Wednesday, March 3, 2010

De la contre-insurrection

Francophones interested in COIN should check the latest issue of Securite Globale (No.10, Summer 2009). Stephane Taillat, whose blog En Vérité still holds, to my knowledge, the monopoly over francophone COIN blogging, co-edits a series of articles on “contre-insurrection(s).” Among other contributions, David Ucko has an article on the dilemmas of the US COIN doctrine, Michel Goyat describes the British experience in Helmand, and Christian Olsson examines the link between COIN and the responsibility to protect. Not to surprise anyone, Gian Gentile has an article denouncing the “myths” and “dangers” of the COIN doctrine where he offers a “vision critique de l’US Army” (no translation needed for this one, I believe).

Gentile has found a new fan on the other side of the pond. Jean-Dominic Merchet from the (usually excellent) Secret Défense blog had a “Aha!” moment when reading Gentile’s contribution. In a post titled “To get down with the counterinsurgency dogma” (“Pour en finir avec les dogmes de la contre-insurrection”), Merchet marvels at Gentile’s revelations about the “mythification of the 2007 surge,” (apparently paying off the Sons of Iraq played some part in that success—oh, really?) and the fact that it is now “more important for the army to learn and adapt than to be capable of fighting” (what I usually read runs more along the lines of “it is important to learn and adapt to be capable of better fighting”, but I may be unnecessarily subtle here). Apparently unaware of the fact that Gentile has as much a vested interest as Petraeus in promoting his own Iraq narrative and interpretation of what worked or not there, Merchet concludes that the French army should learn from Gentile’s article and not get carried away by the COIN precepts.

I'd say that the French army will be just fine, thanks, but I may simply be blinded by the COIN dogma...


  1. Beware of The Dominant Narrative!

    On a more serious note, and speaking of French things, Thomas Rid did a good job last summer of breaking down (in English) the new French COIN doctrine (they actually call it CREB, not COIN -- as Alma well knows -- for contre-rebellion). Go see:

    Contre Rebellion, New French Field Manual, Kings of War, 29 JUL 09

  2. What is wrong with accepting Gentile's narrative of the surge (other than the inconvenient fact that it might not be accurate)? But assuming it is accurate - and even if it'ss not - perhaps it *should* be standard US doctrine to partner/establish partners such as the Sons of Iraq? That may not be what Gentile is saying - and correct me if I am wrong - but partnering with indigenous forces in COIN operations is hardly new (see Yoav Gortzak, Arizona State, who I believe is doing research on the topic). Would it be wrong to buy off elements of the Taliban?



  3. Schmedlap's comment - or at least the review to which he posted - made me laugh. I saw The Hurt Locker with an OIF veteran, and he was like, "You'd NEVER go out in a single Humvee!"

    Incidentally, from Steve Walt's blog, did anyone see Robert Pape's new terrorism database? Has anyone worked with the MIPT database and if so, is the U Chicago one superior?


  4. Now if we could only get CJ Chivers (he's sooooo dreamy!) and Tom Ricks into this, every leitmotif of Ink Spots will be covered.

    And then Madhu will arrive to pull it all together with medical diagnosis.


  5. ADTS -- Gentile's criticism of the COIN Dominant Narrative (including the nested Surge [sub-] Narrative), incoherent as it often may be, seems to hinge on a couple of different (and perhaps contradictory) propositions:

    1. Whatever limited success can be claimed for the U.S. effort in Iraq is almost entirely a result of factors that have nothing to do with how U.S. forces were operating

    2. U.S. Army units, including then-LTC Gentile's battalion/squadron in Baghdad, were already performing COIN long before anyone told them to do it, or how

    3. COIN doctrine, as prescribed by FM 3-24, does not really work

    4. The institutions of the U.S. Army are spending too much time and effort aligning themselves to better train, equip, and organize around a doctrine that doesn't really work, basing these decisions on a false reading of history

    Without rehashing the entire debate here, I'd just say that no one expects doctrine to be infallible, and that it's impossible to produce a Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 guidebook to effective operations in any environment. The big takeaway from 3-24, for me, is about organizational and operational flexibility, and about being attentive to the circumstantial differences in each AO/mission. COL Gentile, obviously, would disagree.

    And I think I take your point, ADTS, that even if we acknowledge the legitimacy (at least in part), of what I've identified as Gentile's proposition 1, propositions 3 and 4 do not necessarily follow. I'd certainly disagree with 4 from an institutional standpoint.

    And as far as 2 goes, well, that's a whole other story. But I always wonder why LTC Gentile was doing COIN if he was so certain that it didn't work.

  6. CREB certainly sounds better in French than COIN, which means "corner". Not exactly where you would like to be stuck during a war.

    Partnering with indigenous forces in COIN operations is nothing new, and I'd say that at least examining the possibility to do it should be standard US doctrine. But each case needs to be analyzed thoroughly before you take the risk of altering the balance of forces in a given country by backing one group vs. others. Sometimes it is a great idea (Sons of Iraq), sometimes it leads to major human rights violations and abuses (see for instance the Civil Defense Forces in Sierra Leone or the Civilian Home Defense in the Philippines). Not to mention the risks of flickering loyalties and partners playing double agents...

  7. ADTS: I have not checked the Robert Pape's database yet, but one limitation I see is that it only covers suicide attacks. This means that many terrorist groups, who use rarely or never this mode of operation, will be excluded from the Chicago U database.

    I sometimes use the National Counterterrorism Center's Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (, which covers all types of terrorist incidents, but it is far from perfect... as is, I guess, any database.

  8. Right, Pape's data is on suicide terrorism. You can't really use it effectively, because interesting research on suicide terrorist pretty much requires having a control of all attacks to compare against. Anyway...

    I've worked extensively with the databases. NCTC -- post 2004 is by far the best source. Easiest to use and most comprehensive. It is still full of tons of problems that are inherent in terrorism data. Data is sensitive to various definitional issues. It is incomplete because compiled from open sources, which creates several biases that are very difficult to control for.

    The MIPT data -- now GTD maintained by START at U. Md is useful... but a mess. It is incomplete. The coding rules vary dramatically over time. I am not sure I'd trust a study based on it unless I had an opportunity to spend a lot of time on reading methodological footnotes.

    The reality is that the quality of terrorism data is awful. Relying on it for anything other than topline analysis of trends is very problematic. I'd be happy to discuss all of this is more depth if anyone has an interest in it.

  9. Disclaimer: Mrs SNLII formerly toiled at RAND on terrorism issues.

    Dr Finel, while that's true of MIPT, it's also true of all the databases. I guess it's my favorite database, but you're right, it's all over the place.

    State's "Patterns of Global Terrorism and Country Reports on Terrorism" also suffered from definitional problems. NTC's country reports also vary by year.

    I keep hearing that RAND is going to put Wermuth's database back online this year. Since my interest is outliers amidst the broadest of trends, I can live with these sorts of problems. But you put out the annual report card on "progress" against the Global War on Abstract Nouns, so your data needs are different.


  10. Gulliver,

    I don't think you've accurately represented Gentile's critiques. In the order that you hit the major points...

    1. My understanding is that Gentile thinks there is not enough emphasis upon the impact of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad prior to the surge or AQI wearing out its welcome with the Anbar tribes. Take away those two variables and things would have been far more difficult and may not have worked. In other words, attempt the surge in 2005 instead of 2007 and things probably would have been much uglier.

    2. I think his point is that some units were doing COIN - his included. The "dominant narrative" that he complains of is that all units were "holed up in their FOBs." I have discussed this with him online and repeatedly pointed out that, regardless of what his unit was doing, the trend was that most units were either in FOBs or closing down their PBs and moving back to FOBs. The "surge" reversed that trend. He still seems to view the "dominant narrative" as an either-or proposition that all units were doing COIN or none were.

    3. I don't think he says that COIN doctrine "doesn't work." I think his gripe is that we glorify it and that we need a strategy, but instead we just keep repeating the mantra of COIN, which is not a strategy.

    4. Again, I don't think he is alleging that COIN "doesn't work." I think his gripe is that we glorify it and see it as a magic bullet. We need to be prepare for operations across the full spectrum, not bet too heavily on nation-building, which is what our COIN ops seem to be creeping into.

  11. Counter-Rebellion sounds much cooler and simpler than population-centric counter-insurgency. Merci, mon amies.

  12. Well,
    Thank you for this kind post. We made a very tough job with GH Bricet des Vallons, co-editor of the special issue, to gather an international panel of experts and specialist.
    I'm sure it's important and even critical to examine Gian's arguments. But I recommend francophone readers to pay attention to Christian Olsson's contribution. It is worth the reading in order to gain a deeper understanding of the conditions to succeed or fail in counterinsurgency.