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The War Over COIN

In certain U.S. military circles, there has been a backlash against “COIN”– the acronym for counterinsurgency operations. This is a strategy for fighting guerrillas and terrorists, which has evolved over centuries and was last a focus of U.S. military study in the Vietnam War. Then in the 1970s it was discarded in a mental rubbish bin, only to be revived and updated midway through the Iraq War, when it became apparent that conventional, firepower-intensive ways of war were not going to defeat elusive insurgents. The key moment was the publication at the end of 2007 of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual — the first manual on the subject produced for the general forces in decades. Shortly after it came out, one of its authors, General David Petraeus, was dispatched to Iraq to oversee the surge. The rest, as they say, is history.

Iraq seems to have validated many of the tenets of COIN theory, and Petraeus is now applying them to Afghanistan. A good summary of current COIN thinking can be found in Petraeus’s “Counterinsurgency Guidance,” which advises his troopers, inter alia, to “secure and serve the population,” “live among the people,” and “consult and build relationships.” All this sounds like common sense except that it runs counter to conventional military thinking, which calls for large forces to sweep through insurgent areas, killing lots of bad guys in the hope of defeating the insurgency. COIN theory is centered not on merely killing bad guys but on identifying them, which can only be done with the help of the populace.

No matter how many times these lessons are validated in battle, they have their critics in the conventional military, who argue that today the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, in particular, have put too much emphasis on COIN and not enough on conventional missions such as armored warfare or amphibious landings. They fret that by getting ready for COIN — a particularly thankless and difficult task — the military will be asked to do more of it, and they don’t think that’s in our national interest.

Nadia Schadlow, a leading security scholar and a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation (which, full disclosure, has provided some funding for my work), has now penned a compelling critique of the anti-COIN arguments in the Armed Forces Journal. The whole essay is well worth reading.

Schadlow argues that guerrilla warfare and terrorism are “recurring” forms of warfare and to prepare for them is the best way to ensure that adversaries will be deterred from attacking us. She also counters the argument that the army has become too COIN-centric, writing that “the Army’s overall approach over the past several years has been to build and train a force capable of fighting across the full spectrum of operations.”

She concludes:

The current COIN doctrine emerged as a corrective to the American tendency to take an engineering or technological approach to war, one that divorces war from its enduring human, psychological and political nature. COIN doctrine, therefore, fills an important gap by identifying operational and tactical requirements that are a part of war — particularly those wars that involve insurgents who are fighting to undermine legitimate governments and establish control over populations or territory.

This is a debate well worth having; no military force should subscribe exclusively to one worldview or orthodoxy. But in the continuing debate over COIN doctrine, count me on Schadlow’s side — we’d better get ready for these types of conflicts because guerrillas and terrorists aren’t going away.


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