The waning of the 2005-2010 COIN theory fashion wave

The star of the new COIN fashion is certainly descending. The wave came up in about 2005 as a response to the dumbness in Iraq and attempted to give a smart answer to the challenges of the occupation in Iraq. Military history, shooting star advisers (typically ranked Colonel or close) and even social scientists became involved.

The FM 3-24 became this fashion movement's manifest and the Small Wars Journal became its expert media centre. Petraeus became its representative in the mainstream media, while the ranks of advisors like Kilcullen became the more important figures for experts.

Previously, Americans believed that the USMC Small Wars Manual was great and Brits believed their Northern Ireland and Malaya strategies were the benchmark.
By 2006 there was a new sect in town, with its own bible and prophets.

The new strategy downplayed the combat component and became more Sun Tsu-like. Break away hostile factions from the enemy's ranks, keep the enemy from acquiring more allies, win more allies for yourself.

All this diplomacy was of course no job for the diplomatic corps of the involved nations. No, these nations weren't enough in war to mobilise many diplomats for it.
Army lieutenants, captains, majors and colonels were supposed to become diplomats, administrators, politicians.
Privates were expected to be(come) highly disciplined and behave "strategically", i.e. understand the strategic intents of the theatre commands and not sabotage it with gut-led (re)actions.

Much can be written about this new COIN theory, and it was. Much of it is easily accessible in the internet or book-stores and doesn't need to be repeated here.

The problems were quite fundamental, though:

* The troops at level battalion and below had to meet atypical expectations.
* The environment needed to be fertile for the strategy.

It looked as if practical success crowned the theory. The U.S.Army had finally published FM 3-24, politicians had launched a "surge" as a domestic policy trick to maintain the political initiative and to buy yet another year of popular/political support for the war in Iraq.

It's too bad that they were kind of a sideshow all along. The Iraqis had their parallel power struggles and ethnic cleansing. The Iraqis were finishing these in 2007 and the violence ebbed away.
Some Americans were almost enthusiastic - the coincidental application of the new COIN theory was crowned by the ability to transmit good news to home.

Meanwhile, the Taliban had their slow yet constant return in Afghanistan, along with other armed groups in opposition to domination by the mayor of Kabul or his viceroys.

Proponents called for another "surge"; more troops, new COIN theory. Some experts warned that recipes from Iraq should not be applied 1:1 in Afghanistan albeit there was no "for Iraq only" in the title of FM 3-24.

The effect so far: There's not even a dent in the disadvantageous trends. Every new year becomes worse than the previous one, and hope in the mayor of Kabul is eroding.

The tragedy is probably that the new COIN theory is likely a fair weather theory. It works if the population is willing to allow it to work. It's nothing that you can enforce.

The proper time for the new COIN theory's application in Iraq was probably 2003 and for its application in Afghanistan was probably 2002-2004*. The populations were probably ready to cooperate as envisaged by the COIN theory at that time.
War sows much hate and mistrust. The environment got tainted too much and COIN was obviously unable to deliver convincing results under such conditions.

- - - - -

There's a quote from Churchill:

The Americans will always do the right thing ... after they've exhausted all the alternatives.

That quote has a true core; wars are often a trial & error exercise. Peacetime preparations cannot fully prepare an army for war; it needs to learn on the job. Long wars make this easily visible. Armies triumph quickly if they got much right in their preparations, sometimes by sheer luck and coincidence (or simply because their political leaders had sent them against a weak nation).
Others defeat their enemies because they themselves adapted to the previously misunderstood realities of the war. This does often coincide with a huge and superior economical war effort.

Afghanistan does not seem to suit these paths well. The Western forces didn't get it right initially. Adaptiveness doesn't seem to work well beyond mere survivability efforts. Finally, more resources don't seem to leave much of an impression. Their offensive use is restricted by the enemy's elusiveness and political/moral restraints that are utterly necessary in order to avoid a perversion of the war.

- - - - -

Enthusiasm for modern COIN theory is waning, but so is support for the war itself. A rational and well-informed analysis should have told us from the very beginning that staying there in 2003 was a stupid idea.
Now even less rational analysis leads many to lose confidence in the idea of direct Western military involvement in Afghanistan. The utter lack of success in combination with the vastly increased effort and rising toll wears down the ranks of the supporters.

COIN theory and its representatives were not shiny rescuers. They created much noise that covered the reasons for the decreasing violence in Iraq and they served politicians as tools for an extension of stupid wars.

And just to make sure there's no misunderstanding; nobody should believe that a nation should enter the next stupid war just because there's probably the right theory on the bookshelf for keeping it under control. All stupid wars are wrong wars. Stick to national self defence and alliance defence!


*: Not joining and sticking with stupid, needless wars is of course even better.



  1. This may be of interest to you:

  2. Hey Sven,

    What is the map graphic half way down the article depicting?

    I cannot click on it to enlarge it for some reason.

    Thank you.

  3. I also think the COIN theory will wane, but for a different reason: The persistent threat from conventional military powers. I don’t think it should be overstated, but on the other hand the recent sinking of the corvette “Cheonan” should be a reminder that the threat is not only from terrorists, pirates or insurgents, but also nation states.

    China is for example continuing to build up its military powers and is about to introduce the new DF21 “carrier killer” missile. It has forced the United States to reduce its naval presence in the Yellow Sea because it didn’t want carriers within striking distance of Beijing. Russia is about to undertake a major overhaul of its military power and has recently conducted a military exercise called Vostok 2010 which for all intends and purposes was a scenario for war with China.

    Like I said it shouldn’t be overstated, but I also think there has been a tendency to exaggerate the threat from non-state actors and make them larger than life. Which is really to only excuse we have to fight in Afghanistan or in Iraq.

  4. The map shows the change in ethnic composition of Baghdad from early 2006 to late 2007.
    I can upload a big version when I'm back at my computer.

  5. cheers Sven, look forward to it.

  6. Sven, I'd argue that the entire brief enthusiasm with "counterinsurgency" rested on various misreadings of historical examples and some enormous mistaken assumptions.

    Historically, there have only been two ways of "winning" guerilla wars/civil wars; you either exhaust one side by a combination of good intelligence and police/military security work (as happened in places like El Salvador and Northern Ireland - oh, and it helps if your guerrilla enemy makes some foolish mistakes that alienate the population) or you just flat-out kill enough people to thin out the "sea" the guerrilla "swims" in, as the Sri Lankans did to the LTTE. The former only really works with a strong local partner. The latter works - ask any 19th Century colonial power - but it's not really practical for the casualty-adverse, tactically ponderous U.S. forces.

    Malaya was always sui generis, and the political solution (in effect, "winning" by losing - giving the locals what they wanted, independence, as a condition to abandoning the MRLA) wasn't repeatable.

    Wars like Algeria just drive home that it's very common for the foreigner to win militarily just as things fall apart politically.

    The elephant in the room that the COINdinstas ignored and you emphasize is that you can't really do this as a foreigner. It will sort-of work with a local proxy, but the U.S.'s record on that is exceptionally weak. We're awful at picking our proxies, preferring other traits (like Western-ish appearance and affection) rather than competence, and we tend to "train" them to be little U.S. Armies, ignoring that they haven't the resources or the technical base to imitate our heavily mechanized methods. Once the locals have had enough of you - and how many of us really WANT heavily-armed strangers wandering around? - and you have failed to find an effective local quisling, you're done.

    I wish someone had delivered the essence of your post to the NCA in 2004. Sadly, I doubt they would have listened then. Hell, they're not even listening now...

  7. Well, I couldn't have made the point in 2004. I was utterly disinterested in the whole nonsense at that time.

    I could have argued in 2004 that the whole Afghanistan and Iraq affairs were stupid, though.

  8. I don't think that the problem was stupidity. There's always someone who can argue that this or that war is stupid.

    The problem is cost-benefit analysis. Some stupid wars produce domestic political benefits, some are just good for distracting the groundlings, while others wind up producing unexpected economic or military benefits.

    The "magic" of COIN was that it gave the fools an illusion that they could get some profit from their folly. As you pointed out, this was only the case if the local government was truly capable of taking over and quashing the rebellion. And such a government would not want a bunch of armed foreigners hanging around trying to tell it what to do.

    So the difference was that if someone with the chops to make the Bushies listen in 2003 or 2004 had pointed this out...

    Naah. The Bushies used COIN to justify their stupid policy ideas, not to implement them.

    But I'd argue that the probability of seeing just this sort of thing is much greater than seeing conventional force-on-force warfare, at least over the next 50 years or so. So stupid or not, killing this moronic idea may be as important as trying to configure conventional forces for future conventional engagements.

  9. the map: