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March 31, 2009

The Trouble with Counter-Insurgency
Posted by Michael Cohen

As I've written here before, I'm not much of a fan of counter-insurgency doctrine and two events over the past several days lend compelling evidence as to why. Quite simply, it's the politics, stupid.

First comes word from Baghdad of an outbreak of fighting between US-supported Sunni "Awakening" fighters and the Iraqi government. According to Brian Katulis, "This weekend’s incident was the first crack in a shaky foundation constructed by the 2007 surge of U.S. troops—a foundation that largely glossed over long-standing political rivalries."  This is not meant to criticize the "surge" but simply it is a recognition that for a counter-insurgency effort to succeed it requires not only a significant number of troops, it needs a long-standing time commitment to ensure that this type of violence doesn't turn into a larger conflict. And it also relies on genuine political reconciliation, which can of course take generations.

Next we have President Obama's recent announcement of his Administration's new policy for Afghanistan, which Fred Kaplan calls "CT-plus." The focus on counter-terrorism versus the broad counter-insurgency strategy advocated by the so-called COIN-dinastas is as Kaplan argues a reflection that following the latter course "could require too many troops, too much money, and way too much time—more of all three than the United States and NATO could muster—and that the insurgents might still win anyway. Better to focus U.S. efforts more narrowly on simply fighting the insurgents themselves, especially in the border areas with Pakistan."

Now I could offer you plenty of reasons why I think a counter-insurgency doctrine is a bad idea; it doesn't fit with the comparative advantage of the US military; its not applicable to the threats America will face in the future; its an example of fighting the last war and as Andrew Bacevich brilliantly and pithily puts it, "If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?"

But let me offer another reason why counter-insurgency is the wrong approach; and its one borne out by  the experience in Iraq and now Afghanistan - there is simply no domestic political support for the sort of long-standing political, military and financial commitments that are required for counter-insurgency to succeed. There wasn't that type of commitment in 2003 (and I'll get to that issue in a second) but after 7 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is absolutely no desire among policymakers to go down this road today.

One of the architects of the military's COIN strategy in Iraq, David Kilcullen, argues that counter-insurgency in Afghanistan means a five to ten year commitment aimed at “building a resilient Afghan state and civil society" and extending “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.” That is the sort of commitment that very few US politicians are going to be willing to countenance. So not only are the COIN-dinastas preparing for war that we are unlikely to face, but they are preparing for one that the country is unlikely to be willing to fight.

It's worth remembering that the adoption of COIN strategy in Iraq was not a willful choice by US policymakers; it was a move of desperation by an Administration and a military caught flat-footed by a vibrant insurgency in Iraq. Indeed, it is worth also remembering that the Bush Administration assiduously avoided any discussion of a long commitment to Iraq and aggressively pushed back on anyone who asserted that more not less troops would be needed to pacify the country. The reason was clear: the American people and Congress would never have gone along with such a commitment. 

Counter-insurgency only made sense as a strategy once, to paraphrase Bacevich, we had dug a very big hole in Iraq. And as we are seeing in Iraq right now, the surge has been only temporarily effective. We are still in that hole and even with the outbreak in violence one is hard pressed to find any US political leaders calling for more troops to be sent to Iraq. What happens in Iraq, going forward, will be determined by Iraqis, which by the way is the other flaw in COIN strategy - it presupposes a sovereign government is willing to go along with the long-term stationing of US troops in their country. Even if US troops wanted to stay in Iraq, the Iraqi government is not going to go along . . no matter what Tom Ricks says. (This is not to mention the fact that it's hard to see why it is in the national interest for the US to get in the middle of a civil war between rival Iraqi militias).

With that in mind, it should hardly be surprising that the Obama Administration rejected the COIN approach. And while there are elements of counter-insurgency strategy in the President's Afghanistan plan this is primarily a counter-terrorism effort.  Let's put it this way, if Afghan security services are up to speed in two years and Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been sufficiently degraded the United States will not be sticking around to make sure Afghanistan's democracy is vibrant and robust. We're just going to go home. If you don't believe me; ask the Iraqis.

The choice made by President Obama represents the fundamental flaw being made by COIN-advocates. It's a fundamental flaw made also by supporters of bank nationalization; or those who would push for a single-payer health bill - a failure to reflect domestic political constraints. If the Obama Administration can't convince the American people to go along with a broad counter-insurgency strategy (and won't even try) in a country where we already have troops and where the 9/11 attacks were hatched what makes people think that this or any other Administration will be able to convince Americans that they should go along with a COIN-strategy in a country we haven't even invaded and occupied yet? And a military strategy that has no relation to domestic politics isn't going to be of much use.

Now I realize my example is sort of a straw man, but then not really. The fact is, COIN-strategy is a presupposed on the notion that the US will be getting into intractable conflicts that will necessitate the same sort of tactics used in Iraq over the past 5 years. As an observer of the American political scene, something tells me that simply ain't going to happen.  What has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past week is only further evidence that COIN is simply not a realistic or easily applicable military doctrine.


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If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes?

Ah, such CW Newspeak, with verbage such as--
. . .counter-terrorism versus the broad counter-insurgency strategy advocated by the so-called COIN-dinastas

It shows that the writer is really on top of things. But does it? Actually, the use of proper English, with recognized meanings, would be much more useful.

First, the US invaded Iraq and overthrew the government, and so the US forces were (and are) the insurgents.

Iraqis resisted the invasion and the ensuing military occupation, so they are the counter-insurgents.

COIN strategy is really building a new government to replace the one the US insurgents overthrew and defending it against the counter-insurgents.

And so on, with any discussion on the subject making a whole lot more sense if proper English rather than incorrect military jargon were used.

Do any of these "COIN-dinastas" (or COIN-danistas) have names?

Counterinsurgency doctrine, as developed by the military officers who have applied in in Iraq for the last two years, represents more than a response to the failed approach by the ground combat forces to the war in that country before 2007. It represents as well a rebellion against a peacetime military leadership that refused for years to change its assumptions about the kind of war we should prepare to fight in light of the war we actually were fighting. This is a valuable thing in itself; one may doubt whether the military leadership that made such a hash of the invasion and occupation of Iraq would have done much better fighting a different kind of war, if that war lasted more than a few weeks.

As to counterinsurgency's universal application, this is indeed a straw man. However, it would be unfortunate if everything learned in the surge period were forgotten within the military. After all, most of counterinsurgency doctrine is not new; had it been applied in 2003 rather than in 2007, we might not need still to be discussing an interminable American commitment in Iraq.

In the bigger picture the surge will ultimately proved to be a futile effort if there is no political settlement. I personally believed that if the US got out sooner that would have forced the political factions in Iraq to negotiate a settlement. Instead the Americans have made the situation worse during the surge period by arming both Sunni and Shiite militia groups. Without a political settlement either one of these groups could turn on the Americans or if the US withdraws on each either. As I have said in earlier comments, Iraq during the surge period resembles Vietnam from 1969-1975. The Americans scored military victories against the VC and NVA but there was no politically popular South Vietnamese government. As a result the Americans wasted a good deal money and lives for a wasted effort when in reality they should negotiated for a neutralist government in South Vietnam. Once again we are making the same mistakes as those committed in the Vietnam War. The US military wants to leave Iraq on there is security on the ground, but that is an impossible task due to the lack of any political settlement.

First, one issue wich has largely been forgotten is how the difference between Afghan and Iraq in the Phase IV is the participation of the UN. In Iraq, Rumsfeld had no patience for the UN and provided little security resources to their ops. In Afghan, the UN is seriously involved.

Second, and to the argument: I guess the problem with your point is that most COIN-proponents think you only touch on the superficial policy questions in your arguments, and avoid the purely mechanical military ones. The job of a military is to be ready for any form of conflict and to obey its political leaders to the best of its abilities. I started reading and commenting on the old now gone Intel-dump blog Phil Carter ran (now in charge of winding down Gitmo, I believe). Thats one of the central blogs where the howls of the military folks who could see that the US was doing it wrong in Iraq surfaced in the blogsphere, way pre-surge. So the COIN approach is just as much an attempt to institutionalize that knowledge into the rest of the military skillset. Not to go forth and conquer the world.

And I think maybe you will be surprised at the level of statebuilding I think will come in a year. Gates is smart, he chose a set of middleground terms, he is one of those who still remember that we are at fucking war. Ive heard some happy grunts from norwegians. I think the channels the money itself runs through will recieve an overhaul, and the costmultiplying contractors gradually will be phased out. Hopefully. Im more worried about increased CAS.

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