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COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today)

1 July 2010

Summary:  COIN will be seen by future generations as a manifestation of early 21st century American hubris.

How will future generations see our nation-building in foreign lands at gunpoint (aka COIN)?  Perhaps they’ll marvel at our self-esteem.  Here are two examples.

(1)  One of the most arrogant statements in the entire military literature

Article #1:  Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.
— From David Kilcullen’s famous “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency”, Military Review, May–June 2006

This is crazy advice, since the enemy has the home court advantage.  US company commanders on twelve month rotations cannot develop detailed local knowledge, especially in a foreign culture.  It takes years for a new policeman to do so at home in Watts or Harlem.  The world expert on “your” district was born there. 

That this advice was greeted with applause, not laughter, suggests we have a serious case of hubris.  For more craziness in the 12 articles see Why do we lose 4th generation wars?

(2)  Successful COIN requires magicians

The cliché contains a kernel of truth: the predominance of the political and the psychological distinguishes counterinsurgency from conventional warfare. Physical effects — what the military calls “kinetic” action — matter less than intangible and mostly psychological outcomes. The complexity of all this cannot be overstated. As a precondition for success, a commander and his organization need to cultivate different perceptions and expectations among multiple and very different audiences.

  • They must persuade the enemy and its supporters that the insurgency has been doomed to failure but also that laying down one’s arms and surrendering offers honorable and realistic options.
  • They must convince local allies — in this case the Afghan people, government, and security forces — that the United States will support them, given certain conditions but regardless of consequence.
  • And they must convince the American people and their elites that the counterinsurgency deserves public support and, indeed, will culminate in something other than a bloody and protracted stalemate or defeat.

— Steven Metz on June 24 in his blog at The New Republic

Such wonderful self-confidence.  Metternich, Talleyrand, or the greatest Madison Avenue pro would blanch at such job requirements.  On the other hand, imagine what such wizards could do if we set them to reform our inner cities!

(3)  Drawing conclusions

These are by now common insights.  Gian Gentile, Andrew Bacevich, and others have made these points since 9/11 — but perhaps none so clearly as this:

“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.” (from the infamous Rolling Stone article

These leads to some important questions.  How long will this fool us?  Why has this fraud fooled us? 

About the history of foreign armies fighting insurgencies

  1. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., which discussed 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies (Columbia, Iraq, the Malaysian Emergency, the Philippines-American War, Northern Ireland, the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman, and the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya).
  2. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, which reviews the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  3. A look at the history of victories over insurgents. How often do foreign armies win? – About a RAND study examining the victories of foreign armies over insurgents. It holds powerful lessons for us.

Other posts about this COIN and 4GW

For a full listing see the FM reference page about Military and strategic theory.  Here are a few posts about military theory, history, COIN, and 4GW:

  1. The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
  2. A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual, 20 March 2008
  3. Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, 23 March 2008
  4. Insights about modern war from the NIC’s 2020 Project, 11 April 2008
  5. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 28 May 2008
  6. COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
  7. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”, 8 July 2008
  8. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  9. The War Nerd shows how simple 4GW theory can be, 22 January 2009
  10. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009
  11. Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars, 7 April 2009
  12. A joust between two schools of American military theory, 19 May 2009
  13. James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, 18 May 2009

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