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May 18, 2009

Countering the COIN Fad
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today's must read piece is the op-ed from Sunday's Washington Post by Celeste Ward on the fad of counterinsurgency:

Counterinsurgency doctrine is on the verge of becoming an unquestioned orthodoxy, a far-reaching remedy for America's security challenges. But this would be a serious mistake. Not all future wars will involve insurgencies. Not even all internal conflicts in unstable states -- which can feature civil wars, resource battles or simple lawlessness -- include insurgencies. Yet COIN is the new coin of the realm, often considered the inevitable approach to fighting instability in foreign lands. . . like many useful concepts that gain currency in Washington, counterinsurgency risks being taken too far, distracting us from other threats, challenges and strategic debates.

This is exactly right. I would in particular hammer on the last point that raises the issue of military strategy versus tactics. A line you hear quite often from COIN advocates is that counter insurgency is difficult and we shouldn't do it - but the military has a responsibility to be ready to apply COIN strategy if our elected leaders demand it.  But of course the veneration of COIN goes beyond this rather minimal application. Many seem to view COIN as the future of war and based on the "success" of COIN in Iraq, they seem to believe that the United States is uniquely positioned to do it . The question for many COIN-danistas seems to be not whether and when we should do counter-insurgency, but how the US can do it more effectively. I thought Justin Logan captured this idea very nicely a few months ago:

The work of the COIN crowd is going to create the impression in the minds of policymakers that the military knows how to win counterinsurgencies and therefore we don’t need an “Iraq syndrome.”  But we do need an Iraq syndrome.

The military needs to be making clear to the civilian leadership precisely how difficult counter-insurgency can be and why they should think twice about trying to implement such an approach.

But of course that's not exactly occurring - as the myth-making narrative of the Iraq surge makes clear. Ward does a nice job deconstructing that argument as well, pointing out that not only were COIN-tactics being utilized prior to the surge in 2007, but that the "success" of the surge is a dubious one at best:

So why did the Iraqis stop the carnage and start deal-making by 2007? We don't fully know. A number of accounts give a nod to the Sunni Awakening and the cease-fire by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Nonetheless, the prevailing interpretations of the surge narrative -- even competing ones, which tend to differ mostly over claims of paternity -- put the Americans in the driver's seat of history. The assumption seems to be that the United States, its leaders and the tactics it employed are primarily responsible for the events on the ground.

But the decisions of the Iraqis themselves surely made a material difference. They stopped fighting, whether due to political calculations, fear or exhaustion. The full story of Iraqi motivations and perceptions has yet to be told. Meanwhile, sectarian maps of Baghdad show a clear pattern over time: Sunnis and Shiites progressively moved into separate enclaves, by choice or by force. By the time of the surge in 2007, mixed neighborhoods in the city had nearly disappeared, as the respective sects moved into areas populated by their own. The conflagration of sectarian violence might have been poised to burn itself out anyway.

As I've written here many times the clearest and most unambiguous lesson that we should draw from the war in Iraq is that we should never get involved in such a war again - and that any benefit we accrue from invasion, occupation and nation-building will almost never be worth the cost.

The fetishization of COIN is not the way to accomplish that goal.


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You've got the cart before the horse. Justifying or attacking "counterinsurgency" depends upon the conditions for it. You do get to the 'horse' at the end, but you don't tie it to the COIN 'cart.'

the clearest and most unambiguous lesson that we should draw from the war in Iraq is that we should never get involved in such a war again

The only way that "'counterinsurgency' doctrine is on the verge of becoming an unquestioned orthodoxy" would be through a general acceptance that:

(1) the brutal US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan will continue indefintely, and/or that

(2) the US military should be used for overthrowing additional foreign governments, brutally occupying those countries and dealing with the resultant resistance forces.

Otherwise, we don't need "counterinsurgency" doctrine to prescribe how to transform other societies with military forces.

And "counterinsurgency" should be in quotes because the US and its military do not (de jure) constiture the government of the world. This means that any resistance to US occupation is not a true insurgency and the attempted suppression of said resistance is not a counterinsurgency.

Other than that, we agree.

Two thumbs up, well done!Thanks for sharing!

The COIN promoters seems to resemeble those who promoted the unregulated markets in the nineties and the first decade of the twenty-first century. In both cases it appears that the advocates of COIN warfare and the freemarketeers approach COIN warfare and unreglulated markets as a religion. Due to their fantacism they are unable to look at the hollowness of their programs for the COIN advocates it would be the lack of political reconciliation in Iraq while for the freemarketeers it would the real decline of wages. In both cases the Washington establishment looked past these faults and embraced their ideas because both COIN warfare and unregulated freemarkets offer simple solutions to complex problems. How the advocates will end up like their freemarket cousins failing in the COIN end due the inherent weaknesses of their program. In the future General Petraus will not be rememberd as another General Grant but as the military version of Alan Greenspan.

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