COIN – Now We See That It Failed. But That Was Obvious Before We Started (When Will We Learn?)

Summary:  Now that the enthusiasm has passed for COIN as the tool by which foreign armies can defeat local insurgencies, we can look back for lessons.  They key insight is not that COIN failed to live up to the claims of its advocates.  It’s that the claims were obviously false when made, disproved by both history and logic.

Update: This is a survey article. It sketches out a viewpoint, and links to posts that develop individual aspects in detail — and which contain links to supporting data and studies.  See the next in this series:  COIN, another example of our difficulty learning from history or experience.


  1. Introduction:  the rise of COIN
  2. The Fall of COIN
  3. Reason #1:  COIN seldom works when used by foreign armies against local insurgents
  4. Reason #2:  the intellectual foundation of COIN is largely bogus
  5. Other posts about COIN

(1)  Introduction:  the rise of COIN

As the US military retreats from COIN, returning to its traditional (since WWI) reliance on massive firepower, we can look back and learn from its second rise and fall (Vietnam was their first love affair with COIN).  Original thinkers like Thomas Barnett laid the foundation, brilliant theorists like David Kilcullen developed it, and the US military used the concept to build support for a new wave of foreign wars.  Now we look back and see how little we’ve gained.

Many experts (eg, Gian Gentile, Andrew Bacevich) gave rebuttals to the COIN-istas’ claims.  They were ignored – not refuted. Even so late as June 2010 this was considered shocking:

“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.” (from the infamous Rolling Stone article about General McChrystal)

The rise and fall of COIN is another example of modern America’s inability to clearly see, understand, and think.  It’s our broken Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action loop (OODA loop; click here for more information).

Readers of the FM website knew these things long ago, as the first and most devastating criticism of COIN appeared in January 2007 (link here), with another two dozen  in the years that followed.   This post consists of excerpts from those, and is an addition to the FM Reference Page listing past predictions (corrections and admissions appear on the Smackdowns page).

What I have been saying in all of this is that when we are thinking about small wars in the present and the future we need to do it with the understanding that the way the US has fought these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, operationally, has failed. If we treat them as successes then we are learning the wrong things from them. It would be like the British after the disastorous and failed Galipoli campaign in 1915 afterward claiming that they were succussful and that there was a trove a strategic lessons to be gotten from it.
— Gian P. Gentile (Colonel, US Army) at the Small Wars Journal, 6 December 2011  (update)

(2)  The fall of COIN

This is a diverse assortment of the many articles by people realizing that COIN has not delivered as its advocates promised.  Many advocates say that, like communism, it just has not been adequately tried.

  1. End of the COIN Era?“, Robert Haddick (Managing Editor of the Small Wars Journal), Foreign Policy, 23 June 2011 — “Obama’s Afghan withdrawal speech may mark the end of the U.S. counterinsurgency experiment.”
  2. COIN Fatigue Disease“, Jed Babbin, American Spectator, 14 November 2011 — “The firing of Major General Peter Fuller underscores growing U.S. military disillusion with its counterinsurgency — nation-building — efforts in Afghanistan.”
  3. U.S. Military To Scrap COIN; Focus on Pacific, Says Vice Chairman Admiral James Winnefeld“, Colin Clark, AOL Defense, 17 November 2011
  4. COIN is Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics“, Gian P. Gentile (Colonel, US Army), World Politics Review, 22 November 2011

There are still those who claim America gained something from our wars in Iraq and Af-Pak, although at this late date that requires quite an imagination.  China and Iran as beneficiaries, yes — that’s easy to show.

(3)  Reason #1:  COIN seldom works when used by foreign armies against local insurgents

(a) How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 28 May 2008 — About “Lies, damned lies and counterinsurgency“, Robert W. Chamberlain (Captain, US Army), Armed Forces Journal, May 2008 — Excerpt from that article:

“In general, a government so weak that it relies on foreign military forces is likely to lose … Not only does this bring some order to debate about the odds, but it is a more operationally useful formula for us — often the foreign military forces.”

(b) Ignoring the blindingly obvious is essential to continue our foreign wars, 18 September 2009 — Excerpt:

If we look closely at the debate about the Af-Pak War, we see some reasons why America has fought so many wars since Korea – and why these wars so closely resemble each other.  Our military journals record 50 years of constant innovation, yet some things are too awful to be seen.

(c) Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — This discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies (Columbia, Iraq, the Malaysian Emergency, the Philippines-American War, Northern Ireland, the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman, and the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya).

(d) A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — This reviews the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.

(e) A look at the history of victories over insurgents.  How often do foreign armies win?, 30 June 2010 — A RAND study examines the victories of foreign armies over insurgents.  It holds powerful lessons for us, and deserves more attention. “War by Other Means – Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency“, David Gompert and John Gordon et al (2008).

(4)  Reason #2:  the intellectual foundation of COIN is largely bogus

“Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea) did not go to the Pentagon to con them.  The Pentagon went to him like a sinner to Elmer Gantry.” — Paul Avallone (Special Forces, retired; in Nangarhar, Afghanistan 2002-2003, as a photo-journalist in 2006 and 2008), email to Diana West posted here.  Also see his essay “Flirting with Afghanistan – Dispatches from the frontline“, August 2008

(a) The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008 — Excerpt:

If basic social engineering is often beyond our capabilities at home — where our knowledge and tools are considerable — what about our ability to do this in foreign lands, the keystone to modern COIN theory?

… FM 3-24 effectively uses social science terminology and analytical frameworks to describe COIN dynamics.  But it advocates using social science theories to manipulate foreign societies.  This will likely fail on several levels.

  1. It will not work, as the social sciences are as yet immature.  Its practitioners cannot wield their theories as can chemists and physicists.  Twentieth century history is largely a series of failed attempts at social engineering.
  2. If US social scientists were able to do so at home, that does not mean that they can do so in foreign lands.
  3. If this was possible to do in foreign lands, the US military might not have the necessary organization or talent to do so.  This probably requires Thomas Barnett’s “System Administrators“, a 21st century organization of colonial civil servants.

This does not mean that all or even most of the advice in FM 3-24 is bad.  Just that FM 3-24′s analytical foundation is probably inadequate for its purpose, which should make us suspicious of its efficacy.  Rather than a work of science, it might be more like a cookbook — or like a 19th century apothecary’s handbook.  Events in Iraq will tell us much about these things, if carefully and coldly considered.

… FM 3-24 is a theoretical solution to 4GW of the second kind (hardware, ideas, people).   Like most such, its content is exciting but our ability to implement it seems questionable.  COIN might be like a star drive or quantum-point energy source – something valuable but beyond our current knowledge.

(b) A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual, 20 March 2008 — Excerpt:

These concepts are intended to provide a simple framework for officers operating in strange lands. Instead they are sharp, complex instruments which might prove useless (too simplistic), too complex (ignored, as another layer on top of already too-complex operations), or so sharp that they bite us.

This is something which military leaders need to consider as they increasingly adopt social science theories, as in the 20th century they uncritically adopted “modern management” theories (e.g., Taylorism) — which, while useful in many ways, led to “innovations” such as the individual replacement system that substantially reduced the combat effectiveness of US forces and were reversed only after several generations of effort.

(c) We can learn an important lesson about ourselves from the “Three Cups of Tea” affair (part one), 26 April 2011 — Excerpt:

Like all cons, the “Three Cups of Tea” affair reveals more about us than its author. Like all marks, we seek simple sure-fire solutions, no matter how implausible. And we prefer the fables of con men than the complex and often discouraging advice from experts. As any cop on the bunko squad knows, no matter if or how we punish the author, we’ll be just as eager for the next fraud. Unless we learn from our mistakes.

Here are the three levels of the problem posed by 3 Cups Affair, from minor to serious.  ”Three Cups of BS – Greg Mortenson’s school-building plan was never a good idea“, Alanna Shaikh, Foreign Policy, 19 April 2011:

“… This book was published in 2006, and has been widely cited as authoritative by government and non-government experts in the war.  Why did nobody mention that much of it was bogus?”

(d) The lessons about ourselves we can learn from the “Three Cups of Tea” affair (part 2), 27 April 2011 — Excerpt:

The Three Cups of Tea fable is symptomatic of a deeper flaw in the way we conduct foreign policy.  To believe in fairies makes for a fun children’s story, but wars require tight grip on an often harsh reality.

… Gian Gentile (Colonel, US Army, Wikipedia), excerpt from comment at the Small Wars Journal:

The irony of this story is that Mortenson’s book contains lies about what he actually did — yet his book has come to be embraced by the coin community — and American counterinsurgency itself is one big myth. The myth is that it works, it does not. … And in the end Coin campaigns are very much like Mortenson’s book since they have been described as wars of perceptions. And really all that Mortenson did was write a little white lie that created the perception of things that he supposedly did in Afghanistan.

(5)  Other posts about COIN

  1. The Essential 4GW reading list:  David Kilcullen
  2. One of the most important posts on the FM website:  Why do we lose 4th generation wars?, 4 January 2007 — Rebuttal to Kilcullen’s influential “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency” (2006)
  3. The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
  4. Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, 23 March 2008
  5. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I, 7 June 2008 — Thoughts about eating soup with a knife.
  6. COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
  7. Nagl gives a profoundly wrong vision for the US military, 22 June 2008
  8. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  9. Does America have clear vision?  Here’s an “eye chart” for our minds., 15 June 2009 — Did COIN have a large impact on the Iraq War?
  10. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009
  11. Comments about those plans to clear-hold-build in Afghanistan, by James Morton, 31 July 2009
  12. COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today), 1 July 2010 — COIN will be seen by future generations as a manifestation of early 21st century American hubris.
  13. We can learn an important lesson about ourselves from the “Three Cups of Tea” affair (part one), 26 April 2011
  14. The lessons about ourselves we can learn from the “Three Cups of Tea” affair (part 2), 27 April 2011 — “The Three Cups of Tea fable is symptomatic of a deeper flaw in the way we conduct foreign policy.  To believe in fairies makes for a fun children’s story, but wars require tight grip on an often harsh reality.”

This post originally appeared at Fabius Maximus and is posted with permission.