Baby and the Bathwater: Petraeus and COIN

Steve Saideman on why COIN should continue, even if Petraeus's career doesn't.
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November 13, 2012
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This past weekend, news broke out that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David Petraeus, was resigning, as he was discovered to have been conducting an affair with a woman named Paula Broadwell, who had written a biography about him. This news resonated far and wide for a variety of reasons, but one particular dynamic is my focus here: the identification of counterinsurgency (COIN) with Petraeus. COIN has had powerful adversaries in the U.S. (and probably elsewhere), so it makes sense that many would use this moment to attack the person most identified with this approach to conflict. While counterinsurgency has not been wildly successful in Afghanistan, we need to be clear that Petraeus’s sins revealed this weekend have nothing to do with counterinsurgency.

I am not a counterinsurgency expert. What I do know is that COIN is misunderstood. It is not a single set of rules and plans that fits every situation, but more of an approach to thinking about situations where politics and violence interact in more complex ways than on the conventional battlefield. The counterinsurgency manual that Petraeus sponsored does not provide specific instructions, but focuses on the trade-offs of fighting an insurgency (i.e., using less force is often better than using more force; there are a whole lot of things that the civilians need to do, but they may not show up, so the military may have to do them; etc.).

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Counterinsurgency as developed by Petraeus and his fellow COIN-istas, then, is not as specific as some would assert. So, why do some folks find it objectionable? Well, if one really believes fighting a war requires less force and more spending on civilian capacities, those that either use or rely upon more conventional military capacities will be upset. In the American context, this would be two of the services – the Navy and the Air Force – as well as key branches of the third U.S. Army, artillery and armour. Petraeus was a maverick within the military, promoting an approach to war that the rest of the Army had desperately tried to forget. They had a point, too: If the military were seen as being capable of doing counterinsurgency, it might be asked to do it more. 1

The best example of this resistance to the challenges of COIN and low-intensity warfare was when then-secretary-of-defence Robert Gates had to fire the secretary of the Air Force and senior Air Force officers because they dragged their feet when asked to provide more support for the COIN campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan than for the conventional campaigns of the future. Of course, these opponents to COIN have allies – defence contractors and their friends in Congress. 

The COIN-haters have a problem: The superiority of U.S. and western conventional military power means that only the stupid will challenge the U.S. on a conventional battlefield. Opponents to the U.S. and its allies will choose to fight via insurgency, which reduces their exposure, and gives them a chance to wear down the will of the democratic publics. The enemy, as they say, has a vote, and it will vote for insurgency. So, if the U.S. maintains its conventional military edge, it will confront the choice of either fighting insurgents or letting the insurgents win. If it chooses to fight them, the U.S. will need to understand their tactics and counter them –hence, counterinsurgency. Adaptability is key: As the insurgents learn and change, so, too, must the counterinsurgents.

Of course, the U.S. and its friends can simply run away from any insurgency, which would end the era of occupation. Which is completely fine. However, it means that we must stand aside and watch civil wars play out in places like Libya and Syria. Again, this is a perfectly reasonable choice. The point is simply that not all insurgencies take place in regions where we do not mind letting the various sides fight it out. Some take place closer to home (Mexico?). Some may take place near Europe, generating refugees, which may trigger a response.

Just as the massive retaliation approach of the 1950s became incredible as the U.S. faced a sharp choice of nuclear war or doing nothing, the 21st century makes it hard for a country such as the U.S. to avoid engaging in counterinsurgency efforts. All or nothing is a lousy foreign-policy option. Conventional war or nothing? No thanks. Again, counterinsurgency may be a lousy option, but the alternative may be even worse. That said, the Middle East is the land of lousy alternatives these days.

Petraeus may have lost much credibility and interrupted his career, but we should avoid throwing away concepts and approaches associated with him without careful consideration. Insurgency is not going to go away, so we need to keep thinking creatively and adapting to counter the insurgents we do not like.


1. The Canadian Forces had a similar attitude about crowd control. Better not to make it a key competency, or else folks might ask the CF to do it domestically. I heard this in several interviews with CF officers.