COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks

Here is some speculations inspired by The Counterinsurgency Library.  How will a 23rd century historian see the COIN literature?


  1. No more COINs after Iraq and Afghanistan
  2. COIN and WWIII — the similarities
  3. COIN and WWIII — how likely to occur was each?
  4. COIN and WWIII — the common driving factor
  5. COIN and WWIII — misallocations of physical and intellectual resources
  6. Conclusion
  7. For more information about Fourth Generation Warfare

The CI Library is a wonderful tool, a powerful application of the Internet’s ability to make us smarter.  How will a 23rd century historian see the COIN literature it contains?  Here is my guess…

I.  No more COIN’s after Iraq and Afghanistan

Neither America or any other State will attempt large-scale attempts to directly fight insurgencies in foreign lands.  They may send cash, advisers, and trainers, but no combat troops.  The local government will retain the lead role.  If there is no functioning government, other major powers will either abandon it (e.g., Africa) or take over (intending to restore order and exit).  But the incredible cost in blood and money of America’s early 21st century adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan will act as definitive proof of the intolerably low cost-effectiveness of COIN in foreign lands.

Nobody else had the resources to attempt such a thing.  After the recession of 20XX, and the resulting devaluation of the US dollar, neither did America.

II.  COIN and WWIII — the similarities

The COIN literature quickly become like the post-WWII literature discussing WWIII, atomic wars or USSR invasions of western Europe.  It will employ thousands of officers, scholars, and officer/scholars.  Serious, lavishly funded, and increasingly fantastical.  For example, it ignored that the heavy lifting in the Iraq War was done not by COIN, but the tried-and-true colonial trifecta of popular front militias (loyal so long as well-paid), firepower, and sweeps (the latter two working together to keep the locals suppressed).

III.  COIN and WWIII — how likely to occur was each?

Increasingly we look back to see WWIII as a prospect far less likely than it was seen during the cold war.  The preparations for WWIII were in part driven by our paranoia, and exhultaion in the power of the weapons we posses.

COIN will be similarly seen in the future — an unrealistic scenario, fueled by both our fears and our arrogant assumption that we can manipulate foreign societies (although we cannot do so at home, despite having far more data, understanding, and effective tools).

IV.  COIN and WWIII — the common driving factor

The commonalities between the two will spark many 23rd century investigations by social scientists.  Why were such large literatures written in the 20th and 21st century on scenarios that never happened?  That never were likely to happen?

The answer will seem obvious.  Both were byproducts of America’s trillion-dollar per year spending on war.   The money:  tens of millions streaming each year through RAND, the Institute for Defense Analysis, and hundreds of other think tanks and universities.  The money:  thousands of officers working for degrees every year, both them and their professors generating papers about the current hot dot in warfare. Plus an interested audience from the millions of veterens, many retaining interest in the subject.

V.  COIN and WWIII — misallocations of physical and intellectual resources

23rd century writers will find it incredible that such vast resources were wasted in the face of pressing and urgent needs elsewhere.

  • The development of an urban underclass,
  • floods of illegal aliens — poorly assimilated, adding ethnic strife to the growing underclass problems,
  • environmental problems,
  • consistent spending beyond our national income (leading to massive foreign debts),
  • the obvious peaking of global oil production,
  • the horrifying greying of the boomers (and certain collapse of the social welfare systems)

All of these were high probability – high impact events quite obvious by the late 21 century, yet attention was lavished on high impact but low probability overseas threats — starving the government leadership’s attention from other subjects.

VI.  Conclusion

They will find these things difficult to understand, just as we find the foolishness of our ancestors difficult to understand (e.g., WWI).

VII:  For more information about Fourth Generation Warfare

I have developed a simple typology to show the relationship of the many works on modern warfare, to show the relationships among the various theories about modern warfare.  This has evolved into a first cut at a solution to 4GW.  These are the first steps in a long series.

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. How to get the study of 4GW in gear
  3. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  5. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
  6. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
  7. 4GW: A solution of the second kind
  8. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Don Vandergriff is one of the very few today implementing solutions of the third kind.

Grand Strategy and National Security

A related question concerns grand strategy.  Does America need a grand strategy?  If so, what should it be?  Answers to these questions illuminate many of the questions hotly debated about foreign policy and national security.

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy   (31 January 2006)
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy   (1 March 2006)
  3. The Fate of Israel  (28 July 2006)
  4. Why We Lose at 4GW   (4 January 2007)
  5. America takes another step towards the “Long War”   (24 July 2007)
  6. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy?   (28 October 2007)
  7. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy  (21 February 2008)
  8. One telling similarity between the the Wehrmacht and the US Military  (10 March 2008)
  9. America needs a Foreign Legion  (18 April 2008)
  10. Militia – the ultimate defense against 4GW   (original September 2005; revised 30 May 2008)
  11. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I  (19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008)

10 thoughts on “COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks”

  1. “Neither America or any other State will attempt large-scale attempts to directly fight insurgencies in foreign lands.”

    My take on this is that the lesson will be lost in one generation, just like the Vietnam war lesson was lost in 2003, one generation later. The defeat in Vietnam was excused with a jungle and the failure to exert enough pressure on external adversaries (Northern Vietnam, PR China) to end their support. Iraq will be excused with foes hiding in cities and the failure to stop Iran’s involvement.

    The next chapter will begin in 2035-2045.
    Fabuis Maximus replies: (correction to my comment). You could easily be correct. Looking a generation into the future is beyond the range of my telescope.

  2. Perhaps the Iraq yardstick is unique — a uniquely difficult place to occupy, for a variety of reasons. For example, it’s doubtful that we would try something similar in Pakistan, or most of the former Russian republics, although all are important components in the “grand game” of oil.

    But that doesnt mean that we wont be busy in other oil-producing regions, with subversion, economic pressures, political manipulations, etc. The stakes are too high, and there doesn’t appear to be any other (i.e. cooperative) approach to dividing up the world’s resources.
    I take it that these sorts of scenarios are what proponents of 4GW are already anticipating.

    On the other hand, Sven is probably right — the public appetite for military adventures, and the state’s ability to “manufacture consent” for them are deeply engrained. The military/industrial/congressional complex is a formidable force in the economy, and warfare has always been an effective form of social control.

  3. I disagree with Sven, primarily because all of the things that Fabius mentioned in his article (large permanent discontent lower class, peak oil, collapse of infrastructure, and most especially ever falling education standards) will keep us from being able to afford another intervention like Iraq in 30 years.

    You can already see the effects of the trends I’m talking about, Vietnam at its height was about 650,000 men, Iraq/Afghanistan at its height was about 210,000. Obviously there are other factors in play (such as the lack of the draft and the realization that free-fire zones don’t improve your popularity with the locals) but I think the comparison is still valid to some degree. Yes, we’ve spent a ton of money in Iraq, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the resources lavished on Vietnam and Johnson’s Great Society programs (a large part of why we fought in Vietnam was so Johnson could get congressional support for the Great Society programs).

    I really like Fabius’ attempt to view our current world through the lens of an historian about 200 years into the future. Sure it’s going to be wildly inaccurate but at least it gives us some perspective on issues such as Iraq that seem critical at the time but won’t be in the future. If we go back to 1808, I’m sure that the newspapers were full of issues that have long since melted away while relegating to the back pages the stuff we now think is important.

  4. Pluto, the U.S. cannot afford the present wars as well, and the Vietnam war time left the U.S. unfit for the economic challenges of the 70’s.

    Affordability is too often not enough to prevent wars. In fact, wars distract from domestic economic problems. Wars were sometimes launched explicitly to distract the people from a hazardous economic situation (see Falklands war).
    Fabius Maximus replies: Wars before the creation of modern States (circa 1800) often ended when one or both sides could no longer borrow money to continue.

  5. The HUGE assumption here is that no terror state gets and uses a nuke/ other WMD. I’ve a 60% belief that if Obama is elected in the US, the world will see a big, 10 000 casualties or more city attack before 2012. Because talk is cheap, and tough talk, with no stick, gets laughed at by the target.

    Sven is already wrong, according to Sheik Ahmad al-Rishawi, the brother of the murdered Iraqi Sheik who began the Anbar Awakening in 2006 — and is now (unofficially) offering to send Iraqi Army units to Afghanistan.

    The greying of the boomers is the real big economic threat — less bad in America than the EU, partially thanks to … so much immigration!
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why is this assumption part of my scenario? Why would COIN necessarily be a response to a State or non-state entity nuking Chicago? I suspect we would do something a bit more intense, like the “outright occupation” described in this post.

  6. They will find these things difficult to understand, just as we find the foolishness of our ancestors difficult to understand (e.g., WWI).

    If Fabius Maximus is correct, then 23rd century historians ( if there are any ) will view COIN much as Jonathan Swift viewed his contemporary society in Gulliver’s Travels.
    Fabius Maximus replies: A brilliant analogy!

  7. The strongest argument against future military adventures like Iraq, and bloated militarism in general, is the economic one — affordability. But we seem to be already embarked on that path, as severe recession looms. The end-point of this development is economic collapse, which would certainly put a stop to the bloated military.

    However, as Sven points out above, economic or social collapse is just when societies often choose war as the solution. As a country which has never been invaded or occupied, or suffered generation-destroying casualties as have Russia and Europe, there is little cultural support here for the idea of a mainly defensive military (everyone realizes “Defense Dept” really means War Department.) It’s as hard to imagine America giving up its preponderant military advantage as it is to imagine private American citizens giving up their right to bear arms. But Fabius’ point is whether we can afford to use our dominant military.

  8. Two questions regarding a different part of your original comment, Fabius: 1) how different would a 4GW military be from the “lethal and nimble”, pared-down and intelligence-based military of Rumsfeld’s Quadrennial Defense Review? 2) does a 4GW military imply a significantly smaller defense budget, with much less exmphasis on exotic armaments? Would it emphasize any one service over the others?
    Fabius Maximus replies: See Chet Richard’s book “If We Can Keep It” for this, as there is no short answer. The core part of the answer is that a much smaller military would better meet our needs. It would probably work better. We could afford it, without funding it by loans from China. Our active duty land forces probably need not be larger than the Marines, if we had a Grand Strategy that did not require such frequent wars.

  9. Rumsfeld’s approach was similar to the Network Centric approach. Lots of high tech intelligence assets with the ability to destroy with pinpoint accuracy what we want to, so smaller but better, which tends to require technology to leverage those results. A 4GW military seems to inspire thoughts of a force that’s akin to Barnett’s sysadmin force, with a focus on engineers and civil planners and the sort of people who go in and rebuild a nation while security is chancy, still the military, but for occupations, which is more boots on the ground than technology, so different.

    The combination would be looking at spec ops forces, which are very lethal and very nimble, and also play a significant role in 4GW. However that means not having the presence we seem to want and use now dealing with 4GW, instead of depending on the host nation with minimal support to get the job done, ie training, advising and the occasional high risk mission which they are not capable of performing.

    It would emphasize much less exotic armaments if done right, however the money would go into manpower as opposed to high tech. I would think this would be cheaper, but I honestly do not know. Barnett’s approach favors the army and marines, with the navy and air force providing solely ISR, which seems like a logical approach, or possibly gearing one of the services for this function. That’s if you maintain the desire to go beyond the level of providing advisers and trainers, since spec ops would be sufficient for that, but not for a ‘boots on the ground’ approach. I think that covers it all.

  10. Your post seems to imply (a) there will be no more COINs after Iraq and Afghanistan, but (b) Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t real COINs anyway.

    It therefore seems like your prediction is not a real prediction, as you’re free to discount any COIN as “not a real COIN.” Predictions are useful if they are falsifiable, but if your definition is so strict as to not include even our current operations, then what’s the point of making it?
    Fabius Maximus replies: (1) Yes. (2) No. I consider Iraq and Afghanistan are real COIN ops, as the US does COIN. What I said was that our COIN efforts have a large fantastical element, to a large extent acting as a cover for the old stand-bys. As Martin van Creveld showed in “Technology and War”, war often has fantastical elements.

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