Expenditures of Unknowing: Failures in COIN

By Ian Palmer


In 1946, Ho Chi Minh told French representatives, “You will kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it.”  There is perhaps no greater quotation to describe American counterinsurgency (COIN) policies in recent decades.  While American forces inflicted dozens of times more casualties than they took in Vietnam, American progress in the war stalled.  The American narrative in Iraq and Afghanistan was not too different.  Even with its history, modern US COIN strategy has led to marathons of expensive conflict. Various military publications doctrines created the United States’ doctrine for counterinsurgency, founded on the intention of “winning the hearts and minds of the people.”  That policy, however, is short-sighted. The tactical dilemmas involved and the irony of the military walking an invisible line between “winning the hearts and minds of the people” and avoiding being seen as an occupying force ultimately leads to a tactic with no strategy. 

United States doctrine argues that counterinsurgency is a political effort at its foundation. It makes this abundantly clear in labeling the principles of COIN to be establishing a legitimate government and focusing on political primacy of military actions. [1] Vietnam taught this lesson, returning to the Ho Chi Minh quotation. The American focus on traditional warfare with large casualty counts and “tactical” successes proved ultimately useless, as it became evident that the will of its opponent was not waning and exhaustion among the American public was mounting.  At the end of the Vietnam War and in the decades that followed, military strategy began to focus on the exact opposite of historical, tactical warfare.  As stated in 2006 by the author of the Army’s doctrine, Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV: “The allegiance, trust, and confidence of populations will be the final arbiters of success.” [2] This new style of war, called population-centric counterinsurgency replaced all previous strategy for counterinsurgency.

However, a focus on population-centric COIN fails to actually qualify as a strategy. Lt. Col. Gian Gentile compellingly calls it a “strategy of tactics.” [3]  This is the first irony embedded with the strategy of the US doctrine. The principles of COIN account for the importance of culture and an appreciation for the uniqueness of every situation.  It reads aptly, “If a tactic works this week, it will not work next week; if it works in this province, it will not work in the next.” [4]  However, the authors fail to apply this intuition to the grand scheme of strategy in counterinsurgency.  To use Gentile’s definition, strategy requires the capacity to adapt to changes, failures; one must have prepared alternatives in the face of short-comings or poor use of resources. [5]  Strategy also accounts for what happens when what was working before, is not working now.  The British campaign in Malaya offers some insight.  Beginning the campaign with a classic search-and-destroy effort, it eventually shifted toward a classic population-centric counterinsurgency strategy.  While the latter ended the conflict, a strong argument can be made that the former was a necessary step toward victory.  The search-and-destroy campaign hindered the will of the insurgency, allowing for a more effective effort in winning the hearts and minds of the public. [6]  The modern American COIN policy overlooks the impact of the first step.

Arguably, the greatest hindrance of population-centric COIN, especially in the Middle East, is the backbone of the policy itself.  Again, the authors claim that the foundation of a successful counterinsurgency program is recognizing the importance of politics and the public in the role of delegitimizing the insurgency.  Systemically, this has meant the presence of large numbers of American ground forces spread throughout the population, patrolling and engaging with the public. [7] This structure brings various problems, one of which is tactical.  Richard Betts writes, “Force-to-force ratios have little significance apart from force-to-space ratios because the key problem for counterinsurgency is the guerrillas’ option to concentrate forces in secret against a single point, while the government has to garrison the entire country.” [8]  Success, then, only comes with an enormous expenditure of people and money to overwhelm a numerically minuscule threat, (it should be noted that that the British succeeded in Malaya after raising their 5:1 government force to insurgent ratio to 25:1). [9] With a nation exhausted from the memories of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—a conflict still ongoing—this expenditure might be considered beyond the parameters of the national interest. 

The final significant problem of population-centric COIN is the negative implication the policy has on the politics.  The tactical dilemma mentioned earlier negatively influences the mission to “win the hearts and minds” of the host public.  In states as unstable as Iraq and Afghanistan, deploying a force greater than or equal to 25:1—as in Malaya—will only add the narrative of imposing and aggressive US foreign policy.  That many soldiers patrolling and engaging with the public will be seen as an occupation force.   The intention of legitimizing the host government can only then be undermined.  It is generally accepted that one of the largest contributors of volunteers to extremist groups in the Middle East is the unnatural imposition of US forces in their land.  The principles of COIN, in a way, account for this, reading, “an operation that kills 5 insurgents is futile if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more.” [10] We can rewrite this to say, an operation is not only futile but subversive, if it meant to deter insurgents and instead emboldened them. 

Authors of the US doctrine have a strong point in that COIN should be politically focused.  Especially in a unipolar world, where the US should ideally avoid the use of force, the question of the role of lower forms of aggression and the role of diplomacy in counterinsurgency arises.  A superpower can only lose a conflict if its “interests and resolution prove less than those of the enemy.” [11]  History has shown that this has been the case all too often in American COIN efforts.  With an understanding of the role of politics and winning the hearts and minds of the people, perhaps counterinsurgency policies should begin to focus mostly on deterrence and negotiation, rather than force and occupation.

Ian Palmer is a junior at Swarthmore College, where he is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Religion.

Works Cited

[1] Cohen, Eliot et. Al. "Principles, Imperatives, and Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency." In Conflict After the Cold War: Arguments on Causes of War and Peace, edited by Richard K. Betts, 526-533. 5th ed. New York: Routledge, 2017. 526-528.

[2] Gentile, Gian P. "A Strategy of Tactics: The Folly of Counterinsurgency." In Conflict After the Cold War: Arguments on Causes of War and Peace, edited by Richard K. Betts, 533-545. 5th ed. New York: Routledge, 2017. 534.

[3] Ibid. 535.

[4] Cohen et. al. 532.

[5] Ibid. 535. 

[6] Ibid. 537.

[7] Cohen et. al. 531.

[8] Betts, Richard K. American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2012. 153. 

[9] Ibid. 154.

[10] Cohen et. al. 530.

[11] Betts. 146.

Image Source: US Naval Institute