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I come not to praise COIN but to bury it. And to ask you why we adopted it, at such cost.

1 September 2012

Summary: As our foreign wars slowly continue — withdrawals in the main theaters plus expansion into other even more fruitless conflicts — it’s time to look back and learn. Today we ask why COIN was considered a reasonable option, despite long history of failure when used by foreign armies.  Please post your thoughts in the comments.

It’s easy! Click to enlarge.

Contents

  1. Lessons learned from our WOT using COIN
  2. The two major posts about COIN
  3. Posts about the theory and practice of COIN
  4. Posts about the History of COIN
  5. For more information about COIN

In this post COIN refers to the specific nostrums sold as solutions for US to apply against the Iraq and Af-Pak insurgencies, as codified in FM 3-24.  David Kilcullen and John Nagl were its two chief apostles.

(1)  Lessons learned from our WOT using COIN

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is one of the finest in America’s shrinking band of journalists (as opposed to the legions of stenographers to the rich and powerful). Her coverage of the War on Terror has been incisive and deep. Her latest is a retrospective on COIN, well worth reading: “Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon“, American Conservative, 31 August 2012 — about the rise and fall of COIN.

COIN was one of the first subjects I discussed in depth, first at Defense and the National Interest and then at the FM website. These are listed below. Looking through them — and the articles by brighter lights such as Martin van Creveld and Andrew Bacevich — reminds me how it was clear from the beginning that COIN was snake-oil. And obviously so.

We paid for our mistake with the lives of our troops spent in these wars. The years of work and suffering, the injuries and disabilities, the dead. We’ll pay the material cost for decades. Now comes the challenge: will we learn from these mistakes? The most important question concerns the process. These mistakes were similar to those we made in Vietnam. Why do we make these mistakes? Why do we fail to learn from them?

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Only by finding answers to these questions will our nation gain something from our sacrifices.

(1)  Two major posts about COIN

(2)  The theory and practice of COIN

The posts from 2006 – 2008 forecast that COIN would fail, and why.  The posts from 2011 to now explore why we adopted COIN, despite its glaring theoretical flaws and history of failure when applied by foreign armies.

  1. More paths to failure in Iraq, 16 December 2006 — Myths about COIN in Iraq
  2. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy, 21 February 2008
  3. The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
  4. A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual, 20 March 2008
  5. Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, 23 March 2008
  6. Another “must-read” presentation by Kilcullen about COIN, 27 May 2008
  7. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  8. No coins, no COIN, 6 October 2008
  9. COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today), 1 July 2010
  10. COIN – Now we see that it failed. But that was obvious before we started (when will we learn?), 6 December 2011
  11. COIN, another example of our difficulty learning from history or experience, 7 December 2011
  12. WPR: “Counterinsurgency in the Post-COIN Era”, 31 January 2012
  13. As we start new wars, let’s see an expert at COIN review a classic textbook about COIN, 25 February 2012 — Review of Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare – Theory and Practice
  14. “COIN of the Realm” – reviewing one of the books driving our strategy in the Long War, 18 March 2012 — Review of Nagl’s How to Eat Soup with a Knife
  15. A look back at the madness that led us into our wars. How does this advice read 6 years later?, 26 June 2012

(3)  The History of COIN

  1. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard.  She examines the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  4. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
  5. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure., 7 August 2012

(4)  For more information about COIN

  1. The Essential 4GW reading list: John Nagl
  2. The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld
  3. The Essential 4GW reading list: David Kilcullen
  4. Writings of Andrew Bacevich; they deserve your attention

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 September 2012 6:59 pm

    Snarky version no.1 : Orientation lock. A coherant set of tactics, COIN was better than nothing (which was the case in 04-05). When viewed through the prism of a 6-12 month deployment it offers incremental and measurable progress. Of course, focus on near details and short time horizons allow the operational and strategic to be ignored. As William Lind oft observed, a 2GW organiztion sees accumulation of tactical victories to be operational progress. As he also observes, strategy trumps tactics, and there never was a realistic strategy. Of course classic COIN theory would not tolerate safe havens and sources of support, so how aboot those in Syria and Iran and Pakistans? That leads to …

    Nasty version no. 2. War kabuki. We, the West, never even really tried to win except for the poor bloody tactical level grunts. COIN offered a plausible cover for the generals. It was nevermore than half hearted for politicians, allies and civilians.

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    • 1 September 2012 9:02 pm

      Version #2 is IMO not “snarky” at all. That’s a clear and plausible explanation. We are a rationalizing species. Once the decision to occupy Afghanistan had been made, the next step was a search for appropriate tactics. Several iterations later they tried COIN, and since then have tried several others.

      The more interesting aspect is DoD’s inability to acknowledge failure of their tactics, or to learn from those failures. That’s a serious institutional dysfunctionality.

      Like

  2. 1 September 2012 7:37 pm

    I realize I am being the total Adam Curtis fanboy this week, but I just finished reading his fascinating and brilliant stuff about COIN: “How to kill a rational peasant“. He ties together David Galula, Vietnam, RAND Corp and a bunch of disparate stuff into a fascinating and illuminating web of government self-deception. Much props to him, also, for expressing concern that David Petraeus could be the American Caesar.

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    • 1 September 2012 8:57 pm

      Curtis stuff is great. His blog is, I’ve heard, the most read section of the BBC. But let’s put this in a larger context. His first article (using his Afghanistan category) is September 2009, and a history of modern Afghanistan. In 2010 he appears to actively question the war. By then that was quite safe to do so.

      What about those of us questioning and opposing this from the beginning? The big guys like Martin van Creveld, William Lind, Andrew Bacevich, etc? All of whose professional stature and careers suffered from their audacity in telling the truth.

      Or, for one example of the little guys in this debate, look at my own experience. My very first articles in 2003 described developing failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. By time Curtis et al found it safe to write about the long war, I had received thousand of hateful — often threatening — emails and (after opening this website in 2007) comments. Questioning the wars was pro-jihadist, anti-American, etc.

      For good reason I’ve stayed anonymous. We’ve had guest authors leave, horrified by the hostility of these comments (one stopped just this year). This is why I stopped comments for a while, and even now tend to reflexively (ie, usually without reason) regard commenters as wild animals — like a Seminole alligator wrestler carefully walking through the pen.

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    • 2 September 2012 12:13 am

      What about those of us questioning and opposing this from the beginning?

      How satisfied are you with “I told you so.”? Because that’s all the satisfaction that you’re likely to get.

      Like

    • 2 September 2012 12:31 am

      Part of learning is re-rating experts based on their performance during the war. That was, perhaps, our worst failure after Vietnam. People who screwed up moved up. People like Thomas L. Hughes and the State Department’s analysts were ignored both during and after the war, despite the clear record that they were wrong when the other Intel agencies were wrong (see this George Washington U archive for details).

      My bet: this will repeat again. William Lind is doing transportation policy. Martin van Creveld largely forgotten.

      Ignorance is a result of our actions, not something that just happens to us. “I told you so” is wasted breath.

      Like

  3. 1 September 2012 7:44 pm

    We adopted it for the reason that managers often adopt strategies that they are told will fail: they keep asking “what is plan B” and shopping their objective around, until eventually they run across someone who says “I know! I know!” (and usually they don’t) If the objective is inherently implausible, that’s never an attractive answer to the leaders.

    I worked under a CEO once who used this “blood from a stone” strategem in management meetings. He’d say, “this is what we’re going to do!” and would demonize everyone who said “bad idea!” as a nay-sayer. Which left only yes-men at the table. It’s the yes-men who fall for tidy-sounding pseudointellectual arguments like COIN and then promote them to executive management that won’t take “no” for an answer.

    That’s the reason a lot of these COIN scenarios sound like wish-fulfillment: they are.

    I think the only practical COIN technique would be for someone to tell the truth: “we are going to eradicate the population via ethnic cleansing: shoot everyone, leave no survivors, and bring in colonists from our own population.” That would, actually work. Unlike COIN it has worked over and over in history. COIN attempts social and political colonization but in a way that guarantees failure because it pisses off the existing population and leaves them behind to become part of your problem.

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    • Matt D. permalink
      2 September 2012 10:52 am

      Marcus– Just thinking out loud here, but are non-interventionism and total genocide really the only two choices here? Ethnic cleansing is not the only “successful” pattern of conquest we see repeated throughout history. Another pattern seems to be to defeat and neutralize the target’s military capability, let them keep their local cultural, legal and political institutions, and make them pay tribute every year.

      Instead of trying to form new institutions from scratch, this model takes pre-existing local institutions more or less as they are, and applies mostly external pressure to keep them within certain parameters. This also has a long historical record of success.

      Again, I’m just thinking out loud, so I’m not sure how this would look applied to Iraq or Afghanistan. Leave the Taliban in power after a brief reprisal campaign, but give them strong reasons to never cross the US again, to be backed up by future reprisals if necessary? Also, I’m not arguing that this would necessarily be a moral choice– just another choice with a better historical record of success than COIN.

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    • 2 September 2012 4:06 pm

      I think some confusion has arisen in the thread. We’re talking about COIN, which applies to a specific form of armed conflict (as Chet Richards notes, the term “war” might confuse more than illuminate here): foreign armies fighting local insurgencies.

      The ur-text for this is chapter 6 in Martin Van Creveld’s The Changing Face of War (2006), esp Chapter 6.3 “The British in Northern Ireland” and 6.4 — “Hassad in Hama”. These are the two paths to victory when fighting insurgencies: very light and very harsh. Nothing in between works, except in a small number of special cases.

      Even then, overwhelming violence must be used carefully and intelligently. As the French proved in Algeria and Americans proved (even more so) in Vietnam, killing and torture even on a horrific scale accomplishes little by itself. Hence the clearest example of force well used is Hassad in Hama, applied by the local government against its insurgents — an example of the larger fact that foreign armies seldom defeat insurgents but local governments usually do.

      Like

    • Matt D. permalink
      3 September 2012 7:36 am

      FM: This is a useful reminder, thank you.

      In my comment, I was specifically responding to Marcus’ statement that “I think the only practical COIN technique would be for someone to tell the truth: “we are going to eradicate the population via ethnic cleansing: shoot everyone, leave no survivors, and bring in colonists from our own population.” That would, actually work. Unlike COIN it has worked over and over in history.”

      I was simply suggesting that the choice may not really be that stark. I think this is what your comment does, too. Also, seeing as Marcus’ comment and your original post pre-suppose that COIN is inherently destined to failure, at least in the circumstances we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, then some exploration of non-COIN alternatives seems appropriate.

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    • 3 September 2012 3:23 pm

      Matt,

      That’s why I phrased my comment as a response to “confusion {that} has arisen in the thread”, not your comment specifically. As the opening to the post said, here COIN refers to the methods advocated in FM 3-24 as the means by which a foreign army defeats a local insurgency. These methods have repeatedly failed, due to flaws in the theory.

      COIN is not the only alternative. Many methods of counter-insurgency have been tried since WWII (when Mao brought 4GW to maturity) by foreign armies fighting local insurgencies. As shown in the major studies listed at the end of the post, it’s a record of almost total failure (however local governments usually defeat insurgents, unless so weak that they must rely on foreign combat troops). From Chapter 6.2 in Martin van Creveld’s Changing Face of War (2006):

      What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

      Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.

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  4. 1 September 2012 8:26 pm

    About “Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon“

    It’s both funny and sad to see how journalists and a number of others bag on COIN, especially when they cannot tell you, or explain, what the tenets of COIN are and when they should most likely be used. The FM 3-24 was an ATTEMPT to address an organizational failure that appears to be returning today.

    COIN is executed poorly because it often requires skills, a mindset and certain types of personalities and application not often found in conventional forces. COIN does have its place. COIN is a shaping tool; addressing it in detail will take me off point. There are really no set rules because COIN is about constant adaptation to apply force (hard/soft) and/or avoid it. This article sadly attacks several people who attempt to make a failed policy work.

    Journalists, and other so-called smart people, fail to understand one major important point about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; Iraq and Afghanistan were/are nation building missions. This policy was not created by the people on the ground; it was created/approved in the form of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004, Title VII, Section 7104. 7104 is also known as Afghanistan Freedom Support Act Amendments of 2004. 22 USC 7501note. 22 USC 7511 note. Here is an excerpt of the piece that is noteworthy:

    (1) FINDINGS.—Consistent with the report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Congress makes the following findings:

    (A) The United States and its allies in the international community have made progress in promoting economic and political reform within Afghanistan, including the establishment of a central government with a democratic constitution, a new currency, and a new army, the increase of personal freedom, and the elevation of the standard of living of many Afghans.
    (B) A number of significant obstacles must be overcome if Afghanistan is to become a secure and prosperous democracy, and such a transition depends in particular upon—

      improving security throughout the country;
      disarming and demobilizing militias;
      curtailing the rule of the warlords;
      promoting equitable economic development;
      protecting the human rights of the people of Afghanistan;
      continuing to hold elections for public officials; And
      ending the cultivation, production, and trafficking of narcotics.

    The ‘so-what’ to the excerpt above is simply this – the US military does not holistically train for the endstate and direction dictated to them by the IRTPA.

    Second, the findings basically tell US service members their job is to go into a foreign land and stand up a new government and promote democracy in order to deny terrorists sanctuary. So, in an effort to bring some sort of stability in the midst of chaos, COIN was implemented … implemented by a force focused on destroying things and people- not building or rebuilding them.

    COIN is population centric. COIN is just one tool to HELP build a nation, or to HELP stabilize it. The metric for success in COIN has nothing to do with conventional forces winning. COIN has everything to do with stabilizing a society just enough so the people can start running their own country again. Second, that effort is to be prosecuted by the indigenous population as much as possible. If US forces are the dominant force, then the country is not ready to rule itself and will likely instead fragment until a dominant power, or powers, establish some type of homeostasis.

    So to lay the blame on a mid-grade US Army Major who’s job was not to make strategy, but to execute it is totally short-sighted, unfair and indicates a total lack of grasp of reality and an utter failure to understand that the conflict was prosecuted to meet the demands of a specific approved policy. Congress found that to protect to the United States from future terrorist attacks it had to deny terrorists sanctuary. To deny sanctuary to terrorists’ means the US has to have a partner in the fight, or being seen as an occupier. Guess what our problem is…

    I do agree that the US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan should have never been to nation build, but to simply focus on going after a select few in a judicious and patient manner. But I also think the journalists should go after other journalists, academics and politicians who directed this policy be enforced in the first place. This is a bipartisan screw up of the highest magnitude, yet the people being attacked served on the ground, in country, away from their families; killed many terrorists and insurgents and kept the fight in the enemies’ areas of operation and areas of influence. This article makes Generals Stanley McChrystal and Petraeus, Major Nagl and Aussie (Dave Kilcullen) casualties of war.

    This article, Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon, is tripe.

    Cheers, Bob

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    • 1 September 2012 9:33 pm

      I’m always concerned about the validity of the analysis in my posts. One fast test is the appearance of comments displaying the exact phenomenon described in the past. Quite astonishing how often this happens. And so it has today.

      The historical revisionists prevented any serious learning from our defeat in Vietnam, instead substituting the class “stab in the back by dissidents at home”. And so Bob starts the fiction-machine to justify our failure in Afghanistan and Iraq — least we learn anything. I have neither the time or interest for a full rebuttal, having discussed these arguments repeatedly during the past nine years (when they were used to show progress, as they’re now deployed to justify failure). But a few points are worth mentioning as esp delusional.

      (1) “Second, the findings basically tell US service members their job is to go into a foreign land and stand up a new government and promote democracy in order to deny terrorists sanctuary.”

      Silly. These Congressional resolutions are largely designed by DoD and then ratified by Congress as a purely pro form step. DoD often changes these war policies without any Congressional authorization whatsoever.

      (2) “So to lay the blame on a mid-grade US Army Major who’s job was not to make strategy, but to execute it is totally short-sighted, unfair and indicates a total lack of grasp of reality”

      First, Nagl was (as the article explains) more than just a Army Major. He retired in 2008 as a Lt Colonel, a high profile advisor to generals. From 2008-2012 he was with the very high-profile and lavishly funded CAS — a major advocate for both COIN and our foreign wars (see this about their 2009 conference, in which pretty girls from the armed forces acted as staff). From 2009-2012 he was its President.

      Second, nobody is blaming him for the war. He’s used as an example of the advocates of COIN, tracking his rise and fall as an exemplar of COIN’s rise and fall.

      (3) “Congress found that to protect to the United States from future terrorist attacks it had to deny terrorists sanctuary.”

      That nonsense has been disproven many times by many people, from the 9-11 commission onwards. It’s zombie geopolitics.

      (4) “But I also think the journalists should go after other journalists, academics and politicians who directed this policy be enforced in the first place.”

      Deep madness. Our war policy was designed and promoted by the Executive Branch (the White House, National Security Council, DoD, etc), who then mobilized their networks of journalists, academics, and politicians to support it. To think that the power runs the other way is mind-bendingly delusional. But one thing history has taught us is that people will believe anything — anything at all — necessary to maintain their illusions.

      Like

  5. Thomas More permalink
    1 September 2012 8:53 pm

    Shorter Bob: Like communism, COIN can never fail — it can only be failed. Like Marxist-Leninist planned economies, COIN would have worked if it had been implemented properly.

    It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that this is the standard claim trotted out by psychic surgery con artists and astrological moochers. Whenever the procedure fails, the purveyor of the con job declares that it wasn’t done correctly. Since this claim can never be disconfirmed, the assertion is vacuous and thus semantically void.

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    • 1 September 2012 11:07 pm

      Actually Thomas, I don’t see how you can compare a political ideology with a military tactic- that is vacuous and semantically void.

      Additionally COIN is conglomeration of shaping activities to enable and empower people to assume responsibility for for their own lives and welfare.

      We’ve used elements of COIN in the form of Foreign Internal Defense (FID) in other operations since 1990 with some successes, albeit limited. However, those successes were not directly ours, they belonged to the nation and/or people where those missions were conducted Liberia 1990, after Samuel K Doe fell and ECOWAS was created. Before Samuel K Doe, the US kept relations with a number of West African countries to mitigate the spread of communist influence by closing any exploitable voids. Kosovo and Bosnia were Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), but they too shared some elements of COIN…those elements being empowering the local populace, or temporarily filling some infrastructure type voids (mostly security) until locals were able to take over, or could be nurtured further by a follow-on force.

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    • 4 September 2012 1:35 pm

      I don’t believe its correct, in any meaningful way, to say we used “elements of COIN” in West Africa. COIN is a policy for the large-scale intervention of American forces in a foreign nation, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan — with little relation to the wide range of US policies used since WWII in Africa. At some point this becomes word games deployed to mask what’s actually happening.

      Note: Bob refers to Joint Publication 3-07.1: Foreign Internal Defense (FID).

      Like

  6. Thomas More permalink
    1 September 2012 8:59 pm

    From my jaded point of view, the answer to “Why was COIN adopted by the U.S. military?” seems obvious. The answer was mentioned in one of Fred’s (of “Fred on Everything”) posts. Fred mentioned, in discussing the U.S. military, that the last thing our military wants to do nowadays is actually win wars. Of course, we don’t want to lose them either, because that’s bad PR. Ideally, nowadays, the U.S. military keeps wars going forever at a low boil — never winning, never losing, just sucking up endless amounts of money for a limitless gravy train of promotions and procurements and ticket-punching for everyone involved.

    COIN is an ideal strategy for keeping foreign wars going forever without winning or losing. It guarantees a bottomless feeding trough for all the contractors and the officers eager for promotion, and also a vast trove of treasure for all those ex-military contractors who have done their 20 in special forces and now yearn to make $1000 a day working for Xe or Blackwater or whatever it’s called this week.

    With COIN, everyone wins…except the American public. And, as Fred noted, nowadays the American public is the only enemy that the U.S. military really fears.

    Like

    • 1 September 2012 9:34 pm

      “that the last thing our military wants to do nowadays is actually win wars.”

      I too like Fred Reed. But that’s crazy.

      Like

    • 1 September 2012 11:17 pm

      Thomas, do you really believe “the last thing our military wants to do nowadays is actually win wars.” The military can win wars; it can obliterate populations. We have legal restrictions on how much force we can apply; The Laws of War. Everything we do from shooting to collecting information on the ground is tied to a legal decision of one type or another…its not a free for all.

      I do agree with you that the US keeps conflicts at a low boil, as all military actions are ultimately political decisions. I don’t think its a bad thing that we don’t go to full scale war whereby we waste resources and lives for no good reason.

      Additionally, Xe/Blackwater are generally not involved in anything more than serving as body guards and and other support functions.

      Like

    • 2 September 2012 12:05 am

      Bob reflects the common view of our wars. A decade of wars shows it is largely false.

      (1) “The military can win wars; it can obliterate populations.”

      Those are two very different things. Obliterating populations would not “win” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, much of the world considers us insane for believing that it would — as in your statement.

      (2) “We have legal restrictions on how much force we can apply. The Laws of War. Everything we do from shooting to collecting information on the ground is tied to a legal decision of one type or another…its not a free for all.”

      Quite right. But the last decade show that statement to be more misleading than accurate. We’ve used torture, both directly and by shipping the victims to allies. More broadly, the presence of lawyers does not mean laws are being followed — or even relevant. The past decade has shown that the lawyers exist to paper over violations of the laws of war.

      Like

    • 1 September 2012 11:57 pm

      We have legal restrictions on how much force we can apply; The Laws of War.

      Sorry, but I had to giggle a bit when I read that. You do realize that the US constantly engages in area bombing, right? Sure, it’s not as bad as what we did in WWII or the Korean War or the Vietnam War, but when you have air-strikes against a village full of civilians in an attempt to get a possible “insurgent” and then mark down every casualty as “insurgents” that’s what that is. And, the notion of proportionality and “collateral damage” have been distorted far, far away from what their original basis in International Humanitarian Law. Unlike most Americans I’ve actually studied the GC and they’re really pretty clear. (Did you know that the doctrine of proprtionality is not a hunting license against civilians? It’s a last resort for how an army is allowed to act if combatants on the other side rely on human shields or embed in a civilian population. And, no, blowing the snot out of that population like we did in Fallujah and now all over Afghanistan is not legal)

      When US troops went into Baghdad, they shot up a lot of civilians who were stuck between them and Fedayeen Saddam. In one incident a counter-battery MLRS fire mission was fired into a town in response to a couple mortar shots fired from someplace other than where the MLRS hit. And, it’s pretty questionable in general to send armored columns on “thunder runs” (i.e: shoot everything that moves) into a city that still has a substantial civilian population. The reason the “thunder runs” were so tactically significant was because the Iraqis were being told that US troops where nowhere near. So, sending a bunch of armored vehicles crashing through a major city – good way to get attention with a little war crime action. The Iraqi civilians would have been trying to get the hell out of the area, except they didn’t know that they were going to be turned into the middle of a free-fire zone in order to rattle the regime. That’s not proportionality, sorry.

      Everything we do from shooting to collecting information on the ground is tied to a legal decision of one type or another…its not a free for all.

      It’s tied to a legal decision, but often the thrust of that decision is how to bypass International Humanitarian Law. Lately that has evolved into the bizzare contortions we’re hearing from The White House regarding the drone wars: anyone who we think might be an insurgent is a fair target even if the only evidence we have that they are an insurgent is that we think they might be.

      Additionally, Xe/Blackwater are generally not involved in anything more than serving as body guards and and other support functions.

      Except for when they shoot up civilians in an occupied country. Is that the “bodyguard” part of the job description or the “support functions” bit?

      Like

  7. 1 September 2012 10:25 pm

    “And so Bob starts the fiction-machine to justify our failure in Afghanistan and Iraq — least we learn anything.”

    Fabius, our failure in Afghanistan and Iraq is not due to COIN; that is all I’m saying. COIN is a band aid for the wrong problem. I don’t think there is, or was, a strategy for a win in either country. Neither country had insurgents, but that is a whole other story.

    “Silly. These Congressional resolutions are largely designed by DoD and then ratified by Congress as a purely pro form step. DoD often changes these war policies without any Congressional authorization whatsoever.”

    Okay, prove the IRTPA was designed by DOD. You cannot because it is not true, it was formed by the 9-11 Commission.

    (3) “Congress found that to protect to the United States from future terrorist attacks it had to deny terrorists sanctuary.”

    “That nonsense has been disproven many times by many people, from the 9-11 commission onwards. It’s zombie geopolitics.”

    Actually Fabius, the 9-11 commission formed the IRTPA…read it.

    (4) “But I also think the journalists should go after other journalists, academics and politicians who directed this policy be enforced in the first place.”

    “Deep madness. Our war policy was designed and promoted by the Executive Branch (the White House, National Security Council, DoD, etc), who then mobilized their networks of journalists, academics, and politicians to support it. To think that the power runs the other way is mind-bendingly delusional. But one thing history has taught us is that people will believe anything — anything at all — necessary to maintain their illusions.”

    Fair statement here.

    Like

    • 1 September 2012 11:46 pm

      This isn’t really worth a lot of time, but here are a few high spots.

      (1) “our failure in Afghanistan and Iraq is not due to COIN”

      True, but who says such a thing? We were failing in Af-Pak before COIN was used; we failed after COIN was abandoned. Our failure was not entirely due to COIN, but the strong advocacy of COIN gave the wars another lease of life. Otherwise we might have tried something sensible.

      (2) “prove the IRTPA was designed by DOD. You cannot because it is not true, it was formed by the 9-11 Commission.”

      False on several levels.

      (a) IRTPA was not “formed” by the 9-11 commission. You are thinking of Title 7 of the 8 titles in IRTPA, the “9-11 Commission Implementation Act”. That was somewhat related to the 9-11 Commission report, but hardly a linear or exact outgrowth of the report as you imply.

      (b) Several of the members and staff of the 9-11 Commission have stated that Commission was lied to and manipulated by DoD officials. That plus other material released during the last decade (esp about Bush Administration plans), shows that the 9-11 Commission was stage-managed to produce a planned outcome.

      (3) Bob: “Congress found that to protect to the United States from future terrorist attacks it had to deny terrorists sanctuary.”
      FM: ““That nonsense has been disproven many times by many people, from the 9-11 commission onwards. It’s zombie geopolitics.””
      Bob: “Actually Fabius, the 9-11 commission formed the IRTPA”

      False, on two levels. First, see #2. Second and more important, the 9-11 Commission report showed that Afghanistan had only a trivial role in the 9-11 attack. See here for details.

      (4) “Fair statement here.”

      A gracious comment, one I seldom see.

      Like

    • 1 September 2012 11:56 pm

      “This isn’t really worth a lot of time, but here are a few high spots.”

      That needs an explanation. Bob obviously knows quite a bit about this subject, but its framed by years of indoctrination. The US public has experienced years of saturation bombing of misinformation. One can read a great deal from what should be authoritative sources, and know lots of things that are not so.

      This is one of the great themes on the FM website, and is the primary dynamic played out in its comments pages. For this reason these posts describe highly documented, narrow slices of reality — to show how the consensus opinion is factually or logically wrong.

      Like

    • 2 September 2012 12:11 am

      FM writes: We were failing in Af-Pak before COIN was used; we failed after COIN was abandoned.

      Minor nit – this should read:
      “We were failing in Af-Pak before COIN was used; we were failing while COIN was being used; we continued to fail after COIN was abandoned.”
      It’s important to recognize that the COIN strategy was clearly not working while it was being implemented. It’s not as if it was tried and then suddenly everyone woke up one day and suddenly had an epiphany.

      Like

    • 2 September 2012 12:13 am

      Right, I stated that poorly. COIN was a flop, consistent with its long history of failure.

      Like

  8. 2 September 2012 10:02 pm

    Of note, I attended a conference about a year ago (?) where both Nagl and Van Creveld were in attendance discussing COIN. Nagl was clearly flustered by Van Creveld’s view that we were not accomplishing our strategic objectives in our current conflicts and posed the question to Van Creveld about, “Which other country is better than the U.S. at COIN?”, as if this mattered at all.

    Nagl made his name by justifying the decisions being made in Iraq and Afghanistan by his patron, General Petraeus. Nagl’s COIN question was an attempt to insinuate that Van Creveld was being anti-American for stating that our strategy was unsound, no matter what COIN-type activities we undertook.

    Nagl owes an apology not only to Van Creveld, who as a foreigner seemed to care more about what was good for the U.S. than whether everyone in the room would “like” him, but also to TE Lawrence. I have actually READ that man’s works and I am sure that Lawrence would be aghast at what people are stating were his philosophies on conflict amongst indigenous peoples.

    Like

    • 2 September 2012 10:46 pm

      Thanks for posting this!

      It’s worth noting that The Transformation of War can be read today as the best historical analysis so far of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Excerpt that it was written in 1991.

      Like

  9. 3 September 2012 2:05 am

    Thomas More really deserves an answer. He wrote, in part, on Sept. 1:

    “Fred mentioned, in discussing the U.S. military, that the last thing our military wants to do nowadays is actually win wars. Of course, we don’t want to lose them either, because that’s bad PR. Ideally, nowadays, the U.S. military keeps wars going forever at a low boil — never winning, never losing, just sucking up endless amounts of money for a limitless gravy train of promotions and procurements and ticket-punching for everyone involved.

    COIN is an ideal strategy for keeping foreign wars going forever without winning or losing. It guarantees a bottomless feeding trough for all the contractors and the officers eager for promotion, and also a vast trove of treasure for all those ex-military contractors who have done their 20 in special forces and now yearn to make $1000 a day working for Xe or Blackwater or whatever it’s called this week.

    With COIN, everyone wins…except the American public. And, as Fred noted, nowadays the American public is the only enemy that the U.S. military really fears.”

    Fabius Maximus’s response is: “. . . that’s crazy.”

    Crazy? Really? It makes sense to me. When a person or an institution doubles down on a failing policy, year after year, doesn’t it make sense to say “let’s see if there are people who are benefiting from this policy? Cui bono? Thomas More and, I presume, Fred, have identified two powerful groups who benefit from “wars going forever at a low boil.” They are military contractors and high-ranking career military officers. Together, they are the Military-Industrial Complex. Add to that the non-military politicians who continually play the “my opponents are soft on terrorism” card. That makes three powerful groups who benefit from keeping wars going forever at a low boil, a low boil consuming many hundreds of billions of dollars and “only” hundreds of dead U.S. soldiers each year.

    Our wars may continue forever because powerful groups benefit from those wars without any need for the Military, the War Contractors, and the Militarist Politicians to convene in a smoke-filled room to plot joint strategy. All that’s required is that members of each group do what comes naturally: look out for their own self-interest.

    What’s crazy about that?

    Like

    • 3 September 2012 2:34 am

      “What’s crazy about that?”

      It’s crazy because the military doesn’t get to wage wars just because they’re bored or would like a war — or even feed defense contractors. In fact wars divert funding to services (only some of which go to contractors) from more profitable hardware development and construction.

      The military gets unleashed when there are larger objectives requiring military force to achieve. Traditionally for the US military that’s been acquiring land or opening markets. In Iraq we wanted preferential access to oil and bases from which to project power across the Middle East. In Af-Pak we wanted access to its military resources and bases from which to project power across the subcontinent and Central Asia.

      Both of those required crushing the local insurgencies. Our defeats have had serious consequences for these plans.

      Whether these plans would have produced any benefits for most Americans is another issue, of little geopolitical significance (how the farm runs affects the sheep, but their opinions do not influence how the farm runs).

      Like

  10. themurr permalink
    4 September 2012 3:29 pm

    This reminded me of a speaker we had at the Air Force Academy (some general back in ’03 or ’04) talking about what we were doing/needed to do, and commented that eating soup with a knife was hard, but you could take two knives and turn them into a spoon and get the job done. At the time I wanted to ask him why you would ruin two perfectly good knives to make a bad spoon, why not just get a spoon, or moreso why not just go get a cheeseburger instead. (only the first two parts, the latter would’ve required more cahones then I had as a cadet) Sadly we ran out of time before I was able to ask my question. Probably for the best, I think a lot of people would’ve taken the opportunity to yell at me.

    Like

    • 4 September 2012 3:41 pm

      You are smarter than I. When advocating nonsense, leaders hate those who prick the baloon. It’s a temptation I seldom have resisted.

      Like

  11. 3 November 2012 2:15 am

    So true, and what’s perhaps even more devastating is that there’s been so little support to help the community rebuild.

    Like

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