H Clinton emails - a criticism of COIN

U.S. Department of State Case No. F-2014-20439 Doc No. C05760317 Date: 12/31/201 | Small Wars Journal

The link is to a Clinton email recently released as part of the fuss over her email servers. It consists of a memo written about COIN (by whom I can't quite work out), and then notes from a conversation with the CIA Station Chief Islamabad.

highlights:

"Our war in Iraq is now cited as an example of the success of the COIN theory and its methods. In fact nothing of the sort occurred in Iraq. Remember — COIN = political reform + economic development + counter-guerilla operations. We have not brought on political reform in Iraq. What we have done is re-arrange the "players" in such a way that the formerly downtrodden Shia Arabs are now the masters. This has in no way reduced the potential for inter-communal armed struggle. We did not defeat the insurgents in counter guerrilla operations. What we did was bring more troops into the Baghdad area to enforce the separation of the ethno-sectarian communities while at the same time using traditional methods of "divide and conquer" to split off enough insurgents to form an effective force to use against AI-Qa'ida in Iraq and others whom we disapproved of. This is not counterinsurgency!!!"

"
COIN is a badly flawed instrument of statecraft: Why?

- The locals ultimately own the country being fought over. If they do not want the "reforms" you desire, they will resist you as we have been resisted in Iraq and Afghanistan. McChrystal's strategy paper severely criticized Karzai's government. Will that disapproval harden into a decision to act to find a better government or will we simply undercut Afghan central government and become the actual government?

- Such COIN wars are expensive, long drawn out affairs that are deeply debilitating for the foreign counterinsurgent power. Reserves of money, soldiers and national will are not endless. Ultimately, the body politic of the counterinsurgent foreign power turns against the war and then all that has occurred has been a waste.

- COIN theory is predicated on the ability of the counterinsurgents to change the mentality of the "protected" (read controlled) population. The sad truth is that most people do not want to be deprived of their ancestral ways and will fight to protect them. "Hearts and Minds" is an empty propagandist's phrase.

- In the end the foreign counterinsurgent is embarked on a war that is not his own war. For him, the COIN war will always be a limited war, fought for a limited time with limited resources. For the insurgent, the war is total war. They have no where to escape to after a tour of duty. The psychological difference is massive.

- For the counterinsurgent the commitment of forces must necessarily be much larger than for the insurgents. The counterinsurgent seeks to protect massive areas, hundreds of built up areas and millions of people. The insurgent can pick his targets. The difference in force requirements is crippling to the counterinsurgents.

What should we do?

- Hold the cities as bases to prevent a recognized Taliban government until some satisfactory (to us) deal is made among the Afghans.

- Participate in international economic development projects for Afghanistan.

- Conduct effective clandestine HUMINT out of the city bases against international jihadi elements.

- Turn the tribes against the jihadi elements.

- Continue to hunt and kill/capture dangerous jihadis,

How long might you have to follow this program? It might be a long time but that would be sustainable. A full-blown COIN campaign in Afghanistan is not politically sustainable."

"
Milt Bearden and I met with Pakistani generals who contacted us in 2007 at their request, met with the key general from ISI who created the Taliban. The message to us was that the Brits shouldn't go into Helmand. They had thrown them out in 1880 and they would never accept them back. No one listened."
 

Caecilius

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Would agree with everything in there except the first sentence, which I've never seen.
I'm not sure who's been holding up Iraq as a great example of COIN theory either.

I also disagree heavily with the paragraph beginning 'COIN theory is predicated on changing the mindset...'. This isn't really true. If the majority of the country supports the insurgent then you've already lost, and lost badly. The truth is that COIN campaigns are usually about protecting the majority and either forming or maintaining a stable government, while eliminating the physical threat posed by a minority supported insurgency.

Sometimes this starts from a challenge to established order, such as in Malaya, but more often nowadays it seems to start with the removal of a government with minority support, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Either way, modern counterinsurgency isn't about coercing the majority of the population but about establishing a government that is supported by the majority.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Arguably the Philippines campaign (one of the shortest COIN campaigns on record) was a case of changing the mindset of the majority of the population, but this probably had more to do with the personal intervention of Magsaysay rather than anything done by the USA. Contrast this with most of our imperial counterinsurgency fights (particularly the Boer war) and we had a hell of a time suppressing majority support for the insurgencies and in most cases either lost the fight or found it necessary to use some pretty unpalatable methods. I think there's an acceptance now that COIN isn't about coercion of the majority of the population.
 
Should send the Germans. On the whole they got compliance everywhere they occupied in a very short order of time.
 
I'm not sure who's been holding up Iraq as a great example of COIN theory either.

I also disagree heavily with the paragraph beginning 'COIN theory is predicated on changing the mindset...'. This isn't really true. If the majority of the country supports the insurgent then you've already lost, and lost badly. The truth is that COIN campaigns are usually about protecting the majority and either forming or maintaining a stable government, while eliminating the physical threat posed by a minority supported insurgency.

Sometimes this starts from a challenge to established order, such as in Malaya, but more often nowadays it seems to start with the removal of a government with minority support, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Either way, modern counterinsurgency isn't about coercing the majority of the population but about establishing a government that is supported by the majority.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Arguably the Philippines campaign (one of the shortest COIN campaigns on record) was a case of changing the mindset of the majority of the population, but this probably had more to do with the personal intervention of Magsaysay rather than anything done by the USA. Contrast this with most of our imperial counterinsurgency fights (particularly the Boer war) and we had a hell of a time suppressing majority support for the insurgencies and in most cases either lost the fight or found it necessary to use some pretty unpalatable methods. I think there's an acceptance now that COIN isn't about coercion of the majority of the population.
That's a good point, I think the changing the mindset attitude is perhaps about giving Comds a generic goal rather than focusing on more specific to Operation issues.
 
Don't forget the context though - this is just after the Iraqi Surge, and whilst McChrystal was in Afghanistan (and before he got fired). It was also just after the 1st edition of FM 3-24 had been released, and Petraeus was master of hte known universe. Iraq was very much a success story at this point.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Should send the Germans. On the whole they got compliance everywhere they occupied in a very short order of time.
...and for a very short order of time.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Ref. the COIN notes.

(Bear in mind that, in the US, the COIN vs Shooty Things - lead by Armour officers, mostly - argument has been a much bigger debate than it was in the UK. We kind of just naturally fell into a "oh yeah, COIN, right?" attitude from circa 2004, but only really adopted it in a "yes, we recognise that acronym" manner, then proceeded to royally misunderstand and **** it up for the best part of a decade.)

It is very hard to disagree with the analysis in the email. I've been thinking this problem over for years, and this is where I've ended up.

COIN. Our best and most considered application of COIN theory and principles in Iraq and Afghanistan can now be seen to be clear long-term failures. This is not entirely the fault of the military, but a failure of what we call the Comprehensive Approach. But that is the point: it is increasingly obvious that we are incapable of managing a pan-government Comprehensive Approach even in our own countries, so the idea that we will be able to do it abroad and in a war-zone was and continues to be fanciful.

Classicism. Conversely, the military part of my brain has increasing sympathy with the position of the Shooty Things side, which is: the military exists to break things in a highly efficient manner, quicker than an enemy can break it. In all sorts of well-worn historical, strategic and tactical examples, this is clearly true. In an existential / total war, it is the only game in town. But, and this is its massive flaw, it has almost no application in the situations we find ourselves in. These situations are not fundamentally limited by the operational environments we are in, but by the public environments of our own countries and norms of western democracies. The military has no hope, and should not want to, change those norms to enable it to be a more effective fighting force. That was one of the germs of totalitarianism last century. So we are left with a largely useless military instrument: an insurance policy that increasingly the insured do not understand the need for.

At present, we are in a catch-22 situation that makes our options for use of force unfit for the 21st century. Our practicable military doctrine (Classicism) does not meet the requirements of current operations; our doctrine designed for those requirements (COIN) is dependent on but not matched by our political culture; as a result we are doomed to irrelevance or failure. This describes what we have been experiencing for 20 years, a slow death from a thousand cuts compounded by the very public failure on the major operations we have prosecuted.

I am sympathetic to the COIN side because they recognise the danger of irrelevance, and are trying to reform and evolve to retain the utility of the military instrument. But COIN itself is deeply flawed, because its first and primary directive relies on political and government will that simply does not exist. Conversely, Classicists may make largely unassailable points about the successful use of military force, but their ideologically pure approach lacks political realism, assuming that a strong military is an uncontested article of faith which will always be shared by governments and the public. To anyone outside the military bubble, this is very clearly untrue, and there is real threat that we will be cut to the point of irrelevance (we may already be there in the UK).

Increasingly, I think the answer is in an as-yet unstated doctrine about how to adapt and use military force, in democracies, for the 21st century. So far, we have not had it. There are some outliers who have drawn valuable lessons from our recent experiences which I'm fairly sure will contribute to it: McChrystal on the nature of the environment and organisational reform; Mike Martin on our chronic lack of understanding and the requirements of operating in a foreign culture; Elliott on the manifest unsuitability of political/military interaction and the fact it will likely remain this way. But nobody yet has proposed a solution. We need to take these lessons and experience and develop a new doctrine, which sits somewhere between COIN and Classicism, but has at its core a relentless realism about the complexity, incoherence and unsuitability of our structures and situations.

The mortal flaw in all our thinking has been the insistence that everything will work. It does not, and it will not, because we don't know how to make it work, and even if we did, we rarely have the power to do it. We need a doctrine for the use of force that not longer assumes we are a largely competent, responsive machine applies to logical, deterministic challenges, but that we are a dysfunctional, random beast that is given wicked problems to solve. I have no idea whether we can achieve that doctrine, let alone whether it will work, but one thing is very clear: our current thinking flat out does not work. We need a new plan.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
True but not as a result of internal resistance.
Yes, but the methods they used to get compliance directly led to the external resistance which ended their rule. It's not a great model of success.
 

syrup

LE
. The message to us was that the Brits shouldn't go into Helmand. They had thrown them out in 1880 and they would never accept them back. No one listened."
I assume she'll apply the same thinking to Las Malvinas when she becomes president.
I assume there's a mail there saying the Falklanders will never welcolme the Argentinians back having thrown them out in 1982.
 
Yes, but the methods they used to get compliance directly led to the external resistance which ended their rule. It's not a great model of success.
Stalin



Means and motive, was the difference. No one would have the means to take the Yanks on, but the Yanks couldn't sustain the motivation, being a democracy - Vietnam.
 
"The message to us was that the Brits shouldn't go into Helmand. They had thrown them out in 1880 and they would never accept them back. No one listened."
I assume she'll apply the same thinking to Las Malvinas when she becomes president.
I assume there's a mail there saying the Falklanders will never welcome the Argentinians back having thrown them out in 1982.
I found that the most interesting bit. It isn't true they threw us out, despite a humiliating defeat, but if that's what they believe, that's what matters.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Stalin



Means and motive, was the difference. No one would have the means to take the Yanks on, but the Yanks couldn't sustain the motivation, being a democracy - Vietnam.
Okay, fair enough. I'll rephrase:

It's not a workable model unless you are a totalitarian state.
 
I assume she'll apply the same thinking to Las Malvinas when she becomes president.
I assume there's a mail there saying the Falklanders will never welcolme the Argentinians back having thrown them out in 1982.
different situations, and beyond what seems to be a reflexive "bash Hilary" stance, not one that stands up to much consideration.

I wonder if they sub-text was around the fact that Helmand (and Afghanistan in general) has always been considered by the Pakistanis as their strategic breathing space to recoup if India decided to get serious about them. That has always been their aim rather than being a "good ally" to the US.
 

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