The Narrative of COIN

It comes just before the end, but eventually Warren Strobel’s latest McClatchy gem on the largely successful American COIN operation in the Philippines makes the point that leaped out to me after the first couple of paragraphs:

While this mission could provide lessons for other global arenas, it’s also unique in many ways. The Philippines is a majority Catholic country with a functioning central government; a long, if checkered, relationship with the U.S.; and leaders willing to fight terrorism.

Of all those criteria, I’d say the functioning central government is the most significant. When you start out with a policy of regime change, you’re certain to need COIN, since the armed overthrow of a government is essentially the equivalent of creating an insurgency. But the problem with COIN in the aftermath of regime change is that it bears a striking resemblance to occupation (Iraq) or incompetence (Afghanistan).

What’s also interesting is that the Philippine operation was launched in 2002, that is, well before Gen. David Petraeus descended from Mount Sinai with the much-heralded COIN tablets in hand. The snark is not directed against Petraeus, who by all indications is every bit as sharp as media accounts make him out to be. (When he was named to head CENTCOM, I questioned his qualifications, which will remain easily googleable proof for all of eternity that I’m a moron.)

But as someone who came to writing through fiction and scripts, one thing I couldn’t help but notice very early on was Petraeus’ emphasis on narrative as a decisive element of counterinsurgency. Listening to cultural narrative as a means of understanding the host culture (hence the emphasis on Human Terrain Teams), but also framing the operational narrative as a means of impacting the “center of gravity” represented by the host and domestic populations.

The narrative of “King David” (that’s one I didn’t come up with) saving the day in Iraq has gone a long way to creating the popular perception that the Surge which he headed is the primary causal factor in stabilizing that country, which is a highly selective reading of the past thirty months. Strobel’s piece supports the claim of some (such as Col. Gian Gentile) that U.S. COIN doctrine was perfectly suited to the operational needs of the moment before 2007.

It also supports the argument that regime change and large format invasions are not as effective an approach to counterterrorism as targeted special forces, support and training operations. The Philippine approach was not available in Afghanistan due to the host government’s hostility. And Iraq really had nothing to do with counterterrorism until after the invasion. Still, it’s easy to forget, in the current doctrinal environment, that we’ve in fact come full circle, beginning with regime change to combat terrorism, which in turn led us to prioritize COIN and stabilization operations in Army doctrine and national security posture.

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