Small Wars Journal

No, COIN is Not a Proven Failure

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 10:55pm

No, COIN is Not a Proven Failure

Tom Ordeman, Jr.


The once-praised concept known as population-centric counterinsurgency, typically abbreviated simply as "COIN", has fallen on hard times. On December 1st, 2014, The American Conservative published an op-ed by U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis entitled "COIN Is a Proven Failure".[1] A month earlier, retired Lieutenant General Daniel P. Bolger published Why We Lost, in which he claims that "by the time [Field Manual 3-24] came out, the techniques had already been tried and found wanting."[2] With the Taliban still intransigent nearly fourteen years after the 2001 invasion, and owing to ongoing conflict in Iraq, COIN's reputation for calming the chaos has taken a substantial hit.

Popular perception states that in late 2006, with stability in both Afghanistan and Iraq in sharp decline, a combined Army and Marine Corps team led by then-Lieutenant General David Petraeus drafted a new COIN field manual, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency. In early 2007, President George W. Bush announced a controversial surge of additional combat troops to Iraq. Petraeus, subsequently promoted to General, took command of Multinational Forces in Iraq (MNF-I), which employed the new COIN doctrine codified in FM 3-24 to exploit opportunities offered by the mid-2006 Anbar Awakening movement, and from a ceasefire by the Jaish al Mahdi militia. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) adopted a similar approach in Afghanistan, bolstered by a comparable 2010 troop surge ordered by President Barack Obama in late 2009. The COIN initiative in Iraq produced a temporary settlement that eventually deteriorated after American troops withdrew in late 2011; meanwhile, Afghanistan's COIN initiative largely failed to produce even a comparable temporary settlement.

While the preceding narrative contains nuggets of truth, it fails to accurately appraise the history of either Afghanistan or Iraq. Instead, an accurate analysis could be characterized in terms of accepted COIN theory and best practices; the concepts codified in FM 3-24; and what the Department of Defense, and particularly the U.S. Army, actually did in Afghanistan and Iraq both before and after FM 3-24’s release. To paraphrase the classic line from an 1897 edition of The Sun: "No, Virginia, COIN is not a proven failure."

Operational History

The Father of Strategy, Carl von Clausewitz, speaks of both the overwhelming value of historical examples for understanding and formulating strategy and, conversely, the danger of historical misinterpretation. According to Clausewitz:

"Misuse[d] historical examples... generally distract and bewilder the judgment and understanding without demonstrating anything; for when exposed to the light they turn out to be only trumpery rubbish, made use of to show off the author's learning."[3]

Planning for both the Afghan and Iraq Wars was informed in large part by the misinterpretation of two recent wars: the Vietnam War, and the 1991 Gulf War.

The narrative surrounding the Vietnam War has led to an oversimplification of the conflict as a failure of COIN, rather than a failure of conventional warfare to counter unconventional threats. (In addition, the role that American disengagement from Vietnam played in aggravating the Sino-Soviet Split remains absent from the conflict's narrative.[4]) Thus, since 1973, American military operations have been specifically planned to avoid prolonged, manpower-intensive COIN engagements.

Conversely, the coalition victory in the 1991 Gulf War inspired a false confidence in the dominance of precision air strikes and combined arms maneuver. The United States and its allies secured an important strategic victory, but did so under extremely specific circumstances, with limited objectives, against a quantitatively and qualitatively inferior enemy. In early 1991, the Iraqi military was already exhausted following a bloody, nine-year stalemate, and over-extended even before major combat began. In the wake of the post-Cold War "Peace Dividend" drawdown, political and military leaders fixated upon this limited victory as the model for how future wars should be planned and fought. This misinterpretation of the alleged decisiveness of the Gulf War continues today. The aforementioned retired Lieutenant General, Daniel Bolger, interviewed in late 2014, said:

"What is the U.S. military trained to do? The U.S. military is trained to carry out short, and decisive conventional operations against a uniformed foreign enemy... Given what I knew then, I would have recommended to do like we did in 1991."[5]

Thus, both the Afghan and Iraq Wars were initially planned and executed to avoid a prolonged engagement, and to capitalize upon the same capabilities that proved effective in 1991. Operation Enduring Freedom began as a combined air and unconventional warfare campaign, with a full scale conventional campaign and reconstruction effort executed later. Operation Iraqi Freedom was planned as a repeat of Operation Desert Storm, with a combined precision air and conventional maneuver campaign. Both operations, and particularly the Iraq War, showcased operational concepts such as Rapid Decisive Operations/"Shock and Awe" and Effects-Based Operations (EBO), which derived from the "Revolution in Military Affairs"/"Military Transformation". The RMA/Transformation initiative began after the Vietnam War as a method of balancing the Soviet Union's quantitative conventional superiority with American qualitative technological superiority. The initiative gained new prominence in the 1990's, partly because of its success during the Gulf War, and partly because it offered efficiencies for the post-Cold War “Peace Dividend” drawdown.[6] As a result, strategic leaders were slow to acknowledge that violence perpetrated by the Taliban or a variety of Iraqi groups constituted an insurgency, and were similarly slow to change their approach in either theater.

Established COIN Theory and the COIN Field Manual

Insurgencies, like counterinsurgency campaigns, have taken a variety of names and been couched in a variety of terms in recent history. However, whether a nation's troops engaged in colonial pacification, fought small wars, mounted counter-rebellion operations, or undercut communist revolutionaries, theories and best practices remain similar. Prior to the Afghan and Iraq Wars, a variety of noteworthy authors discussed the topic. These included Sir Charles Edward Callwell in 1896, Roger Trinquier in 1961, David Galula in 1963 and 1964, and Sir Robert Thompson in 1966, as well as recent theorists such as David Kilcullen and David Petraeus. Meanwhile, the U.S. Marine Corps published Small Wars Operations in 1935 and the revised Small Wars Manual in 1940 to codify lessons learned in the "Banana Wars" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Conversely, counterinsurgency theory has traditionally focused on the writings of such successful insurgent leaders as T.E. Lawrence and Mao Tse-tung, and to a lesser degree Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Thus, a corpus of knowledge exists to describe how insurgencies, guerrilla campaigns, and small wars are both waged and countered.

FM 3-24 omits most of that corpus. At nearly three hundred pages in length, mention of the aforementioned authors is sparse. Mao, perhaps the most influential guerrilla warfare theorist in modern history, receives a mere pair of sections, while Lawrence is quoted sparingly, and Guevara is mentioned only once. Only one of Galula's publications is mentioned, and this is cited only twice; his account of COIN operations in Algeria from 1956 to 1958 is omitted entirely. Thompson is quoted twice in the manual's body, Trinquier is mentioned only in the annotated bibliography, and Callwell is omitted entirely.

The field manual is similarly selective about which COIN campaigns it highlights. Alistair Horne's authoritative history of the Algerian War, A Savage War of Peace, was read by President Bush and other senior leaders early in the Iraq War, leading to its 2006 reprinting and a mid-2007 meeting between Horne and President Bush. However, FM 3-24 mentions the Algerian War only thrice, and Horne's book is cited only in the annotated bibliography. The successful Anglo-Omani counterinsurgency campaigns in the Jebel Akhdar and Dhofar are omitted, save for the citation of Major General Tony Jeapes' account of the latter conflict in the annotated bibliography. The successful British campaign in Malaya is mentioned only twice. Other significant counterinsurgency successes and failures are mentioned either in passing, or not at all. Conversely, FM 3-24 mentions Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq a total of sixty, ten, and eighty times, respectively, despite the fact that Vietnam is widely considered to be the only war America ever lost, and the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were both ongoing in 2006 (and the Iraq War was generally considered to be failing).

FM 3-24 diluted or omitted most of the lessons from recent history's COIN campaigns. The 2006 edition of FM 3-24 was, at best, an abridged sampling of a handful of America-centric COIN case studies. (The 2010 British Army COIN field manual is similarly sparse.) At worst, its authors selected a narrow range of examples, of varying relevance, from past and ongoing campaigns that did not accurately present best practices for successful COIN operations.

The COIN Field Manual and Recent Operations

As the Soviet military infamously noted, "One of the serious problems in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligations to follow their doctrine." American forces, and particularly the U.S. Army, upheld this trend in Afghanistan and Iraq: although FM 3-24 was published in late 2006, its operational adoption was limited. While examples are manifold, several examples are noted below.

On the topic of force strength, paragraph 1-67 of FM 3-24 states:

"A better force requirement gauge is troop density, the ratio of security forces (including the host nation’s military and police forces as well as foreign counterinsurgents) to inhabitants. Most density recommendations fall within a range of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1000 residents in an AO. Twenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective COIN operations; however as with any fixed ratio, such calculations remain very dependent upon the situation."

Twenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents equates to a ratio of 1:50. The current population of Iraq is approximately 36 million, and the current population of Afghanistan is nearly 39 million. The high water marks of coalition troops in Iraq were just over 180,000 personnel in late 2005 (pre-surge) and again in late 2007 (surge). For Afghanistan, this was approximately 150,000 in mid-2011. This means that at the high water mark point for Iraq, the troop density was approximately 1:200; and at the high water mark point for Afghanistan, this density fell to approximately 1:260. While these ratios omit host nation forces, both Afghan and Iraqi security forces continue to struggle to achieve operational competence. This density erodes further once one accounts for the legions of support troops[7] and general staffs[8] who contribute only indirectly to the provision of security. (By 2009, so few American troops were engaged in active security assistance that the Army ramped up morale events such as Salsa dance classes to break the tedium[9], and media outlets ran headlines such as "U.S. troops in Iraq have time on hands".[10])

Paragraph 8-13 states:

"Bases must be set up so that they do not project an image of undue permanency or a posture suggesting a long-term foreign occupation. Similarly, logistic postures that project an image of unduly luxurious living by foreign forces while HN civilians suffer in poverty should be avoided. Such postures undermine the COIN message and mission. Insurgent propaganda can twist such images into evidence of bad intentions by counterinsurgents."

While many troops deployed to both theaters lived in austere conditions, most personnel serving in support billets have enjoyed the sort of concessions that are taken for granted in the States. These conditions contrast directly with the austere lifestyle led by most Afghans and many Iraqis. In addition to provisions such as air conditioning and Internet access, other luxuries included regularly scheduled steak and lobster nights at some posts in Iraq, Kyrgyz-run massage parlors in Afghanistan[11], the Canadian donut chain Tim Horton's in Afghanistan, T.G.I. Friday's, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, KFC, and Burger King.[12][13] Prior to his 2010 dismissal, General Stanley McChrystal banned such concessions in Afghanistan in order to improve military discipline and fitness[14], reduce the campaign's logistical footprint, and provide opportunities to support the local economy.[15][16][17] However, upon McChrystal's ouster, General Petraeus cancelled the ban.[18]

Paragraph 8-31 states:

"In many cases 'good enough to meet standards' equipment that is indigenously sustainable is preferable to 'high-technology, best available' equipment that requires substantial foreign assistance for long-term maintenance."

Both ISAF and MNF-I supplied relatively sophisticated equipment to the Afghan and Iraqi security forces. In addition to legacy Soviet/Russian equipment, ISAF and MNF-I have equipped and indoctrinated the Afghan and Iraqi armies with M113A2, M1117, and MRAP armored personnel carriers, in addition to thousands of HMMWVs. Both forces field American artillery (M114 155mm howitzers in Afghanistan, and M198 155mm howitzers in Iraq), and both Afghan and Iraqi soldiers have either adopted or intend to transition to notoriously maintenance-intensive M16 rifles and M4 carbines.[19] The Iraqi Army has lost dozens of its M1A1M Abrams tanks to ISIS and Hezbollah in recent months.[20]

Following from this, in Appendix E, paragraph E-31 states:

"Planners should consider HN economic and technological resources when selecting equipment. In most cases, the host nation acquires, or the U.S. and multinational partners provide, a small air force. Although this air force often has limited resources, the host nation still should effectively operate and maintain its aircraft and supporting systems. Multinational support in training and equipping the HN air force can be very important. U.S. aircraft have tremendous capabilities, but they can be too expensive and too complex for some developing nations to operate and maintain. Multinational partners with capable, but less expensive and less sophisticated, aircraft can often help equip the host nation."

Among other advanced aircraft, the DoD purchased a number of Alenia C-27A Spartan cargo aircraft for the Afghan Air Force, only to scrap them when maintenance and logistics for the aircraft proved untenable for both ISAF and Afghan forces.[21] The United States is in the process of supplying a variety of advanced aircraft, including F-16 fighters, to the Iraqi Air Force.[22]

Once FM 3-24 was published, few troops actually read it. As U.S. Army officer Crispin Burke noted in 2011:

"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?"[23]

In fairness to DoD personnel, policy-makers do not appear to have taken FM 3-24's guidance to heart, either. As paragraph 1-134 states:

"Insurgencies are protracted by nature. Thus, COIN operations always demand considerable expenditures of time and resources. The populace may prefer the [host nation] government to the insurgents; however, people do not actively support a government unless they are convinced that the counterinsurgents have the means, ability, stamina, and will to win."

Political pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq arose almost instantaneously, and calls for an "exit strategy" dominated headlines (and even satire[24]) as early as 2004. While the Bush Administration made a point of dismissing opposition calls for a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, President Obama's 2008 election victory was based in part on a promise to enact an abbreviated withdrawal from Iraq in order to focus on bringing the Afghan War to a close; his 2012 re-election campaign emphasized the fact that "I ended the war in Iraq as I promised". When President Obama announced the Afghan troop surge in late 2009, the 30,000 American reinforcements were deployed on an eighteen month timeline, leading some of the President's critics to joke that the surge forces were being dropped in with parachutes attached to bungee cords. For both campaigns, both American and allied nations have sent the signal to their electorates, host nation citizens, and insurgents that their nations' commitment was as temporary as possible.

These observations should not be misconstrued as a judgment as to the wisdom or folly of the choices made by Presidents Bush or Obama, or their foreign allies, at the strategic level. Rather, they should serve merely as an observation that FM 3-24 says one thing, and America and its allies did another. Indeed, the purpose of each of these observations is to demonstrate a single point: established COIN theory is different from the doctrine codified in FM 3-24, and neither reflect the approach adopted by ISAF in Afghanistan or MNF-I in Iraq.


In early 2012, after the last troops left Iraq, and with Afghan-deployed forces staging for a gradual drawdown, the White House released Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (colloquially known as the "Defense Strategic Guidance"), which called for a drawdown of American ground forces and a "pivot"/”rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region - all of it a tacit indication that the Obama Administration rejected COIN and intended to reduce its security commitments in the region from whence fresh calls for American intervention were most likely to arise. Noted COIN expert Andrew Exum said of the guidance:

"If the United States has to fight another resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign (and I pray that we do not), it is easier to design and build new brigades than to design and build new aircraft or ships. I am more concerned the U.S. Army and Marine Corps will abandon the doctrine, training and education wrapped up in preparing for counterinsurgency and stability operations."[25]

Unfortunately, the very sentiment that Exum feared appears to be popular in the active duty and veteran community. A recent commenter at War on the Rocks, writing under the pseudonym "Pave Low John", summarized the opinion of many veterans:

"We’ve been fighting small wars so long that we think Iraq and Afghanistan were real wars."

However, as noted strategist Colin S. Gray wrote in 1999:

"There are two principal errors to avoid. The first is to regard the realm of real war and 'real soldiering' as coterminous with symmetrical conflict, at least as roughly identical to the experience of regular forces fighting regular forces. This error can promote the idea that 'small wars', in Callwell's meaning, are irrelevant, perhaps dangerously irrelevant, diversions from the mainstream requirement to prepare for real war (i.e. grande guerre). Armed forces that decline to take small wars seriously as a military art form with their own tactical, operational, and political - though not strategic - rules invite defeat. The second error is to regard small wars and other forms of savage violence as the wars of the future that will largely supplant the allegedly old-fashioned state-centric 'regular' wars of a Westphalian world."[26]

As Gray rightly notes, both "small wars" and conventional conflicts shall continue to occupy positions of prominence on the strategic spectrum. America’s ability to secure its strategic interests shall continue to require a significant capacity to prevent or respond to guerrilla, irregular, and asymmetric threats. Indeed, such methods shall remain attractive to America’s adversaries, as they have proved particularly effective against the conventional warfighting styles preferred by America and its allies.

Population-centric COIN was not “tried and found wanting” in Afghanistan or Iraq, nor is COIN “a proven failure”. At best, COIN is misunderstood; at worst, it remains untested. Established COIN theory has both failed and prevailed in a variety of historic conflicts, but did not significantly impact the formulation of the DoD’s COIN doctrine in 2006, nor was it applied in any coordinated or comprehensive fashion in either conflict. As such, COIN should not be blamed for the failure to achieve American strategic goals in either theater. Dismissing COIN’s potential utility based on false notions to the contrary will do nothing to improve the future ability of America and its allies to defeat irregular enemies in the pursuit of critical strategic goals.


[1] Davis, Daniel L.; COIN Is a Proven Failure; N/A; 1 December 2014;

[2] Schogol, Jeff; 'Why We Lost' offers few answers on Iraq and Afghanistan; Military Times; N/A; 20 November 2014;

[3] von Clausewitz, Carl; On War;; N/A; 1832;

[4] Weltman, John J.; World Politics and the Evolution of War; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore, Maryland; 1995; pp. 169-191

[5] Grigsby Bates, Karen; A 3-Star General Explains 'Why We Lost' In Iraq, Afghanistan; National Public Radio: All Things Considered; N/A; 11 November 2014;

[6] Sloan, Elinor C.; Modern Military Strategy: An Introduction; Routledge; New York, NY; 2012; pp. 49-64

[7] Brook, Pete; The 40,000 People on Bagram Air Base Haven't Actually Seen Afghanistan;; N/A; 2 February 2015;

[8] Sellin, Lawrence; Outside View: PowerPoints 'R' Us; UPI; Kabul, Afghanistan; 24 August 2010

[9] Burney, Specialist Jazz; Deployed Soldier uses Salsa dancing to help cope with combat environment; 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs, 25th Infantry Division; COB Speicher, Tikrit, Iraq; 25 September 2009;

[10] Madhani, Aamer; U.S. troops in Iraq have time on hands; USA Today; COB Adder, Iraq; 21 October 2009;

[11] Foust, Joshua; Dispatches from FOBistan: The Kyrgyz Magiciennes of Bagram; unknown; Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan; 10 February 2009;

[12] Hodge, Nathan; A Medal for Canada’s Frontline Donut-Vendors?; Danger Room Blog; N/A; 31 March 2010;

[13] Remtulla, Alim; Fast-Food From The Frontline: T.G.I. Friday's And Tim Hortons In Afghanistan; Forbes; N/A; 30 June 2011;

[14] N/A; Battle of the Baghdad Bulge; The Times; N/A; 13 November 2009;

[15] Adams, William Lee; Pizza Hut Re-Opens in Afghanistan, Soldiers Satisfy Year-Long Pepperoni Cravings; Time Magazine; N/A; 24 February 2011;

[16] Athanasiadis, Iason; No more Burger King on Afghanistan base? Soldiers grumble.; Christian Science Monitor; Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan; 07 April 2010;

[17] Boone, Jon; US commander in Afghanistan bans burger and pizza bars at Kandahar base; The Guardian; Kabul; 25 March 2010;

[18] Rosenberg, Matthew; Afghan Forces Eat Up Return of Fast Food; Wall Street Journal; Kabul; 22 February 2011;

[19] N/A; 'I prefer my 30-year-old Kalashnikov to an M16'; Associated Press; Gardez, Afghanistan; 22 May 2012;

[20] Roggio, Bill and Weiss, Caleb; Video shows Hezbollah Brigades convoy transporting American M1 tank; Long War Journal; N/A; 28 January 2015;

[21] Pocock, Chris; New Twist to U.S. C-27 Saga With Afghan Scrappings; AINonline; N/A; 27 October 2014;

[22] Barnes, Julian E.; U.S. Delays Delivery of F-16 Fighter Planes to Iraq; Wall Street Journal; Washington, DC; 11 November 2014;

[24] N/A; Bush Announces Iraq Exit Strategy: 'We'll Go Through Iran'; The Onion; N/A; 9 March 2005;,1300/

[25] Exum, Andrew; On the Defense Strategic Guidance; CNAS Abu Muqawama Blog; Washington, D.C.; 05JAN2012;

[26] Gray, Colin S.; Modern Strategy; Oxford University Press; Oxford; 1999; pp. 279

About the Author(s)

Tom Ordeman, Jr. is an Oregon-based information security professional, freelance military historian, and former federal contractor. A graduate with Distinction from the University of Aberdeen’s MSc program in Strategic Studies, he holds multiple DoD and industry security certifications. Between 2006 and 2017, he supported training and enterprise risk management requirements for multiple DoD and federal civilian agencies. His research interests include the modern history of the Sultanate of Oman, and the exploits of the Gordon Highlanders during the First World War. His opinions are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of any entity with which he is associated.


Bill C.

Wed, 08/05/2015 - 1:31pm

In reply to by Move Forward


Regarding COIN -- failure or not -- and this, as per Iraq and Afghanistan, the critical issue being addressed by your's truly is:

a. What dominant role our post-Cold War ideas,

b. Of "universal values," "the overwhelming appeal of our way of life," "the end of history" and our goal of "transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western lines,"

b. Played in these matters.

Herein, to find me suggesting that these such post-Cold War ideas (1) played THE dominant role and, thus, (2) address the questions raised by our author in his article above. These questions being:

a. Why a prolonged campaign (i.e., a COIN campaign?) was not planned for? Answer: Such a prolonged campaign was not anticipated. (In this regard, look to the explanation of world-famous author, and similarly world-famous political scientist, Francis Fukuyama above.)

b. Why FM 3-24 diluted or omitted most of the lessons from recent COIN history?Answer: These such lessons were considered to be derived from a totally different, and therefore totally non-representative time in history, that of the colonial period and the Cold War; wherein, thinking as per "the immediate and overwhelming appeal of our way of life," and the goal of "immediately transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western lines" did not hold sway.)

c. Why our soldiers would not be able to follow even their own COIN manuals? Answer: Because, while these such manuals WERE based upon on our such post-Cold War ideas and goals (see overwhelming appeal, immediate transformation just above) this would not be the world that our soldiers would encounter, upon taking the field, in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

As a bottom line question, what everyone would seem to be asking is why COIN did not work as anticipated.

My answer, in sum, is that -- due to our erroneous post-Cold War thinking -- COIN, per se and in fact, never got a chance.

Thus, what has "failed" has not been COIN at all but, rather:

1. Our erroneous post-Cold War ideas and, thus,

2. Our irrational post-Cold War actions based on same.

Move Forward

Tue, 08/04/2015 - 7:21pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C, I’ve found reading many of the links you cite, that they often are outdated or lead to conclusions that differ from the points you strive to make. For starters, note Ronald Reagan’s choice of Democrat Jeanne Kirkpatrick to be UN ambassador from the WSJ article you included…hardly a neocon move, although she later became a Republican:

<blockquote>In 1979, Commentary magazine published an ambitious essay by Georgetown University professor Jeane J. Kirkpatrick entitled, "Dictatorships and Double Standards." The article led Ronald Reagan in 1981 to appoint the Democrat as ambassador to the United Nations. Contrary to Carter administration foreign policy assumptions concerning Nicaragua and Iran, Kirkpatrick argued that democratization is not always the answer to authoritarian regimes -- particularly if they are friendly to the U.S. and laying foundations for freedom and prosperity, while those seeking revolutionary change are communist or Islamic totalitarians.

Although she favored a more activist foreign policy than did traditional conservative realists, Kirkpatrick emphasized that democracy is an achievement. "Decades, if not centuries," she sternly cautioned, "are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits."</blockquote>

If democracies elect leftist leaders as is the current Central and South American trend, both those countries interests and those of our own are threatened. If SF and small footprint actions of the 80s later failed to elect non-socialist governments, then residents there may have perceived U.S. actions to be covert and underhanded versus an overt larger footprint of support. Iraq's primary missing component during our invasion was the immediate creation of new self-rule governments for conflicted parties. After all, if took us centuries to form a successful melting pot, we cannot expect regime change to lead to a melting pot overnight, whereas creation of new boundaries at least separates warring parties.

But beyond that, the following from your February 2008 article illustrates that neocons and President Bush at least eventually learned from their mistakes and had the right motives. Your b. conclusion above cites something called neocon-COIN vs. "established COIN theory" which is questionable since the neocons learned from the 2006 COIN manual (which did not exist during 2003 planning) and employed the Surge enacting some of its precepts under General Petraeus’ leadership.
<blockquote>That said, there is nobility and hard-headed realism in the stand that neoconservatives took in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and in their refusal to run for cover when the going got rough. Certainly more nobility and realism than in, say, Sen. Hillary Clinton's unending evasions and equivocations, or than in Sen. Barack Obama's oft-repeated promise that, should he become president, he will rapidly remove American troops. This promise is routinely reiterated without reference to the consequences for the Iraqi people or for American interests in the region and the world.</blockquote>

Remember, this article was written in early 2008 before Barrack Obama became President and Hillary Clinton Secretary of State. How prophetic was this paragraph considering what happened after the “promised” rapid removal of all American troops from Iraq in 2011?

<blockquote>Neoconservatives faced up to, as few of their critics have, the grave threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the spiraling costs of our containment of his regime. They did not turn a blind eye to the conclusion of all major Western intelligence agencies that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction. They did not dismiss the real danger that Saddam, in a post-9/11 world, would transfer WMD to al Qaeda or other jihadists. They did not look away from Saddam's flagrant violation of international agreements and international law. They did not forget about the tens of thousands, mainly children, who were dying each year because Saddam was stealing Oil-for-Food money to prop up his military machine.

Neoconservatives did not ignore the destabilizing consequences of positioning American forces in Saudi Arabia to protect the Kingdom from Saddam's imperial ambitions. When the reconstruction of Iraq went badly, they did not kid themselves about the probable consequences of premature American withdrawal of troops, including the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in an al Qaeda- and Iran-fueled civil war.

Things are now looking up, thanks to President Bush's steadfastness, Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy, and our extraordinary men and women in uniform. But this hasn't prevented neoconservatives from appreciating the need for the U.S. to make a long-term commitment to achieving stability and decent government in Iraq.</blockquote>

So again, as some question COIN’s and a ground force’s enduring value to promote stability, please remember this article was written just as COIN was starting to stabilize Iraq thanks to the Anbar Awakening and our Surge that demonstrated a commitment to Sunnis. How have we supported the Sunnis in any demonstrable manner since our 2011 complete withdrawal? To blame COIN for what happened after that premature withdrawal and the descent into chaos is unfair, at best. To draw the wrong conclusion’s from this article citing an unknown guy named Fukuyama is equally flawed.

Bill C.

Tue, 08/04/2015 - 6:05pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Rather than developing policy, strategy and counterinsurgency manuals to accommodate an integrating/globalizing world,

Maybe our military and foreign policy elites should be developing policy, strategy and counterinsurgency manuals to deal with a disintegrating/globalization-is-dead world?

World Economic Forum
Annual Meeting 2015
Executive Summary
Davos-Klosters, Switzerland 21-24 January

"New Global Context"

"Complexity, fragility and uncertainty are all challenging progress at global, regional and national levels, potentially ending an era of economic integration and international partnership that began in 1989. What is clear is that we are confronted by profound political, economic, social and, above all, technological transformations. They are altering long-standing assumptions about our prospects, resulting in an entirely “new global context” for future decision-making. This new context requires a greater awareness of the near and long-term implications of the following trends and developments:

– The systemic impact of deepening geopolitical fault-lines, decreasing multilateral cooperation and increasing strategic competition.

– The expected normalization of monetary policy through the reduction of quantitative easing and a future rise in interest rates.

– The continuing erosion of trust in public and private sector institutions, and the deteriorating dialogue between government and business globally.

– The breadth and velocity of scientific and technological advances that are considered inspiring and empowering as well as disruptive and ominous.

– The inability to significantly improve the management and governance of critical global commons, most notably natural resources and cyberspace.

– The ecological, societal and business repercussions of unabated climate change, youth unemployment and income inequality.

– The generational shift from societies sharing common values to those that are primarily interest-driven, and the related rise of sectarianism, populism, nationalism and statism."

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 1:04pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill, the Neocons and the liberals were equally wrong.

The neocons thought we could defeat states to cure population-based problems that were connected back to us by our out dated foreign policies and relationships with the governments over those populations.

The liberals thought that inside every Middle Eastern Muslim was a Americanized Muslim waiting to get out. That we could impose Western concepts of democracy and values onto others against their will, and that they would overlook that initial coercion and cultural inappropriateness and embrace the goodness in time.

Then there is our military, who went in thinking 'war is war' and that once "the threat" was defeated the vision of our neocon/liberal policy makers would take root and flourish. When that failed, we layered on the "population-centric" silliness that promised that bribes of development and effective institutions would cause a population to overlook the fundamental illegitimacy of the offered system imposed and protected by foreign powers.

All of that can be made logical in the context of FM 3-24, because as I stated a while ago, it is a book of tactics derived from colonial and containment operations with little relevance to the security challenges faced by the US today.

Until we get to more accurate understandings of the fundamental nature of insurgency, we will continue to engage where we should stand back, and to fail where we could succeed. But no one flavor of thought owns the failures in these types of situations - it is owned nearly equally by all.

Bill C.

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 12:30pm

So which is correct:

a. The authors (et al's) idea that the Afghan and Iraq Wars were initially planned and executed to avoid a prolonged engagement, and to capitalize upon the same capabilities that proved effective in 1991?


b. My (et al's) idea, which suggests that the Afghan and Iraq Wars were initially planned and executed -- as they were -- because a prolonged engagement was not, in fact, anticipated?

In this regard, consider the following from the Wall Street Journal:

"So what went wrong? The most likely explanation is one advanced by John Hopkins University political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Mesmerized by the rapid collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union, he argued, neoconservative thinking drew a false analogy to the very different cultural circumstances of Arab and Muslim Iraq."

If Fukuyama's (and thus my) argument is correct, then cannot this "Neocons get it wrong" logic -- with significant success -- be applied to explain:

a. Why we would rely on RMA only to initially prosecute our Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns? (Herein, we anticipated only a short "liberation" campaign.)

b. Why we would, when insurgencies did develop, not rely on established COIN theory but, instead, would rely on something that might be called "Neocon COIN theory" to deal with these such insurgencies? And

c. Why we would not be able to follow what might be called the Neocon/"FrankenCOIN" manual and theory (hat tip to thedrosophil here); this because these obviously did not adequately address -- and/or deal with -- the non-Neocon-belief world that our soldiers, and indeed our WOG assets, encountered?


Can the authors contention "to avoid a prolonged engagement" explain any -- or all three -- of these matters; this, as well as Fukuyama (and thus my) explanation above does?

Just a proposal -- a thought:


The uniqueness of the recent moment in history, to wit:

a. One in which we believed that the universal and overwhelming appeal of our way of life, our way of governance, and our values, attitudes and beliefs had prevailed and

b. One in which the United States/the West, based on this belief, determined that it would (1) take advantage of this unique moment in history to (2) expand its power, influence and control into other regions of the world.

Could this explain:

a. Why we would look to RMA only to prosecute the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? (Our thesis: We would not need COIN, as the liberated populations would, due to the overwhelming and universal appeal of our way of life, etc., readily come over to our side.)

b. Why we would largely disregard established COIN theory? (Our reasoning: These theories were developed for and applicable to times in history [colonial period; Cold War] which were very different from our "overwhelming/universal appeal" moment of today.) And

c. Why, once engaged with the enemy, we would largely disregard our own COIN manuals? (Because, while these manuals WERE developed for a "universal/overwhelming appeal" moment in history, this such moment in history turned out to be an illusion; it did not, in fact, exist.)

Bottom line question:

If we had read the world correctly cir. 2000 ("universal values"/"the end of history" is pure BS -- so think more along the "opposed values"/"diverse history" lines of the colonial period and the Cold War),

Then is it (1) likely that we would have been lured into using RMA only to achieve our goals, (2) likely that we would have disregarded established COIN theory to deal with our insurgency problems and (3) likely that we would have developed COIN manuals for conflict environments (universal/overwhelming appeal) that, in fact, did not exist?

(I am sure I have gotten something wrong in this analysis. But might the above thesis help us, in some way, to "answer the mail" here?)

Outlaw 09

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 3:59pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Kind of explains just why we have lost our way--there is no leadership whatsoever or any serious well thought through strategic strategy on anything at the WH level other than simply "it's my legacy".

Seriously?! Head of @DefenseIntel: US learned of Houthi #SCUDlaunch through twitter not early-warning satellites.…

Alarming DOD # intel assessment on #ISIS vs. Iraqi security forces: " in a stalemate..outcome is uncertain at this point"

A serious problem is when social media is faster than the entire US IC which has billions to spend and hundreds of employees and social media drives itself with simply people and no budget.

We are as a country are drifting in ways never seen before.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 08/02/2015 - 2:42pm

To argue the viability of the contents of this manual is to do what we love to do best, be it here on SWJ, or in the halls of the pentagon between our most senior defense officials - argue tactics.

We love to argue tactics.

But we do not lose tactically in these conflicts, we lose strategically.

But strategy is impossibly woven into policy, and the US military has adopted the very odd cultural position that any talk of policy is a third rail that will kill your career. So we accept stupid strategy wrapped in stupid policy; craft infeasible campaigns, and waste our youth and treasure in efforts designed to deny for populations elsewhere the most fundamental rights we demand for ourselves.

This is a cycle we have to break.

Revolutions happen for good reason. Revolution is the rawest form of democracy, and nearly always occur when effective, legal forms of democracy are either denied by a domestic government - or, when some foreign power has taken it upon itself to impose a government of their choosing on some people. We in the US involve ourselves in both in spades. When we then respond tactically to these strategic, policy events we call it, inappropriately, "COIN."

To debate this manual is a meaningless drill in rhetoric. We have lost our way, both in expanding our nation overseas in the early 1900s in an effort to be a "major power" in the waning days of Colonialism; through our efforts to control the periphery in the implementation of a Cold War containment strategy of the Soviets; and now in our response to the attacks of 9/11. Strategy, wrapped in policy, and leading to military efforts very much out of step with the principles our nation was founded upon. But none of this is in the COIN manual. After all, it is a book of tactics.


Fri, 07/31/2015 - 9:21pm

The problem with counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies is clearly individual and organizational biases. I can prove it in the next three minutes, if you continue reading. First allow me to introduce myself.

I’m not a US Marine, I’m not Special Forces, I’m not even a military officer (or a USMC officer), and hell…I’m not even affiliated with John Hopkins University. With this information in mind, Small Wars Journal may just delete this comment, but if they post it you may decide to stop reading right here. See how internal and external biases work?

Curious? Then keep reading. I’m sixty years old, enlisted in 1974 (Vietnam era), was assigned to a Ranger BN (over 7-yrs.), travelled to Central and South American extensively during the late 70s and early 80s (was wounded there), retired after the first Gulf War (1995), finished a BA and MA in psychology, and then acted as a member of a multidisciplinary psychiatric treatment team on secure inpatient psych-wards (5-yrs). Next, I developed training and taught US and coalition forces COIN tactics on the border of Iraq and Kuwait (5-yrs.). During that time I published a book about asymmetric tactical training. The book was eventually reviewed by GEN Mattis, LTG Caslen, and COL Clark who was the director at the COIN Training Center in Kabul (CTC-A). I was told GEN Petraeus asked COL Clark to review the book. A month after that I was working at CTC-A and four months later was the curriculum developer. Since 2006 I have called the Philippines my home, so I have somewhat witnessed the end or near-end of one of the longest insurgencies in history. I am also front row center to over half of the longest conflicts in history since those conflicts are in Asia. I’m still not a US Marine, Special Forces, military officer, or affiliated with a prestigious university. But I try not to be biased and try very hard not to talk out-a-my ass.

Individual biases are internal to a person. They are self-imposed beliefs, self-educed prejudices, and individually reinforced preconceived notions. Individual biases can stop a person in his tracks when the evidence says keep going. Organizational biases are external to the individual, but have much adverse effect on individuals. The best example I can find is the abstract term motivation. The Department of Defense (DoD), in particular the U.S. Army (USA), explains motivation as a purely external phenomena; one that is outside the individual and exclusively applied and controlled by leaders. This is absolutely wrong. Motivation is both internal and external. People can motivate themselves without any help and someone can motivate others. Motivation is both internal and external. US Military organizational knowledge about motivation is biased, and as such incorrect. Now back to COIN and the evidence.

Insurgencies more often than not occur along with terrorism, instability, threat financing, criminal activity, and transnational organized crime. Fact; irregular threats like an insurgency have comorbid characteristics. Typically irregular threats occur simultaneously, but independently of each other. Irregular threats run in a pack and act like carnivorous self-serving wild animals. Irregular threats do not act in a pro-social manner and their activities are not based on rational choices, as hypnotized.

Mitigation and counter efforts therefore have to address the pack, not just one irregular threat at a time, like the insurgency, but all of the adversarial irregular threats simultaneously. Plans and operations; stability and development; safety and security; government and governance; information and operations; and financial management and monitoring are the “big six” areas of concern. Several of these “big six” areas are still lacking. Iraq and Afghanistan are blatant examples of what can go wrong if the “big six” are not addressed correctly and simultaneously. For example, stability and development still do not have a valid theoretical construct, or even a workable operational theory. As a result, an enormous amount of money was wasted by Dept. of State on stability operations (USAID is under the purview of state). To confirm this waste, review the reports from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and the reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Safety and security efforts are still not linked. The armed forces do a good job when it comes to security, but law enforcement entities, tangentially, do their own thing since their efforts are based on a law-enforcement-justice approach. This approach does not recognize irregular threats as being irregular and does not take-into-account the irregular environment. This is another Dept. of State area of responsibility. Government & governance and financial management & monitoring are two more Dept. of State areas of responsibility. Both of these areas of concern do not recognize irregular threats as being hybrid, or asymmetric. Both of these “big six” areas have decided not to embrace, absorb, or even consider the irregular threats operating concept. Biases against the irregular threats concept or biases against the military? Who knows?

While the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan were being dealt with head-on, the rest of the pack were busy chewing on the carcass.

Ok, so there you go. But what do I know…I’m not even an NCO now since I’m retired.

Take care.

Joe C.


Thu, 07/30/2015 - 10:41pm

Interesting article. It may not just be that COIN can't be said to be a failure because its pure form remains untested. Would have been interesting if the article had addressed broader theoretical problems of COIN, such as:
- how to explain how a focus on tactical actions like security and bribes to the population can translate into a strategic effect like regime stability;
- put differently, how to explain that stability may be an emergent effect of the social and political complex adaptive system (that includes COIN forces as an agent acting and being acted upon) instead of a linear, reducible cause and effect relationship between tactical population-centric actions that add up (somehow) to generate a strategic political outcome
- how to deal with problems of attribution between a tactical action translated into an operational/strategic effect in terms of stability; was that action actually cause the change in the system, or is it because a broader, structural change in the rules of the system happened concurrently
- how COIN doctrine is rooted is liberal methodological individualism and micro-economics rational choice that oversimplify how people and power-holders are expected to respond to external stimuli of threats and bribes (development projects, e.g.)
- whether COIN should be population-centric at all, versus the more empirical practice of being power-holder centric in preferring to deal with warlords and leaders than to put any serious thought in wargaming the population;
- is connecting COIN success to democratization a doomed, non starter strategic objective? would it be better instead to define success in terms of the more reasonable "good enough governance" of a viable regime that is the least worse case outcome that a COIN force could reasonably expect to enable (not a mission verb, I know) from the underlying host nation political struggle that gave rise to the internal conflict in the first place?


Thu, 07/30/2015 - 11:38pm

Greywolf wrote:

‘Nicaragua and Afghanistan in the 80s...never mind, we backed the "bad guys" in those conflicts.’

Not sure about the ‘bad guys’ in Nicaragua’ as I only knew a handful but I knew dozens who fought in Afghanistan.

The mission was to remove the Soviet Army from AF and that mission was accomplished.

I see nothing 'bad' about that.

The fact there was mission creep and the Soviet Union was removed from the world of nations as well, surprised me as much as anyone else. Obviously the demise of the USSR was primarily caused by the Soviet people’s disillusion with the communist system but the Muj helped bring matters to a head.

Not a bad for a bunch of ‘bad guys’. What were the ‘good guys’ doing at this time?

More to the point of this article, the Muj were originally a resistance force opposed to the Saurist who overthrew the Shah and sought to impose a manifesto imposing collectivization, atheism and the usual Bolshevik BS.

Many AF would have welcomed back the Shah so it's probably not helpful to consider the Muj as Revolutionaries. The Saurist communists were definitely revolutionaries but they were very much an urban phenomenon and hence the widespread resistance from what is a predominately ultra-conservative rural country.

Obviously when the Soviets invaded the Muj remained a resistance force but gained some infidel friends.

From a strategic POV it is important to understand the Taliban are a post-Soviet force (ditto the Wahhabi Fruitcake - despite what you might have read). The mistake we made in AF was mistake the Talibs and ALQ as an extension, or off-shoot, of the Muj resistance.

They are not.

The Taliban is a Pak Army UW force constructed from tiny boys in the refugee camps in Pakistan beginning around 1984. By the end of 1984 the Pak’s realized the Soviets had no intention of advancing to the Indian Ocean and reversed their support for the Muj Resistance and proceeded to raise a army of highly indoctrinated boys who would do their bidding across the frontier.

ALQ are anti-House of Saud dissidents who took refuge in a destroyed country.

The Talibs are a UW force stood up to stage political warfare against Afghanistan. They had similar characteristics to the Muj but by nature their strategic intent could not be more different. The Muj were intent on liberating the AF population from communists – foreign and domestic. The Taliban’s aim is to tyrannize the AF population and destroy any portion of the populace that resists.

The Costa Nostra understands the difference and kept their poppies out of AF until the Taliban established control across the border and then flooded the place with the world’s largest heroin source. It is a pity the US military intelligentsia did not possess the same discerning ability to understand the Theater of Operations as the Mob.

So what?

Our problems as so chronic that splitting definitions as to the finer points of FM this and Strategic Guidance that cannot help us. Our biggest problem is we produce officers who fail to appreciate the power of the Mark One Eyeball. Whether it be Strategic, Operational or Tactical our Officer Corps have no guile nor penchant for grounded observation. No surprise our orientation is off base and any subsequent outcome is a forgone disaster and no amount of doctrine Redux nor RMA MICkey Mouse can prevent it.

Our opponents – Pak, Iran, KSA, and Russia etc. understand CvC’s first and foremost task and apply a great deal of time and energy determining the nature of the war they are getting into.

Furthermore they have identified our failure to understand this shortcomings and are deep inside our intelligentsia’s OODA loop wherein they busy themselves grinding our tactical, operational and strategic directions and actions into the dust.



Thu, 07/30/2015 - 12:19pm

In reply to by Move Forward

MF: I'm glad that you enjoyed the piece, and your astute discussion points merit some clarifications.

<BLOCKQUOTE>For starters, you appear to be quoting the 2006 FM 3-24 instead of the updated May 2014 version.</BLOCKQUOTE>

The choice to cite the 2006 edition of FM 3-24 reflects two factors. Mostly, it's because the 2006 edition is the one that was official doctrine during the Iraq War and most of the Afghan War. As such, the May 2014 edition is essentially irrelevant to the question of whether "COIN is a proven failure", as argued by LTC Davis last December, because it was the 2006 edition that was allegedly (but not actually, as I attempt to demonstrate in the article) "tried and found wanting", to quote LTG Bolger. Secondary to that, I'm simply more familiar with the 2006 edition; I've perused the 2014 edition, but it didn't seem to be a substantial improvement, as many of the omissions from the 2006 edition remain unresolved in the 2014 revision.

<BLOCKQUOTE>You mention the infamous force ratio quote from the earlier version but no such passage exists in the update. However, in a roundabout manner using quotes from the updated version of that manual, we can derive the need for substantial counterinsurgent forces beyond just SF/SOF or weak host nation forces.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I just about wrote a dissertation on this item alone. I'd be happy to go into greater detail if you'd like, but in a nutshell, I think that the focus on force ratio is myopic. Force ratio is one variable in an overall equation, and because it's quantifiable and fits well into the combined arms maneuver rubric, it receives most of the attention. Equally or more important is what those forces are <I>doing</I> - e.g., the 2003 invasion force could have consisted of a million troops, but that million troops still wouldn't have been "enough" if they were trained, equipped, and directed to conduct combined arms maneuver operations instead of stability operations. It seems that in Iraq prior to the 2011 withdrawal, and in Afghanistan currently, there are or have been imbalances between the "tooth" and "tail" elements that undermine a simple ratio dichotomy. I believe that this complicates the question of what a COIN force's critical mass must be.

<BLOCKQUOTE>The first example, as Grey Wolf points out, reminds us that in both Iraq and Afghanistan there were neither credible security forces nor credible governments in place.</BLOCKQUOTE>

Again, outwith the scope of the article, but worth discussion. I would point you to my <A HREF="… publication here at SWJ</A>, which discusses a legitimate host nation government as a prerequisite for success in modern COIN. I believe that this prerequisite was possible in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but that a variety of opportunities were squandered.

<BLOCKQUOTE>We can complain about the decision to disband the Iraq Army and Baathists but a Sunni force and Baath-retained government could not have secured/ruled Shiites/Kurds any more than the Shiite force secures/rules Sunnis/Kurds today.</BLOCKQUOTE>

Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying this. Recognizing that disbanding the Baath Party and the Iraqi army produced a variety of problems, I have been consistently disappointed by blanket condemnation of these actions without any suggestion of an alternative. Leaving the Iraqi Baath Party intact in its pre-war form was not viable, and neither was leaving the Iraqi army intact. The disbandings were handled poorly, with too little consideration for the secondary and tertiary effects, but the scathing denunciations are overly sententious and simplistic.

<BLOCKQUOTE>In Afghanistan, a largely Northern Alliance force continues to secure Pashtun areas of Afghanistan meaning that to some extent we sabotaged our efforts from the get go:</BLOCKQUOTE>

Agreed. This is one of the reasons why I'm disappointed with what happened to the Human Terrain System, which could have played a role in avoiding this mistake (or at least, avoiding prolonging this mistake).

With respect to the other 2014 FM 3-24 citations, I can only say that I agree with RCJ's characterization of COIN as a "zombie doctrine", though I would call it a "Frankendoctrine". While they're not entirely worthless, both manuals are an amalgamation of supposed best practices, rather than actual treatises on how to effectively characterize, understand, and undercut an insurgency. In the wider attempt to consider what options are available to achieve America's strategic goals, this "COINfusion" is extremely problematic, as it prejudices policy-makers and military advisors against courses of action which they believe they have already tried, but haven't, and which might produce satisfactory results.

Move Forward

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 4:43pm


I really enjoyed your piece but have a number of issues with it. For starters, you appear to be quoting the 2006 FM 3-24 instead of the updated May 2014 version. You mention the infamous force ratio quote from the earlier version but no such passage exists in the update. However, in a roundabout manner using quotes from the updated version of that manual, we can derive the need for substantial counterinsurgent forces beyond just SF/SOF or weak host nation forces. The first example, as Grey Wolf points out, reminds us that in both Iraq and Afghanistan there were neither credible security forces nor credible governments in place.

We can complain about the decision to disband the Iraq Army and Baathists but a Sunni force and Baath-retained government could not have secured/ruled Shiites/Kurds any more than the Shiite force secures/rules Sunnis/Kurds today. In Afghanistan, a largely Northern Alliance force continues to secure Pashtun areas of Afghanistan meaning that to some extent we sabotaged our efforts from the get go:

<blockquote>1-26. U.S. forces should expect that the host-nation government will have its own interests that may not coincide with U.S. national interests. It may not be willing to undertake the political changes necessary to address the root causes of the insurgency. The commitment of U.S. forces may depend upon the degree to which U.S. policy makers consider the affected government to be receptive to assistance, advice, and reform. How Soldiers and Marines are employed will also require a clear determination by national decisionmakers as to what post-conflict commitments by military and civilian organizations will be required. Outside counterinsurgents, however, can never fully compensate for lack of will, incapacity, or counterproductive behavior on the part of the supported government. If a government is unambiguously committed to the defeat of insurgency, it is more likely to defeat it, regardless of the actions (or commitment level) of an outside supporter.</blockquote>

In paragraph 1-26 above, we see the heart of the problem inherent in a weak Iraqi and Afghan government and its own interests that differed from the coalition. Because we did not plan ahead of time to have adequate stability forces and forces able to speed the transition to host nation security forces, it gave the insurgent time to adapt. Leaders we helped facilitate had their own agenda and President Karzai, for instance, continues to interfere with the new leadership just as Iraq’s leader is influenced by Iran and Shiites in the Parliament. The appointment of weak Shiite leadership led by weak civil leaders exemplified the “lack of will, incapacity, or counterproductive behavior” that led to ISIL takeover of much of Iraq and Kurd efforts to take matters into their own hands since we were gone.

Next, we see a passage that further explains why large numbers of external coalition forces were initially required, The lack of adequate initial numbers led to a slow transition and prolonged the conflict:

<blockquote>1-60. The essential unified action partner is the host nation and its own forces. The purpose of counterinsurgency operations, from the viewpoint of the U.S., is to support or enable the host nation to defeat an insurgency. In the worst case situation, this may require the U.S. becoming the primary counterinsurgent or working with groups inside a state to build a legitimate government. However, even in the worst case, the goal is still for the host nation and its forces to defeat an insurgency.</blockquote>

Tom points out that the Shiite-led Iraq Army had the right tools such as tanks and HMMWVs, but those tools and territory largely were abandoned because the Iraq Army and its civil and military leadership lacked the competence and motivation to stand and fight, as exemplified by this quote from FM 3-24:

<blockquote>2-19. The commitment and motivation of a host nation to defeat an insurgency is an important motivation.

Governments with more than one of the following traits have tended to lose historically, even when supported by competent and committed external forces:

Government sponsors or protects unpopular economic and social arrangements or cultural institutions.
Government is involved in corrupt and arbitrary personalistic rule.
Government operates as a kleptocracy.
Government is controlled by elites with perverse incentives to continue conflict.
Government is economically dependent on external actors.

The harsh reality for counterinsurgents is that some of these negative characteristics are usually present, and they are key factors in sparking insurgencies in the first place. As a result, the interests of a host-nation government are often at odds with what the best practices would be to solve its political problems.</blockquote>

So you may be thinking, couldn’t we have just left SF/SOF behind to prevent an ISIL takeover? There is some logic in that as a raiding element which when coupled with airpower (to include attack and lift helicopters) could have reinforced host nation forces from relative sanctuary. However earlier in the conflicts we have these issues that illustrate it isn’t as simple as a few thousand SF/SOF to cover Texas-sized territory:

<blockquote>(last sentence of 6-15) The synchronization of conventional forces and SOF have special considerations in counterinsurgency.

6-16. Conventional forces and SOF depend on each other. SOF lack long term sustainability without conventional support. More importantly, if SOF are conducting direct action missions, it becomes vital that conventional forces and SOF coordinate so that they do not produce negative effects on the operational environment. However, SOF can provide conventional forces with important cultural and advising capabilities. They also provide important offensive capabilities. SOF capable of conducting direct action might be able to conduct raids and gain intelligence that conventional forces cannot.</blockquote>

Conventional forces provide the beans, water, bullets, and gas for SF/SOF. They provide the ground/air movement, MEDEVAC, field hospitals, personnel recovery aircraft, air and ground quick reaction forces, indirect fire, engineer support, signal support, intelligence support, and a host of other requirements that SF/SOF require. In addition, because we are talking Texas-sized territory, some such units must exist throughout the area or they cannot get the job done fast and safely enough on the ground and in the air. You may think, just concentrate on the center of gravity of the insurgent. Is it that simple in a Texas-sized area with 30 million people and many cultures and ethnicities? How do you bring all those small villages or even big cities into the central governments legitimate control and influence? What if outsiders next door have their own agenda?:

<blockquote>7-21. In an insurgency, the population is not necessarily the center of gravity for an insurgent. A center of gravity could be external support from another country, it could be a group of core leadership or believers, or it could be a host of other factors or vital functions. Center of gravity analysis begins with the understanding that every environment is unique, and a center of gravity analysis must not begin with a preconceived center of gravity.

7-22. Counterinsurgents must understand their own center of gravity and that of the host nation. In many cases, political support is the strategic center of gravity for the U.S. Some tactical actions, such as war crimes, can undermine political support for the counterinsurgency. Host nations may also have a wide range of centers of gravity. Operational and tactical leaders must plan and execute operations that do not undermine the host nation’s center of gravity.</blockquote>

This illustrates the difficulty in securing a wide area where each village, valley, district, and province has a unique center of gravity that may differ from that of the central government. The Stockholm Syndrome may result when we rely solely on small U.S. SF/SOF elements that each are going their own way in support of their own locals and they inadvertently end up undermining the host nation’s center of gravity. That somewhat reflects the problem of ALP/VSO elements.

If we accept that for some time period in a large area with a large population that a large conventional COIN force must exist in addition to SF/SOF, how do we determine that size when a 1:20 ratio simply is unrealistic, particularly in a mega-city with 20 million potential insurgents? If some mix of host nation and conventional military and police forces can count toward that total, we still are unlikely to have a million troops in the mega-city alone while trying to also support the countryside and border regions to cut off external support. Remember that Pakistan has 180 million and Iran over 70 million folks making any suggestion of invasion or stability operations in such territories highly unlikely no matter what ground proponents may believe.

But the opposite extreme is to rely on histories of COIN efforts in Central America and a limited area of the Philippines and somehow attempt to translate that to requirements to stabilize larger territories and populations. You can get a general idea of what is required in terms of forces by looking at how many FOBs and COPs you need for a particular area and population:

<blockquote>7-81. Normally, when U.S. forces are the primary counterinsurgents, at least one forward operating base exists in an area of operations. The size of the area, its physical characteristics, and the number and size of the units operating within the area often require additional operating bases. The forward operating bases established by a brigade or battalion are often semipermanent and provide deployed units with command, control, and communications facilities; sustainment; personnel systems support; staging areas; and intelligence activities. They provide units with relatively secure locations from which to plan and prepare for operations. During counterinsurgency operations, they aid in limiting insurgent mobility nearby and in providing some security and contact to the local population.</blockquote>

So you know from the above passage that battalion and brigade level FOBs are required for a given size area dependent on factors of METT-TC. But that can be a large area particularly when aircraft are introduced and road networks with MRAPs/M-ATVS/Strykers-LAVs/other armor are involved. To avoid the perception of commuting to war and being out of touch with the operational environment, General Petraeus and company brought us Joint Security Stations or COPs:

<blockquote>7-83. A combat outpost is a reinforced observation post capable of conducting limited combat operations (FM 3-90-2). In counterinsurgency operations, combat outposts are often company and platoon-sized bases inside of insurgent influenced territory. When U.S. forces are acting as the primary counterinsurgents, combat outposts represent a cornerstone of counterinsurgency operations. Located in strategically important areas, a combat outpost provides security in its immediate area and direct contact with the local population not possible from remote bases. Although this method carries with it potential downsides in terms of increased proportion of forces used for force protection, thus limiting combat power available, combat outposts provide an increase in security for the population.</blockquote>

So multiplying the number of companies and platoons in a given battalion and BCT, you start to understand that light footprints are a myth. If we want to succeed, we must Shape-Clear-Hold-Build-Stabilize which cannot occur over large areas with lots of people with only a few forces. It cannot occur at all exclusively from the air because no stability or transition force exists.

The “Build” aspect may be controversial and costly, but no shortcuts exist that eliminate the need for a larger upfront footprint if we truly are interested in fixing the problem rather than temporarily suppressing it. The “Build” we might substitute is the need to build a coalition consensus upfront on how many forces we need upfront and how we can “Shape” international boundaries to better reflect the need for self-rule and ethnically-based security forces.

Bill M.

Sun, 08/02/2015 - 1:41pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

We're deviating from the topic, but quickly the infantry is the queen of battle and artillery is the king of battle (easy way to remember, the king puts his balls where the queen wants them).

Somewhat nesting your argument with COIN doctrine, how do you prepare soldiers for both types of fights with limited training time? Ken White used to comment about investing more time upfront in a soldier's initial training, instead a few weeks, extend it to almost a year. You may be able to address the full spectrum of conflict in that time period. That doesn't address the myopic view of war that many of our officers have, they seem to be capable of viewing the world through either one or two lens, a conventional fight world or a COINdista world. We have to do both, and we have to find a way to balance our education, training, and organizations to do both.

Regarding comments 2 and 3, it takes time to develop and practice the TTPs needed to counter those threats. It also takes an understanding of the threat that you're trying to counter. That leads to my question, perhaps best answered on the forum, is the NTC starting to develop scenarios based on current Russian doctrine and tactical practices that our forces can train to oppose?

Outlaw 09

Sat, 08/01/2015 - 5:30pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Just a side comment from the daily events in the eastern Ukraine which as a war is showing us a lot of the Russian tactical TTPs.

Right now three things have actually become very apparent;

1. the Russians are showing us that artillery is still the Queen of the battlefield and we cannot match and or come close to anything they are currently fielding especially in their use of thermobaric, cluster munitions, and guided munitions. And they have brought their artillery down to the maneuver Bde/BNs. And I seriously doubt many US units have had the sheer amount of shells rained on them as have the Ukrainian Army--as much as 150 tons of munitions per night.

2. they have made extensive use of their UAVs in artillery fire control and BDA

3. they have used extensive EW and jamming against UAVs and with the AD systems they have deployed together with their attack Bde/BNs they can easily deny air space in ways we have never seen before.

Right now seriously doubt that many AF pilots have flown SEAD in the last say 40 years.

We need to get back to combined arms maneuvering down to the Bns and if need be Companies in a very be hurry.

Bill M.

Sat, 08/01/2015 - 4:49pm

In reply to by thedrosophil

"In essence, the Air Force has been promising, based upon the theories of Douhet and Mitchell, and upon the promise of perfect intelligence provided by increasingly sophisticated C4ISR assets, to virtually remove the spectre or Clausewitz from war. It's a myth that the DoD at large has bought into, and policy-makers have been similarly seduced by the promise of modern Blitzkrieg tactics that will make war cheaper, less dangerous, and quicker."

Don't forget the toxic influence of Warden's five rings, another overly simplistic concept to win wars promoted and supported by "some" in the Air Force. I'm not an advocate of abolishing the Air Force, but it is best time to move beyond the RMA myths. Technology is a critical enabler to execute strategy, but the technology itself is not strategy. Removing CvC's nature of war from strategy is probably a good way to sum it up.

For the most part it is civilian leadership in DOD that promotes investing more in technology, and paying for that investment by downsizing our ground forces. Some, not all, navy and air force officers that support service equities over what is actually needed to win a war will champion these decisions, as will defense based industries. Uniformed leadership, including the outgoing CJCS, Chief of Staff of the Army, and others, have cautioned our civilian leaders about the risk associated with downsizing the force during this period of strategic uncertainty.

I'm accusing anyone of being disloyal or stupid, because budget decisions based on near and longer term risk are always difficult. Where do you assume risk based on your best guess of the most pressing future risks to our national security interests? I am suggesting that if the decision to rapidly cut personnel and invest more in high tech ignored the true nature of war, then this means our leaders may used a faulty calculus in determining where we assume risk.

We need to do a much better at developing strategies (different for different threats and opportunities), instead of simply developing superior technologies (better mouse traps) relative to our adversaries. I think we too often tend to put the cart before the horse. China has this capability, so we need this capability to counter it, but seldom does it tie into how we achieve our ends beyond deterrence. What if deterrence fails? Do we have the right mix to win a war?

To be clear, I'm advocate our investment in defense technology, and I agree that RMA does transform the character of war, but as the nature of war points to, we're opposed by a thinking adversary, and they will seek to develop ways to counter our technology superiority. Superior technology alone does not equate to superior strategy. As we have seen recently in the Ukraine, Syria, and the South China Sea, our adversaries have employed strategies that have largely neutralized our technological superiority. I think we tend to think beyond deterrence, and until recently failed to realize our adversaries can achieve their objectives without relying on our conventional forces (which we can deter). Now what? Strategy anyone?


Sat, 08/01/2015 - 10:50am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill: It's not that I don't understand your point, it's that I don't agree with it.

RMA oversimplifies the challenges of war - as opposed to warfare, which is different - and your oft-repeated theory overcomplicates them. I would recommend that you read the cited portion of Elinor Sloan's Modern Military Strategy, and Robert Farley's Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force, for more information on these concepts. In essence, the Air Force has been promising, based upon the theories of Douhet and Mitchell, and upon the promise of perfect intelligence provided by increasingly sophisticated C4ISR assets, to virtually remove the spectre or Clausewitz from war. It's a myth that the DoD at large has bought into, and policy-makers have been similarly seduced by the promise of modern Blitzkrieg tactics that will make war cheaper, less dangerous, and quicker. If anything, it is anathema to the socially transformative philosophy that you so often decry.

Bill C.

Fri, 07/31/2015 - 6:16pm

In reply to by thedrosophil


Let's look just at Q1 only and I believe you will better see where I am coming from:

Q1: Were the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq planned initially as COIN campaigns?

A1: No. Why not? Your (thedrosophil's) answer: "Because the Gulf War -- and to a lesser degree the opening months of OEF -- gave senior policy-makers an unrealistic confidence in the universal utility of RMA, hence the bolster about "shock and awe" in March of 2003."

This answer simply cannot fly. Why? Because

a. RMA, I believe, relates to such things as taking out contrary/hostile regimes, infrastructure, and military assets. It would seem to have nothing to do with

b. Taking out contrary/hostile populations (i.e. insurgencies).

Given that ALL war planners, past and present, clearly understand that, when contemplating and/or prosecuting wars, both "a" and "b" above MUST be (1) properly accounted for, (2) properly planned against and (3) adequately addressed,

Then only my (population-centric) "universal values"/"end of history" concept --

And not any (regime/infrastructure/military assets-centric) RMA suggestions --

Can adequately explain why our senior policy-makers did not plan Afghanistan and Iraq as COIN campaigns.

Bottom Line: COIN relates to the population-centric aspects of a conflict; thus:

a. RMA -- which relates to the regime change/infrastructure/military assets aspects of a conflict -- logically cannot

b. Address why a population-centric matter -- such as why the prosecution of a war via a COIN campaign was, or was not, undertaken.

Make sense?


Thu, 07/30/2015 - 9:18pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill: Quite simply, I think you're overthinking all of this. Why is the answer to Q1 "no"? Because the Gulf War and to a lesser degree the opening months of OEF gave senior policy-makers an unrealistic confidence in the universal utility of RMA, hence the bolster about "shock and awe" in March of 2003. Why is the answer to Q2 "no"? Because the DoD, and particularly the Army, resisted full incorporation of FM 3-24 because it ran contrary to their preferred style of warfare, which is RMA-enabled combined arms maneuver. Why is the answer to Q3 "no"? That answer is more complex, but I don't agree that it had anything to do with a philosophy of "universal values" or "end of history" thinking - in fact, the DoD attempted, with varying degrees of success, to acknowledge and plan for the profound rift between Western and Islamic values, and I witnessed this effort from both training and operational vantage points. (The degree to which values <I>aren't</I> universal is also overplayed - Muslims have a significantly different basis for their worldview than most Westerners, but they're not the space aliens that some would portray them as.) Such "end of history" thinking was disproportionately influential in the "what do we want to accomplish, and why?" phase, but the article is addressing the "okay, what methods and/or operational rubric do we use to actually accomplish it?" phase. You also seem to ignore that the '06 Surge represented a significant reality check after the wishful thinking and idealism of those initial campaign plans - effectively, an abandonment of the "end of history" mindset of which you're so consistently critical. By 2006 - the beginning of the period in question - such criticism has been almost entirely irrelevant.

Bill C.

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 4:35pm

In reply to by thedrosophil

I get your point. Let me try a different approach, as per your guidance:

Q1: Were the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq planned initially as COIN campaigns?

A1: No. Why not? Because of such things as "universal values" and "end of history" thinking, we thought that the populations, upon liberation (regime decapitation/regime change), would be "with us," rather than "against us."

Q2: Were the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, at any time since 2001 and 2003 respectively, prosecuted in accordance with the established corpus of COIN knowledge/theory?

A2: No. Why not? Because the established corpus of COIN knowledge/theory does not anticipate -- nor does it seek to accommodate -- such things as "universal values" or "end of history" thinking. Thus, the established corpus of COIN knowledge and theory was considered to be out of date/inapplicable/out of touch with current times.

Q3: Does the COIN manual (either 2006 or 2014 edition) actually codify the established corpus of COIN knowledge/theory?

A3: No. Why not? See the answer provided at A2 above. (Herein, for example, to understand how your term "FrankenCOIN" seems to fit, exactly, what we are talking about here, to wit: COIN in the age of -- as seen through the lens of -- such things as "universal values"/"end of history" thinking?)

Thus, to note that -- via my broad, overarching concept -- I do not take issue with the "nos;" rather, I only seek, via this concept (which does seem to have an uncanny ability to address most of the issues raised on this site), to try to explain them.


Thu, 07/30/2015 - 12:30pm

In reply to by Bill C.

I'm not sure how much more clearly I can say this, Bill: your concerns are broadly valid, but in this case they are a distraction from, rather than a clarification of, the argument that the article is trying to make.

It's really very simple. Were the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq planned initially as COIN campaigns? The article argues, "No." Were the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, at any time since 2001 and 2003 respectively, prosecuted in accordance with the established corpus of COIN knowledge/theory? The article argues, "No." Does the COIN manual (either 2006 or 2014 edition) actually codify the established corpus of COIN knowledge/theory? The article argues, "No." Ergo, COIN has not actually been tested in recent campaigns, but rather, the inconsistent application of a sort of "FrankenCOIN" doctrine. If you would like to take issue with any of those "nos", that would be productive. However, I fail to see how yet another devolution into the same concept that you post ad nauseum to virtually ever thread here at SWJ, regardless of their topic or content, is a good use of the commentariat's time.

Bill C.

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 11:33am

In reply to by thedrosophil

Re: "planning," I believe it is exceptionally important to point out matters/thinking that relate:

a. Not to "strategic goals," per se, but, rather,

b. To what our national and military leaders expected the populations to act like (to greet us with flowers) when American combat forces arrived on the scene (as, in these leaders' minds, welcome "liberators").

Minus this critical information -- relating to how we believed the population, both locally and indeed worldwide, would view our such activities -- I believe it would be impossible to either see -- or understand -- how:

a. Activities planned and undertaken to deal quickly, effectively and efficiently with a hostile regime ONLY would

b. Allow one to avoid a prolonged conflict (with, for example, a likewise hostile population).

Thus, as per my suggestions above:

a. Only the belief that the population was waiting -- with bated breath -- to become liberated by us and, thereby, to begin immediate transformation more along modern western political, economic and social lines;

b. Only this allows one to understand how we expected to (1) avoid a prolonged conflict while (2) only taking out the regime.

Thus, to view these matters not as per strategy -- but, rather, as per planning -- and the erroneous "universal values"/"end of history" worldview upon which our then-foreign policy, and indeed our then-combat operations, were to be based.

(As a proper worldview and, thus, a proper basis for one's foreign policy and combat operations planning, to consider my item re: De Lanessan below?)


Wed, 07/29/2015 - 7:17pm

In reply to by Bill C.

<BLOCKQUOTE>Re: "planning" for these major conflicts, the above quote, I believe, sends us in the wrong direction.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I'm sorry, Bill, but no. This article is about methodology - ways - rather than the outcome sought - ends. The observation about the Afghan and Iraq Wars being planned as a repeat of Desert Storm is quite obviously about operational methods, not strategic goals, as is literally the entire article. I won't go so far as to say that your oft-repeated proprietary soliloquy is entirely irrelevant, but it is irrelevant to the discussion that this article is attempting to address. In no way does the article's phrasing "send us in the wrong direction".

Bill C.

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 5:37pm

In reply to by acraw


"In every country there are existing frameworks. The great mistake for European people, coming there as a conqueror, is to destroy these frameworks. Bereft of its armature, the country falls into anarchy. One must govern with the mandarin and not against the mandarin."

—De Lanessan

One might surmise, from this quote, that:

a. De Lanessan appears to argue strenuously against regime decapitation/regime change. He suggests, instead, working with the existing regime. If one absolutely must do regime decapitation/regime change, then

b. De Lanessan appears to argue strenuously against, at this initial juncture, attempting to transform the state and society more along foreign, alien and often profane political, economic and social lines.

If, however, you are one of those nations/civilizations who believe, for example, in "world revolutions." And believe, accordingly, that your purpose in life -- your raison d'etre -- is to advance your version of same (America/the West fitting both of these bills?),

Then it is nearly impossible for you to separate, even for a moment:

a. Your raison d'etre from

b. Your immediate "conquest and pacify" job at hand.

If, of course, you believe (let's use the communist "world revolution" folks this time for our example) that:

a. No matter what distinctly different individual is before you (Christian, capitalist, Hindu, etc.) there is, just under the surface of this person's skin,

b. A Communist trying to get out.

Then one can understand just how difficult it must be for one's national and military leaders to not only rely upon, but indeed base, their invasion "planning" exactly on these "everyone wants to be life us" beliefs. (Much as the United States did, re: Iraq and Afghanistan, and based on our "world revolution" concepts?)

De Lanessan, it would seem, cautions against succumbing to these type desires, drives and instincts; suggesting, instead, that:

a. "World revolution" thinking is a bunch of baloney. And that, accordingly,

b. One must plan be meet in battle -- not only hostile regimes -- but also hostile populations; people who, in truth, want nothing to do, at all, with your way of life, way of governance and/or values, attitudes and beliefs.

("Cold water," indeed, for all "world revolution"-thinking folks.)

Thus, might we say, and as per De Lanessan's thinking and guidance above (if I have indeed captured this right), that one must achieve one's goals (conversion/transformation) -- re: these hostile populations -- in a more indirect, realistic and surreptitious manner.

For example:

a. By working more "by, with and through" an existing regime. And, if this is not possible, then:

b. By working more "by, with and through" a newly-installed regime; in both cases,

c. These regimes (1) working within the existing/traditional political, economic and social system/structure to (2) achieve -- over time -- the changes desired by the foreign power?

("a" - "c" immediately above being what future COIN looks like?)

Herein, "conversion"/"transformation" ultimately not being an impossible task, but just one which requires a much longer and more entailed process; one based on the reality of hostile populations -- who must be convinced over time -- to move our way. (Rather than on such erroneous/irrational/unrealistic beliefs that everyone, everywhere, wants to -- and can -- be [1] exactly like you and [2] right this very second.)


Wed, 07/29/2015 - 2:42pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C,

There's a degree of justice in your points.

This written, COIN, as laid out in the 'official' manual, overly relied on good faith participation from other U.S. Federal entities outside the DoD, as well as International Institutions, engaging as "good faith' participants, which never remotely materialized, and in hindsight shouldn't have been assumed by the DoD in the first place. Having been one of those who warned over and over again that aside from bad faith international partners, it was crazy to take the DoS and USAID and etc.'s "development" claims seriously, let alone base a third of our overall strategy on non-DoD or local entities actually producing the deliverables as ordered.

The problem was that there was (is?) no simple way for planners and Officers within the DoD to politely call the U.S. Diplomatic Corps and Development/NGO community, thieves and liars. In hindsight, the U.S. military command should have had blanket overall authority over ALL non-locals in the theatre, including the spooks and diplomats and NGO's and even journalists. But especially over all financial transactions and institutions offering financial services. It's not clear to me that this is even politically possible today, as it was during the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after WWII.

In Afghanistan, it was initially a NATO mission, so it's difficult for me to imagine all the NATO member Nations bankers and politicians and etc. falling into line with an overall military command having a say in their various business dealings. Frankly, the DoD hasn't, in recent times, even demonstrated an ability to reign in the DoS or CIA… so the notion of accomplishing THAT, as well as demanding something like quality control over civilian charities, doesn't seem realistic. If the lesson learned was that the U.S. DoD is unwilling to commit the politics capital needed to control the area of conflict in all respects, then the rest of COIN's assumptions rest on that flaw, or failing, and probably aren't worth considering.

As I'm not an expert on the military aspects of the COIN doctrine, I can't judge. But writing from exhaustive experience in the NON-millitary aspects involved, I'd repeat now what I've written previously… unless vigorously and obtrusively supervised, the civilian contribution needed for the COIN concept to work, will act in Bad Faith in the majority of situations, and leave the DoD holding the bag.


A. Scott Crawford

"Planning for both the Afghan and Iraq Wars was informed in large part by the misinterpretation of two recent wars: the Vietnam War, and the 1991 Gulf War."

Re: "planning" for these major conflicts, the above quote, I believe, sends us in the wrong direction.

In the place of the quote above, consider the following:

Planning for both the Afghan and Iraq Wars was informed, in large part, by our erroneous post-Cold War beliefs; beliefs which suggested that populations, liberated from their oppressive regimes would, quickly, easily and mostly own:

a. Throw off their old ways of life, old ways of governance, old values, attitudes and beliefs, etc. and

b. Adopt, in the place of these, modern western ways of life, ways of governance, etc.

This such belief suggested that "counter-insurgents," if encountered at all post-our "liberation" activities, would only be a very few "dead-enders" (who were going to be highly unpopular with the liberated populations striving for immediate "modernization" more along modern western political, economic and social lines).

Now the stage is set, I suggest, for the highly unexpected (except by folks like GEN Shinseki) events that would follow in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From the author above:

"Thus, both the Afghan and Iraq Wars were initially planned and executed to avoid a prolonged engagement, and to capitalize upon the same capabilities that proved effective in 1991."

This, as I have suggested above, misses the point.

The reason why we believed a "prolonged engagement" could be avoided is because of our erroneous post-Cold War beliefs; beliefs which suggested that:

a. While the regimes were our enemy.

b. The populations were our friend.

When you make a mistake like this, then you cannot, quite obviously, (1) avoid a prolonged engagement by (2) simply doing beautifully surgical, and amazingly quick, regime decapitation/regime change.


Fri, 07/31/2015 - 6:10am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw: I'm not sure Mexico is a good illustration of this point. To the best of my knowledge, the "insurgency" in Mexico isn't aimed at overthrowing an unpopular government, it's aimed at continuing organized crime operations. I'm of the mind that this distinction moves Mexico outside the scope of conversations about COIN in the vein of guerrilla and/or terrorist insurgencies aimed at overthrowing sitting governments. Obviously some overlap, though.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 4:57pm

In reply to by thedrosophil

But are they all actually examples of a truly successful COIN as all are still to a degree and in some cases large degree having violence levels that would reflect they were not successful to include currently Columba.

If we define COIN doctrinally the way we have-- success equals no violence and the government in complete control ---I would challenge that all these are in fact examples of a not successful HN COIN campaign.

Why--- we have not defined international drug cartels in the same breath as an insurgency in our doctrine.

All three of these examples are deep in the drug trade with all of it side affects and destabilization which has to a degree "replaced" the original "insurgencies".

And are we as a military in the counter drug business or is it a police problem?

So in affect is our current doctrine even fitting an ever changing reality?

Good example is Mexico--can COIN ever be applied to Mexico--not really as the problem is now so systemic that COIN would never work.


Wed, 07/29/2015 - 1:19pm

In reply to by thedrosophil

In addition there was Croatia 92-95.

Nicaragua and Afghanistan in the 80s...never mind, we backed the "bad guys" in those conflicts.


Wed, 07/29/2015 - 1:00pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw: On the American side, I'd point you toward El Salvador, Colombia, and the Philippines. There are probably a handful of additional examples. Most people focus on Vietnam, which is its own animal. The British have traditionally been better at small wars than the Americans, though these skills have atrophied in recent years.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 12:52pm

In reply to by Greywolf

Am open to any name of those that were even HN led successful--again outside of the US Marine Small Wars of the 1890s thru to about the mid 1920s.

Which BTW if one really does analyze the Marine Small Wars of that period were actually using all the elements that you wrote about, but some would argue they were in support of an expansionistic US foreign policy for that period.

So again need a name and or names of successfully led HN COIN operations.


Wed, 07/29/2015 - 12:25pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

The U.S. has supported many successful COIN engagements where the HN was the lead counterinsurgent, but none where we deployed tens of thousands of troops and in essence were the main COIN force.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 12:01pm

After reading all the quoted current FMs, references to the various doctrines can anyone point me to a US successfully completed COIN engagement since say 1890s to 1920s when the US Marines were being employed in Small Wars globally??

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 10:48am


Dave Maxwell

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 11:17am

In reply to by Greywolf

My apologies Greywolf. Most of us are students of unconventional warfare, insurgency, irregular warfare, and small wars. I have yet to meet anyone who knows everything about insurgency and would refuse to consult with a premier resource on revolution, resistance and insurgency.

Here is the text of a slide from one of my lectures. Although it is focused on unconventional warfare, the same goes for those who study and try to practice advising on counterinsurgency.

Assessing Revolution and Insurgent Strategy Project

Do you have it, have you read it?

Casebook on Insurgency and Revolutionary Warfare: 23 Summary Accounts

Casebook on Insurgency and Revolutionary Warfare, Volume II 1962 - 2009.

Human Factors Considerations of Underground in Insurgencies, 2d Edition, 2013,

Undergrounds in Insurgent, Revolutionary and Resistance Warfare, 2d Edition, 2013,

Any UW planner or strategist must
Without this foundation you cannot be a UW practitioner


Wed, 07/29/2015 - 11:03am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

I am an Army Intelligence officer with decades of experience who has served in both OIF and OEF. Trust me, I have studied insurgencies.

Robert, I'm still not sure what your objection is to my comment, nor have you proposed a better doctrinal method.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 10:52am

In reply to by Greywolf

Greywolf. I recommend that if you want to study more about insurgency other than the two chapters in 3-24 that you consult with the Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies project at this link: or at this one:… Pay particular attention to the Undergrounds in Insurgencies and the Human Factors studies in addition to the 46 case studies.


Wed, 07/29/2015 - 10:38am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"we could have suppressed the symptoms more completely, but that is no cure to the insurgency beneath."

Did I say we need to suppress the symptoms and not address the root causes of insurgency? No. Those units that achieved COIN success addressed the underlying factors fueling the insurgency.

U.S. doctrine "lacks any soul of understanding of the nature of insurgency itself."

FM 3-24 contains 2 chapters on insurgency, but I would agree that more needs to be written. Good commanders, however, study the threat, the operating environment, history, as well as proven COIN methods, and take all into consideration when developing a strategy. Yes, there are plenty of commanders who failed to understand the threat, but many more did, and many achieved success.

Robert, previously you stated "US doctrine would be much improved, IMO, if in the context of this construct we recognize that COIN is a domestic operation."

I think that is exactly what I was pointing out.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 10:04am

In reply to by Greywolf

I am sorry, I could not disagree more with this position.

US policy created an impossible mission, to which any military solution would prove infeasible in ways unique to the approach applied. Sure, we could have suppressed the symptoms more completely, but that is no cure to the insurgency beneath.

US COIN doctrine is a "zombie doctrine" as it is a collage of effective tactics employed historically by outside forces to help some partner suppress the symptoms of insurgency, but lacks any soul of understanding of the nature of insurgency itself.

The Rand study defined success as the insurgent defeated and the government uncoerced. That is not victory, that is suppression. True victory in resolving insurgency demands evolution of governance to some degree to remove the strategic energy from the population the insurgent draws upon.

We draw comfort from stating irrelevant facts to rationalize our failures - we would be better served by seeking to appreciate the strategic reasons for our failures.


Wed, 07/29/2015 - 9:32am

FID only works if a competent HN government and military exists. Our mission in OIF and OEF was to crush the HN govt and military, build a new one, then get the hell out. When we finally acknowledged that our actions (debathification, disbanding the Iraqi army, etc.) unwittingly created an insurgency, the best COA was to conduct COIN.

U.S. COIN doctrine works, if it is actually applied broadly and over time. Many examples of COIN success exist in both OIf and OEF. The biggest problem as I see it is that the HN government never assumed the lead counterinsurgent role in either theater. FM 3-24 (2006 version) says:

"U.S. forces committed to a COIN effort are there to assist a HN government...the host nation has to win on its own...HN elements must accept responsibilities to achieve real victory"

The Rand study "Victory Has a Thousand Fathers" also noted that in every successful COIN effort over the last 50 years "The government/state was competent". In COIN efforts that failed "The primary COIN force was an external occupier."

Not only were/are the governments of Iraq/Afghanistan incompetent, but they often intentionally worked against coalition objectives.

Bottom Line: U.S. COIN doctrine is solid, but mistakes by both the U.S. led coalition and our HN partners doomed it to failure.


Thu, 07/30/2015 - 1:01pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

RCJ: I'm largely in agreement with much of what you've had to say in this thread, but I would take issue with a couple of items.

<BLOCKQUOTE>As we are seeing in the Middle East over the past 20 years that occupation need not even be a physical one to create this resistance effect. AQ has been very successful in waging a distributed and networked approach to UW across the region by tapping into the resistance energy created primarily by the impact of US foreign policy on the region. Occupation by Policy, if you will.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I think your comments oversimplify the situation in the Middle East. It's become very popular in many circles in the West to see the current state of affairs in the Islamic world as a pure manifestation of anxiety or anger at American foreign policy in the region. The fiasco in Iraq from 2003 to roughly 2008, and now with DAESH, is portrayed as a reaction to American imperialism, rather than a proxy war between the Saudis and Iranians for which America, through inadequate battle space management, provided the venue. The same goes for Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen... Iran, for example, is a dictatorship, and a dictatorship always relies upon an inflated bogeyman to maintain its legitimacy. Iranian propaganda still excoriates America and Britain for deposing Mossadegh; Ayatollah Khomeini was able to seize power by decrying the excesses of the Shah, and when the Shah died, Khomeini's bogeyman became America and Israel while he erected a regime that made the Shah seem progressive by comparison.

<BLOCKQUOTE>Playing these types of word games with ourselves to rationalize our behavior is extremely counterproductive to achieving our desired strategic effect.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I actually think that these "word games" are very important, because they help the key actors (or, in our case, a community of interest that may or may not have influence) to define the problems and search for solutions. That requires precision. It may very well be that occupation and assistance/influence produce similar results, but conflating the two merely confuses these important issues. I once again defer to my favorite case study, Dhofar. Did the British MoD provide assistance and exercise influence in Dhofar specifically and Oman generally? Absolutely. Did the United Kingdom occupy Dhofar? I think one would be hard pressed to demonstrate as much.

<BLOCKQUOTE>We cannot define our way out of our poor success in these types of situations, but we can seek to improve our understanding of the nature of these types of conflict (again, NOT in the US COIN doctrine), and design better whole of government approaches for peace that in turn create better conditions for success if things ever do go violent and lead to a physical application of US military power to shape in some way.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I would turn this back around on you: how can we effectively improve our understanding of the nature of these types of conflict if we do not properly define our terminology to a very granular level? For example, exerting influence, cooperating with unpopular national governments, or merely having Americans present in the Middle East at all is fundamentally different than "occupation".

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 1:32pm

In reply to by thedrosophil

Foreign civilian populations impacted by US support to the COIN efforts of some government who we are either protecting and enabling to ignore the complaints of some segment of their society; or have created and are protecting from some segment of their society most likely do not read, nor much care about how we have defined "occupation" to not include what we are doing.

Playing these types of word games with ourselves to rationalize our behavior is extremely counterproductive to achieving our desired strategic effect.

What we are talking about here is human nature, and how people in general feel and respond to certain types of foreign activities that impact the governance of their day to day lives. Add onto that human nature foundation an overlay of the human culture of the specific populations affected to get a more refined position.

The nature of occupation drives the nature of resistance to the same, and that is in our human DNA. As we are seeing in the Middle East over the past 20 years that occupation need not even be a physical one to create this resistance effect. AQ has been very successful in waging a distributed and networked approach to UW across the region by tapping into the resistance energy created primarily by the impact of US foreign policy on the region. Occupation by Policy, if you will.

We cannot define our way out of our poor success in these types of situations, but we can seek to improve our understanding of the nature of these types of conflict (again, NOT in the US COIN doctrine), and design better whole of government approaches for peace that in turn create better conditions for success if things ever do go violent and lead to a physical application of US military power to shape in some way.


Wed, 07/29/2015 - 12:55pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Gentlemen: I fail to see how this line of discussion, while enlightening, is relevant to the article. The article's thesis, in essence, is that America's COIN doctrine is not representative of accepted COIN theory (which has been successful in some cases); nor were either employed in Afghanistan or Iraq; ergo, COIN remains untested, rather than having been proven as a success or failure. Whether or not a "FID approach" is an alternative to COIN is not what is in question here, or else the article would be entitled "Evaluating FID as a Possible Alternative to COIN". (Conversely, I tend to think of FID as one tool in the wider toolkit that can be applied to COIN, or conventional warfare, or all sorts of other contingencies, but that's another matter for another discussion.)

I would also challenge Colonel Maxwell's notion that "a 'foreign counterinsurgent' is in reality an occupying force". The word "occupation" has a meaning: it constitutes the seizure of a piece of real estate and the imposition of foreign rule as administered by the seizing party's military forces. (Typically, this is carried out by one nation against another, but I suspect we'd agree that, technically, a national military could "occupy" a subordinate region within its own territory, e.g., Operation Banner.) America has sent "foreign counterinsurgents" to a variety of nations which it did not, in fact, occupy - the Philippines, Colombia, El Salvador, and Mali, to name but a few. I am of the mind that such imprecise descriptions are unhelpful in discussions such as these.


Wed, 07/29/2015 - 11:45am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Dave, Thanks for the links

My main beef with many who criticize U.S. COIN doctrine as ineffective is that they blame strategic failure on poor doctrine, yet don't understand how the doctrine was actually applied.

Additionally, critics often offer little in the way of practical solutions.

We should remember that Field Manuals are written for the tactical and operational level commander and staff. Military commanders do not pick and choose where their unit deploys, or under what conditions, and have almost no influence over strategic/political decisions that ultimately impact the operational mission.

I can (and do) nit pick specific passages from doctrine, but strategic failure in OIF and OEF has almost no connection to our COIN doctrine since the essence of the doctrine was never widely employed in good faith.

Bill M.

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 1:43am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

You know as well as I do that when you are no longer constrained you are no longer an active player in the arena. You were in numerous key leadership positions in SOF throughout your active duty career, and no doubt I'm sure there were times you wished you were unconstrained to conduct operations as you saw fit. However, the world being what the world is will always prevent that. Anytime theory or doctrine meets the real world, there is normally so much friction that neither the theory nor doctrine can be executed as envisioned by the authors who developed it in a doctrine or academic facility. This is true even when the authors had a wealth of personal experience. How many of our present day plans are mere shadows of what they were intended to be due to the numerous constraints put on them?

Neither OIF nor OEF-A were FID missions until very recently. They started off as wars where the object was to change the regimes in both countries. Then these missions devolved into complex stability operations, where at first we were the defacto occupying power, which has legal implications in accordance with international law. Responsibilities we side stepped by rushing to establish illegitimate proxy governments. When we attempted to prompt those governments up through major economic investment and doing most of their fighting (the people their were not going to fight for illegitimate governments, a condition ISIL exploited after we left), some called this FID, but that seems like a stretch to me. I think the broader mission, stability operations is more accurate. It certainly had FID like features, but our mission was not FID. It was to destroy designated adversaries, and then build a city on a hill that would protect and forward our interests. In neither case the locals did not have our interests in their hearts. Furthermore, the COIN argument is also somewhat flawed. Iraq involved not only insurgencies (and not just one) against the central government, but also civil wars between various ethnic groups, and the impact of transnational terrorists riding the negative waves of both the insurgencies and civil wars.

There were no doctrinal answers, but obviously when we violated certain principles regarding our relationship with the local populace we made the situation worse. We can call the change in our approach population centric COIN, but more accurately we applied commonsense. I am not entirely convinced we were put into an unwinnable situation, but that is a reasonable assertion. One thing is clear, we didn't have a viable strategy to achieve the grand ends given, and we didn't adjust the ends nor the ways and means, so we continued to flounder. We only adjusted the strategy in Iraq to ward off a pending defeat. Sad that is what it takes to make us take a hard look at our strategy. One would hope we would be more honest with ourselves and self correct. COIN doctrine is what it is, it isn't terrible and it isn't great, but it irrelevant if there isn't a viable overarching strategy.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 8:22pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Being "unconstrained" is indeed a liberating thing.

First bullet on the slides presenting our new Strategic Appreciation is that it is "unconstrained and not directive." Second bullet is that it is the strategic environment to the best of our understanding and that the purpose of the document is to provide a lens, or context through which to view situations, decisions, missions through.

Third bullet, however, is that the strategy that follows is completely constrained and may only direct 20% of the course direction implied by the Appreciation.

A huge problem in our community is that we bureaucratize, homogenize, and politically correct size our understanding. That certainly was the case in both versions of our post 9/11 COIN doctrine.

Keep swinging that pipe.

Geoffrey Demarest

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 3:17pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Professor Criminal, I just came across an old Lenin quote you’ll like -- “Are we to proceed from things to sensations and thought, or are we to proceed from thought and sensation to things?” I never did quite understand the interaction of deduction and induction myself, and so I’d be the last to answer Vlad’s question there. I am, perhaps as you are, drawn to Tom’s article because of visceral doubts about COIN’s influence (as theory) on what our military did for a decade, not to mention doubts about what we did for a decade. Tom’s article does what Spanish-speakers call ‘putting one's finger in the scar’. I bet I’ve read as much as you or Tom have on the subject of insurgency, but have forgotten twice as much of it as either of you have. I can’t claim that the reading of cases has lead me to understand the theories of insurgency and counterinsurgency any more than the theoretical writings have led me to understand the cases. This is not to say it is not good to do both, of course it is. That said, I don’t much care for the ARIS case study on Colombia, which is among the few cases about which I feel confident to opine. My dislike for that case study, to include the theoretical assumptions on which it seems to be built, makes me wonder about the value of the other histories. Not a big deal, mind you, just worrisome is all, a worry about the real caliber of the theoretical influences, presented as historical fact. So, anyway, I never liked COIN, as you are aware, and for a slew of reasons. To summarize: I don’t believe there is a whole lot of historical support for the notion that an Army using a highly population-centric approach is especially likely to win against a determined insurgent; I don’t think we applied the best techniques and priorities of effort for a population-centric approach even to the extent such an approach is appropriate; and I don’t feel as a matter of political philosophy that our Army has much business building the structure or content of society at all. I do think, nevertheless (and, therefore, bless you, Professor), that we should build our UW and counter-UW theory, capacity and skill. I doubt that should include letting leftover bits and pieces of discredited COIN-think insinuate themselves into the theory intended to support the healthy growth of American SOF generally. Just say no to the zombies of COIN.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 11:06am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Yes Bob, I am a criminal these days. I have the escort required badge at all conferences. Hell, I could not even get into my old HQ today as I was visiting Seoul for a conference this week. But I can begin all my lectures with the caveat that I am unconstrained by doctrine, I am unconstrained by funding, and I am unconstrained by a chain of command.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 10:48am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

"Access Denied" by the USSOCOM security Nazis. Apparently Dave, you are a very suspicious character and not to be trusted... (I'll check the link when I get home. Cheers!)

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 9:28am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Yes, Bob that is a very important relationship. Here is a link to my blog where I posted one of my charts from one of my counter-UW lectures that I think Illustrates the relationship you are talking about. Since I cannot figure out who to post a graphic here in the comments please go to this link: