Share This Article

Counterinsurgency doctrine was born in the European age of imperialism.

COIN—a counterinsurgency doctrine whose principles were first delineated by the RAND Corporation in 1958 and enshrined in the 2006 U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency—has staked a claim to become the new American way of war in the age of global counterinsurgency. Indeed, in a 2006 article Australian COIN theorist and practitioner David Kilcullen, one of a new generation of modern COIN proponents—dubbed COINdinistas, neoCOINs or even neo-Lawrentians, in honor of T.E. Lawrence, catalyst of the World War I Arab Revolt—argued that COIN has become so “fashionable” that “more has been written on it at the turn of the 21st century than in the last four decades of the 20th.”

But counterinsurgency is hardly new. Western powers have practiced it at least since the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages. The need to commercialize Columbus’ discoveries from 1492—and later the Indian subcontinent, East Asia and Africa—involved Western powers in colonial armed conflict, much of it irregular warfare. The Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians, Russians and Chinese, to name but a few, found plenty of insurgencies to fight in the course of imperial consolidation. But COIN’s recent resuscitation, which began when Operation Iraqi Freedom proved unable initially to put Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” triumphalism into operational military practice, can trace its antecedents to a canon of “small wars” practice, coupled with theories of indigenous governance, amply defined by French and British colonial officers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, neoCOIN critics argue this is precisely the problem, as “white man’s burden” imperialism combined with divide-and-rule methods of colonial control to disqualify COIN as a modern-day tactic for dealing with failing states besieged by insurrection.

Today’s COINdanistas insist instead that irregular warfare is a specialized métier with a proven track record, one tailored to the complexities of the “global jihad.” They argue that big Army’s testosterone-fueled “revolution in military affairs/ network centric warfare” was totally befuddled by a few guys dressed in bedsheets and armed with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Nor does Carl von Clausewitz, the Teutonic guru of conventional, interstate conflict, offer guidance in a brawl against fanaticized, irrational, undetectable, transnational webs of creed and crime that offer no centers of gravity and no physical assets to attack.

So, the doctrinal battle lines are drawn: conventional and Clausewitzian vs. COIN and culture. That argument, which continues in lively form today, is well over a century old. But it was not always so. Veterans of the wars of the French Revolution and Napoléon, for whom battling both conventional and insurgent forces came with the job in France’s Vendée, the Tyrol, the Illyrian Provinces, Calabria and, above all, Spain, would have been surprised by assertions that counterinsurgency amounts to a discrete warfare category. This was in part because at the beginning of the 19th century the capability differential between European and non-European forces was not as disproportionate as it was to become by century’s end. Sikhs, Chinese, Africans, Central Asians and even Abd al-Qadir, founder of Algeria, were able to mobilize significant forces whose technology was not significantly inferior to that of the Europeans they fought. Napoléon may have derided Arthur Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington, as a “sepoy general,” but Wellesley’s Indian experience was not considered a disqualifier for command in Europe. On the contrary, the Marathas (whom he defeated at Assaye, India in 1803) out-toughed the French, in the Iron Duke’s view.

However, this began to change in 1840 when Grande Armée veteran officer Thomas Bugeaud arrived in Algiers as governor-general to discover a situation that looked remarkably like the Peninsular War, minus Wellesley. He restructured the French expeditionary force in Algeria to maximize mobility and surprise rather than Napoleonic firepower and in the process inaugurated a “colonial school” of warfare. He admonished his troops to “forget those orchestrated and dramatic battles that civilized peoples fight against one another and realize that unconventional tactics are the soul of this war.” His mobile columns violated every principle of existing Continental warfare: Light on firepower and logistics, they divided and converged in the face of a superior enemy on a tactical objective identified by intelligence reports and scouting parties. Lines of communications were for sissies; real soldiers lived off plunder. Equipment was redesigned, and much of the infantryman’s load was shifted to mules. Bugeaud was thus able to ransack hitherto inviolate tribal sanctuaries with an agility and speed that was “even more Arab than the Arabs.”

Conventional Continental military observers remained unconvinced. Without frontiers to violate, armies to crush and cities to storm, Bugeaud’s “new war” in Algeria looked to be little more than a string of inconclusive scuffles fought in the middle of nowhere. Nor was it pretty to watch. Conquest à la Bugeaud was built around the razzia, or raid, that targeted the economic livelihood of elusive North African tribesmen, and basically boiled down to homicide on horseback. Humanitarians pleaded for the oxymoronic “rules of civilized warfare.” But Bugeaud was beyond control, especially after “France’s Africans” performed credibly in the Crimea and in Italy in 1859.

That is, until the debacle of the 1870– 71 Franco-Prussian War, when tactics developed in the wastes of North Africa and Mexico proved utterly incapable of halting Helmuth von Moltke’s Prussian juggernaut. The September 1870 defeat at Sedan brought down the French government, and the “Africans” were scapegoated for France’s dismal performance—no matter that by 1867 Napoléon III’s French army was already so battlefield challenged that the Mexicans had outlasted it. The Prussian triumph proved a game changer, and not just in France. The conviction that colonial warfare was passé informed the new play-or-perish arms race that gripped post-1871 Europe. The irony, however, was that in the last quarter of the 19th century Continental competition spilled over into Africa, India and elsewhere, where colonial soldiers, dependant on locally recruited troops, adopted tactics that increasingly replicated indigenous rather than European practices.

Conquests in the colonies also required governance, so the political dimensions of warfare were pushed down to the company level, where even junior officers were expected to participate in the work of pacification and reconstruction. Britain’s Arab Bureau and the Indian Political Service, both militarized despite their largely intelligence and political functions, offered a recognition that military success required an understanding of the cultural, linguistic and political context in which colonial campaigns were fought.

Nevertheless, imperial soldiers complained that their conventionally focused colleagues disrespected colonial methods. So, they struck back: In the 1890s Colonel (later General) C.E. Callwell and future Resident-General of Morocco and Marshal of France Hubert Lyautey defined a “small-wars” school that emphasized the nobility, art, initiative and unique requirements of imperial soldiering. Callwell’s Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, appeared in 1896 (and remains in print) as “hearts and minds” established itself as the guiding pacification principle in the tribal areas of India’s North West Frontier Province.

Lyautey’s “Le rôle colonial de l’officier,” published in 1900 in the influential Parisian Revue des deux mondes formed part of a successful lobbying campaign by colonialists to create a separate 70,000-strong Armée Coloniale that joined the Armée d’Afrique stationed in North Africa to form a reservoir of professional French marines, foreign legionnaires and colonial mercenaries for imperial service.

Unlike the British and the French, the Germans came late to the colonial game, claimed too few colonies and lasted too short a time to stake out an imperial warfare tradition. Their Schutztruppe was mainly a pickup force of men “volunteered” by Staaten regiments with no specialized training for colonial warfare and no tradition of managing native affairs. It quickly acquired a genocidal reputation in German East and South-West Africa that would have made even Bugeaud blush.

The aftermath of World War I began the process that gradu- ally transformed small wars into COIN, first as an anti-imperialist, nationalist phenomenon, and subsequently as a theory of subversion anchored in a Maoist-inspired people’s war. Emergence of a unitary canon and blueprint for la guerre révolutionnaire posed a threat to the West’s established order, and COIN then became the doctrinal counterinsurgent response.

Given more than a century of experience with colonial pacification and the iconic status of Lyautey’s idea of “peaceful penetration,” the French acquired a reputation for impatience, racism, brutality and—above all—failure in their post-1945 wars in Indochina and Algeria. Despite that record, it was a French veteran of Algeria, David Galula, who helped inform the U.S. Army’s response to what the Kennedy administration saw as “below the threshold of war” challenges by Moscow in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa in the 1960s. General George Decker (U.S. Army chief of staff, 1960–62) resisted the attempt to institutionalize low-intensity operations as a separate category of warfare, arguing that “any good soldier can handle guerrillas.”

Decker’s was a perfectly logical response from a World War II generation for whom Winston Churchill’s vision of “setting Europe ablaze” with a resistance army of insurgents constituted the biggest strategic bust of the war. But when South Vietnam collapsed, special-operations forces blamed blind adherence to conventional tactics in an unconventional conflict, symptomatic, they believed, of an institutional refusal to accord counterinsurgency the professional status it deserves. Counterinsurgency, the argument went, does not fit the “American way of war,” with its preference for the overwhelming force of big battalions, technology and firepower.

The past has thus framed the present COIN debate. The attacks of 9/11, the apparent success of “the Anbar surge” in Iraq and the publication of FM 3-24 have catapulted counterinsurgency back into fashion. A new generation of COIN experts has resurrected Callwell’s assertion that counterinsurgency constitutes “an art by itself.” COINdanistas argue the benefits of a specialized doctrine applied by troops trained in “population-centric” tactics as the most effective antidote to transnational “global jihad.” However, this version of events has failed to survive closer historical scrutiny: British tactics in Malaya (1948–60) and Kenya (1952– 60) combined updated versions of British Chief of Staff Lord Horatio Kitchener’s Second Boer War concentration camps and farm burning with Black and Tan mayhem in Ireland in 1920–21. By comparison to the British, the French wars in Algeria and those of the Dutch in Indonesia appear as high-water marks of human rights. Scottish historian Hew Strachan notes that the British succeeded in COIN—when they did succeed— by making political concessions, not through dazzling tactical innovations.

Opponents of the COINdinistas, sometimes called Contras, reply that Clausewitz still offers the best analytical framework to craft a strategy to fight what is in reality a confederacy of localized grievances. The Taliban, they argue, is no more “globalized” than was Galula’s FLN, an Algerian nationalist movement with a hazy, often-adversarial affiliation to Nasser and Arab nationalism. And to them COIN is just a catchall of politically naive colonial tactics masquerading as strategy—Malaya and Kenya on steroids. Conventional soldiers had begun to master the Anbar insurgency 18 months before FM 3-24 hit bookstores. Furthermore, a combination of COIN and kill/capture tactics is unlikely by itself to rescue Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s kleptocracy, any more than a proliferation of strategic hamlets could have salvaged South Vietnam, because both governments share a legitimacy problem. The French were excellent COINdinistas, and they still lost everything. If the U.S. military, in pursuit of a romanticized, neoLawrentian “culture cult,” reorganizes around COIN precepts, they may, like the French in 1870 or the British in two world wars, forfeit the skills required to fight a conventional war. For the Contras, Decker got it right: “Any good soldier can handle guerrillas.”