COIN, another example of our difficulty learning from history or experience

Summary:  What is our military strategy in the 21st century?  More foreign counter-insurgencies?  More going abroad in search of monsters to destroy?  Followup to COIN – Now we see that it failed. But that was obvious before we started (when will we learn?).

{There is an} arc of instability. … The recipe there is for significant conflict over the next few decades … I see no reason to think the world is going to get any nicer over the next two decades.”
— Commandant  Jim Amos (General, USMC) speaking to think-tankers and government contractors on 18 November, Arlington, Va.  From “Hotspots: You might deploy here next“, James K. Sanborn, Marine Corps Times, 5 December 2011.

What I have been saying in all of this is that when we are thinking about small wars in the present and the future we need to do it with the understanding that the way the US has fought these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, operationally, has failed. If we treat them as successes then we are learning the wrong things from them. It would be like the British after the disastrous and failed Galipoli campaign in 1915 afterward claiming that they were successful and that there was a trove a strategic lessons to be gotten from it.
— Gian P. Gentile (Colonel, US Army) at the Small Wars Journal, 6 December 2011


  1. Guessing about our future wars
  2. Not everybody wants to face the future
  3. A realistic appraisal and sound advice
  4. For more information – other articles about COIN
  5. For more information – about our war hawks

(1)  Guessing about our future wars

As we walk away from the Iraq and Af-Pak Wars, we face many questions about the future.  Two of these are:

  • When we should directly fight local insurgencies (what strategy)?
  • When we must do so, how should we do so (what doctrine)?

Given the historical record, this series of posts suggest the answers are:

  • We go to fight local insurgencies only when necessary (IMO neither Af or Iraq were necessary after their governments were overthrown).
  • We lack reliable doctrine to fight local insurgencies abroad. The number of successes by foreign armies against local insurgencies is too few to draw firm conclusions (see section 3 in the previous post for details).

That does not mean that counter-insurgency is impossible for foreign armies.  It suggests that repeating failed doctrines (Vietnam, Iraq, Af-Pak) will not work.  As the old Alcoholics Anonymous saying goes, insanity is repeating the same actions but expecting a different result.

Update:  Not all foreign wars, or even all small foreign wars, are counter-insurgencies.

(2)  Not everybody wants to face the future

In the previous post of this series I said that we would learn from our experience.  But I’m an optimist.


Our expeditions to Vietnam, Iraq, and Af-Pak resulted in part from a combination of hubris and refusal to learn.  There are indications that our hawks learned little since 9-11.  That’s odd, since the COIN literature bristles with descriptions of how much our military learned, mostly re-discovery of lessons from the many counter-insurgencies Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII.

During the next few years we’ll hear many excuses for our past wars:

  1. We didn’t really properly do counter-insurgency.  We didn’t use enough firepower, follow FM 3-24, whatever.  It’s the No True Scotsman Fallacy (see Wikipedia).
  2. We really won great if vague or imaginary benefits.
  3. Things would have been worse if we had not waged long wars in those nations (counter-factuals are easy and fun to write)

Then there’s war advocacy as fantasy: “The Next Fight: Time for a Mission Change in Afghanistan“, by Abu Muqawama (aka Andrew Exum), David W. Barno (Lt General, US Army, Retired), and Mathew Irvine, Center for a New America Security, 6 December 2011.   It is fine black humor, an advocate of foreign wars (conducted at great cost, to little advantage of America) ignores his long string of bad advice and false analysis — confidently giving advice about the future.  Future historians will speculate about the causes of these delusions.

Perhaps Exum has not read the dissertation of his Abu Muqawama co-writer:  “The Perils of Third-Party Counterinsurgency Campaigns”, Doctoral dissertation by Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard, 17 June 2010 — available through Proquest.  Her conclusion:

Ultimately, I argue that third parties win when they’re able to overcome these intelligence challenges before public support runs out. This typically requires rather substantial military reforms and complex deal-making with local leaders. Unfortunately, the nature of selection effects in these cases gives rise to a population of insurgencies whereby these conditions are very unlikely to be met.

This is another step in the evolution of Exum and Baro.  Exactly one year  they accellerated their retreat from full-bore war-boosting in Af-Pak with  “A Responsible Transition”.  See Bernard Finel’s review of that report.

(3)  A realistic appraisal and sound advice

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 explusion 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.

John Quincy Adams gave us sound advice on 4 July 1821 at the House of Representatives:

… if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world…  should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind?  Let our answer be this: America … has held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.

  • She has uniformly spoken among them … the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights.
  • She has … respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.
  • She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings …

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.

(4)  Other articles about COIN

(5)  For more information — about America’s war hawks

(a)  Defining terms

It’s become politically incorrect to use the term war-monger.  Hawks and other flattering terms are required for those who advocate spending our blood and treasure abroad in often futile wars.  Looking back at history, when people called things what they were, we can ask What is a warmonger? Who are the warmongers?, 10 March 2011.

(b)  About the record

As has been observed by so many for so long, being a war hawk in America means never having to admit you are wrong — or losing prestige for being consistently wrong.  As we see in these posts by Andrew Exum justifying the Af-Pak War.  Two years later, ten years after the invasion, it continues to roll along — with its architects happily and confidently planning the next phase.

  1. Exum: “Introducing the Afghanistan Strategy Dialogue”, 8 August 2009
  2. The first salvo in the Afghanistan Strategy Debate, 9 August 2009
  3. Second salvo in the Afghanistan Strategy Debate — Bernard Finel, 9 August 2009

To see all posts about COIN, go to the FM reference page about Military and strategic theory — section 3.

(c)  About our hawks

  1. Who are the experts advising our generals? We know what they’ll say., 3 August 2009
  2. A Quote of the Day – we cannot help but see ourselves as Lords, and other nations as peons, 11 August 2009
  3. Exum looks at Af-Pak campaign of the Long War, revealing more about ourselves than the foe, 7 June 2010
  4. The threat of insurgents using MANPADS is exaggerated (SOP for our experts), 31 July 2010
  5. Our geopolitical experts will destroy America, if we let them, 27 October 2010
  6. What is a warmonger?  Who are the warmongers?, 10 March 2011
  7. Our geopolitical experts see the world with the innocent eyes of children (that’s a bad thing), 14 March 2011
  8. A child-like credulity is required to be a US geopolitical expert, 25 April 2011
  9. We can learn an important lesson about ourselves from the “Three Cups of Tea” affair (part one), 26 April 2011
  10. The lessons about ourselves we can learn from the “Three Cups of Tea” affair (part two), 27 April 2011



8 thoughts on “COIN, another example of our difficulty learning from history or experience”

  1. It’s worth asking the extent to which the massive failure of COIN (which is really nothing but the long-debunked “inkblot” strategy initially promoted in 1894, and periodically dredged up and dusted up like the corpse in “Weekend At Bernie’s”) is now percolating downward from failed foreign wars against third world peasants, to failed domestic crackdowns on domestic insurgencies. Viz., the blowback from the recent overreactions to the Occupy movements nationwide.

    Van Creveld has described the current era as “the new middle ages” in which loyalties to nation-states break down and populations fragment into smaller political units.

    Excerpt from Naming a New Era: the new middle ages“, Martin van Creveld, Foreign Policy, Summer 2000:

    From Indonesia to Scotland, and from the former Soviet Union to southern Africa, the process most characteristic of our age is political splintering, decentralization, even disintegration. Hardly a month goes by without some new state appearing on the map. And political transformation extends far beyond government. Each time a new user acquires a TV dish or links up to the Internet, the nature of politics undergoes a subtle change. Each time a new international organization arises, more states find themselves caught in its coils. The splintering process has led to vast increases in the power of organizations other than states, such as multinational corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and the media. With each passing day these groups are a little more independent of government. With each passing day, the influence they exercise in world affairs grows.

    Already now, the process is fast taking us back to the Middle Ages. The place of the emperor has been taken by the U.S. president, that of the pope by the secretary general of the United Nations. Unlike the pope he is an official elected, if only indirectly, by the people; to this extent the dictum vox populi, vox dei has literally come true. As in the Middle Ages, president and secretary clash over money. As in the Middle Ages, the president wields the military power and the secretary seeks to hold sway over public opinion. Perhaps most important, the secretary seems to be gaining at the expense of the president—to wage war in Kosovo, Somalia, and Kuwait, the latter ultimately needed the permission of the former.

    Using history as our crystal ball, some of the main features of the New Middle Ages may be predicted with reasonable clarity. There will be continued political decentralization accompanied by massive population movements from one political unit to the next. These political units will vary widely, from sovereign states to international organizations that are not sovereign, and from those with large territories to those that have very little territory or none at all.

    How long before the pervasive failure of increasingly savage anti-insurgency measures against the domestic American populations breaks the United States apart?

    1. “How long before the pervasive failure of increasingly savage anti-insurgency measures against the domestic American populations breaks the United States apart?”

      Probably a very long time. Especially since there isn’t an insurgency for the big bad gov’t to counter.

  2. This was my most immediate and paranoid response to your questions: “When we should directly fight local insurgencies (what strategy)?”

    When the US military is turned against insurgents in the US

    “When we must do so, how should we do so (what doctrine)?”

    COIN used by US troops against US citizens should be much more effective than COIN used by US troops against [fill in the blank with an obscure group at least 2,000 miles away from the nearest stable successful Western-oriented government].

    I would add a question: “When will this occur?”

    At the current burn rate of the US Constitution, I fear the answer may be 5-10 years.

    By the way, we’re having a similar discussion on this over at the Milpub, nothing profound has been said but it generally agrees with your comments.

    1. The FM website provides all your geopolitical information needs, including recommended nightmares.

      Worried about the US military as a potential threat? Go to the FM reference page America’s military, and our national defense strategy. To to Section 2 – About our defense agencies working against us — which includes the following:

      1. A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009
      2. Who can we trust to defend our liberty? Will our culture’s rot spread to the military?, 17 June 2010
      3. What will our Mercs do when our wars wind down? Who will hire them?, 16 August 2011
  3. A little off topic for this particular post, but you have repeatedly wrote along the lines of “…Mao brought 4GW to maturity”.

    Mao developed insurgency theory (specifically rural, popular, communist insurgency), but 4GW as we see it now? Such a statement would not gel with what William Lind himself writes for instance in “On War #321 – 4GW comes to Ft Hood“, 10 November 2009

    – or where Mao can be seen as the jumping off point for the transition from guerilla warfare to 4GW that T.X.Hammes described in detail. May I enquire is this a considered position, or am I making too much of some rhetorical prose?

    1. This is a great question, and deserves more time and attention than I can give it here and now.

      (1) What is 4GW, and why has it faded away as a working perspective on modern warfare?

      In my opinion, the Internet killed it. Traditionally in the modern west research takes place within a narrow community, which enforces definitions — necessary for clear communication (see Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions). This could be within academia or, for example, the US Army.

      The Internet opens discussions to the world, but makes communication difficult. Concepts, even words, mean whatever the writer wants them to mean. Facts are just confidently expressed opinions.

      4GW become a vague concept, then there was 5GW and 6GW, and zillion GW (exaggeration for emphasis). At which point it became useless, no longer used.

      (2) Mao and 4GW

      Look at the first use of the term 4GW: “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation“, by WS Lind, JF Schmitt, and GI Wilson, Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989

      Mao nicely fits their description of 4GW. Note that much of the power of communist revolutions was their transcendent character — people fighting for an ideology, to change history. Not just to change the political regime.

      Mao brought 4GW to maturity in the sense it became useful, even decisive under favorable circumstances. There has been considerable innovation since then. As seen in the defeats of the US and allies in Iraq and Af-Pak (defeat meaning inability to realize political objectives despite investment of great resources for a long time).

  4. Both Sides of the COIN – Defining War After Afghanistan. It’s time to trot out the “no true Scotsman fallacy.”

    “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.”
    Counterinsurgency, Joint U.S. Army-Marine Corps field Manual 3-24 (2006)

    Theory versus Practice“, Christopher Sims (doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London), Foreign Affairs, January 2012 — Excerpt:

    Lastly, it is worth remembering that Afghanistan and Iraq were not the chosen wars of the warrior-intellectuals who came to be counterinsurgency’s greatest champions. A project of nation building in which the central government is neither reflective of nor responsive to the needs of the people is not the desired terrain; Kilcullen, for example, has criticized the decision to invade Iraq. Yet the anthropological potion that he and others created — modern counterinsurgency doctrine — turned out to be a remedy for a seemingly incurable malady. It should not be abandoned because it has not been implemented effectively or homogeneously; it is an invaluable intellectual reservoir that the U.S. military should draw on, adapt, and modify for the future.

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