The decline of counter-insurgency doctrine
David Petraeus, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. President Obama's nominee to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. (Getty Images)
June 2nd, 2011
09:50 AM ET

The decline of counter-insurgency doctrine

Editor's Note:  Thomas Wide is currently making a documentary series for the BBC on foreign involvement in Afghanistan.

By Thomas Wide – Special to CNN

One consequence of the recent intervention in Libya has been a re-appraisal of the doctrine of ‘Counter Insurgency’ (COIN), most famously endorsed by General David Petraeus.

This doctrine has reigned supreme in military thinking over the last couple of years.  Drawing upon historical experience in Algeria, Vietnam and elsewhere, the doctrine aimed to shift the focus of military operations away from the enemy and onto civilians – toward a ‘population-centric’ approach, which would ensure civilian security while working alongside host governments.  The doctrine has been encapsulated and mythologized in the idea of ‘the surge’, which has been credited by many as turning round the war in Iraq.

Many now question that account, and the wisdom of applying such doctrine in Afghanistan.  Moreover, there is a concern that COIN’s seeming success will encourage its application to situations it was not designed for. “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is a familiar refrain amongst critics.

Even COIN aficionados (or COINistas as they are known) there has been a feeling that a reappraisal of COIN doctrine was necessary.I just spent a day in Oxford with a whole host of these people at a conference aimed at just such a reappraisal.  The general theme of the conference began as ‘Whither COIN?’ but it ended up more ‘Whether COIN?’ than anything else.

The expounders of COIN doctrine have certainly been as smart as the doctrine itself in absorbing and adapting to criticism and building it back into their model: one of the principal authors of the COIN manual (catchily-titled ‘FM 3-24’) told us about the planned updated edition of the original 2006 version, which aims to incorporate much of the feedback it has received ‘from the field’ over the last couple of years.

Moreover, in answer to those critics who believe that COIN doctrine has become more like a religious text than a military field manual, he was keen to stress that COIN doctrine is just that - doctrine - and should not be treated as dogma.

It was an impressive display, and makes you understand why COIN doctrine was so lauded and imbibed by high-level politicians and thinkers when it first appeared. Its proponents are not square-jawed muscle-heads, but scholar-soldiers with soft manners and quick wits: these are the people who quote Hegel and tell you that Clausewitz is much better 'in the original German’; they can debate the finer points of the career of T.E. Lawrence or the causes of the Malayan Emergency in the late 1950s.  They wear nice suits.  Moreover, they can also, with a disarming smile, give you a hundred supple and subtle reasons why you are wrong to be skeptical.  It is hard to resist.

And yet, despite their eloquence and charm, I noticed a shift that suggested that even as the arguments get more sophisticated and bulletproof, there is a fundamental insecurity and concern inside the COIN camp.  A central worry was the effect that Petraeus’ move across to the CIA would have on the relevance of COIN doctrine inside the U.S. military.

As was repeatedly stressed at this conference, the aim of the Petraeus-backed Counter-Insurgency doctrine was not to win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It was to fundamentally change the whole culture and ethos of the U.S. military.

This project is, at present, only half-completed.  It relies heavily on Petraeus, its great figurehead, to force it through.

Without Petraeus at the helm, his co-COINistas fear that the U.S. army will simply revert to its “bad old ways” of conventional warfare and a belief that “we don’t do nation-building” (in Donald Rumsfeld’s famous words.)

This concern belies a bigger fear amongst COIN proponents, which is that 21st century warfare is already moving towards a position that makes COIN, so shiny and new five years ago, already seem dull and dated.

This feeling has been spurred on by the intervention in Libya: it was clear in the questions of the whip-smart young British and U.S. soldiers - the Petraeuses of the future - who attacked COIN doctrine as unsuitable for the kind of campaigns they would be forced to wage in the 21st century.

There was much talk of a different acronym: FID, which stands for ‘Foreign Internal Defense’.  FID refers to the kind of intervention we have seen in Libya, in which the aim is to get people on the ground to do what you want them to do - without having to be on the ground fighting with them.

It is these forms of interventions, rather than the 'boots on the ground' heavy investment of COIN doctrine, which the young guns suggested were the key to future operations, and required our attention right now.

The proponents of COIN will tell you that these developments are as they should be: Counter-insurgency is only meant to be ‘one tool in the toolbox’, a doctrine amongst many, to be applied only when the situation deserves it.  This is surely right, but it cannot disguise a certain wistfulness in the COINistas’ manner - a nostalgia for the days when COIN was, albeit briefly, the only show in town.

Post by: ,
Topics: Afghanistan • Culture • Libya • Military • Strategy

soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    I see that the right-wing thugs in Washington never give up. Now they're trying turn the Afghan populace into a bunch of Quislings. How repulsive!!!

    June 2, 2011 at 11:40 am | Reply
    • Yakobi.

      Uh huh. As opposed to the left-wing thugs in Washington who want to control every aspect of our lives and whom you support, right?

      June 2, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
    • anon

      You're implying we're more analogous to Nazis than the Taliban? Sounds like someone needs a history lesson...

      And calling someone who "betrays" an ignoble cause a Quisling is both unfair and offensive.

      June 2, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Reply
      • careworn

        And I'm sure Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr. the brave Vietnam War helicopter pilot who intervened to try to stop the Ly Lai massacre would have agreed with you, anon.
        Thompson was summoned to appear before a special closed hearing of the House Armed Services Committee in Washington DC in 1969. where he was sharply criticized by Congressmen, particularly Chairman Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.), anxious to play down allegations of a massacre by American troops. Incredibly, and to his lasting shame, Rivers publicly stated that he felt Thompson was the only soldier at My Lai who should be punished (for turning his weapons on fellow American troops) and unsuccessfully attempted to have him court-martialed.
        When his heroic exploits became widel known by Americann, Thompson started receiving hate mail, death threats and mutilated animals on his doorstep.

        June 3, 2011 at 11:01 am |
      • careworn

        And I'm sure Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr. the brave Vietnam War helicopter pilot who intervened to try to stop the Ly Lai massacre would have agreed with you, anon.
        Thompson was summoned to appear before a special closed hearing of the House Armed Services Committee in Washington DC in 1969. where he was sharply criticized by Congressmen, particularly Chairman Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.), anxious to play down allegations of a massacre by American troops. Incredibly, and to his lasting shame, Rivers publicly stated that he felt Thompson was the only soldier at My Lai who should be punished (for turning his weapons on fellow American troops) and unsuccessfully attempted to have him court-martialed.
        When his betryal of this ignoble massacre became widely known by Americans, Thompson started receiving hate mail, death threats and mutilated animals on his doorstep.

        June 3, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Earnán

      Another treasonous leftwinger, drooling at the thought of giving aid and comfort to his country's enemies.

      Notice how, to a vile leftist, supporting democratic government, protecting civilians' right to freely speak, assemble and worship... All of those are simply "turning [Afghans] into quislings" to the left.

      In their insane substitute for reality, a law requiring notification of a 12-year-old girl's parents that she wants to get an abortion is "proof of the patriarchal Repugnicant war on women"-but a Taliban thug throwing acid in the eyes of a 12-year-old Afghan girl for the "crime" of going to school? That's just part of his rich cultural heritage and we're unspeakable ethnocentric imperialist bigots to even object, let alone shoot his cowardly ass dead.

      Liberals aren't just crazy, they're partners in evil.

      June 3, 2011 at 3:19 am | Reply
  2. Blogson

    COIN's touted success in Iraq is at least partly illusory. The U.S-created Awakening Councils were bribed by U.S taxpayer dollars. Explosions and killings continue to take place. Christians and other minorities are being persecuted and many have either retreated to the Kurdish-controlled north or have fled the country. Rampant corruption is being reported. There is cause to wonder what will happen if or when U.S. troops are finally withdrawn. Also it is necessary to recall that the underlying cause for COIN in Iraq was the U.S.-Anglo invasion.

    June 2, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Reply
    • Yakobi.

      It is necessary to recall that the underlying cause for "U.S.-Anglo invasion" of Iraq was Saddam Hussein and his sons' refusal to leave Iraq. Had they done so, there would not have been an invasion. And now they're dead.
      Mission accomplished.

      June 2, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Reply
      • Michael B.

        It is necessary to recall that the underlying cause for "U.S.-Anglo invasion" of Iraq was George W. Bush's emotional immaturity. He needed to prove himself to his daddy ("Well, he tried to kill my dad.")

        June 2, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
      • Yakul Naik

        I heard a good theory- Saddam started trading oil in euros, and the U.S. didn't want the dollar to lose its dominance, so the U.S. attacked Saddam and replaced it with a government that trades in dollars

        June 2, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  3. jackson

    Warfare is constantly evolving, whether one likes it or not. Hannibal's elephants were, at their time, the A-Bomb equivilent. The Colt 45, Winchester Repeating Rifle and Galtin gun turned the Civil War. Weapons and strategy are always changing to meet the conditions and needs, but the bottom-line remains, he who is left standing, wins.

    June 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      It's now the sophisticated weaponry that helps win a war. It's the sharp mind and the abilitiy to asess one's enemy and employ the right strategem to beat it, that matter.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  4. Michelle

    The question should be not WHAT type of battle plan and war, but WHEN to utilize them. Our country as a whole should back off as a singular and lean more towards a NATO approach, which really needs to be more open and public about what situations would warrant NATO intervention in foreign countries.

    June 2, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  5. Jack Williams

    COIN can be seen as an alternative to the Bush Doctrine (we will make no distintion between....), which means direct action. But COIN has, and is, been constantly misunderstood going back to Vietnam. COIN and for that matter "hearts and minds" have never stopped an armored division. It is only applicable in certain circumstances.

    The confusion between the perception of "counter insurgency" and the reality of the invading NVA regular infantry divisions and armored brigades still haunts discussion about Vietnam. But one thing was clear about COIN back to Vietnam – whatever the percentage of effort required for "nation building," ... whether it is 10 percent or 90 percent, military force and security is the required FIRST 10 percent or 90 percent.

    COIN as a military doctrine does offer an alternative, perhaps the only alternative, to direct action in certain circumstances. What would you rather have.... a battalion of indigenous troops trained by a few specialists doing the heavy lifting in their own country.... or a battalion of US Marines doing the same job in someone else's country?

    June 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Reply
  6. US Soldier

    COIN is a good doctrine in some instances and in others not so much as the article states. In many ways it has worked for Iraq because it did have a strong central government before the US led invasion, but in Afghanistan that is not the case. Also, it ties the hands of ISAF forces in so many ways leaders are afraid to call in airstrikes and artillery/mortars because of the risks, and even when they do get called in, it can take so long for it to happen because it must be cleared through so many levels it causes casualties or is just too late overall, because of the COIN approach.

    June 2, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  7. John Kantor

    First – the article doesn't say anything. What do you pay these dweebs for? Second, COIN is nothing new. It goes back to Julius Caesar. Third, no strategy works if the Terrorists – and the population you are trying to save – thinks you are going to cut and run. And any strategy works if they know you aren't.

    June 2, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  8. El Sal Vet

    In the 1980's we "resolved" the terrible civil war in El Salvador with no major military intervention. A limited number ( 55 ) of U.S. military advisors worked hand-in-hand with the Salvadoran military and although they had passed thought a 3 year period of "TAKE NO PRISONERS" we eventually convinced them that our approach was better and eventually they gained the support of the people and the guerillas were defeated. Limited involvement ; limited cost ; Great results.

    June 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  9. Active duty

    This sardonic little article does little justice to the turn-around inspired by adopting a counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. No one is trying to apply COIN to Libya, but it is the name of the game in Afghanistan because we are already there, still fighting long after the initial 2002 invasion. Everything after that has been a long, episodic counter-insurgency war, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and resourcing from all parties involved. COIN, FID, MTW (Major Theater War) and all of the other approaches to conflict are just concepts, as easily replaced, modified, combined or thrown out as any other theory in the face of reality. Mr Wide's assertion that COIN is a religion in DOD is just a silly fantasy - it was an idea that worked, after we figured out that not sending enough soldiers, kicking in doors, and black bagging people wasn't productive. Recognizing the right approach for the situation at hand is key, and that can only be done by discerning leadership that understand the options and the risks.

    June 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  10. John Zurek

    This sentence raised my eyebrows; "FID refers to the kind of intervention we have seen in Libya, in which the aim is to get people on the ground to do what you want them to do – without having to be on the ground fighting with them."

    Why did it raise my eyebrows? Because this cunning "FID" strategy is nothing new. It is what the Israelis have practiced for many years. Manipulating the USA to fight (and sponsor) THEIR wars. Either through Israeli politicians direct, or through the Jewish lobby here in the USA.
    Apparently those new-age "high-level politicians and thinkers " the article recognizes as the new breed of policymakers in our government and in the military are still not smart enough to look through that Israelian strategy.

    June 2, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Reply
    • Yakobi.

      Whatever you say, Mr. Antisemite. I suppose the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq were all "Israel's wars" by your bizarre thinking.

      June 2, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Reply
    • Earnán

      Isn't there a cross you're supposed to be burning. John?

      Or did the jooz hide mommy's car keys, and let the air out of your bike tires, and now you'll never make it to the Klavern in time?

      June 3, 2011 at 3:23 am | Reply
  11. Tom

    This author does not make clear why COIN is apparently fading in popularity. Is it due to lack of progress in the field? Is it becasue COIN is losing its chief advocate (Petraeus) and the new generation of officers doubts the army of the future will ever again be committed to COIN campaigns? Or is COIN perceived to be failing?

    June 2, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  12. brako

    this means decline in govt bullshiit. good news

    June 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  13. brako

    Jews did 911 and all world wars. Jews did Depression I and now Depression II.
    Iraq and Afghanistan are Jew proxy wars for Jew control of Oil prices and opium poppy supply.

    jews deserve hell, and worse.

    June 2, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Reply
    • jacko

      the opium dealing depression cuaseing oil controling jews cannot stop us, we well be triumpant. I wrap my head with foil and wear dark glasses to prevnt thier mind controle. Hang in there brako you are not alone. America will take its rightfull place as the overlord, answerable to knowone.

      June 2, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  14. average Joe

    It appears that Thomas Wide's knowledge on the subjects of counter-insurgency, the U.S. military, U.S. intelligence, and warfare are limited. It also seems that he cares more to write on a limited perspective (ie: what might "sell" better) rather than to fully communicate the benefits and advantages of counter-insurgency... even in today's circumstances.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Reply
  15. Dark

    The author is a jackass. Plain and simple. Apparently somebody explained the rudimentary parts of COIN to him and now he thinks he is an expert. No two COIN operations are going to be alike. There will be some similarities but each insurgency will have it's own methods and motivations. It is a fundamental problem with the world today where people who have a half-assed understanding of the subject matter get the spotlight from a major news agency and then funding from someone else to do a documentary.

    June 2, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Reply
    • Fred R.


      June 3, 2011 at 1:24 am | Reply
    • Earnán

      Dark nails it in the X-ring.

      June 3, 2011 at 3:24 am | Reply
  16. studdmuffins

    "Many now question that ..." Hindsight is, and always will be, more keen than foresight. The post analysis always seems to question the methods of the past when at the time the idea, method, tactic or strategy worked and was deemed a success.

    June 3, 2011 at 5:21 am | Reply
  17. Libertarian

    The military is NOT for nation-building. Misusing the military this way just wastes our time and money. We must not force our ways on other nations. We don't have the right to do it, and we cannot afford to do it. It's stupid that we apply counter-insurgency doctrine in OTHER countries but we only spend a nominal effort protecting our own borders from invasions by drug dealers and human traffickers, that we donate billions of dollars of aid to other countries while we still have not solved our own poverty problems. The past already happened, there are plenty of cases in history now to study for different ways that insurgencies were conducted and resisted and how things turned out. Leave those other countries alone and let's focus on nation-building in our own country. We need to build up our youth to be strong and resilient so they will not be afraid to be free when they grow up, and they will reverse the trend of giving up dignities and liberties in exchange for "security" which has been a complete fraud.

    June 3, 2011 at 5:59 am | Reply
  18. Joe

    How about replacing the COIN doctrine with the "Stay Home And Mind Our Own F*****g Business" Doctrine?

    June 3, 2011 at 6:30 am | Reply
  19. Daniel

    As we used to say in Vietnam...Kill em all and let God sort them out.

    June 3, 2011 at 10:04 am | Reply
  20. Matt

    He is a big boy, but to be fair we had to establish if we were in Tet or it was pre-Tet, if it was Tet if it was pre-Tet them we had to have a counter offensive, M1A1, more air strikes, additional carrier. It was pre-Tet. It is the CIA's 5 year plan, CIA COIN, CIA the 400,000 ANSF that is the CIA's army McChrystal was meant to be Director of CIA and run war after withdrawal of combat troops. No Drama Obama Mr covert. Now it is Petraeus.

    June 3, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  21. My2Cents

    Foreign Internal Defense (FID) refers to intervention in which the aim is to get people on the ground to do what you want them to do without having to be on the ground fighting with them.

    Please note that the ‘young guns’ who advocate FID are never identified. They are mostly likely civilian political advisors with scant understanding of history, or they would know better.

    There is nothing new here. FID is the old ‘strategic bombing campaign’ reborn, where airpower sweeps all before it without the need of ground forces. Never worked yet, and probably never will, because of the difficulties of identifying the correct targets from the air in a timely fashion and of accessing the effects after the attack (bomb damage assessment). The simple fact, as politically inconvenient as it may be, is you need some forces, not a lot, on the ground coordinating with the side you are supporting to achieve your desired ends. Or you can decide to go it alone and resort to the politically unacceptable kind of aerial terror campaign used in WWII.

    And, of course, you need to know what you want to achieve. Mission creep is a major problem because FID is based on terror tactics – Give us what we want and we will stop hurting you. This does not work if they give you what you demanded earlier, but you refuse to stop because it is not what you want now. People quickly assume there is no way of getting you to stop and get stubborn, just as happened during the Blitz and the bombing of Germany in WWII.

    June 4, 2011 at 5:58 am | Reply
  22. Roman Gil

    What Economic Recovery? Let's Get Doped Into Foreign Affairs to Forget the Failing Economy.

    In May, the American economy added the insignificant number of 38,000 jobs. America is overpopulated with over 311 million people (nobody knows how many illegal aliens) and cannot support its own population, but millions of new illegal and legal immigrants arrive each year. There is no industrial plan to bring back the millions of jobs and industries that global corporations exported and continue to export.
    My blog has solutions.

    According to the US government's own statistics, 36% of men 16 to 64 years old are out of the work force. Most don't count because they are not looking for work. It takes money to look for work, after a while people vanish from the unemployment statistics.

    In my blog, I loaded George Washington's "Farewell Address" advising America. I highlighted the parts that we are violating. Communist China is following this advice and we are committing the folly of ignoring it. My blog contains solutions to our problems that the politicians have failed to implement.

    While we drop bombs in Muslim countries financed with debt money, the Communist Chinese announced that they are buying large amounts of European government debt and that they opened a direct railroad linking China with Antwerp, Belgium in Western Europe. Europe is now China’s largest market. Europe is now globalized like America with their global corporations exporting their industrial base to China. Last year China announced that they have a controlling interest in Iraqi oil and are receiving oil from their Iraqi oil fields. The Communists understand capitalism better than we do and that economic power controls governments.

    In the USA, only 9% of the economy is industrial. 76% of the jobs created during the "recovery" pay $9 or less per hour with little or no benefits. 47% of American households are too poor to pay income taxes. The Federal Government must beg and borrow $1.65 trillion dollars this year. Many States and local governments are bankrupt. Local Property taxes are crushing the middle class in many States invaded by illegal aliens. Their children consume Medicaid and school services. Bankrupt States like New York have dumped welfare Medicare costs on the counties.

    In Europe from Spain to Greece, people are protesting that they have no future because there are no jobs. Europe like America exported its industrial base to China and Third World cheap labor countries. European governments are as deep in debt as America and their economies are failing under globalization.

    Obama got us involved into a third Muslim war to get us deeper into the Israeli-Muslim conflict that caused us to inherit Israel's enemies. The "war of Terror" has cost us in ten years $5 trillion dollars and now a powerful special interest group of war contractors will keep a permanent debt financed war going until we are in debt slavery.

    Roman Gil

    June 4, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Reply
  23. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    Let the towel heads kill each other.

    June 4, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Reply

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