to think of your disease as a TISSUE disease, totally ignorant of the cellular biology knowledge we gained from the many that succumbed to that disease. So it is with Dr. West. All he can cling on to is that "I was there" in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan cheering on the killing. But it's not his fault that the generals, the airlines got away with ignorance and negligence. It is the fault of the American people who anesthetize themselves with the notion that my kid "can't get military cancer" because there's no draft so who cares what happens to the "misfits" that volunteered because "I didn't force them to join up." The ultimate price will be paid by all those who cheered and called for more war in Iraq, deceptively not mentioning that it was Bush who signed the withdrawal date accord because Maliki wanted all Americans responsible in Iraqi courts for killing and damage they inflict on Iraq, not Obama 's political need to end that war. Of course Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran are left to Obama to finish and take the blame for as the military-industrial complex calls for a return to heavy spending on strategic weapons via Romney in order to stop the Chinese and Iranians from attacking San Francisco and NY by demanding that our 6th and 7th Fleets not in their waters. I'm reminded of a Vietnam War era poster from Northrup Corp. where a VC is standing next to a recoilless rifle and the poster notes:"THIS MAN IS PREVENTING US FROM GOING TO THE MOON!" So, COIN is out and Strategic Weapons are in because the latter means more jobs and profit than MRAPS, body armor and assault rifles. Sorry vets, join the Vietnam Vets and travel 100 miles or so to your nearest VA Hospital for treatment of your PTSD once a month because, as after Vietnam, we can't afford giving "LOSERS" what we promised. But, of course, as ever, we'll take good care of the generals in their retirement.

If you got to this point, congratulations, as few military men I know can deal with the possibility that any of the above may be right. They lived in a world of "can do" because they believe. To now consider that they may have been considered dummies by the nation under whose flag they fought would be as hopeless as getting back the time, mental stability and body parts they lost thinking they were seen as "heroes." Alas, the wasting of men came before the "doctrine," COIN is only one in a sequence of cover-ups of failure. When will Captain West remember what he thought back then?


Sun, 01/08/2012 - 3:19pm

In reply to by Don Bacon

“The view expressed in this comment are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”

COIN operations, by definition, support the current government of the state. Overthrowing a government is an operation, if conducted by the military in a covert or clandestine manner, known as Unconventional Warfare. The distinction here is both clear and important.

Insurgents, again by definition, are a small portion of the population of a nation. In addition to supporting the current government, counter-insurgency aims to gain the support of the majority of the population, the large, undecided middle. It is this portion of the population that forms the “river” in which the insurgent “swims”. If a counter-insurgent can sway the public not to support the insurgent (through increasing the legitimacy of the government) then he can be defeated.

To say that COIN is dead is to not face reality. Nearly every military involvement that The United States has undertaken has aspects of COIN. There will always be a portion of the population that does not support the presence of U.S. forces in their country. These individuals and groups need to be dissuaded from taking action against the existing government or U.S. forces. To do this our Army and Marine forces must be adept at COIN operations. If we abandon this aspect of warfare we are asking our men to fight blindly until civilian leaders decided it is not worth it anymore.

Additionally, and arguably more importantly, we must engage all “means” to accomplish this. COIN is a strategic operation that requires more civilian engagement than military. The U.S. DoS must increase the legitimacy of the governmental institutions, just as the DoD is increasing the legitimacy of the security apparatus. The Army does not know how to organize legitimate elections and market economies, any more than State Department employees know how to organize the training, equipping, and combat advisement of an Afghani Infantry Brigade.

Sorry Don, I am afraid you missed the mark on this on.

Don Bacon

Sat, 01/07/2012 - 11:21pm

"Counterinsurgency" as commonly (but mistakenly) used is Newspeak for overthrowing a government, conducting a brutal military occupation and nation-building, which has absolutely no similarity to the "Host Nation" baloney peddled in FM 3-24.

No wonder it doesn't work. COIN R.I.P.

The idea that foreigners aren't like us, would placidly accept foreign occupation and would not have children willing to commit atrocities is fanciful. Of course children would commit atrocities! So engage the women!

What baloney. Too many patrols.

Kilcullen, in his "Twenty-Eight Articles," said:

"Counterinsurgency is fundamentally a competition between many groups, each seeking to mobilize a population in support of their agenda."

Morgenthau, in his "To Intervene or Not to Intervene," said of ambivalent states (states that require outside help but simultaneously resent outside help):

"... intervention must be either brutally direct -- in order to overcome resistance -- or it must be surreptitious in order to be acceptable, or the two extremes may be combined."

Thus, as per Kilcullen and Morgenthau now combined:

a. In order to mobilize a population in support of our agenda.

b. We must (1) be effectively brutal and/or (2) be effectively sneaky (in camouflaging the true purpose of the intervention -- in our case -- to fundamentally transform the political, economic and social order of certain states).

It would seem that either or both of these methods (brutality and/or stealth) has the potential to mobilize a population in support of our agenda.

Employing neither brutality nor stealth, however, would seem to be a formula for failure.