Counterinsurgency Not a Strategy, but a Necessary Capability

By Hammes, T. X. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Counterinsurgency Not a Strategy, but a Necessary Capability


Hammes, T. X., Joint Force Quarterly


Facing major budget cuts, the Department of Defense is entering the first phase of what will be a bruising budget battle. With U.S. participation in the war in Iraq essentially over, and the war in Afghanistan winding down, a central issue will be what capabilities the United States requires in its future force structure.

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As Frank Hoffman noted in April 2009, the force structure discussion has developed four schools of thought:

* Counterinsurgents, who emphasize the high likelihood and rising salience of irregular adversaries

* Traditionalists, who place their focus on states that present conventional threats

* Utility Infielders, who balance risk by striving to create forces agile enough to cover the full spectrum of conflict

* Division of Labor proponents, who balance risk differently by specializing forces to cover different missions to enhance readiness. (1)

The structure and, to a certain degree, size of U.S. forces will depend heavily on which of these schools of thought guides the Pentagon's decisionmaking. Each school has its own proponents. The decisions will impact hundreds of billions in investment over the next decade and will shape the thinking of a generation of defense leaders.

However, it is beyond the scope of this article to evaluate these schools of thought. Rather, the discussion is limited to why the current U.S. approach to counterinsurgency is failing, why the United States will nevertheless have to conduct counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in the future, and what COIN approach has worked in the past. Finally, the article closes with suggestions for how future force structure can incorporate a COIN capability at a reasonable cost.

Does counterinsurgency even have a future in the U.S. military?

The concept of COIN strategy is being questioned. In July 2010, Michael Hirsh of Newsweek wrote "the [COIN] strategy that [U.S. Army retired General Stanley] McChrystal championed and [U.S. Army retired General David] Petraeus virtually invented may be fatally flawed, at least as it's practiced in Afghanistan." (2) Hirsh is only one of the voices questioning whether the "COIN strategy" now in use by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan can succeed.

Despite the sharp criticism, ISAF has a number of vocal supporters of its COIN strategy--not the least being General Petraeus and U.S. Marine Corps General John Allen. These supporters state that, prior to 2009, ISAF was not using a COIN strategy and therefore was losing. They contend that General McChrystal's adoption of COIN strategy fundamentally altered ISAF's approach and is the route to success. These proponents point to the recent progress in raising and training Afghan National Security Forces; the increasing presence of U.S. advisors with those Afghan forces as the Afghans take the lead; the expansion of security to larger segments of the population; the improvements in U.S. intelligence efforts that allow extensive targeting of Taliban leaders; and some improvements in the capacity of the Afghan government. (3) They state these efforts reflect a genuine COIN strategy. More precisely, it is population-centric counterinsurgency.

Unfortunately, this conflation of COIN techniques and strategy by participants in the discussion is not helpful.

Why Counterinsurgency Is Not a Strategy

Any discussion of future force structure must recognize that counterinsurgency is not a strategy, but merely one possible way in the ends-ways-means concept of strategy. Thus, the discussion of a COIN strategy is misleading. The very phrase COIN strategy confuses a method or way of fighting with a complete strategy. Counterinsurgency is not a strategy but rather a range of possible ways in the ends, ways, and means formulation of strategy. Furthermore, population-centric counterinsurgency, as documented in Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, is only one possible approach to counterinsurgency. …

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