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Why COIN Won’t Work


Sun Tzu, Boyd, Svechin, Creveld, Clausewitz, Luttwak, Dayan, and Alexander are just a few of the heavyweights cited by US military/political strategists these days as they attempt to redesign national security strategy, operations and tactics to secure US interests around the globe.

Why the fixation by American military and political strategists on these undeniably sharp analysts each existing in his stovepipe of the day, or even today?

Reliance on any one famed strategic thinker of old/new schools to advance 21st Century strategy and tactics is perilous, yet it continues on. In the quest to design a modular, integrated and adaptive US national security strategy for a world that challenges US leaders daily; if not hourly, the grand strategic brains look for inspiration from the crypt.

This is not an era for specialists. It is critical that US military/political strategy designers become cross-disciplinarians.

Academicians, politicians, commanders, and bureaucrats can no longer rely on decades-old theses/degrees or studies that launched their careers. One brain, two eyes and ears, and a voice is no match for a global social network of many thousands who may be bringing their thoughts to bear on a problem one analyst believes he has mastered. As Brzezinski noted, for the first time in humanity’s existence, global populations are generally aware of the political, economic and social issues of the day. The grand brains need to spend time “down there” with them.

Today’s strategists absolutely must understand the dynamic and interrelated nature of the US instruments of national power: Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economic, Finance, Law Enforcement Intelligence and Population (DIMEFLIP). They must then include information from key nodal elements of each area in any strategy, policy, operation or tactic. DIMEFLIP is also a useful tool for comparative analyses with other nations or non-state actors.

This was alluded to in a piece by Jacob Kipp and Lester Grau titled Military Theory, Strategy and Praxis (Military Review, March 2011). However, Kipp and Grau chose to focus on only four of the eight elements of DIMEFLIP which limits the practitioner.

The Kipp and Grau piece exudes frustration. In like fashion, the authors of the Defense Science Board’s (DSB) Counterinsurgency (COIN), Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Operations, released in May 2011, are equally flustered by the absence of an enlightened leadership/public that will hammer out an integrated US military strategy/practice to implement the requirements of the President’s US national security strategy, and the US State Department’s COIN strategy.

Beyond suggesting the creation of another managerial organization, the DSB authors blame most military leaders, US academia and the State Department for not being motivated to put COIN at the heart of US national and military strategy. They complain that the DOD has taken on COIN matters by default. A few points need airing here.

First, the national security budget of the USA is over $1 trillion (US). No other organization in the USA has the funding to engage in large-scale COIN, Left-of-Bang, preemptive shaping of the cultural terrain.

Second, as the DSB authors imply, terrorism, insurgencies, and crime are usually the direct result of a lack of food, clothing, shelter, and employment. Resolve these problems, and there is no need for COIN applications. But this is the province of civilian markets, economics, and employment.

Third, the political, economic and military intellect in the USA is isolated in its own stovepipes. DOD seeks the assistance of an American academia that has been increasingly corporatized and specialized in the quest to please donors/sponsors. Studies are targeted to standardized tests, not patterns of life/DIMEFLIP, or even the burgeoning field of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience and cross-disciplinary studies.

Keep it Simple Stupid!

The most adept American military/political strategists are struggling these days to come up with a national security strategy that; to use a US contact football metaphor, puts the USA in both the quarterback (QB) and middle linebacker (MLB) positions. Those positions are the premier leadership positions in this most American of sports. The QB spot requires a combination of field intellect, leadership and precision. The MLB position demands field intellect, leadership and unmatched ferocity.

But no matter the unearthly talents and resources of the individuals, they are doomed to failure without the support of teammates, coaches, trainers, doctors, dieticians and owners. Bluntly put, “you just can’t go it alone.”

And make no mistake. It is not altruism that drives a QB or MLB to sacrifice individuality or to learn the importance of team work. It is pure and timeless self-interest that fuels the engines of a QB or MLB. Just the same, it is this pure and timeless self-interest that pushes individuals, communities, state and nations to act as they do.

Military, political and economic leaders/thinkers in the USA often compare themselves, and their citizenry, to a US contact football team that is engaged in a struggle on the global gridiron. But unlike their QB/MLB counterparts on a team, America’s leaders/thinkers do not have a fully functional strategic/operational playbook (national strategy). They lack endurance to play for four quarters (finish the mission, stay on target); have too many head coaches (defense contractors, foreign influence; e.g.?Israel, Saudi Arabia, China); and can’t get the many units that make up a team to work together (interagency, cross-service effectiveness).

COIN will not Work

Counterinsurgency takes staying power and is a blade-to-blade, in your face practice. That has not changed since Spain’s guerilla war against the French in the early 1800’s. The USA has neither the long term funding nor the inclination to occupy countries with the millions of American citizens (armed or not) that it would take to overwhelm and convert indigenous populations to the American Way of Life (AWOL).

Americans are apathetic in their politics, particularly international affairs. Ironically, K-12 public and private education is not preparing American youth for the globalized world which the USA created. The Whole of Nation approach to war of any type is doomed because of this.

The American economy is not in recovery save for the wealthier in the land. Federal, state and local coffers are empty. Government services at all levels are being cut. Americans do not want to pay higher taxes even as their infrastructure and human capital crumbles before them.

The American leadership team, particularly at the federal and state levels, is dated and is simply not in intellectual or physical shape to face the challenges of today’s world and its emerging personalities.

American elites no longer control the historical narrative thanks to the Internet. Americans are fixated on developing technological solutions to every problem. Technology is religion.

The covenant that Americans had between their Constitution and the public servants entrusted to protect it has been broken. They realize the country is not theirs.

Those general observations can also be gleaned from more eloquent language in the Defense Science Board’s study.

“The defense intelligence culture is evolving slowly to meet the demands of supporting multi?modal, hybrid operations (and whole?of?government operations). That culture is primarily focused on “targeteering” and “weaponeering” to enable U.S. military forces to destroy enemy combatants and their war?making capacity. In addition, DoD tradecraft and culture separate targeteers and general analysts. There is insufficient attention to the need to provide intelligence support of complex operations and counteract hybrid, multi?modal conflict.


As the COIN problem becomes more strategic and prevalent, the expertise of operators needs to be more closely coupled with the general analyst and with analysts in fields ranging from target analysis and mission planning to the social sciences?In the field, ISR assets are so scarce that they are allocated to locations where things are known, rather than places where things are relatively unknown.


Intelligence analysts discovered through painful experience that the lack of activity in an area does not mean there is nothing of interest about which to be concerned… Within the current operational environment, there are few effective, temporally?acceptable methodologies for the integration (or fusion) of current levels of data streaming from the many space?based, airborne, mobile, in situ, and terrestrial remote sensors, let alone realtime integration. This impedes DoD’s ability to leverage multiple, networked sensor/platform combinations in a timely fashion to achieve dominant situational

awareness. This fusion problem will only be exacerbated by the flood of data from new collection systems about to be fielded?


DoD and its primary feeder, academia, lack the capacity to meet the demand for people with advanced language skills and cultural awareness for the current conflict. The shortcomings are even greater for the many languages and areas of the world where the next COIN situation might occur. Despite a national strategy and civil?military campaign plan that calls for a whole?of government, population?centric approach to COIN, the USG is not employing all elements of national power in the planning and conduct of COIN operations. DoD has assumed responsibility for virtually all COIN intelligence requirements by default.”

It is incumbent upon American military/political strategists to remove themselves from their static intellectual/operational environs and get out and see the world as it is now, not as it was when Sumer military commanders, Machiavelli, Xin or Mao were roaming the world. This is not to say that the historical record should not be consulted, or the great strategists and tacticians studied, or that lessons learned can’t be applied to the 21st Century military/political experience.

What is being said is that military/political strategists need to immerse themselves in the activities of each of the eight venues of America’s Instruments of National Power (DIMEFLIP) before embarking on the development of US national security strategy and practice. DIMEFLIP must be understood and viewed as a symbiotic global interconnected system of self-interest driven by the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the harsh realism of the US Constitution.

After all, the US Constitution (plus amendments) is a systems engineering guide for developing and maintaining an integrated system of government. It actually speaks to elements of DIMEFLIP.

Has anyone noticed?

John Stanton is a Virginia based writer specializing in national security matters. Reach him at


John Stanton is a Virginia based writer. Reach him at

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