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The US COIN Debate: A Second Look

Watching the counterinsurgency debate, I can’t help but observe two dueling strawmen. Critics of American COIN see it as armed nation-building and deride population-centric COIN as ahistorical and invalid. Some proponents of COIN respond to these criticisms by portraying the current mode of COIN as superior to a supposed alternative rooted in brutality towards the civilian population and “search and destroy” missions. In reality, however, there is no real practical difference between “enemy-centric” and “population-centric” COIN. Since COIN is a mission that matches military force against military force, it will by necessity focus on the enemy as the primary object, since it is the opponent’s presence that is causing the direct problem (as opposed to root one) that military force seeks to solve. It seems that the American COIN debate’s complications originate from factors outside of purely COIN theory and doctrine.
      Everyone by now has memorized the Clausewitzian idea that war is a continuation of political intercourse (policy + politics), with the added element of violence. “Politics” here generally means the distribution of power among human beings. So the Clausewitzian idea of forcing our will upon the opponent means using force to develop power over people. In regular warfare this generally is accomplished through the destruction or neutralization of the opponent’s field army and the occupation of his territory. Irregular warfare is generally different from this because the process of employing force involves the civilian population, which is not previously too great of a factor in the clash of modern armies. Seen in this light, COIN is an operational methodology that involves the use of force to suppress an armed uprising. Power over people is exerted through a combination of violence, coercion, and suasion. It involves the addressing of root causes, to be sure, but that is not the primary element. And if one examines the history of over 100+ years of organized COIN theory (starting with imperial policing classics) you see a number of military thinkers looking at the problems of using military force against irregulars and the problem of the civilian population. So why the bitter debate and the political complications?
      There are a number of factors, however, that have tremendously complicated American COIN. First, there is the matter of postcolonialism. Since the 1950s, a basic presumption in world opinion and international law is that outside powers have no right to rule over foreign populations whose lands have been acquired through force of arms. Of course, there are still states that do so and will not be compelled by any international body to relinquish their holdings. But as a basic norm, it is as passe as suits with elbow patches. However, world opinion does seem to accept the largely nonviolent post-Cold War science of “nation-building” by blue helmets and international development agencies, which enjoys wide legitimacy even if parts of the process do have similarities to colonial practice.
      Second, there is the growth of a large body of thinking over the last fifteen years in human rights theory and practice, what might broadly be called development, aid, peace studies, and peacekeeping. These concepts form a coherent whole that is broadly liberal and emancipatory in nature and has been embedded very deeply into the structure of how the West thinks about international relations and security. At times, its proponents can also mistake it for defined law with universal application across the ages, when it is really a set of of norms that evolved in the West from the immediate postwar period to the present. It might also be observed that these concepts mesh at least in spirit with the broadly Wilsonian way of thinking about America in the world that seems perennially popular, unlike realism and its cousins. What these related practices in peace studies, development, and international human rights law all share is a worldview that makes war–outside of narrowly transcribed limits–illegal because its destructive and coercive elements stand in opposition to liberal thought. Much like some of the idealists of the 1920s, this antipathy for warfare expands beyond just war theory and the laws of war to try to banish war itself through a broadly liberal set of policies, norms, and regulations.
      So what does all of these things add up to? You get doctrine whose basic purpose–the use of armed force to cement political control over populations by killing or neutralizing irregulars–is broadly unpalatable to a non-military Western audience. It smacks too much of colonial practice, and it offends an audience that has come to see the role of international political-military intervention as linked with nation-building, the “responsibility to protect” against massacre and genocide, and blue helmets (or regional forces) providing security duties against minor bandits. Because the broadly liberal ideology of Western elites is uncomfortable on a basic level with the use of force that does not fit carefully transcribed boundaries, COIN cannot be called what it really is: war. European nations’ discomfort with the basic use of force is a feature, not a bug, of this problem. The fact that we cannot talk honestly about war profoundly distorts our public discussion of COIN.
      It is from this collective cognitive dissonance that the mythical dichotomy of “liberal” COIN rooted in cups of tea, CERP money, and road-building projects standing in opposition to harsh collective punishment and “search and destroy” missions of “Roman COIN” emerges. Killing or neutralizing the enemy is the stuff of war itself, and organized COIN science is just an modern update of classical methods of eliminating armed insurgent groups and cementing political control over the population. Like anything else in war, it is harsh but cannot be reasonably called inherently brutal or evil. As stated before, the difference between enemy-centric and population-centric COIN is greatly exaggerated. COIN is neither “Mr. Rodgers” nor “Darth Vader.” It is a complex mixture of force, suasion, and coercion. Does it involve addressing the population’s grievances? Certainly. But one cannot put little girls in school in Kandahar or hand out bags of grain in Mogadishu without destroying or neutralizing the opponent–hence the involvement of soldiers instead of policemen.
      Having an honest discussion of COIN means recognizing that it is a form of warfare, and that war cannot be liberalized (or made more “conservative”–it’s purpose is not to validate political ideologies). The second is that warfare and force are basic tools of statecraft and will remain so no matter what a NGO or a bureaucrat in New York thinks. Once we get past the dichotomy of “Mr. Rodgers” vs. “Darth Vader” forms of COIN we can begin to discuss with more precision whether our usage of force is the best method of achieving our larger objectives.