Counterinsurgency Redefined

The COIN Field Manual defines insurgency as an “organized movement aimed at overthrowing a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict” and counterinsurgency as “those political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological and civic actions taken by the government to defeat an insurgency.” Insurgents can be revolutionaries who want to upend the political power structure of a country or secessionists that seek independence. Insurgencies are always internal wars, with one exception, says the manual’s Chapter 1 overview: the “liberation insurgency” where “indigenous elements” seek to overthrow what they perceive as a foreign government’s occupation.

Though Chapter I “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency” is mostly written with an eye toward analytical inclusion of historic insurgency trends and definitions, make no mistake, this manual is about the specific U.S. entanglements of the here and now. As General John Nagel writes in a new introduction: “It is designed both to help the Army and Marine Corps prepare for the next counterinsurgency campaign and to make substantive contributions to the national efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The 2006 manual was a comprehensive update to a shorter, hurried manual written as a response to the explosion of violence in Iraq after 2004’s de-Baathification. Its primary function was to layout the best (if not the most feasible) of all military strategies for the two American wars. It was also seemingly written to get the Pentagon off the hook, as COIN in its most effective form 1) “emphasizes the primary role of traditionally non-military activities and the decisive role of other agencies and organizations” and 2) admitted in the manual, requires an extensive commitment of time and resources that no U.S. politician, nor the general public, would provide nor have much patience for in wars of choice.

Some, like Don Bacon, argue that authors General David Petraeus and General James Mattis, in fact, hijacked the term counterinsurgency to spin the perception of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To avoid calling ourselves an occupational force, which often has a negative connotation, they made COIN the overarching term for U.S. strategy (what has been conflated with our goal and mission as well), and of course insurgentsounds bad. If the bad guys are the “insurgents” (conveniently decreasing the potential for them to be called Iraqis or Afghans or even Sunnis or Shias in the media) then what would that make America as leading the “counterinsurgency”? This argument makes sense because pro-war propaganda is key to help garner support while conducting not just one but two wars of choice.

Whether the manual’s jamming of COIN into the nation’s vernacular was a side effect of media coverage or a sly attempt to reframe the wars to make us look noble and good, the field manual is the ultimate guide to a “just war.” It is not concerned with how or why these wars were started, but how to conduct them now with not only minimal damage to the Host Nation (HN) but a solid commitment to protect the HN civilians, and make the HN more structurally and economically sustainable. It paints our intentions in the best of all lights (though in a much different way than George W. Bush did, even though we haven’t been greeted exactly as liberators).

The field manual’s first chapter implies but never states that counterinsurgency is good and insurgents are evil. The most obvious distinction is that insurgents tend toward terrorism as tactic to “sow chaos and disorder.” There are more subtle tells, such as phrases within the counterinsurgency definition like supporting “constituted government” in “restoring and enforcing the rule of law,” as if the ruling parties of nation-states were inherently benevolent and never to be insurged upon. (Ironically, Mao Tse-Tung, the iron-fisted famine-causing Red China dictator, is cited as the leading insurgency expert.)  The most dubious “just war” implication in the first chapter overview portrays counterinsurgency as defensive—a response to aggression and not the cause. This of course wouldn’t matter at all in terms of public opinion if the field manual were not being sold on

A very short history of some “counterinsurgency”

In the paper “Effective Leadership in Counter-Insurgency: The North-West Mounted Police in South Africa, 1899-1902,” the author makes a strong, if not obvious, case that having a leader who is respected personally by his men and who has the appropriate experience (in this case, as a veteran mounted North-American Indian killer) is key when fighting insurgents, especially as the fighting is particularly unpredictable and stressful. Though the paper, which opens by discussing the modern-day trend away from traditional warfare to guerilla warfare (a.k.a. irregular warfare), was written in 2008, its title bears no relationship to the COIN manual definitions.

Instead it refers to the Canadian Mounted Police regiment called to South Africa to “fulfill its assigned task of counter-insurgency” against the Boer settlers, who were whipping the British army with snipers, ambushes and the intimate knowledge of their land. And thus throughout the paper, the “counter-insurgency” is simply a group of men with guerilla-combat experience employed to defeat the “insurgents,” who—true to typical underdog definition—used hit-and-run tactics to compensate for their lack of numbers and/or technological disadvantages.

Counterinsurgency came into its modern incarnation as President Kennedy took over the Cold War. He believed one of our biggest threats to be Soviet-sponsored “wars of liberation” in smaller nations around the world. As such he expanded Eisenhower’s CIA-run undercover and paramilitary missions to “overt and covert war against the internal enemies of friendly governments…. ”

Kennedy sought a large increase in Special Forces and increased military authority abroad (over U.S. ambassadors in particular) to go beyond containment of the Soviet threat and provide comprehensive support to countries facing communist insurgencies, though he asserted that “the main burden of local defense against overt attack, subversion and guerilla warfare must rest on local population and forces.” His requisite speeches clarifying the need for billions in military buildup and foreign aid to take on the threat by nonnuclear “forces of subversion, infiltration, intimidation, indirect or non-overt aggression, internal revolution, diplomatic blackmail, guerilla warfare or a series of limited wars [his words]” makes the War on Terror and its Middle Eastern boogiemen seem like cowboys and Indians in scope. (A result of our Hubris of Toughness according to Peter Beinart.)

Cuba and Vietnam, the two biggest concerns of the Kennedy administration and the trial and error of infant COIN, were unmitigated disasters.  After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a broader, comprehensive vision of COIN was needed and a cadre of high-level national-defense officials, called upon by the likes of Robert Kennedy, became Special Group Counterinsurgency. It was created by National Security Action Memorandum 124 to “assure the use of U.S. resources with maximum effectiveness in preventing and resisting subversive insurgency in friendly countries.”

In South Vietnam, the U.S. backed in battle Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem against the North Vietnamese communists and their Vietcong “insurgency” in the South (ostensibly because of the Domino Theory for all of Southeast Asia). But Ho Chi Minh was teaching the Vietcong from the Mao insurgency playbook. Among the major COIN mistakes the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations would make: Camelot allowed Diem, the only effective SV leader, to be killed in a 1963 coup de tat after his corrupt, oppressive regime became national news. Coup after coup followed and, as anyone who knows about COIN today will tell you, it doesn’t work without a legitimate Host Nation. The field manual derives a good portion of its existence from the lessons of Vietnam—where we bombed and murdered the indigenous people as we tried to win their “hearts and minds.”

For Kennedy’s part, his counterinsurgency plan had been based on Diem defeating the Vietcong on his own, and JFK spoke out against putting any boots on the ground (as in Cuba). “Counterinsurgency” in the U.S. in 1963 didn’t even involve soldiers.

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