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.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Culture • Libya • Military • Strategy

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