Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Concept Failure? COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory

Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Concept Failure? COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory

Article excerpt

Theory should cast a steady light on all phenomena so that we can more easily recognize and eliminate the weeds that always spring from ignorance; it should show how one thing is related to another, and keep the important and the unimportant separate.1

The general theory of strategy, which explains the structure, content, and working of the strategy function, has a domain of intellectual authority that is universal and eternal. This logical precedence over the wide variety of historically unique strategic phenomena means that the theory can provide order and discipline to help those who argue about particular ideas and their practical expression in action. This article is a modest attempt to bring general strategic theory to the intellectual feast of rival ideas and doctrines about COIN, or should it be counterinsurgency, that continues to excite combative theorists.2

By way of historical placement of argument, I am pleased to acknowledge my debts to a few scholars whose arguments have combined to help spark this particular effort of mine: Antulio Echevarría, Sebastian Gorka and David Kilcullen, and David Ucko.3 They bear no responsibility for my argument here, but I find much of their recent reasoning to be distinctly compatible with my own. In fact, it is my hope that this article will deserve to be regarded as usefully complementary to their writings.

COIN is neither a concept nor can it be a strategy. Instead, it is simply an acronymic descriptor of a basket of diverse activities intended to counter an insurgency. COIN cannot be debated intelligently as a general and generic project any more than can war and its warfare. COIN effort is a subset of effort in war, and - save in moral context - it makes no sense to attempt to argue about either, save with specific reference to particular cases. We might as well try to debate taxation. Its known general evil has to be somewhat offset by the contestable claims advanced for the good that it should generate - security, social justice, and so forth. It is tempting to suggest that strategic theorists should accept the same golden rule as that which helps discipline the medical profession - "first, do no harm." But to approach the recent COIN and counterterrorism debate with that candidate injunction in mind would be sociologically naive because of the career dynamics that incentivize herd behavior with faddish and fashionable conceptualization.

It is my contention in this article that the United States and the world order values that it seeks to advance and protect have been harmed by a failure of conceptualization pertaining to COIN and counterterrorism. However, hastily I must add, there is a serious danger that the rhythm of debate will encourage an indiscriminate massacre of both guilty and innocent concepts. This article argues that COIN per se is not, and plausibly cannot possibly be, a concept that has failed. Among several problems with such a charge would be the nontrivial actuality that COIN is not a concept. The fact that many people who need to know better - and could know better, were they educated in strategy - think inappropriately about COIN is unfortunate and harmful. But we should not permit such conceptual abuse to enjoy an authority it does not deserve. The relevant challenge here is neither to bury nor to praise COIN (with apologies to William Shakespeare), but rather to help ensure that it survives with minimum damage as a necessary option-set in America's national security strategy quiver.

National security policy and the strategy to implement it are indeed complex and can pose genuinely "wicked" dilemmas admitting of no attractive choices. Nonetheless, they are not akin to quantum theory. The American challenge with COIN, counterterrorism, and affiliated issues does demand some granularity in comprehension if decisions and actions are to be wisely taken and pursued. However, we have access to a general theory of strategy, supported by a general theory of politics and statecraft, that draws on 2,500 years of thought and experience. …

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