Return of the COIN-istas (the zombies of military theory)

Summary: John Quiggin writes about zombie economics, theories false but too politically useful to die. COIN is an example of zombie military theory. In the 60 years since Mao brought 4GW to maturity, foreign armies of every type have employed it against local insurgents, with an almost uniform record of failure. America’s COIN-istas — brilliant, experienced sirens — lured us to defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they’re trying for a third FAILure. Will they succeed? Give your forecast in the comments.

Knife Fights


Revenge of the COIN Doctrine

John Nagl’s counterinsurgency failed its way to popularity before, and is now trying to make a comeback.

By Kelley Vlahos
The American Conservative, 31 October 2014
Reprinted with their generous permission


“Your table manners are a cryin’ shame. You’re playing with your food this ain’t some kind of game. Now if you starve to death you’ll just have yourself to blame. So eat it, just eat it.”
-– Weird Al Yankovic

In his first book, counterinsurgency advocate Ret. (Lt. Col.) John Nagl told us how to Eat Soup with a Knife. It turned out that it really was easier to eat soup with a spoon, or frankly, not to eat it at all. Today, after two failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nagl has written a follow-up, but it has nothing to do with eating humble pie.

In Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice, Nagl has abandoned the dining motif along with the format. The book is a memoir in which he tries to cast himself as both a inside player and a outside rebel, one who had to struggle to bring a new counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy to losing battlefields in Iraq in 2007, then Afghanistan in 2009.

Thus, the knife depicted on the cover of the book, which was released this month, is no table utensil, but a hunting knife. That might be fitting, considering the many ducks, blinds, and decoys he presents throughout. But like everything else Nagl has promoted over the years, it’s all just a bit difficult to swallow.

Simply put, Nagl, once called the “Johnny Appleseed of COIN,” uses his memoir to

  • a) paper over the huge failures of counterinsurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan by saying the best we can hope for now are “unsatisfying but not catastrophic outcomes”;
  • b) to distance himself — and COIN — from defeat by blaming everything but the strategy for why it didn’t work as promised in the field; and
  • c) burnish his own resume — which takes up much of the book — for a possible return to a Democratic administration in 2016.


The Green Berets
Fiction makes a bad basis for waging war

This might sound cynical, even abrasive, but consider the stakes: the U.S. is currently engaged in another military intervention in Iraq, against an enemy that never went away even after COIN allegedly “won” the war there. When someone who not only promoted prolonging the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and publicly sold the snake oil that surged hundreds of thousands of troops into harms way is now attempting to rehabilitate himself suggests a return of at least 15,000 more troops to Iraq, is it not wise to examine the merits and timing of what Peter Mansoor hubristically calls, “a magnificent memoir from one of the most brilliant officers of his generation”?

Ret. Army Col. Gian Gentile, a long-time COIN critic who is singled out in Knife Fights, certainly thinks so. He tells TAC the book reads more like “a Hollywood director hoping to turn (his memoir) into a swashbuckling movie.” “Nagl’s new book is not about research and scholarship,” he charges, but is actually “about proliferating a myth, constructed by him and other proponents of counterinsurgency, that COIN can work as long as stupid armies are transformed and saved from themselves by clever COIN doctrine and savior generals.”

COIN was supposed to create a safe space in Iraq for political reconciliation and democratic governance to grow. That is what Nagl and his “COINdinistas,” led by Gen. David Petraeus (who still plays the savior role in Knife Fights), said would be the measure of success for the 2007 troop surge.

By all objective metrics, that did not happen before Petraeus declared the surge a success in front of a beaming, COIN-bedazzled audience at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in 2009. In hindsight, the only meaningful space created was for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who would rule Iraq for the next several years with an American-sanctioned whip hand.

This was accomplished not through so called “population centric warfare,” but through intensive capture/kill campaigns and immense American firepower deployed against both Maliki’s Sunni enemies and his Shia rivals in Baghdad during the surge—which Petraeus explained in great detail at that ’09 CNAS event.

Learning To Eat Soup with a Knife

This is the kind of slight of hand that Nagl & Co. have been playing from the start — suggesting that COIN’s successes came from non-kinetic approaches, like special ops forces living among the people and anthropologists air dropping in to help win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, they paid some 90,000 Sunni fighters to side with them and helped Maliki kill or torture the rest.

Nagl continues the Kabuki less effectively in Knife Fights, which he prefaces by trying to say the book is “about modern wars and how they affect the lives of young men and women.” It is actually about John Nagl, who generally takes credit for bringing COIN to the upper echelons of the military culture, getting top brass to embrace it, and birthing a generation of young junior officers hooked on the juice.

Furthermore, he demands that “our politicians … approach future wars with greater humility,” when he shows no such willingness to do so himself. He says “the final tragedy of Iraq and Afghanistan would occur if we again forget the many lessons we have learned about counterinsurgency over the past decade of war.” Yet the book makes no attempt to tell us what those lessons are. It merely makes excuses as to why it didn’t work in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Iraq, which he calls “an unsatisfying and untidy sort-of-victory.” He acknowledges that COIN under Petraeus was “imperfect and left behind a deeply troubled country that remains violent and unstable,” but claims it now has a “government the United States can live with.” (More on that later.)

According to Nagl, bad decisions made by civilian policymakers are to blame for what went wrong in Afghanistan, not the overzealousness of counterinsurgency as a magic formula. There weren’t enough troops for an Afghan surge, he complains. The U.S. gave Afghanistan democracy before they were able to handle it. The government in Kabul is too corrupt, the people illiterate, the neighboring Pakistanis untrustworthy.

Interestingly, Nagl also throws Gen. Stanley McChrystal under the bus in Knife Fights, saying Petraeus “had done a good job of underpromising and overdelivering in Iraq, but McChrystal took the opposite approach” in Afghanistan. That is almost laughable when the entire Beltway universe was on the COIN bandwagon at the time, “overpromising” an Iraq Redux in Helmand.

Worse, Nagl says McChrystal, “overinternalized the guidance” in the counterinsurgency field manual, or COIN bible, published in 2006. “Only some of the best weapons for COIN don’t shoot bullets,” Nagl writes, “and although dollars are weapons in this kind of fight, bullets work pretty well in a lot of circumstances.”

McChrystal, who made his name as a “man hunter” in Iraq, was surely aware of this, but one would have to have beeen living under a rock in 2009 not to have seen that he was under serious pressure to sell—and employ COIN—as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He didn’t write the manual—Nagl did—and as it was full of such pabulum as, “sometimes the more you protect your force the less secure you’ll be,” it is no wonder McChrystal had a difficult time translating it on the battlefield.

The Counterinsurgency Center
Too bad they keep losing

And lest we forget, CNAS — of which Nagl was the director — published a paper at that very time saying “protecting the population (should) take precedence over all other considerations for the time being” and that the U.S. should “adopt a population-centric counterinsurgency that emphasizes protecting the population rather than controlling physical terrain or killing the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

But when McChrystal is fired, for not having a “natural caution” of the press, hero Petraeus is brought in for the save. He immediately starts the bombing, “and the results are almost immediate,” Nagl gushes. Of course he would have kept on winning, Nagl suggests, if Obama didn’t get in the way and impose a timeline for withdrawal.

And here you have Nagl’s marquee complaint of why COIN did not work in Afghanistan and why Iraq is a disaster today: it’s all Obama’s fault.

In Knife Fights, Nagl directs his fire at Obama’s choices in Afghanistan. But that was written before Iraq imploded on the global stage just a few months ago. Then, the Iraqi government could be “lived with.” But now, as evidenced in his recent public appearances, Nagl is accusing Obama of squandering every hard-fought gain made under Petraeus, and, by withdrawing all combat troops in 2011, being responsible for ISIS cutting its way through Iraq today.

Little fish can defeat big fish

Talking before a largely sympathetic audience at the New America Foundation on Oct. 27, Nagl said Obama should have ignored the will of the Iraqi people and stayed there for a generation at least. Nagl advocates putting no less than 15,000 combat “advisors” into Iraq now to get the job done. All those maimed and dead American veterans of Iraq deserve it.  “If it was important enough to bleed there,” it’s important enough to stay, he charged.

Obama is an easy target these days. One is reminded of how critical Nagl was of the Bush war architects when that administration was on the way out, too. Nagl knew Pentagon positions would be opening up — he even quit the Army in 2008 to hitch his star to the Democratic “administration in waiting” at CNAS. However, as his colleagues Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell were scooped up for national security appointments with Obama, Nagl was overlooked. He eventually left the directorship at CNAS to take a position at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011; a year later, he became headmaster at The Haverford School, a wealthy boys prep school on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

For Nagl, timing is everything. Maybe he is hoping Knife Fights will get him back on the Beltway beat as a strategy guru in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. Not surprisingly, while chiding Obama’s judgments on Syria last year, he asserts that Petraeus, Leon Panetta and Clinton are “as good a security team as you’re going to find.”

Defeat at Chess
Sometimes the pawns win

But the failure of COIN is now well documented, despite Nagl’s attempts at historical whitewash. For this, his comeback may be short-lived. The “skunks at the party,” like Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, and Gentile, are looking at the fairy dust on the floor and wondering why Nagl is still around.

“The hard fact is that COIN did not produce the outcomes promised, either in Iraq or in Afghanistan.  At best, it allowed the United States to leave Iraq without admitting defeat.  Today, of course, the rise of ISIS makes even that claim increasingly untenable,” Bacevich tells TAC.

My sense is that the officer corps once more finds itself in an intellectual void. Filling that void is an urgent priority, but is unlikely to happen until members of the officer corps acknowledge that the infatuation with COIN to which Nagl and others succumbed was from the outset deeply misguided — an excuse to avoid serious thinking about war and actually existing security requirements.

To wit: the next time we’re told to “eat it,” let’s ask what’s in it first. That way we’ll avoid the heartburn, and the knife fights afterward.


About the author

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos has spent the last 14 years as a reporter and columnist in Washington DC, writing about national security, civil liberties, the drug war and returning veterans. Currently she is a political writer for,, and Homeland Security Today magazine. She is contributing editor for The American Conservative magazine. She recently signed on with her old editor at the new Border News Network as its Washington correspondent. She also works as a web writer and editor for Washington’s top news radio broadcast network,

Her articles and commentary appeal across the political spectrum and have been reprinted in places as diverse as The Utne Reader, The Spectator (UK) and

See her articles at The American Conservative. See her website for more content.

For More Information

See all posts about:

  1. John Nagl
  2. COIN theory and practice
  3. The Essential 4GW reading list: John Nagl

Some posts about John Nagl:

  1. Recommended: How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I, 7 June 2008
  2. Nagl gives a profoundly wrong vision for the US military, 22 June 2008
  3. Another sad little bit of agitprop, this time from John Nagl, 28 February 2010
  4. “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
  5. I come not to praise COIN but to bury it. And to ask you why we adopted it, at such cost., 1 September 2012
  6. Choose to follow those who were right about our wars, or those who were wrong, 17 June 2014

The vital history of COIN (let’s not add to it):

  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



13 thoughts on “Return of the COIN-istas (the zombies of military theory)”

  1. “left behind a deeply troubled country that remains violent and unstable,”
    Yes, and it was also bad for Iraq as well.

  2. Very depressing! But at least not quite as naive as the “armored development works and girl school” narrative promoted by the german government for our involvement in Afghanistan.

    1. Dashui,

      You raise one of the great oddities of US policy, one which I suspect will baffle future historians.

      Afghanistan, Iraq, Lybia, Syria — all secular regimes, giving rights to women, likely over time to drift to western-style systems (as China and Vietnam have) — all overthrown with US help, replaced by Islamic regimes implacably hostile to our values and treating women like dirt.

      This seems quite mad to me. Four times, so it cannot be accidental. Can anyone explain this?

  3. I suppose the US Army’s Human Terrain (CGI Federal) will get more funding…. Syria, Ukraine, Africa, Asia…After the vote here in the USA, more dogs of war will be released…here a COIN, there a COIN, everywhere a COIN, COIN…..


  4. I am not going to read Nagl’s book. I accept your criticism of it as is. Having served over 6 years in the Vietnam era, most of it as an officer in the Special Forces, I was bemused how Petraeus and his protégés “discovered COIN” 30 years later.

    First and foremost, insurgencies must be treated as civil wars. The reasons for an insurgency must recognized as valid. If the central government does not wish to respect the insurgents and openly promise to resolve their grievances, then COIN is a non-starter.

    If the central government is not prepared to do this, then it would be better disposed to fight a war of annihilation against the insurgents until there is no safe haven and no body of armed insurgents anywhere. Consider how the U.S. dealt with the American Indians or how the Russians dealt with the Chechens as examples.

    1. Arthur,

      You obviously learned more from your service in Vietnam than did the U.S. Military. But that is the essence of Zombie theories: their enduring political utility prevents organizational learning.

      As for annihilation, Martin van Creveld agrees with you. In his books, such as culture of war, he shows that insurgencies are best defeated by their governments by either sustained light methods (e.g., the UK in Northern Ireland) or extreme force (Hama massacre, 1982 Syria).

      Thank you for commenting!

  5. FM remarks that the U.S. shows a consistent pattern of overthrowing secular middle eastern regimes, which then get replaced by implacably hostile fundamentalist Islamic regimes intensely opposed to the U.S. He mentioned “This seems quite mad to me. Can anyone provide an explanation?”

    The proximate explanation is that the U.S. military/prison/police/surveillance/torture complex desperately needs a scary enemy in order to justify its continued funding. Therefore the U.S. military/prison/police/surveillance/torture complex arranges foreign policy to maximize the number of scary enemies, or at least enemies which can be called scary if we squint hard enough, and thus ensure ever-growing military budgets into the infinite future.

    What’s really “quite mad” is the U.S. continuing to spend like a drunken sailor on its military when there aren’t any meaningful enemies left in the world. But if the public wakes up and realizes this, the American military and intelligence communities and their parasitic congresscritters and weapons/surveillance contractors all starve and go broke. So, in good self-deluding fashion, all these people convince themselves that minor annoyances like Al Qaeda or ISIS represent world-threatening existential dangers which America must spend itself into oblivion to eradicate. The military people are actually well-intentioned patriots — they just have an eerie capacity to hypnotize themselves into believing crazy things like “ISIS is an existential threat to America’s existence” in order to coincidentally guarantee themselves continued ever-increasing funding. And this is not cynical on their part. The military and intelligence services in America really truly do sincerely believe that unless they maintain vast and ever-increasing levels of funding, the American Way of Life As We Know It Will Be Destroyed.

    This brings us to the secondary explanation. Self-delusion by the U.S. military and intelligence services and our leaders is all well and good, but surely that’s not enough of an explanation, is it? Why doesn’t the American public step in and put a stop to this madness? Surely the American people recognize this deluded crazy behavior for what it is, don’t they?

    The answer here I think is much simpler. It’s not self-delusion on the part of the American people — it’s confusion and bewilderment. The ordinary American has grown up in a WW II & Cold War environment. There exist hardly any people in America today who were around before WW II. Such few of those people as exist now are in rest homes, and they’re dying off. They’re in their late 70s or 80s and they’re not an important part of public life. No one hears from these people. They don’t blog, they don’t get interviewed, they don’t write newspaper articles.

    So as a practical matter, essentially all the living Americans we now hear from grew up in a WW II/Cold War environment, and this means that the Great Evil Enemy the Soviet Union (and before that the Great Evil Enemy the Nazis) is the way the world works to all Americans. That’s just the way the universe is. America is the shining light of democracy, the savior of the world from the Great Evil Enemy (fill in the blank here: Nazis, the USSR, Al Qaeda, ISIS…it’s got to be something). There can’t not be a Great Evil Enemy for American to battle. It’s our national identity now. It’s our role in the world. It’s who we are as a people.

    After the Soviet Union disintegrated and vanished, America’s identity became unclear. Americans as a people wobbled and wandered around, unsure of ourselves. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know who we were. If America is not the shining light of democracy in the world, but just another nation, what do we do? We didn’t know.

    This scared the American people out of their wits. They couldn’t wrap their heads around it. When the USSR imploded, it robbed us of our national identity. It was as though Cortez and his men showed up and kidnapped and killed the Incan king. Everything we thought we knew about the universe blew up, and we were left as a society without any solid moorings.

    A nation and a society can withstand anything, fire, floods, invasion…but if their entire reason for existence suddenly gets taken away, then that society is in danger of collapse. That was America after 1991 when the USSR vanished.

    So the American people did what most people when their reason for existence gets taken away: they clung to the old identity they had grown up, the one that given them certainty for so many years. America convinced itself that, yes, we were still the shining hope of democracy in the world, because! Look! Two skyscrapers blew up!

    That’s crazy, but if the alternative is running out of moral and intellectual reasons to exist as a nation, crazy is better than nothing at all. So I think this is why Americans have so uncritically gone along with this batshit insane Global War on Terror. America just cannot imagine any identity for itself now but the white knight fighting the Great Evil Enemy — first the Nazis, then the USSR, now Al Qaeda, ISIS, whatever, a procession of two-bit third-rate villains for as long as history lasts. That’s who we are. This is our identity. As long as we cling to this identity, our worldview is safe and our society makes sense and while things might not be pleasant, what with all the surveillance and the checkpoints and the muggers with badges invading our privacy and subjecting us to undeclared martial law, it’s better than the alternative. Which is total rootlessness, existential bafflement, a complete loss of our sense of identity as a nation and of our place in the world as a society.

    I think the average person in America knows in the back of their mind who crazy this is. But what’s the alternative? If America isn’t the Arsenal of Democracy, what good is all our capitalist machinery? If America isn’t the shining white knight of the world fighting a Great Evil Enemy, what’s the use of American Exceptionalism? If America is just another country among many, how do we sustain all these characteristic American fantasies about a wonderful future and eternal progress and democracy spreading across the world and everyone in this country being able to make him or herself whatever they want to be by sheer willpower?

    If America is just another jaded late-imperial decadent kleptocracy saddled with a caste system more restrictive than the one Emperor Diocletion imposed on Rome in the first century A.D., why even bother to exist as a nation? What’s our purpose? Offer up more bribes to ever more corrupt leaders? Gaze at ever more brutal spectacles of torture and brutality to entertain the masses? Crush the increasingly vocal and ever-growing underclass with ever more savage police/military repression? Abandon the rule of law in ever larger areas of official life, until we start to encroach on Caligula-esque levels of self-degradation? (As in the California senator recently convicted of eight counts of perjury & voter fraud who faced eight years in prison, got sentenced to ninety days, served one hour.)

    If that’s all America is, what’s the point? Why bother?

    I think Americans would rather face anything, absolutely anything, but that kind of existential nihilism. A future of eternal war, continued impoverishment, rule by greedy corrupt oligarchs — anything is preferable to totally losing our identify as a society and coming adrift from our moorings as a nation and finding ourselves without a purpose, without a sense of our place in the world, without any continued rationale for existing.

  6. There was, and still is, an emotional aspect to the decade-long ramage the west has embarked on. It wasn’t just hurt pride but also confusion about the why? Why are they (Al-Quaida et al.) attacking while we have done nothing – at least in the eyes of the western population.

    I suspect that a lot of people thought about foreign policy and the larger world out there like a Clancy novel. Clear-cut, strongly formulated morals, selfless leading characters, honest deals… of course the truth is something else. An honest analysis and discussion might have to look into these ego issues.

  7. FWIW:

    “– Undermine guerrilla cause and destroy their cohesion by demonstrating integrity and competence of government to represent and serve needs of people—rather than exploit and impoverish them for the benefit of a greedy elite.*

    — Take political initiative to root out and visibly punish corruption. Select new leaders with recognized competence as well as popular appeal. Ensure that they deliver justice, eliminate grievances, and connect government with grass roots.* …

    * If you cannot realize such a political program, you might consider changing sides!”

    Despite Boyd’s materialistic orientation, there might still be a gem or two in this old (c. 1980) observation from Patterns 108. Note that these things are impossible for an outside power to do.

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