Commentary Magazine


The Future of COIN

RAND has just come out with an important study of what the U.S. government needs to do to reorient itself for the challenges of waging a global counterinsurgency against Islamist radicals. (For a brief summary, click here.) The abstract lays out the problem succinctly:

“Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed serious shortfalls in the capabilities of the United States to counter insurgency in the Muslim world. Instead of relying predominantly on military occupation, the United States must become more able to bolster the ability of threatened states to win the contest for the support of their people.”

The study has many interesting recommendations for how we can redress existing shortcomings. The bottom line is that the U.S. needs more civilians and more dollars devoted to counterinsurgency. The authors write that “the United States would need to triple its total current deployed USAID staff (of about 1,500) and double its annual foreign-development aid budget (of about $25 billion)” in order to handle major counterinsurgency efforts in two mid-sized countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, while also conducting “smaller-scale preventive efforts” in several other countries.

While rightly stressing a preference for local forces doing the bulk of counterinsurgency work, the RAND study calls for American forces to be better trained and equipped for such missions in places where local assistance can’t be counted on. The study also calls for enhancing efforts at psychological operations and other aspects of information warfare, such as countering jihadist propaganda online. “In Iraq and Afghanistan,” the study finds, “needed information moves too slowly among U.S. military, intelligence, civilian, and allied units. A fixation on information security denies access to local forces and excludes the most valuable source of all, the local population. ”

The study also makes an important recommendation (long pushed by experts such as Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies) for how to reorient American strategic communications efforts: “the United States should discard ‘pro-America’ themes in favor of strengthening the image of local government, while also highlighting growing evidence that jihadists, when in power, fail utterly to provide for the material needs of ordinary people.”

Finally the study also calls for “close consideration” of some possible reorganization plans, such as the formation of a civilian agency to guide counterinsurgency efforts across the government—something I’ve been advocating for a while.

This study is by no means the final word on the subject but it is a serious, in-depth effort that deserves serious consideration from administration officials and lawmakers interested in avoiding “another Iraq.”

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