The COIN Myth

The U.S. military’s fabled counterinsurgency field manual (FM 3-24) is an authoritative-sounding 281-page volume of balderdash. Even the legend of its origin is a fabrication. Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of forces in Iraq and now in charge of Central Command, supposedly "wrote the book," but the book was actually hammered together from plagiarized material in 2004 by Dr. Conrad Crane and others at the Army War College.

This was during the time frame that "King David" Petraeus was in charge of training Iraqi security forces, a tour during which he lost track of about 190,000 AK-47 rifles and pistols and other combat equipment that without question wound up in the hands of militants. The part of the manual Petraeus "wrote" was his signature on the manual’s endorsement letter when he was in command of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center in 2006.

There’s nothing new in the military about generals taking credit for the hard work of underlings, of course, especially when the general in question is a fast-rising self-promotion genius like "Teflon General" Petraeus. And plagiarism is so common in military publications that it’s the norm, not the exception. Like I used to say in my active-duty days, if you really think the brass want you to think out of the box, you’re out of your mind. Military doctrine is loaded with copy-and-paste palaver that goes back decades, sometimes more than a century, reflecting the expert perspective of experts who died so long ago that nobody can tell you who they were. That way, nobody swings in the wind for having an original idea that doesn’t work out.

That’s much of the reason we nearly always execute tactics and strategies that apply to wars other than the ones we’re actually fighting. Our present counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine is a perfect example. It is inadequate in many ways, but four aspects of it are particularly at odds with today’s conditions on the ground.

Bastard Stepchildren

The COIN manual states, "The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government."

We have clearly failed to meet this objective in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and we’re not likely to achieve it in either country unless we stick around with a six-digit troop presence long enough to influence the local gene pools.

Iraq’s Shi’ite-controlled government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is a catastrophe. As Baghdad Operations Command Advisory Team chief Col. Timothy Reese recently noted, "The ineffectiveness and corruption of [Iraqi government] ministries is the stuff of legend." The anti-corruption campaign is a farce, nothing more than a Maliki campaign tool. Iraq’s government is failing to improve its electrical infrastructure and its oil industry. There has no progress in resolving the Kirkuk situation. Sunni militiamen are not being transitioned into government service as promised. Sunni reconciliation is "probably going backwards." Political violence and intimidation is "rampant in the civilian community as well as military and legal institutions." A recent study by Transparency International rates Iraq as the fifth most corrupt country in the world. That makes it almost as corrupt as Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is the second most corrupt country in the world, surpassed in this category only by Somalia, a country that can hardly be said to have a government at all. Though Afghan President Hamid Karzai held on to power by stealing two elections, the Obama administration tripped all over itself in declaring him the "legitimate" leader of Pakistan. Karzai is a former warlord who has blood ties to the Afghan opium industry. Obama has told Karzai better clean up his act, to begin a "new chapter," but if our president really believes Karzai’s going to change, he needs to step away from the hookah.

Army Training, Sir

The COIN manual emphasizes the need to use host nation forces in a variety of roles, either as the "hold" force in a clear, hold, and build strategy; as part of a "combined force"; or as the main force supported in a "limited" degree by U.S. forces. The problem with the theory is that it assumes a certain level of competence and integrity, or at least a potential to become competent and integral, on the part of the host nation forces, virtues we see little of in the security forces of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Col. Reese notes of Iraq’s army that, "If there ever was a window where the seeds of a professional military culture could have been implanted, it is now long past." Corruption in the officer corps, he says, is "rampant," as are cronyism and nepotism. Laziness is "endemic," and lack of initiative is "legion." Reese describes the "ineffectiveness" of Iraq’s army and national police force as "near total."

Mohammed Hussein, the Iraqi head of the newsroom of the New York Times Baghdad bureau, laments, "Some will probably say that the government got rid of the sectarian violence … [but] after six years we have the same results as if there were still a sectarian war going on: Iraqis are being killed in cold blood."

Worse news: it looks like Iraq’s police and army have been infiltrated by militants. Maliki himself revealed that more than 45 members of his security forces were involved in the December Baghdad bombings that killed 112 people.

Speaking of untrustworthy, Afghan forces are a full-blown Wild West show. In a recent confrontation between Afghan and Western troops, an Afghan soldier, who was refused access to a landing pad where a helicopter was about to set down, raised his rifle and started squeezing the trigger, wounding two Italian soldiers and killing an American Army combat medic. When U.S. company commanders meet with their Afghan counterparts, they wear body armor and helmet, and an armed security detail tags along.

David Wood of Politics Daily describes numerous other accounts of Afghan forces attacking and killing or wounding U.S. and NATO forces.

When it comes to combat, the Taliban routinely kick the uniformed Afghan forces’ teeth in. The hapless Afghan army commanders complain that the police are on the Taliban’s payroll. The police and the Taliban are "from the same area" says Gen. Abdul Rahman Rahmani. "They collude with each other."

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, says that mission success “will require trust-based, expanded partnering" with the Afghan army and police force.

It sounds like Stan the Man needs to step away from the hookah, too.

In Part II: The search for intelligent life in our intelligence apparatus.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.