The Skeptics

The Heroes of COIN

The views expressed here are solely those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Spend a little time reading about the war in Iraq and you will discover that there were actually two wars: one before Petraeus, and one after he took command. The war before Petraeus, we are told, was characterized by frustrating efforts to use conventional tactics in an unconventional war. The war after Petraeus arrived was much better. Rather than continuing down an unsuccessful military path, U.S. and coalition forces implemented a new counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that emphasized population security and efforts to gain legitimacy for the fledgling government. Petraeus’s great achievement in Iraq was convincing the military to turn on a dime in a chaotic and violent place. He persuaded a hidebound army to radically change its ways and achieved astonishing results. In a matter of months, he dramatically reduced the level of violence and provided badly needed breathing room in Iraq. A small army of COIN analysts, along with reporters like Tom Ricks and Linda Robinson, have chronicled and praised his efforts in Iraq.

Paula Broadwell tells a similar story about General Petraeus’s efforts in Afghanistan. According to her account, Petraeus arrived in Kabul with the same basic ideas that guided his previous efforts. “As he prepared to head to Afghanistan,” Broadwell writes, “Petraeus viewed the campaign in simple terms. The key to victory lay in protecting the indigenous population, not just in killing the enemy. That was the insight Petraeus stressed over and over.” Broadwell does not argue that Petraeus fully succeeded in Afghanistan, but she does suggest that victory would have been much more likely if he had arrived there sooner. She traces his intellectual evolution and praises his deep understanding of insurgency that led him to develop his set of COIN best practices. “One had to wonder what Afghanistan might have looked like, eight years after September 11, 2001, had these tactics been carried out from the beginning.”

Similarly heroic stories pervade the literature on past counterinsurgencies. The conventional portrait of Petraeus is strikingly similar to the portrayals of earlier leaders in the Huk Rebellion (1946–1956), the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960) and the period of major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1964-1973). These wars are often cited by COIN analysts as evidence in support of the principles championed by Petraeus. In each case, observers criticize initial efforts as brutal and counterproductive because campaigns to root out and destroy insurgent fighters ended up alienating civilians and driving them into the arms of the enemy. And in each case, observers conclude that the tide turned only after the emergence of leaders with a deeper understanding of the political nature of insurgencies.

What explains this peculiar pattern? I suspect that analysts gravitate towards the heroic narrative because it is optimistic. It offers solutions consistent with core liberal values. It shows that military organizations can overcome their conventional biases and promote unconventionally minded leaders, and it promises that they can succeed by responding to legitimate public concerns instead of resorting to overwhelming violence. The heroic narrative is especially seductive today because it offers hope that we can overcome our blunders in Afghanistan and achieve something like victory.

But as I explain in the current issue of Orbis, the reality of past conflicts is nothing like the stylized histories that dominate the literature. In the Philippines, Malaya and Vietnam, a great deal of coercive violence was necessary to establish a semblance of political order. These conflicts were not counterinsurgencies, per se, but state-building wars in which fragile governments needed to establish control before they could worry about legitimacy. Whereas modern COIN theorists focus on population security and popular support, theorists of state building describe a bloody and protracted competition for power under near anarchy. Establishing a state means killing or co-opting one’s rivals and gaining the capacity to enforce laws. As Paul Staniland puts it, “We may think we can ‘win hearts and minds’ while establishing a strong state, but state formation is intrinsically about coercion and dominance.” Well-meaning efforts to gain legitimacy will be irrelevant if the government cannot demonstrate the ability to control the population. The upshot is that the heroes of late-stage COIN might actually depend on the earlier villains who do the dirty work of establishing a political hierarchy and coercing the population into obedience.