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Counterinsurgency Under the Microscope

I am about to board a plane this afternoon that will take me to East Tennessee and a week or so spent with friends and family. I’ll be visiting friends in Memphis and Nashville in addition to doing a little climbing and kayaking. My dissertation, ever-present, will be along for the ride.

Before I go, though, I wanted to link to this pithy criticism of population-centric counterinsurgency that was posted on The Monkey Cage. I recommend you all take the time to read it, because it is both short and elegantly summarizes some of the recent scholarly research on counterinsurgency. (I think the post fails to recognize that population-centric counterinsurgency could include strategies that both seek to protect the population as well as strategies that seek to control the population, but this is a minor quibble. I do not think that Kalyvas, though, was writing about control of terrain so much as he was of control over the population.)

I think advocates and practitioners of counterinsurgency get unfairly tagged as an insular bunch closed to competing theories or criticism. This strikes me as unfair for any number of reasons. First, the earliest theorist-practitioners of counterinsurgency in this particular era never claimed to have the blueprint for the way counterinsurgency should be practiced. Gunner Sepp and Dave Kilcullen both published articles on best practices based on historical evidence mined from previous successful (and unsuccessful) counterinsurgency campaigns. Both authors never claimed to have cracked the code: they basically said to the junior officers who were reading their articles, “Hey, dude, I’m not going to tell you there is only one way to skin the cat, but here are some things that counterinsurgents have done through history that have proved useful.”

Second, if counterinsurgency as practiced by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps has developed into some kind of rigid step-by-step process, we’re not correctly applying the doctrine. Even tactical light infantry doctrine, like FM 7-8, allows for leaders on the ground to shape their tactics and operations depending on variables such as the mission, enemy, time, troops, terrain, civilians on the battlefield, etc. FM 3-24 is no different and in fact stresses the need for leaders to remain flexible and to adapt the doctrine to the war – not to try and force the environment to fit the doctrine.

Third, I think some academic critics of counterinsurgency doctrine and strategies mistakenly assume that many of theorist-practitioners who write about counterinsurgency will be as fiercely protective over their theories as, say, the political scientist Robert Pape is about his theory on what causes suicide terror. I’m not trying to pick on Pape – he is a brilliant guy, and I admire him professionally and personally (we debated on CNN once, and afterwards, he was really gracious) – but you would be hard-pressed to find any evidence that could convince him that his particular theory about what causes suicide terror is incorrect. Theorists and practitioners of counterinsurgency are not, for the most part, trying to get tenure or to get published in the American Political Science Quarterly: they are trying to win a war. Contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine developed as a pragmatic response to the operational difficulties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I explained recently to my friend Chris Preble, who disagrees with me on most things, counterinsurgency – population-centric or otherwise – cannot afford to become some unfalsifiable theory like Marxism or supply-side economics. If we lose the war in Afghanistan and ten years from now, you hear me saying, “Oh, if only we had thrown more troops into the equation, we would have been successful,” you would be well within your rights to wonder whether or not I am more a charlatan and counterinsurgency “evangelist” than social scientist and pragmatist. Afghanistan, like Iraq before it, is not about whose theory is the most elegant – it is about what works on the ground.

No serious theorist or practitioner of counterinsurgency does not welcome the scrutiny that has been applied to existing theories, doctrine and strategies. The recent research on counterinsurgency conducted by political scientists, economist, historians and others is of uneven quality but exciting in its scope and scale. My boss John Nagl may seem pretty enthusiastic about counterinsurgency doctrine, and the two of us have our disagreements on a regular basis about how counterinsurgency might be applied in Afghanistan, but believe me when I say that John is not trying to defend FM 3-24 in front of a tenure committee: he is trying to find pragmatic solutions for political and military decision-makers. Here’s one example: A few weeks ago I told John how I thought a lot of recent research – including my own research in southern Lebanon and Afghanistan – had really called into question some of our earlier assumptions about the utility of social services in counterinsurgency campaigns. I told John how on second thought, the provision of social services probably benefited the insurgent in a way it does not benefit the counterinsurgent. John nodded his head, said, “I think you’re right,” and walked back to his office. This is not a man held slave to things he wrote or believed years ago.

The past few weeks have seen a rash of newspaper pundits dismiss counterinsurgency out of hand while simultaneously failing to consider the costs, benefits and risks of alternate courses of action. That really annoys me. But I certainly do not begrudge the scholars who have tested our existing doctrine, assumptions and strategies through historical research, economic models, new or ignored case studies, etc. Some have even gone the extra mile and have proposed alternate courses of action for Afghanistan – which may come in handy should the president at some point decide to abandon his current policy or strategic goals. I consider it part of my job as a researcher employed by a think tank – with one foot in the world of academic research and one foot in the world of contemporary operations – to translate a lot of this new research for policy audiences and military officers. Which, I must admit, is a pretty sweet gig.

For now, though, I am off to God’s own country, where for the next 10 days counterinsurgency theory and operations will only be discussed over a grill and with a PBR tall boy in hand. I trust the readership will hold the fort down both here in Washington, abroad in Afghanistan, and wherever else you may be.

UPDATE: Prof. Nagl weighs in: "The twin pillars of FM 3-24 are "protect the population" and "learn and adapt", in that order for a reason. The doctrine is doctrinaire about the first pillar for a reason; a representative democracy cannot adopt the Roman method of destroying the province to save it. Other than that first principle, everything is up for discussion -- and in fact, the "Paradoxes of COIN" highlight the requirement to continually learn and adapt!"

COIN, social science


It took barely a year for

It took barely a year for the biggest proponents of population centric COIN to start bailing out. It must be some kind of record for ditching a failed doctrine- no I'm wrong- that honor would go to Static Defence and the Maginot Line. I don't blame the gang at CNAS for back tracking from the certainty they had last year. They've enabled policies that will cost the US $ 1 trillion and probably another 1500 fatalities- they have a lot to answer for.

PBR? What a fucking hipster.

PBR? What a fucking hipster.

wallah, this is true. but

wallah, this is true. but can't the ROE at least be changed to get rid of drones?
Drones just gobsmackingly obviously non cost-viable.
a third grader could figure that out.
because injustice propagates as influence along both social and blood kinship network connections.
2 x 1 = 2, not 1 or 0


OTOH, have a good vacation.


I notice you've been

I notice you've been blogging at a medium pace lately. Knew you couldn't stay away

I commented on a previous

I commented on a previous thread about the amount of counterinsurgency discussion being conducted on what I called a "marginally relevant academic plane."

I didn't and don't intend this to be a slam on thoughtful consideration of counterinsurgency theory; I believe this can indeed be "gotten right," in the sense that it can help advance the objectives of American foreign policy in future situations, in countries other than Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, though, we are starting counterinsurgency in the middle of the fourth quarter trailing by two touchdowns, with a team badly run down after a very long season. No discussion that covers both counterinsurgency and Afghanistan is likely to be useful that does not fully account for that.

Take, for example, the social services question AM raises here. As an academic question, it is certainly interesting and possibly important. In Afghanistan, the context is a country long flooded (relatively speaking, compared to the very low income levels and existing wealth of Afghans) with badly directed and coordinated foreign aid of various kinds. This has bred a whole legion of Afghan government officials who have done very well -- again, compared to how they did before 2001 -- from a culture of corruption. This culture is entrenched now as it was not when NATO arrived in the country, and the class of Afghans among whom it is most entrenched are the group of people on whom we are counting to deliver social services.

Could our efforts in this regard end up not doing us any good , or even helping the insurgency? Sure they could. Are they more likely to do so now than they would have been in 2002? It is way more likely, it seems to me, which is relevant not only to Afghanistan but to any future situations in which counterinsurgency might be considered. Social services delivered badly, or (worse) for a price, over an extended period of time by the legitimate government breed resentment among the population, a resentment that like many forms of popular feeling develops inertia. Efforts on our part to improve delivery of social services through the existing government could be undertaken in the best of faith and with ample resources and still not get us anywhere. Again, this is not just a matter of what we are attempting to do, but of when we are attempting to do it, and under what conditions.

The bottom line is this: for our current purpose -- i.e. trying to win this war -- the issue is not just whether a particular version of counterinsurgency is correct, or even whether it is correct now. The question is whether the Afghan policy failures since 2001 can be overcome. With the best counterinsurgency theory and practice, if we do everything right -- which we won't, because no one ever does -- is it realistic to expect we can dig ourselves out of this hole? If the response is: "well, sure we can, we just need to forget about deadlines and commit ourselves to keeping at it for as long as it takes and as much as it costs," then we need to go over the question again. With the other things going on in the world and at home, this kind of indefinite commitment is just not an option.

I have a great deal of respect for Gen. Petraeus -- enough to believe this line of thinking has occurred to him -- and certainly hope he will be successful with counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. At this point, we have to consider not just the possibility that he will not be, but that he cannot be, because of policy mistakes made with respect to Afghanistan made long before his arrival in Kabul, or even his arrival at CentCom. It is prudent to think beyond counterinsurgency, and consider ways to minimize the damage to American interests in the event that the Afghan government we are trying to support cannot sustain itself without an American army in the country.

You know the problem with

You know the problem with COIN, right? It's right there in your essay - or rather, what's not in the essay, namely practical examples of "successful COIN operations." COIN detractors, on the other hand, have dozens of examples of COIN operations that ended up leaving things in worse shape than they were before. COIN is mostly cover for standard neocolonial resource control efforts by various interests - take counterinsurgency efforts in Sudan in the early 1980s, when the north-south conflict over Sudan's new oil finds lead to the killing of Chevron employees in the region.

If you Google "counterinsurgency Sudan Chevron" (remove quotes) you'll get a 1983 article by noted investigative journalist Jack Anderson - here's a good quote:

    The classified cable makes clear that Chevron's oil investment is the chief concern. The oil fields have been threatened by rebels who oppose the Khartoum government... the American team is supposed to develop specific plans for protecting "proposed oil facilities in southern Sudan against an insurgent threat."

The slaughter there went on and on, didn't it? Eventually, Chevron left, some shady operators from Canada and elsewhere moved in, and finally China took everything over. The U.S. had, with Exxon and the World Bank, established control over the Chad region - leaving the oilfields of South Darfur as the unclaimed prize - whose pipeline will go there?

In the 1980s, Libyan and Soviet-sponsored radicalism was the cover story for resource warfare in the region - now, surprise, we have "ties to Al Qaeda" as the justification for intervention - but the real prize is the same, namely the uranium, the rare minerals, and the oilfields of Africa. How does that square with "population-centric COIN"? Here, have a stuffed bear from China, and now, we're going to pollute your river with a massive oil project - and don't go insurgent over this, or we'll have to stop being nice and start airstrikes. Don't forget, we're doing this to help you - it's called development.

COIN theorists are like those deregulation and free trade theorists of the 1990s - you know, the ones who said that only good things would come about if you removed all laws and regulations? Then came Enron and the rigging of western North American electricity and gas markets - just a touch of foreplay for the royal screwing of global finance markets by a remarkably similar group of traders from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, JP Morgan, Barclays, etc. It was all supposed to work out on paper...

Reality eventually trumps propaganda - just ask the Rendon Group, the self-styled 'information warriors' hired by the Pentagon to vet all embedded reporters - and they'd already been outed by Rolling Stone, too! Now they set McChrystal up with Hastings, I wonder if they'll keep their contract?

CNAS better hope that COIN

CNAS better hope that COIN works or the blue on blue attacks from people like Andrew Sullivan, Bob Herbert, et al will be in withering. The COIN supporters will portrayed as war loving masterminds who led a young & naive president astray and they will be left holding the flaming bag of dog poo that is Afghanistan.

"a representative democracy

"a representative democracy cannot adopt the Roman method of destroying the province to save it. Other than that first principle, everything is up for discussion.."

Lose another city and oh yes we can...and we could have in the fall of 01.

And BTW representative Democracies do exactly that all the time: Athens, The Roman Republic, Sherman in the Civil War...our actions in WW2, Sri Lanka in 2006....there's that Philippines matter....

It's Nagl and his fellow Progressives that can't adopt Roman methods. Don't speak for the whole Republic.

Afghanistan is not an American Province. New York is....we have to save American provinces. We do not have to save Afghan ones. If you've lost sight of that please walk away from our nations defense.

Interesting link by Mr Michael Cohen, he says oh yes horrific levels of violence and coercion of civilians are integral to COIN. Mind you he then quails from the obvious conclusion....


But, Andrew, everything else

But, Andrew, everything else was NOT up for discussion when LTC Nagl and Brian Burton wrote "Thinking Globally and Acting Locally: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Modern Wars – A
Reply to Jones and Smith," The Journal of Strategic Studies Vol. 33, No. 1, 123–138, February 2010.

Reading their response to a critique about neo-classical COIN (Hoffman's term), the Maoist assumptions of FM 3-24 (see Betz) and Mackinlay's larger concern about a deterritorialized insurgency, one noted that they cheated not so much toward adaptability but rather to -- as they put it -- the "fundamental dynamics of insurgency" which, they argue, "remain largely the same" across time, space and culture, from Malaya to Iraq.

They would go on to use "fundamental" eight times (and "essential" twice) over 14 pages in order to drive home this point about the strategies of insurgency and the timelessness of counter-revolutionary response. Even when Kilcullen (rightly) identified just how un-Maoist the various insurgencies in Iraq had developed by 2005, Nagl & Burton concluded, "Yet upon closer examination of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, these differences are perhaps less salient than the similarities to classic dynamics of insurgency."

Well, that's one way to look at it, I guess, but it doesn't imply much adaptability if that's based on a wholesale refutation of their theories about the causative forces of rebellion and how best to mitigage or solve them.

A debatable history of the so-called "Surge" as presented by Nagl & Burton follows, but it's not one that many historians are likely to eventually recognize. Nor would the population-centric operations as described appear all that similar to what most Iraqi journalists or soldiers would recognize. At some point, it appears as if a narrative of what actually happened in Iraq must be forgotten, lest it conflict with what buttresses the theory.

The sole reason why I mention this is because this essay was published only four months ago. What would lead anyone to assume that LTC Nagl -- rightly considered a quite brilliant COIN theorist and practitioner -- has, like the COINdinista leopard, changed his (ink) spots?

At some point, one becomes confused over Dr Nagl's abstract bifurcation between "Roman" and "Neo-Classical COIN," as if they're completely different creatures stalking our jungles of war. One uses the level of force which shall achieve one's political goals, balancing the violence with the realization that too much of it might alienate people and obstruct one's strategic goals.

That said, the US-led war effort during the so-called "Surge" blasted to dots by air strikes four times as many Iraqi civilians in 2007 and it did in 2006. This perhaps "Roman" level of violence from the sky didn't seem to harm the overall pacification effort, did it?

I'm neither encouraging more of that destruction nor am I positing it as a cause of the pacification, but it puts into some doubt the underlying assumption, especially when one considers the widespread coverage of the bloodletting in the numerous Iraqi and regional media.

There might be all sorts of reasons why the population-centric COIN operations in OEF have yet to succeed. Time is one reason, and so would be the amount of resources provided to local efforts such as in Marjah.

But perhaps another reason is an inability to see the nature of the war as it is, instead of as we wish to see it? If that's so, then adaptation implies scrapping some of what was printed in the JSS rebuttal and accepting a quite different notion of what's animating the strife in Afghanistan, and why.

In which case, perhaps one might argue that the time has come to forget bromides (euphemisms, really) about "protecting the population" and instead play up the adaptation angle. We might even discover that in this war, the exogenous and endogenous inputs to the revolution machine are more important than the attitudes of the "people," and our ongoing "hearts and minds" efforts largely have functioned to keep the gears of insurgency clacking at full speed.

That's a great comment,

That's a great comment, Carl, and I thank you for those thoughts. I agree with a lot of what John and Brian write, but I think it is clear that I am much more cautious about what we can know to have caused the drop in violence in Iraq in 2007. I would love to see your thoughts on Afghanistan teased out a bit more: what would change, operationally (and in terms of goals and resources), in Afghanistan? Probably a controversial reduction in aid and development spending, sure, but how about military operations?

"The ‘Rajapaksa Model of

"The ‘Rajapaksa Model of Defeating Terror’ is based on a set of principles-unwavering political will; ensuring international opinion does not come in the way of militarily defeating terror; no negotiations with the forces of terror; unidirectional flow of conflict information; ensuring a buffer between national politics and military action to ensure absence of political intervention, thereby empowering the military to finish its task of defeating terror and eliminating the terrorist leadership; empowering and promoting young commanders; and keeping neighbours in the loop. "


The same article also mentions several times the role NGO's played in aiding and arming the Tigers. Which should come as no surprise. And that Tsunami aid money was diverted to the LTTE.

Quick off the cuff: He's

Quick off the cuff:

He's confused. COIN is to war what haggling is to purchase. We take our allowance (money, popular support, etc.), and we get the best deal we can get -- which may have a range of definitions of "stabilization" or "success" from the sub-optimal (war will never stop, but it's manageable, like Colombia and the FARC) to supra-optimal (Malaysia).

I'm less concerned about arm-chair politicos and more concerned that our COIN narrative hasn't done a good job of addressing the "building blocks" of military action: we have completely revamped the "Intelligence War" block. We've not done so well with the "Reconnaissance War" block, it's still not mated properly to the "intelligence War" block. This is bad because the recon war is what mates the big units to the intel war. That was McChrystal's triumph in SOCOM, the "Industrial Spec Ops" bit that mated the two together for SOCOM.

So, can we tell Pakistan to rebrand the Taliban or we're slipping India plans to the hydrogen bomb, and go home now? (joke)

"... Stanley McChrystal is a

"... Stanley McChrystal is a liberal who voted for Obama and banned Fox News from his HQ TV. Which may at least partly explain how he became the first U.S. general to be lost in combat while giving an interview to Rolling Stone: They’ll be studying that one in war colleges around the world for decades."

Oh. Oh. The Humanity....

Dear Dr Nagl: Please just

Dear Dr Nagl:

Please just stop your over simplification of those who call for alternatives to pop centric coin as the children of Tamerlane or the Romans and only wanting to kill and pillage and destroy the place to save it.

We are talking strategy and the consideration of alternatives while you are mired in the dogma of Coin tactics and operations. By acknowledging that the key, never changing, absolute, concrete rule of Coin is protection of the population you doom the American military to never ending wars of occupation because such a rule demands a certain tactical method of large numbers of combat troops living amongst the population to "protect them."

If strategy, based on a clear assessment of interests relative to worth, cost, and the potential of our enemies demands nation building at the barrel of a gun then perhaps yes your way of population centric coin might make sense. But what if a generational struggle to build an Afghan nation is simply not worth the costs? What then are the alternatives? With your immutable rule of population protection there is no other way than what we are doing now.

And the alternatives do not mean scorched earth; but they do suggest more limited means to accomplish objectives and the hard realization that military power by a foreign occupying force cannot "change an entire society" as you once suggested.


"If counterinsurgency as

"If counterinsurgency as practiced by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps has developed into some kind of rigid step-by-step process, we’re not correctly applying the doctrine"

For me that echos some of the complaints voiced by those junior officers and enlisted men under MacCrystal were saying about Big Army and the trickle down effect.

A large institution like the US Army or other services is always going to have issues with doctrine, and that's why is may be better to let the ideas just move of their own accord. Obviously you need senior officers and civilians on board with the idea but to say this is what we now do and how we do it may lead to stagnation.

Ah, man I envy you your trip

Ah, man I envy you your trip to your version of God's own country. Never been there myself, but hope to someday. I'd recommend that you leave the PBR behind and take a batch of Matthew Gallagher's favored dark and enchanting brew instead, but to each his own.

What keeps me coming back here is your willingness to question and analyze the counterinsurgency doctrine you endorse. I'm not in the trade (I'm a botanist who spends much of his time dissecting the sexual organs of plants), but you've nonetheless contributed greatly to my education as a citizen of this weird and wonderful country.

From the heart of God's other own country in the Sonoran desert, thank you, Andrew. Enjoy your break, and leave the blog alone while you're off (unless you really, really can't help yourself). It'll be here when you get back, and so will we.

Gian, check out Dave

Gian, check out Dave Kilcullen's introduction to his new book "Counterinsurgency." He makes the point that supposedly scorched-earth counterinsurgents like the Romans and Nazis were, actually, quite population-centric when it came to dealing with rebellions. I would be interested in your view on that as a historian.

Prof. Nagl weighs in: "The

Prof. Nagl weighs in: "The twin pillars of FM 3-24 are "protect the population" and "learn and adapt", in that order for a reason. The doctrine is doctrinaire about the first pillar for a reason; a representative democracy cannot adopt the Roman method of destroying the province to save it.

The "first pillar" is the true axiom of PC-COIN: PC-COIN must be PC. This is its essential nature. All other details, as Prof. Nagl says, are negotiable. No other details matter, however, because politically correct counterinsurgency never has succeeded and never will. If PC-COIN succeeds, it is because it serves as camouflage for PI-COIN.

And note the pervasive strawman of the "Roman method." Gentlemen, it is a little late to bury Caesar! A representative democracy can most certainly adopt the British method of governing the province in order to pacify it. Perhaps our representative democracy cannot. But that's a different statement.

If PC-COIN theorists are, as they claim, objective and reasonable pragmatists who are solely concerned with the welfare of our little brown brothers, why haven't they even begun to consider (a) successful British methods in the region (Afghanistan is at much the same stage of cultural development that India was 150 years ago), or (b) successful American pre-WWII colonialism, eg, in the Philippines? Note that Britain and the United States were both, at the time, representative democracies. Why reinforce failure? Why not start with success, and tweak it for 2010 as necessary?

My answer is that they cannot, because "colonialist" methods are the real and obvious methods, and PC-COIN exists specifically as a denial of obvious reality. A realistic PC-COIN is not PC and hence, like dry water, cannot exist.

For instance, can someone explain what the hell "protect the population" means, if it doesn't mean "kill the enemy?" How the hell do you protect the population from gunmen, if you don't kill or incarcerate the gunmen, ie, defeat them? It's the inability to answer these types of basic questions about reality that provides PC-COIN with its strong aroma of theology, now nauseating all but the most anosmic. It would be funny if Americans weren't dying for it right now.

Note that military doctrine of a theological nature is not at all a historical rara avis. Consider the French doctrine of elan in WW1. Which might end up looking pretty good next to PC-COIN - the French, after all, won their war.

the hard realization that

the hard realization that military power by a foreign occupying force cannot "change an entire society" as you once suggested.

Two words for Colonel Gentile: JCS 1067. Oh, and I might also mention the Norman Conquest. And some dude named Mohammed...

And I would say "Clive," except that no one here has heard of Clive or gives a shit about him if they have. The Raj certainly explored the limits of social change through foreign occupation. Those limits turned out to be pretty expansive. Moreover, if anything the post-Raj India is even more de-Indianized than the Raj. I don't see a lot of suttee, for instance.

There is often a tendency for those on the right to fall into left-wing critiques, because the left-wing critiques (a) have the same outcome (what we're doing isn't working) and (b) are heard. I appreciate the bureaucratic imperative. As a blog commenter, however, I feel closer to the truth is always better than farther away.

Very interesting points all

Very interesting points all - on the academic side, I'd point out two substantive issues and then make two frivolous quibbles. Substantive issue one: yes, you do get recognition and props for a quick, easily-remembered, "new" theory that is "elegant" (i.e. internally coherent) if you live in the contemporary cutthroat academic world. Most political scientists do recognize, though, that history and process are important - so tactics that killed more civilians at a later stage of a conflict when the urge to fight had already worn down among the local population are different than tactics that do so at a stage where hearts and minds are really at stake. I assume COIN folks regularly remind people that not all tactics fit all situations equally, and that COIN is just a toolkit that you can draw on. I do worry that in the attention-deficit world of Homo Foggybottomus and the DC establishment generally, people will assume that all the complex lessons drawing on years of research can be reduced to a one-minute elevator speech. Substantive issue two: nothing succeeds like success - if COIN works in one place, you're a hero and it's the best idea ever (rather like if your theory explains the next big conflict in IR, or even gives folks a handle with which to discuss something they know little about - think Huntington's very flawed clash of civs). If it doesn't, you were wrong all along. And there are two many variables at play to really be able to predict this in advance.

Minor quibbles - it's the American Political Science Review, not Quarterly, and your tenure review is a matter of preparing files, not defending a diss in front of a committee ;)

SP: I'd quibble with your


I'd quibble with your post a tad: in my opinion, the use of the word "elegant" would tend to refer more toward parsimony than internal consistency or coherence.

As for the sentence or two you devote toward issues of temporality, can you please provide a citation or two?


Thanks for linking to the Monkey Cage piece - it was superb.


ADTS - you are right,

ADTS - you are right, elegant often refers to parsimony and internal coherence (or so I've been told - never liked the word!)

Temporality - this is more of a metatheoretical issue, methodologies like process tracing and comparative sociohistorical analysis (of the old-fashioned Moore and Skocpol variety) emphasize the difference made by world-historical time. Less grand and less theoretical studies often take temporality into account as a matter of course. I am thinking particularly of social movement studies since that's what I know a bit about.

Although not the historian,

Although not the historian, it should be noted, Andrew, that the Soviets also saw Afghanistan in terms of a Maoist revolution, and although amazingly coercive in their uses of force, what they practiced (depopulation, especially) actually followed in the tradition of what Hoffman would call "Neo-classical" COIN. So, Kilcullen isn't really all that innovative here.

If the insurgent swims with the fish of the people, and you can't drain the sea then you just drain the people. This actually had some effect on the levels of insurgent-initiated violence, but it also failed to pacify the Hindu Kush.

At the time, several Soviet thinkers (and the wonderful Gerard Chaliand) began to see the various Mujahideen as quite different constructs than the typical Maoist revolutionary, ones that increasingly were linked by the televised propaganda of the deed (media spectacle, as he put it in 1987) to a Muslim diaspora. Chaliand especially analyzed the types of violence that articulated the anti-occupation but still theologically and culturally relevant messages of the factions, and I submit that what you see today in Afghanistan is more akin to what Chaliand saw then during his visits.

It also should be noted that eventually the Soviets abandoned some of the pop-centric methods in Afghanistan. Not necessarily because they didn't work, but in the balancing act of resources, time and effectiveness they soon defaulted to a most 19th century approach to the problems of insurgency there: Investing in the KHAD because most other Afghan civilian institutions were corrupt, illegitimate or incompetent; exploiting tribal loyalties and cleaving kinship groups apart; and otherwise doing in their ethno-strategy what Callwell or Gwynn would recognize immediately.

If you were to trace a direct line from the Khalq's KHAD to the KBD-controlled KHAD through 1989 to its absorption into the Northern Alliance and reflowering under the Karzai regime, you might realize that there's more continuity here than would appear comfortable to loving humanists of the more pacific COIN narrative.

Then as now SOME of the insurgent forces in the conflict follow a neo-Maoist model (then it was Ahmed Shah Massoud's Tajik army). But most didn't, remaining vaguely popular as an anti-occupation or collection of sectarian forces but politically weak. It took nearly three years for them to take Kabul.

The one leitmotif was ISI help to those who would submit to Pakistani influence, and the enduring hatred of KHAD by ISI. Well, the more things change...

On another note, I think we should get rid of the weasel phrase "protecting the population." In his scholarly work, Dr Nagl tends to use the far more accurate "controlling the population." At some point, the euphemism appears to exist merely for rhetorical or political purposes.

I do not find this

I do not find this hopeful.
Petraeus: I'll change the ROE

the two things that need to happen for pop-centric COIN to have a chance, are--
1. Stop the drones. the drones are counterproductive to COIN strats based on SNT because drone strikes create more "insurgents" than they destroy.
2. Talk to the Taliban.

otherwise, its game over....and we can never leave.

SP: Thanks in re: parsimony


Thanks in re: parsimony (even if you don't like the word).

I'm aware of, say, Pierson's absolutely superb "Politics in Time;" your post just made me wonder if there were contemporary social scientific studies of insurgency/COIN that had a very explicit focus on temporality (eg, stages of insurgency/COIN). To the extent that insurgencies are social movements, perhaps there is some spillover (not sure whether to put a question mark or a period at the end of this sentence).


ADTS - sorry, my references

ADTS - sorry, my references are all rather dated and more traditional! One random source that comes to mind is Karen Rasler's piece on cycles of repression and concession in the Iranian revolution. The dumbed-down message of which, IIRC, was that if you're going to be repressive you'd better be repressive enough, because a little bit of injustice will strengthen a revolutionary movement once you give it space to regroup, while a more ruthless repressive strategy started right away will nip opposition in the bud. Of course much depends on the motivations and organization of the opposition/insurgent group. I guess the LTTE would be a good case study of this too.

"....Dr Nagl tends to use

"....Dr Nagl tends to use the far more accurate "controlling the population." " - Carl Prine

Thought of the above comment while reading the following:

"PM: No, just the sense that counterinsurgency is nothing more than handing out goodies to the population and trying to win their hearts and minds -- and really, hearts and minds have nothing to do with it. It's about earning the trust and confidence of the people and controlling the population so that the insurgents can't survive among them. And I don't know what we've done to control the population in Afghanistan. We certainly have not instituted measures to the extent that we did in Iraq with the extensive blast barriers, checkpoints, and biometric identity devices. We haven't held a census. There's a lot of standard counterinsurgency tools we haven't deployed in Afghanistan, and until we do, we are not going to be successful. Some of them are going to be disagreeable to the population but we have to go there or we're going to lose the war. "


(Thanks to Karaka Pend's site - Permissible Arms - for the link to the Mansoor interview.)

How do you "control the population" in a largely rural country with the terrain of Afghanistan? How do you conduct a census in a timely fashion given the same concerns?

Not trying to be negative, just wondering.

@ ADTS (or others): Suggestions for good articles or references on health care as a social service, and counterinsurgency?

I love the way Rabi'a blows

I love the way Rabi'a blows the game by distilling PC-COIN to its essence: "resistance is useless. Surrender or die." Rabi'a, Rabi'a! You've got to be less obvious. You're not doing the team any favors here.

And the more "weasel phrases" Carl Prine gets rid of, the more he has to wonder if anything is left in the ball of string. Carl, have you ever considered the possibility that it's turtles all the way down?

"Controlling the population." Yes - this is exactly what an occupying military force has to do. Apparently, there is something called "martial law," under which the population of an occupied country not yet pacified is governed under the military command of the occupying general. Sound familiar, anyone?

If not, the occupation process is described clearly and plainly in FM 27-5, Military Government and Civil Affairs, 1943. This genuine US Army field manual was in effect from 1943 to 1947. So far as I know, it enjoyed a perfect success rate - at least, I cannot think of any failures. Needless to say, no one in Washington has come within a mile of even considering the possibility of using it, or adapting it, or learning from it, or anything like that. Which is what makes all this fraudulent pseudo-academic discourse so hilarious.

And I don't know what we've

And I don't know what we've done to control the population in Afghanistan. We certainly have not instituted measures to the extent that we did in Iraq with the extensive blast barriers, checkpoints, and biometric identity devices. We haven't held a census. There's a lot of standard counterinsurgency tools we haven't deployed in Afghanistan, and until we do, we are not going to be successful. Some of them are going to be disagreeable to the population but we have to go there or we're going to lose the war.

I'm glad at least someone reads my comments...

How do you "control the population" in a largely rural country with the terrain of Afghanistan? How do you conduct a census in a timely fashion given the same concerns?

You occupy the frickin' country, formally declaring an occupation under international law. You "impose direct rule," just as the British did in Northern Ireland. Then, natives do the work and Americans tell them what to do. In other words, you recognize the reality of the relationship and terminate all systematic falsities.

You (a) hire a construction force to seal the borders, (b) hire a native civil service that reports directly (rather than liaising diplomatically) to American supervisors, (c) create a native security force that is commanded (not "advised") by American commanders. Every able-bodied Afghan is either smart enough for (b), mean enough for (c), or dumb enough for (a). Of course, everyone hired is biometered up the wazoo.

Every other Afghan continues going about his normal peaceful Afghan day, which is either (a) tribal or (b) urban. If he is tribal, he is registered to a tribal chief, who collects his taxes and provides basic law and justice. The chief has the unconditional support of US forces, modulo judicial appeal. However, if he misbehaves, US forces can fire him and replace him with his cousin. If the whole tribe revolts, this is a valuable training exercise for our drone operators.

The urban Afghan, if unemployed, is assigned to rural construction, AAA style. If employed in a private business, he is registered to his employer. If self-employed, he is organized into a guild. If he works for an NGO or the MSM, he is either shot, or deported to Sweden - along with all foreigners not reporting to the American commander. Alternatively, he can help us in extracting some of those damned minerals, so this whole crazy operation can pay for itself.

So for every Afghan, USG knows who he is and who is responsible for him. The latter being another Afghan. And that other Afghan is responsible to an American - a civilian manager, like the British district chief, or a military officer.

Curiously enough, this procedure is not my invention. There is actually a historical word for it. The word is "colonialism." Colonialism is a set of effective standards and practices in the government of less-developed countries which at the behest of American diplomats was inexplicably abandoned by the Western world 60 years ago. The result was enormous worldwide tragedy, including tens of millions of deaths, and the creation of the monstrosity we know as the "Third World." Perhaps the primary obstacle to American victory in Afghanistan is simply the inability to admit this enormous and horrifying reality.

Without so admitting, is it possible to learn surreptitiously from colonialism, and produce a watered-down imperialism that sort of works, yet sort of appears to be PC-COIN? If you don't squint too hard, on either side? Possibly. And certainly, the Obama administration has the motive and the opportunity to pull it off, if anyone does. I still doubt the capacity, though.

I do not recommend neocolonialism - diluted or unashamed. I recommend leaving. But this is not because it can't be done, but just because the USG of 2010 can't do it. The problem, obviously, is not on the military side of the line.

SP: Thanks. I think I've


Thanks. I think I've read Rasler. Kurzman's "The Unthinkable Revolution" is phenomenal, even if - IIRC - he might reach different conclusions.


Nothing really comes to mind - apologies.


Madhu: You might find


You might find something in here - I haven't read it - although I'm skeptical you will...



The problem with COIN is not

The problem with COIN is not that it can be done better or worse. Of course their are methods and strategies that are sometimes successful. The problem is that the very idea of COIN inclines policy makers to get involved in stretched versions of the national interest that require astronomical levels of resources to even have a CHANCE at succeeding. The military is required to set itself to whatever task is cast as national interest, regardless of the probability of success (See Carter's rescue mission in the desert). And in the end, COIN transforms into nation building (To protect the people, you have to provide policing functions, to provide policing functions requires more than occupation, it means taking over). As long as we have the expectation that we don't need to lock down an entire state to really carry out COIN, then we are going to get involved in protracted engagements/gambles that put our precious legitimacy and image of invulnerability at risk.

Madhu: What I meant was, I'm


What I meant was, I'm skeptical you'll find something in the article, not that I'm skeptical you'll read it. :)


"I'm glad at least someone

"I'm glad at least someone reads my comments..."

That's funny, Mencius Moldbug. (Although, I think the update to this post is kind of referring to you, or your larger points. :) )

Thanks, ADTS! At the hearing this am, General Petraeus mentioned that immunization metric, you know? I never get that. I mean, it's cool and I'm glad all those children are immunized, but I don't know how it relates to other goals.

Mencius: Fair point; to be


Fair point; to be sure one can find historical cases where military power has changed a society. You cite the Norman conquest and of course there are others. The American military campaign over the Indians is another example. I was referring to the new American way of War of population counterinsurgency--aka armed nation building--as a way to change an entire society. Perhaps we could accomplish such a feat, but it would take a generation and not a mere 18 months or even 18 years.


I read Kilcullen's new book, especially the intro where he tries to create the possibility that the Nazis might have been more effective at their occupation if they had anticipated Galula and if they would have only listened to one or two of their enlightened colonels who were trying to be nice to people. Actually I thought his use of history was bizarre and reminded me more of the original Star Trek episode of the parallel universe with Spock in a gotee. I mean anybody who knows even the slightest bit of the eastern front knows that the Nazis--and the Wermacht--were not about being nice to Russians but were bent on killing them and destroying things to make living space for the Germans. This was not just the Nazis but the Wermacht writ large. So to even suggest that the Germans might have been more effective with their occupation if they had been nice to people and anticipated Galula is to live in an alternative historical universe--like spock with a go-tee. Instead in this case it is Kilcullen with his historical Nazis and Wermacht walking around with copies of Galula and Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. One can imagine all kinds of alternative universes both science-fictional and historical. But just imagining them doesnt make them real.

Plus since we are on history and Kilcullen's use of it, he really gets Vietnam wrong. Unfortunately he still draws on very outdated scholarship that has either been proven wrong or seriously challenged. He claims CORDS worked in Vietnam then calls for a newfound CORDS for today and tomorrow. Unfortunately CORDS failed--to be sure it rationalized a very chaotic and confused pacification program before it was founded--but in the end it failed to pacificy the countryside and link the populace to their government. So if it failed in Vietnam why use it as the model for current operations in the global Coin?


Perhaps we could accomplish

Perhaps we could accomplish such a feat, but it would take a generation and not a mere 18 months or even 18 years.

USG does plan to operate a foreign policy 18 years from now. Why not operate a good one? Ie, one whose results are beneficial, both for America and for its little foreign friends? From a results standpoint, the present approach does not have much to argue for it. If the State Department and Pentagon combined intended to spend a decade devastating Afghanistan and draining the American purse and veins, they have certainly chosen one means by which to do so.

The simple fact of the matter is that "PC-COIN" in practice means (a) "COIN shit" and (b) bureaucratic ROE, which in Afghan terms translates to (c) weakness, which correlates for obvious reasons to (d) violence. As US power in Afghanistan has decreased, violence has increased. Thus, if you graph acceptance of PC-COIN and attacks on Americans, you'll see two lines that more or less follow each other. Causality, anyone? Call it counter-counterintuitive.

The trouble here is that, because the colonialists were talented aristocrats who had a century or two to get it right, any way that is the right way to occupy a country will generally also turn out to be the colonialist way. And if it's not what they did then, it's what they'd do now. And therefore, it is damned, marked with the black hand, and cannot be PC.

Yes. Actually occupying Afghanistan would require a genuine and unanimous national commitment. But it would also cost much, much less (in both money and lives). The balance sheet might even be black - Afghanistan is not short of exports, you know. Why should Turkey get to produce legal opium, and Afghanistan not? Just have the whole country grow opium and sell it to the government. Half of Turkey is covered with opium poppies.

(It is often forgotten that colonialism was originally undertaken as a profitable venture. India under John Company was more Indian than the Raj, and more profitable as well. Just as the Raj was a bargain compared to the streams of aid that have poured into India, whose government has gone from Akbar to Hastings to Curzon to Galbraith. Not in a very inspiring way. And Akbar, of course, was an Afghan...)

Put it another way: if the MSM wanted USG to be able to occupy Afghanistan, USG could occupy Afghanistan. In the rest of Obama's term. Not irreversibly, but enough to be visible as a success. Thus floating our President up on a cloud of victory in 2012. Only Nixon could go to China - only Obama can smash the Taliban with the iron fist. He'd lose Jon Stewart, but I'm afraid he's already lost Jon Stewart.

You need an exit strategy, of course. Restore the monarchy. The transition from colonialism to absolute monarchy is about as seamless as it gets. This would of course be an Islamic monarchy, a lot like Saudi Arabia's. Could Barack pull it off? Baby, if Barack couldn't pull it off, who could? I'd love to see him in that Kenyan prayer shawl again.

Madhu, I don't seriously

Madhu, I don't seriously think Colonel Mansoor has been reading my comments. Rather, I observe, one of the neat things about the truth, as opposed to a lie, is that the truth is true for everyone - it doesn't have to be invented. The downside is that if A says the truth and B says the truth, there's no good reason to think B got it from A. They probably both just got it from reality, which for whatever crazed reason they have endeavoured to observe.

"I love the way Rabi'a blows

"I love the way Rabi'a blows the game by distilling PC-COIN to its essence: "resistance is useless. Surrender or die." Rabi'a, Rabi'a! You've got to be less obvious. You're not doing the team any favors here."

My point is that insofar as some COIN strats are based on SNT (social network theory) drones create a minimum of 2 insurgent nodes for every singleton insurgent node destroyed because of double influence propagation thru both social and blood kinship network connections. So yeah, we can never "win"....we aren't just running in place we are running backwards.
Its the math....
perhaps there are other COIN strats that work well with dronestrikes....i await enlightenment.

given drones are non-cost-viable......stop the drones and then work on COIN strats.
what about evolutionary COIN strats instead of revolutionary COIN doctrine? i love the word parsimonious.
evolution is parsimonious.
how about a genetic algorithm for optimizing COIN strats based on environment?

" The transition from

" The transition from colonialism to absolute monarchy is about as seamless as it gets."

oh, yeah baby.
cuz that worked out so good for us in Iran.
Operation Ajax part deux and the second coming of the American Puppet/Tyrant Shah anyone?

lissen up boiz.
the basic fallacy in the Epic Fail of the Manifest Destiny of Judeo-xian Democracy in MENA (aka the Bush Doctrine) is that more democracy does not mean more secularism........it means more Islam.
the people will vote for Islam because they liek it.
See--> Turkey, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic State of Iraq, etc, etc.
so....if we were at all clever.....we would befriend al-Islam and let Islam do our work for us.

oops....missed this

oops....missed this update.
"learn and adapt"....natural fit for genetic algorithms.

And ....i disagree with Pape. he is leaving out prime motivators.
Revenge is one...the neuroreceptors for revenge are co-located in the same small part of the neocortex as receptors for opiate usage and love/sex. two other behaviors with a high physiological pleasure payoff that can lead to addictive behavior...revenge correlates with humiliation.
i think COIN needs some cognitive neuroscience, Social Brain Hypothesis and cognitive anthropology updates.

Mencius - I didn't think you

Mencius - I didn't think you thought that!

I had a long rant about patronizing liberal internationalists and that whole babyish UN-NGO-lite crowd (trade bad, aid good), but deleted it. I sound crazy enough as it is.

For a different angle on

For a different angle on COIN in AfPak see Andrew Bostom on on post-Modern COIN-age. The COIN literature seems to skip over the nature of Jihad in Islam.

Bostom's history intrigues: an American effort in Afghanistan called the “Helmand Valley Project” did not do well; it ended 30 years ago.

cuz that worked out so good

cuz that worked out so good for us in Iran.

Note the difference between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Breszinski "withdraws support" from Shah - Shah falls. Lesson: Shah is not independent of USG. What would happen if USG "withdrew support" from Saudi? Lesson: Saudi is independent of USG.

If the Shah had never accepted American aid, there would still be a Shah. If Jimmy Carter had never become President, ditto. Just because the State Department can drive our friends out of power, doesn't mean it needs to. And why exactly did the Shah and Washington need each other as friends? What a strange "friendship."

You won't find a lot of safe, stable monarchies in the 20th century, anywhere in the world. Why is this? This is because USG, the most powerful country in the world, spends the entire century running around with a can of gasoline trying to burn them all down. The only way for a dictatorship to be safe from USG's messianic democracy-mania is for it to be a revolutionary dictatorship. The only way for a monarchy to be safe is to have (a) a lot of oil, (b) a tough, effective security service, and (c) a tough, effective absolute monarch. Iran had two out of three. Saudi has 'em all.

COL Gentile: You might want

COL Gentile:

You might want to look at Peter Liberman's look at - IIRC - Nazi Germany's occupation of Western Europe, "Does Conquest Pay" (bluf: for the Nazis, it did).


Population Centric Nazis.

Population Centric Nazis. Well if that doesn't make you question the sanity of the pro PC COIN crowd I don't know what will.

And yes a foreign army can change a society- if it never intends to leave and everyone knows it. It's called a conquest and has been illegal since 1945.

The sticky point for the "academics" keen on armed nation building is that the start date for their studies should be 6 Aug 1945. "What would the Romans or Wehrmacht do?" is an interesting but irrelevant question.

On the off chance that

On the off chance that anyone was wondering whether discussing counterinsurgency and the Afghan war on a "marginally relevant academic plane" was apt to lead to arguments over Nazis in the Ukraine, colonialism in India, and the Norman Conquest, I'd say the answer is a big yes.

Illegal! Conquest is

Illegal! Conquest is illegal. Since 1945.

Someone needs to spend some quality time with Emerich de Vattel, that's for sure. I fear Visitor is not alone in this. p. lviii:

"Since therefore the necessary law of nations consists in the application of the law of nature to states, -- which law is immutable as being founded on the nature of things, and particularly on the nature of man, -- it follows that the necessary law of nations is immutable. Whence as this law is immutable, and the obligations that arise from it necessary and indispensable, nations can neither make any changes in it by their conventions, dispense with it in their own conduct, nor reciprocally release each other from the observance of it. This is the principle by which we may distinguish conventions or treaties from those that are not lawful and innocent and rational customs from those that are unjust or censurable... But every treaty, every custom, which contravenes the injunctions or prohibitions of the necessary law of nations is unlawful... Nations being free and independent, though the conduct of one of them be illegal and condemnable by the laws of conscience, the others are bound to acquiesce in it when it does not infringe upon their perfect rights. The liberty of that nation would not remain entire, if the others were to arrogate to themselves the right of inspecting and regulating her actions; an assumption on their part, that would be contrary to the law of nature, which declares every nation free and independent of all the others."

Didn't see anything in there about 1945. The search feature is unreliable with these old scans, however. It's possible that Vattel says the necessary law of nations will expire in 1945, and I just missed it. Maybe there's an appendix where he says "immutable" really just means "immutable, until 1945."

Mencius the time for

Mencius the time for colonialist tropes and a japan-style protectorate is way past.
When Afghanistan didn't immediately give up OBL, THAT was the time to declare war on Afghanistan and go in and impose democracy and a reconstruction.
More democracy in MENA doesn’t mean more secularism—it means more Islam. For examples of this tautology see Hamas’ election in Gaza, Turkey’s continuing shift away from an occidentalist Kemalist dictatorship/mil junta towards a representative islamic state, Iraq’s inclusion of shariah law in its constitution, the gathering power of the Muslim Brotherhood as Dictator Mubarak declines and the growth of Pakistani islamic parties post Musharraf.
The Bush Doctrine is basically hideously flawed at a foundational level….“democracy promotion” will simply NEVER lead to stable secular nation states in MENA.
The people will vote for more Islam if they get to vote.
So lets be exploitive and opportunistic......make Prez Obama's rule of law into rule of Islamic law.
A powerful change and an achievable goal...leveraging al-Islam.
So instead make the withdrawal parameters conform to the existance of a stable ISLAMIC state in the Graveyard of Empires. And that means including the Taliban in the government we leave behind.
So to work within the framework of realist pragmatism, and in the interest of eventual American withdrawal, Petraeus needs to talk to the Taliban, not attempt to hunt them down and exterminate them.

and far be it for me to crit

and far be it for me to crit COIN (lawl)...
but you boiz need to pay less attention to ancient history.
the influence parameters are always local to that spacetime slice.
you should (IMHO) be thinking more along the lines of cognitive anthropology, evolutionary theory of culture, and social brain hypothesis...broaden your third culture horizons from SNT and trusted networks.
All history is local to the spacetime neighborhood......but human biology is universal.

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