It’s Time for a Change in the COIN Debate

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 5 months ago

In Gian Gentile v. Abu Muqawama, Round 582 (really, I cannot possibly rehearse the post or the lead-up debates to the post, so you’ll have to go and read it yourself), the latest comment to date by Mark O’Neill is interesting.

Dear Gian,

I agree with your point regarding debate and discussion, but I believe that the entire ‘argument’ has stretched passed (sic) any initial usefulness that it may have had. My reason for this assertion is that an objective reading of the ‘debate’ so far reveals far more in common that it does difference.

This begs the question as to what purpose there is in continually re-hashing or re-packagaing the ‘arguments’. Each new iteration does not illuminate any new point of debate, so what purpose are we meant to conclude lies behind it?

If I am wrong, (and I may well be), and the sustainment of the argument is actually part of a sustained IO campaign for genuine ‘change’ of some description, it is worth remembering that the audience switches off when nothing new is being broadcast. There is a fine line in delivery between effective IO and repetitive mantra that turns people off. Perhaps John Nagl et al are ‘playing’ that card a little better at the moment…

With respect to your position (or MG Dunlap’s) being heart felt, I am glad to hear it. It would otherwise be a truly cynical exercise to pursue your arguments. The problem may be that that passion is more of an advantage in the arena of physical endeavour than in the arean of intellectual debate where it often clouds logic and objectivity.

My question to move the debate forward is, “given the enduring reality of the two wars in Iraq and Afgahistan (implicit in this is the need to ‘win’ them), combined with the harsh realities of the current US budgetary position, what do you practical policy developments should be enacted now?” .

I think that for all of us, addressing questions of this nature are far more useful to leaders and policy makers than ‘chicken little-isms’ and arcane debates about who was doing COIN and who was not in 2004/05/06.



I couldn’t disagree more.  The argument hasn’t stretched passed (sic) it’s usefulness.  Rather, it has reached it’s graduation point.  I feel it.  The entire COIN community feels it.  It’s just a matter of truth-telling.  It’s a matter of giving the debate it’s certificate and moving it to the next grade.

The field manuals have been written, the experience has been obtained, the debates have been engaged.  Time to move on to the applications.

It is now time for the proponents of each side to weigh in on the real issues.  Training, money, field equipment, preparation for the officers and (maybe more importantly) the NCOs.  If Gian is concerned about the lack of ability to engage field artillery in conventional fights with near peer states, then it’s time to make a statement (white paper, opinion piece, or otherwise) on specific recommendations for new qualifications, activities and certifications to maintain appropriate skills.  Enough of the theory.

Next, if Nagl is as tired of the theory as I am (oh God I hope so), let’s hear some specific recommendations on what changes he considers most important to maintain the ability to engage near-failed states.  Language training?  We at The Captain’s Journal have long advocated strengthened work in this area.  Culture training?  Training in the ability to engage communities?  What would this look like?  Why hasn’t he made a specific recommendation to this effect?  Why hasn’t Gian made a specific recommendation concerning the lack of ability to engage near-peer states.

Why has this debate remained in the ethereal rather than landing in the real world of money, Soldiers and Marines, training, equipment and maintenance, squad rushes, language, satellite patrols, culture training, and so on?  It appears to me that the debate is easy when it concerns the theory and the manuals.  It becomes real work when it graduates to application, and hence, it hasn’t yet graduated.  It’s too easy to debate theory.



Sorry I took direct aim at the COIN debate at the expense of your comment (one too many beers late at night). The post was made a bit tongue-in-cheek to emphasize the point that it’s precisely because people like me are completely unable to engage the debate at this level that professional military needs to.

Ken White has weighed in before (and I agree completely) that the Leviathan – Sysadmin organization advocated by Barnett is a profoundly bad idea. Again, I agree. Ken seems to be willing to debate the details.

Andrew Exum has weighed in with killing the F-22 program completely. I disagree, but at least there is detail to his proposals. Finally, the Navy has weighed in with detail concerning their (ill-advised, I believe) littoral combat program (ill-advised because we are giving up control of the seas for the support of near-failed states).

One final example to support my thesis. Officer selection and promotion boards. Now, there’s where the rubber meets the road. Have you seen any debates more intense and application-oriented than that? But is it true that the only way to institutionalize lessons learned is to promote the right people to Colonel? Really?

Other than a few examples I have given, the real debate needs to graduate to the next level. What weapons systems does the advocate wish to be cancelled? What systems promulgated? What training stopped? What training started? What new certifications and qualifications implemented?

Until we get into the details, the debate remains less than as interesting and important as it could be. Again, I am certainly not the chief zeitgeist monitor for anything (ask anyone at the SWC who will be happy to tell you how many times I am wrong). Just advocating more detail to the debate. On this, I cannot see any down side to the proposal.

UPDATE #2 (Col. Gentile responds):

Dear Herschel:

Thanks for the post and your important points and call for moving the debate forward with some meat-on-the-bones so to speak.

Simply put, I think Colin Gray in his recent SSI essay, “After Iraq: A Search for Sustainable National Strategy” has it right in terms of what US Strategy should be and the components of it, namely how to structure the American military for the future around a set of imperatives.

So permit me to cite Gray shamelessly since my thinking (humbly admitted) is in line with his on these matters.

“1. Control of the global commons (sea, air, space, cyberspace), when and where it is strategically essential.

2. The ability to dissuade, deter, defeat, or at least largely neutralize any state, coalition of states, or nonstate political actor, that threatens regional or global order.

3. Adaptable and flexible strategy, operations, tactics, logistics, and forces. Future wars and warfare will occur all along the spectrum of regularity-irregularity. Asymmetry will be the norm, not the exception, even in regular conventional hostilities.

4. Continuing supremacy in regular conventional combat. Prediction of a strategic future that will be wholly irregular is almost certainly a considerable exaggeration.

5. Competence in counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterror (CT). These activities should not dominate American defense preparation and action, but they comprise necessary military, inter alia, core competencies.

6. Excellence in raiding, thus exploiting the leverage of America’s global reach.

7. First-rate strategic theory and strategic and military doctrine. Ideas are more important than machines, up to a point at least.

8. A national security, or grand, strategy worthy of the name, in which military strategy can be suitably ‘nested.’

9. Policy choices and tactical military habits that do not offend American culture.

10. A fully functioning ‘strategy bridge’ that binds together, adaptably, the realms of policy and military behavior.”

Gray’s excellent essay is available online at the SSI home page and to see how he develops these imperatives further recommend it be read in its entirety.

My own thoughts as far as specifics in terms of possible organizational change for the US Army I believe that the best model available is still Macgregor’s which is centered around a ground force of marines and army that has strategic, operational, and tactical mobility along with firepower and protection that can draw on its own and joint fires in a distributed fashion. Such a force also has a robust infantry capability as well. It certainly won’t satisfy those who essentially want a light-infantry based force to conduct more nation-buildings and irregular wars of the future. But such a force like Macgregor’s that is built around the maneuver element of brigade sized battle groups can fight in the modern security environment. And if it can fight, it can do other missions called upon to do. It is not to say that in the future the American Army might have to do more nation-building missions, counterinsurgency etc. I fully accept that possibility. The question is how to organize the American army for a very uncertain future. It might be smallwars of nationbuilding and counterinsurgency but it might be more than that so we better have an American Army that can fight and win all of the wars assigned to us, not just a niche vision of the future.

Good response.


Dr. John Nagl writes and sends me to the following links for evidence of having addressed the detail of the debate.

Armed Forces Journal, A Better War in Iraq

World Policy Institute, Striking the Balance: The Way Forward in Iraq

Thanks to Dr. Nagl for the links.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Counterinsurgency and was published January 19th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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