COIN – Back to the future

It seems that for the past year or two Counterinsurgency (or COIN) as a way of fighting small wars has lost some of its luster in U.S. military and political circles.  In fact, depending on who you listen to, you might come to a conclusion that COIN is in its death throes (much like those Iraqi insurgents of 2006).

So, it was very interesting to listen in to the latest briefing of the Combined Arms Center COIN center where they discussed updates to 3-24, the field manual which guides military operations in insurgency conflicts.  Now, granted, the COIN center is likely to be a bastion of COINdinistas and, as such, to defend the doctrine to the death so enthusiastic statements on their part need not accurately reflect where the Army (or the defense establishment generally) is headed.  Still, what came out of that meeting was interesting and may indicate that the COIN dream isn’t going to go with a whimper.

The new edition of the COIN manual will not have any ‘fundamental changes’.  It appears there will be no surrendering of ground in the face of critiques by the Gentileites.  It will be interesting to see if the manual uses (or ignores) the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts as examples of COIN doctrine.  Do they isolate individual ‘successes’ and ignore evaluating the wider conflict as a success or failure or do they try to craft an overarching narrative of those two wars being a ‘victory’ due to the impact of COIN?

It’s been awhile since I’ve read FM 3-24 but I’d suggest (Oh, the pretension! Please, go on. I’m sure the JCS are on the edge of their seats.  eds.) a bit more emphasis up front about the nature of this war and what ‘victory’ does and does not look like.

What can we expect from the new manual?  The speaker(s) identified a need to get more detailed about metrics and assessment without straightjacketing forces in any future conflict.  It sounded like they were still thinking through how that might work.

They did say that the authors were considering a change of focus of the new manual away from ‘COIN’ to ‘Army Support of COIN’.  That may or may not be a good thing.  While there is something to be said for getting the military out of the nation building business as it’s not really in their skill set, it’s not readily apparent who would take on that role.  So, who exactly will the Army be supporting?  We’re kind of right back to a discussion I wrote about several years ago where a historical review of American involvement in insurgencies reveals that the military inevitably takes over that role either because no one else will (or can) do so.

Or perhaps we’re moving towards some sort of Barnett-esque ‘Sys Admin’ force?  Although, I think that’s unlikely as well.

The least good option would be one in which the military says something like ‘We’ll provide security and it’s up to a player yet to be determined to provide everything else and coordinate actions.’  I’d be surprised if that happened but anything is possible.

As an aside I will say it was VERY refreshing to see how this process was going along.  Realizing that an updated version of the manual needs to be done, the COIN center has allocated an 18 month time frame with which to put together the policy.  In that time, they’re soliciting numerous partners and (it seems) will be wrestling with some weighty issues and potential consequences of any new policy.

That’s a breath of fresh air to me who’s recently had to wade through a host of policies thrown together by person(s) who appear to work from a sensory deprivation chamber and neither consulted those who had responsibilities under the new policy (Oh, and tell me how tasking people who belong to another agency is going to work out. Especially since they aren’t even aware that they’ve been tasked.) or considered the potential consequences.  Box checking at its finest.

Forgive me.  I get a bit carried away when I see an organization that doesn’t think ‘planning’ is a dirty word.

The talk ended with a brief swirl of discussion about how the new COIN message should best be transmitted, especially among enlisted and junior leaders (up to the platoon command).  Everyone recognizes that very few people actually read 3-24 and there’s little reason to think that a similarly constructed manual will attract a much larger readership.  There was, of course, the obligatory demand for an app and other technology solutions and while I’m sure they can be valuable we shouldn’t get too seduced by technology for its own sake.

Realistically, most soldiers (regardless of whether you have a cool app or not) are going to be exposed to only as much of COIN doctrine as is required by training doctrine.  Right now, pre-mobilizing soldiers are mandated to receive four hours of COIN training.  It’s generally considered to be slightly less interesting than watching cars rust.  I’ve had considerable success, however, by using scenario training (either ‘table-top’ or live action simulations).  They can be low cost/low resource affairs, requiring little more than a classroom and an interested instructor.

Or, another option is some variation of the very good set of videos by Stanley McChrystal titled ‘The 8 Imperatives of COIN’

Pivoting on the same subject, Jill Sargent Russell has a post up at Kings of War about how the War for American Independence can provide some insight into COIN.  She begins with some wonderful letters between Generals Washington and Howe that’s vaguely reminiscent of the ongoing twitter war between ISAF and the Taliban.

She also makes the following observation as a researcher who finds herself in the U.K.

I also have to add a few words on the fact that the American War for Independence is largely AWOL within these shores…although I understand the reticence to wade into the events of a disappointed past, that’s not a good enough reason for the silence…what has been foresworn in military knowledge by this avoidance? The pragmatic decision regarding North American Colonial policy – to cut losses in a conflict not bound to bring strategic and political benefit – might have benefited the generals of later wars.


She then delves deeper into COIN and the concept of what today might be called ‘population-centric operations’

The exchange clearly proves that both Howe and Washington made the matters of their armies’ interactions with the civilian communities and how they were treated as strategic, operational, and tactical concerns in their respective commands. And in fact, both generals (and armies) were engaged continuously in activities to sway, coerce, protect, and make use of the populations local to their quarters and battlefields. Dislike it though you might, this concept has historical legs.

When I taught COIN doctrine to deploying soldiers I’d usually begin by asking the students to name examples of that type of conflict (other than Iraq or Afghanistan).  Vietnam comes pretty quickly but after that the responses die out and it’s very rare for the American Revolution to be mentioned.  Everyone gets it after I explain but it’s clear the whole idea of this type of conflict doesn’t have a lot of stickiness.

As concerns COIN, I think there is a sense (a willful deception? desperate hope?) that these are modern, 20th century constructs, and are thus disconnected from the institutional and experiential legacies of contemporary armed forces – and certainly won’t remain important.

The genie is out of the bottle, ladies and gentlemen.  While images of sugarplums and conventional warfare can dance in our heads, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that insurgencies will be going away.  Connectedness and the power of networks will mean that ‘hearts and minds’ work will be even more important and have to occur throughout a much wider theater of operations.

COIN is here to stay.


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