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COIN of Base Metal


Counterinsurgency (COIN) is a growth industry. It employs hundreds of thousands ? theorists, analysts, field researchers and operators. They serve in think tanks, foundations, universities, military academies, command staffs and ? not least ? in the galaxy of consultancies whose financial rewards are grossly disproportionate to the value they add. This grandiose American enterprise has partners, off-shoots and emulators elsewhere in the world. The COIN acronym itself has a brand recognition factor in policy circles that is envied by many a purveyor of commercial goods.

Exactly what is COIN? Simply put, it is the theory and practice of suppressing insurgencies that mix violent and non-violence methods to topple existing governments and to seize power. Since the ‘threat’ is multidimensional, so too is counter insurgency doctrine. That is what distinguishes from conventional uses of military force ? and conventional political cum ideological contests. It is that distinctiveness that lends COIN a certain cachet. It is tailor made for the audacious and ambitious. The romantic tinge that attaches to COIN is deceptive insofar as actual counterinsurgency entails patient, persistent and grueling work over long period of times. The discrepancy between the time span needed for success to register and that needed to make careers generates a built-in tension as the aims of practitioners and conditions on the ground are not congruent. The tension is heightened by the odds being heavily weighed against success. We are speaking especially of situations where a foreign party is leading the campaign against indigenous insurgents. That is the case in every instance where the United States is now involved, or has been involved in the past. This reality has two implications. First, the threat represented by the insurgent challenge must be interpreted as constituting a grave danger to major national interests for the requisite effort to be made. The other is that premiums are placed on packaging COIN techniques as novel, innovative and promising. 9/11 and the hysterical aftermath satisfied the former condition. An uncommonly rich array of incentives satisfied the latter.

The inherent contradiction of foreigners leading a fight for the hearts and minds of locals explains why success is extremely rare. I can think of only two places where that occurred: the British in Malaya and in Kenya. In the former case, though, the insurgents were ethnic Chinese in a predominantly Malay country. In the latter, the insurgents were equipped mainly with machetes and ‘nail guns’ of their own invention. Still, the British led counter-insurgency forces (primarily native) had to resort to mass detentions of the civilian population – hardly a model for Afghanistan. . Yes, the Russians have won in Chechen on the second try. But Chechnya is a tiny place and I’m not sure their methods commend themselves to the United States and its allies. Even the Nazis could not entirely suppress the Yugoslav partisans despite the active help of the Croatian Ustase government. So, too, for the Indians in Kashmir – a marginal case. I find only one possible case that can be called a success – the Philippines 1898 – 1913. Even there, the first opposition to the American invasion and occupation came from the Spanish trained regular army. Only after its defeat did splinter groups take to the hills and jungles. Its suppression entailed roughly 400,000 native deaths. There comparable number in Afghanistan is close to I million. Is America prepared to accept an Afghan civilian casualty toll of about 1 million – killed volitionally ot collaterally as we did in Iraq.?

The same circumstances of insurgency and attempts to counteract it have been with us throughout history. The dynamics between those two forces as well as the overall logic of the situation is unchanged. Too, the complications introduced when a power external to the society in question is a protagonist were part of the equation early on. Think of the Chinese empire expanding southwestwards, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, etc. What has changed in terms of objective conditions are: improved communications for both sides due in part to literacy as well as technological innovations; awareness of experience elsewhere; and the increased importance of domestic political considerations in the external power. The last mentioned registers its main effects in reducing the time frame in which success has to be achieved. It also can place premiums on containing casualties, with a tactical emphasis on force protection, even if that means higher casualties among non-combatants on the insurgent side. The consequences for execution of a counter insurgency campaign are too obvious to need being spelled out.

As the for access to an historical record that chronicles what happened elsewhere, it in theory should convey the cautionary lesson that success is unlikely, costly and time consuming. That it has not happened insofar as the United States is concerned testifies to Americans’ generally ahistorical approach to problems reinforced by a deeply ingrained sense of American exceptionality and superiority.

Classic COIN was conceived in reference to the enduring truths of counter insurgency expressing the underlying logic of circumstances. Its methods included the use of force in diverse ways: to destroy enemy fighters, to demoralize both combatants and sympathizers through punitive action; and/or to break the combatant/civilian nexus by singling out leaders while cultivating relations with non-combatants. The last is linked to civilian efforts to provide security and offer material assistance as to win their allegiance ? or at least their neutrality. The strains between that task and other applications of force are constantly there to bedevil counter insurgency missions.

NEW COIN places relatively greater stress on this last dimension. It is especially attractive to Americans for a number of reasons. It is more humane, it conforms to the country’s sense of enlightened engagement, and it takes advantage of the nation’s bountiful resources. All of these elements were deployed in South Vietnam. Despite these initiatives COIN failed. Failure inoculated the United States against launching similar enterprises for a quarter century. The admonition ‘no more Vietnams’ was codified in the Powell and Weingarten doctrines. All of that was dumped overboard as the United States plunged into Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither of those ill-starred projects drew on truly innovative ideas or tactical maneuvers. They drew inspiration more from gung-ho American ‘can-do’ attitudes strengthened by the conviction that this time an aggrieved America had to win.

The only innovations were technological, i.e. the use of high tech means to identify insurgents, to track them and to eliminate them using drones and smart bombs. They track record has been mixed. Many insurgents have been eliminated; so too have many non-combatants been killed as collateral damage. The belief that you can take out the Taliban groom at a Pashtun wedding while leaving the bride more-or-less intact has proven to be a too convenient fiction. Whatever the exact balance sheet, technology heavy NEW COIN has not altered the basic logic of insurgency and counter insurgency.

Some persons have made luminous careers for themselves by promoting NEW COIN. General David Petraeus is the prime example. A galaxy of defense intellectuals and fellow officers bask in his reflected glory. The truth is more prosaic. Supposed triumphs in Iraq, ascribed to NEW COIN, evaporate when exposed to the light of day ? albeit few are inclined to take a close look at the evidence. In Afghanistan, the NEW COIN concept of winning and holding territory within which secure civilians could be won over gradually with much material assistance gave way to cruder tactics. Whole villages were destroyed and their inhabitants displaced so as to minimize American casualties and to boost the statistics that could be used to claim success. Political pressures back home that led President Obama to set a nominal deadline to commence withdrawal added to the incentives to score points as soon as possible, even if the results were liable to be reversed. Turning NEW COIN on its head was reversion to Vietnam practices that devastated the countryside and its inhabitants. The outcome, too, is fated to be the same.

What has changed is the enhanced sophistication of spin techniques that use public relations to fabricate virtual realities that don’t conform to actual realities. A distracted, uninformed public makes that possible. So too does the degeneration of public discourse that weakens the element of accountability to the vanishing point. Thus, POST-MODERN COIN ? and its pernicious effects over there and over here.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.


Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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