Friday, July 22, 2011

What's wrong with COIN doctrine?

[PRE-POSTSCRIPT: Ha, I see that Fritz and I had the same idea, so we've got two roughly duplicative posts up this morning. (To be fair, he got there first.) Please forgive the indulgence.]

A great deal of ink has been spilled on this question, but the majority of 3-24's critics have focused on what I think of as "meta" issues with counterinsurgency: questions of policy and strategy and the appropriate use of the military instrument. That's all well and good, and it's important that the country and the community of defense professionals think through those contextual matters. But sometimes we forget -- what with publication under the U of Chicago imprint and blurbs by celebrity academics and such -- that the "FM" in 3-24 stands for field manual. This is military doctrine, which ought to be not only a statement of fundamental principles, but a guide to action for military forces. It needs to be right, but it also needs to be useful.

To that end, friends of Ink Spots Carl Prine, Crispin Burke, and Mike Few have done us all a service: they've published a short piece on SWJ outlining some things they believe ought to inform future revisions to the American military's counterinsurgency doctrine (pdf). It's concise, clear, and to the point, and you ought to read the whole thing (pdf). I hope they won't mind if I boil down their 13 points -- which are already very digestible -- into my own words.

1. The Army has published other doctrine in the last five years that bears on related subjects and supersedes bit of 3-24.

2. Current COIN doctrine is too informed by historical thinking on the subject and not enough by the recent experiences of (and lessons learned by) the U.S. military.

3. A doctrinal rewrite ought to be a part of a broader interagency (and even national) conversation about how counterinsurgency and stability operations fit within the context of national strategy and policy.

4. We need to listen more to the guys who have done this work, and figured out how to do it effectively in practice.

5. This re-look ought to help us do away with silly, simplistic distinctions and dichotomies (and the resulting parochial equities) among various schools of thought on irregular war. Let's get past COINdinistas/COINtras and COIN/CT.

6. New thinking on counterinsurgency should be premised on a reappraisal of what insurgency is in the modern era. What are the drivers of rebellion, and how can military action influence them?

7. Insurgency is evolving -- both in its general, conceptual form, and in its specific practical manifestations. We should consider the forms of our new doctrine so that it can be adapted and reshaped accordingly -- on the fly.

8. Sometimes "the population is the prize." Sometimes it isn't. Doctrine provides a template, but it must be able to account for multiform reality rather than shoving square pegs into round "pop-centric" holes.

9. A template isn't a checklist. It's worth reconsidering whether the old axioms are still true... if they ever were. (80/20 political to military, anyone?)

10. COIN can't and won't always be about enabling host nation government. (What about counterinsurgency operations in support of military governance or an international provisional authority?) Our doctrine needs to get real about variable solutions to different problems.

11. Some of the generalized, prescriptive guidance presented in 3-24 is specious or outright wrong. To come up with real, meaningful "best practices" for COIN, we need to come to grips with the real, wide-ranging, sometimes uncomfortable history of rebellion and government response. No more caricatures.

12. 3-24 may have offered hope of "kinder, gentler war" to its many progressive exponents, and to that end it served a purpose: its popularity helped garner support for necessary changes to the way the U.S. military was doing business in the middle of the last decade. But practitioners know this is a chimera. There will always be brutality in war, even if we recognize that much of it is impermissible for the American military professional.

13. "Propaganda of the deed" is an important concept for the insurgent and counterinsurgent, and focused attention to the subject should help us think through the complex relationship between force, persuasion, volition, and compulsion. We need a better understanding of how perception actually influences action, not bumper stickers about the subordination of all other lines of effort to Information Operations.

I hope Carl, Crispin, and Mike won't feel like I've misrepresented their analysis here in offering my own distillations or amplifications. They've done great work here, and it strikes me as an exellent stepping-off point as the community begins to think about what we want and need out of our next COIN manual.


  1. Gulliver,

    Here's the obligatory comment for your complimentary post. I agree with what you've said even if the discussion at Ink Spots is falling under Jason's post.


  2. Disagree with number 8.

    On number 9, military action is politics, and should be guided by such. Here (if nothing else) read Barry Posen's article on policy and strategy.

    On number 13, seems to me you've just contradicted your points in numbers 8 and 9 (otherwise why would the propaganda matter?). But I strongly agree with this point, and would suggest that those who haven't should read Henry Hale's paper on the social psychology of identity as a heuristic, Michael Ignatieff's The Warrior's Honor on the narcissism of minor difference, Fotini Christia's PhD thesis, Paul Brass's Theft of an Idol and Jean Hatzfeld's Machete Season. And then read whatever some of Stuart Kaufmann's work on symbolic politics. All important additional dimensions (with operational implications) to the perspectives that Wood, Kalyvas, Weinstein, Humphrey, Kilcullen, Metz, Mackinlay, Fearon, Laitin, and many others have provided on the nature of insurgency.

  3. MK -- To be clear, I was primarily summarizing the points that the authors of the piece had made. I agree with many of them, but I should be clear that my own list wouldn't necessarily be the same.

    That said, what do you disagree with in number 8?

    On number 9, yes, agree. But I'm not sure what that has to do what what's written. If anything, I think that reality is a further indictment of such generalized pronouncements as the 80/20 one I've cited. If even the 20% of the COIN effort that's ostensibly "military" is also fundamentally political, then what does this distinction mean?