COIN of the Realm

Time constraints this week force me to actually blog, instead of posting my usual long-form essays to the blog page. So quickly, a few thoughts on the Celeste Ward op-ed in the WaPo over the weekend, which Andrew Exum flagged. The question of the Surge narrative is central to Ward’s piece, which amounts to a critical corrective to the COIN “fad.”

But I found this the more interesting thread:

It still isn’t clear to me that what we faced in Iraq was aninsurgency. There were many different conflicts raging simultaneously:anti-occupation movements, struggles among and between ethno-sectariangroups, the presence of foreign terrorists and interference by outsidepowers. These overlapping conflicts existed both within and outside thegovernment and crossed Iraq’s borders. This chaotic scrum cannot besummed up neatly by the military’s official definition of insurgency:”an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of government through theuse of subversion and armed conflict.”

Essentially, Ward is arguing, and I think correctly, that the operation in Iraq was a pacification campaign, not a counterinsurgency. Indeed, it’s possible the only truly effective insurgency in Iraq has been the relatively peaceful stealth campaign for autonomy carried out by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Call that a NIOC, which is what you get when you use COIN practices in the pursuit of an insurgency.

According to COIN theory, Ward’s observation should have a significant impact, not necessarily on operations, but on the likelihood that those operations will achieve their strategic objectives, since it fundamentally changes the political context within which COIN is embedded and upon which it is based. Afghanistan might be a better case study for COIN theory and practice, since it is actually a true insurgency. But it’s also a less forgiving theater of operations and probably a much more difficult conflict to pacify. In either case, neither theory nor practice can definitively be said to have demonstrated results so far.

Bernard Finel, in discussing the Ward piece, raises some other insightful questions, such as whether an insurgency necessarily reflects a gap in governance, and whether COIN emphasizes underlying conditions to the detriment of simply focusing on the insurgent actions and capabilities. In other words, whether we’re relying too much on holistic medicine approaches, like herbal remedies and better diet and lifestyle, when what we need is more antibiotics.

I’m curious to see how the COIN theorists respond. I’ll flag anything I see and follow up with my own thoughts as time permits.

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