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.
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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.
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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.